King and Russo Delight Audience at MHC

Posted: November 10, 2008

The visitors came from across the country to the Mount Holyoke campus, but they weren't here for interviews with the Office of Admission. Instead, they came seeking admission to Chapin Auditorium, clutching tickets in hand and lining up hours in advance, to see the literary world's version of a rock star--best-selling author Stephen King.

King and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo delighted a capacity audience November 6 when they took part in a roundtable conversation moderated by WAMC radio host Joe Donahue to celebrate the Odyssey Bookstore's forty-fifth anniversary and raise more than $18,500 in donations for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. Fans from far beyond the Pioneer Valley said they learned of the rare event on the Internet, including 14-year-old Austin Saunders of Las Vegas, who persuaded his mother Elaine to bring him to see his favorite writer.

Troy Arbogast traveled from Chicago. "(King) hardly ever makes appearances, and I might not have another shot at this," said Arbogast, who's been reading the horror master's stories for more than 20 years. Stephanie Havemeier of Apple Valley, Minnesota, agreed. "I flew to Boston yesterday. I couldn't pass up the chance to come see him and get a signed book," she said.

The enthusiastic audience of more than 900 people was not disappointed. King and Russo discussed an array of topics, both humorous and serious, from presidential politics and the political undertones of their novels, to the art of writing and their favorite works. Of the latter, King said his newest novel is "always my pet"--but noted he "got the most" from Lisey's Story.

"We connect to each book in different ways," added Russo, who said the novel "closest to (his) heart" is one of his early novels, The Risk Pool, which he wrote as his father was dying. Russo also admitted to an intimate connection with his Pulitzer-winning Empire Falls.

"I made the mistake of allowing my daughters into that character (of the protagonist's daughter), and it became an exercise in fatherly dread," he said. "But it's also the most powerful part of the book."

Donahue asked the writers how the "seismic shift" likely to result from the election of Barack Obama would affect them as writers. King likened the announcement of Obama's win to having the windows thrown open "in a house that was all closed up for eight years" and being able to breath fresh air.

"From a writers' standpoint, for once I don't feel like if I go with a book overseas … they can say [no matter what my book is about] that you're part of a corrupt, hollow culture that speaks one thing and does something else," he added. "Tonight I feel like I'm part of a strong, moral country--and I love that."

As for the political themes in novels such as The Stand and The Dead Zone, King noted the lasting effect of having come of age in the highly charged political climate of the 1960s.

"I've always been interested in politics. Politics are part of American life," he said.

While Russo's novels focus on class structures and struggles, "You can't write about class in America without writing about politics," he said. "When you're writing about rich people and poor people, and how they interact or don't interact, you're in the political realm."

The pair also had advice for aspiring writers. Russo said in his early years he wrote in "the noisiest places" and often went to a Denny's restaurant to work on his novels.

"To this day, if I pass a Denny's I get an idea," he laughed. "Put yourself in a position where these things happen, a routine that re-creates the circumstances where creativity can happen."

"If you're going to write something, you have to read it," whether it be short stories, novels, or memoirs, said King. His new book, Just After Sunset, is a collection of short stories, a form he hasn't used in several years. Before writing his first short stories, he read "about 800 of them," he noted.

Theresa Chamberland, MHC's Web developer for LITS, was among those who heard the authors speak. She enjoyed hearing them talk about the experience of having their books made into movies. Movies "never get it right," both men said.

"They've already seen the movie in their minds when they were writing, and [another version] can't be as good…. That's like us as readers, so they brought that full circle," Chamberland said.

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