By John Collins
LOWELL -- American icon, literary genius and one of the most prolific and best-selling authors of all time, Stephen King told a roomful of about 100 UMass Lowell English and creative-writing majors that he's "just an ordinary guy."
"A lot of times when people come to see me, I think they're really just wanting to see if I'm really that (messed) up," said King, in one of the many instances he had the students laughing at the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center Friday afternoon.
"A lot of times when I do questions and answers I'll get asked, 'How was your childhood?' " said King. "What I do then is tell the interviewer what you want to know is what traumatized me when I was younger so much that I now write this type of (stuff). The answer is, nothing. Nothing that I remember, anyway.
"But, of course, I wouldn't tell you if there was," King added, eyebrows raised and with a smile.
King, wearing a black T-shirt to the informal question-and-answer session, noted that his attire was in stark contrast to the clothing worn by the first famous author that he ever heard speak, Joseph Heller, author of Catch 22, when King was a freshman at the University of Maine at Orono.
"I remember thinking to myself, 'I'm breathing the same air as the guy who thought up (Catch 22 characters) Yossarian and Major-Major and there he was wearing this really nice suit; and I also remember thinking, 'He doesn't look like a writer, he looks like a Wall Street guy,' " King said.
The most common question he gets in interviews is, "Where do you get your ideas?" King told the students. "Well, I can tell you specifically about 50 percent of the time, but the rest of the time I can't really remember where I can get them from."
Many of his best book ideas come to him as mutated observations of real-life happenings, King explained. His latest 500-page manuscript -- focusing on a suicidal police officer six months into his retirement who receives a letter from a gloating killer.
"I wanted to write it as a short story, and end it with the guy putting the gun in his mouth. But now, instead of a 12-page short story, I have a 500-page manuscript because the thing just grew."
In answer to a student's question about whether he writes his books -- 50 of which have been made into movies or TV miniseries -- with the intent that they be made into motion pictures, King said he is naturally a visual writer.
"One of the reasons so many of my books were turned into movies is because my creative sense was formed by visual imagery before it was by books," said King. "And I think that's probably true of everybody nowadays, but I am a member of the very first generation to watch Bambi and a lot of other movies on TV before I was able to read, even, and before I came to love books."
King was joined on the lectern stage by the best-selling author of The House of Sand and Fog and Townie, Andre Dubus III, who noted that thousands of people are coming from "all over the world, some are flying in from Europe to hear this cat speak tonight" at the Tsongas Center.
"What I'm working on now is a novel that is about three-quarters done and if I'm very lucky I will be able to finish it," said King.
"By Tuesday," interjected Dubus, in a nod to King's well-deserved reputation as one of the most prolific writers ever.
"When you're older, your gears start to slip a little bit," King said.
King's "master writing class" with the UMass Lowell students took place hours prior to his acting as featured speaker for the inaugural UMass Lowell Chancellor's Speaker Series event, "A Conversation with Stephen King" at the Tsongas Center.
King donated 100 percent of his appearance fee for the show to the Stephen King Scholarship endowment at UMass Lowell, Dubus announced.
"Best day of my life!" UML literature major Josh Kelly announced loudly to his fellow classmates seconds after King and Dubus left the conference room.
"I was 12 when I picked up my first Stephen King novel. I've been reading Stephen King half my life," said Kelly, 23. "The Dark Tower series is amazing. To put that much time and work in eight novels -- you've got to really commit to a put out a body of work like that -- it's amazing."
"He was absolutely inspirational," UML literature major Chelsea Graham said at the Q&A's conclusion. "I have never been in the presence of somebody I admire that much before, and It absolutely lived up to all my expectations, I was so thrilled."
"It was definitely the most amazing experience I've had at the school by far," said UML creative-writing major Josh Beverage following the Q & A session. "Stephen King has been many favorite writer for my whole life. I've been reading his books and watching his movies since I was 8 years old."
Beverage said the best piece of writing advice that King imparted during his appearance was to forget about using a writer's notebook to store ideas for one's future novel.
"I really like how he said don't write your ideas in a notebook because it's just a graveyard for bad ideas," said Beverage. "If it's a really good idea it will linger with you, and if it's that good you'll remember it anyway. ... I think I'm going to try that."