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People Top 5
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- May 18, 1981
- Vol. 15
- No. 19
For Years, Stephen King's Firestarter Was Wife Tabitha; Now She Burns to Write, Too
Lunchtime. Stephen and Tabitha King sit down to soup and sandwiches in the ornate dining room of their huge Victorian home in Bangor, Maine. They speak earnestly about things like werewolves and hunchbacks. "When's that coffin coming?" he asks. "Tomorrow." "What are we doing about the dead man's table?" "I thought we'd use raw liver, spaghetti and table scraps." And so forth.
What's this? Outtakes from The Addams Family! A passage from King's next novel? Or just ghouling around? In fact, the author of those horror masterworks Carrie, The Shining and Firestarter has been asked to set up a haunted house at the nearby school. "Just because I write this stuff," he complains, "doesn't mean I can conjure up things out of thin air."
Conjurer or no, King, 33, is blessed with a kind of magic. Danse Macabre (Everest House, $13.95), a nonfiction paean to the horror genre, is the eighth book he has published in the past seven years. All totaled, 32 million copies of his works are now in print. King was the biggest-selling author in the world in 1980, with an unprecedented three books on the New York Times' lists simultaneously. Even before that, Carrie and The Shining had been turned into classic horror movies.
Yet the already prodigious King profits seem destined to increase, because Tabitha has also taken to the typewriter. At 32, she has just published her first book, a fantasy about a mad scientist and his "minimizer" called Small World (Macmillan, $10.95). The paperback rights went for $165,000, an impressive amount for a fledgling novelist. "I knew she could write poetry," marvels Stephen, "but I never guessed she could write such a good novel right out of the box."
At first King had doubts about his wife's entry into his field. "Deep down," he says, "I may have been a little jealous, with a small voice saying, 'Hey, wait a minute. That's my toy.' " But though he started reading Small World with trepidation, he finished it with pride. "This is a sigh of relief," he told Tabby. "I don't have to tell you to put it away."
Both concede that Small World's sales have been boosted by the fact that Tabby is Steve's wife. "I put 10 years into helping his career," she reasons, "so if his name helps me with mine, I think it's legitimate." But Tabby scoffs at the notion of ever being a rival for his readers. "I'd be nuts to compete with him. He's like a river to my faucet." Indeed, Stephen's daily output is 10 pages to Tabitha's two or three.
The Kings rise at 6 and often dance to rock'n'roll records to get the juices flowing. Then they bustle the kids off to school and settle down for several hours in their respective offices. Steve, a two-finger typist, works to loud rock music; touch-trained Tabby prefers total silence. After several false starts, she is finally launched on her second novel. But Tabby says that "writing is only the frosting on my cake. I'm whole without it." For Steve it is different. "If I weren't writing," he admits, "I might be like that guy in the Texas tower. Writing is what God put me on earth to do."
With the publication of his next novel, Cujo, in the fall, Stephen completes his $3 million multibook contract with New American Library and will be able to reach for even bigger bucks. Both Kings were born poor. When Stephen was 2, his father, a merchant seaman, abandoned him and his mother. Tabitha Spruce King is one of eight children; her father ran a small-town general store and named her after a ship he served on during World War II.
The pair met in the late 1960s at the University of Maine. Tabby remembers Steve as "a campus institution" who wrote a weekly column for the school newspaper called "The Garbage Truck." Her first reaction to the big (6'3") BMOC was "blatant envy." Steve noticed his future wife in a writing seminar they took together. "She looked like a waitress," he chuckles. "She came across—and still does—as a tough broad." Steve laughingly recalls their first kiss and how Tabby asked him afterward what he had had for dinner. "Pizza," he replied. "Well, you went a little heavy on the oregano," proclaimed Tabby, thus establishing the bantering tone of their relationship.
At their 1971 wedding, King walked down the aisle in a borrowed suit, tie and shoes. Their first years together were tough. "He married me for my typewriter," joshes Tabby. Steve didn't own one at the time, and she further subsidized his art by working at a Dunkin' Donuts. Steve taught English in a private school and wrote in his spare time. Before his first book, Carrie, was published in 1974, King had three manuscripts rejected. Carrie almost didn't make it either. At one point he tossed it into a wastebasket. Fortunately, Tabby fished it out.
In spite of their ever-increasing income, the Kings remain, in the nicest sense of the phrase, ordinary people. Having lived in 13 different places—most of them in their native Maine—during their marriage, they now shuttle between a summer home in Center Lovell (pop. 250) and their $135,000 manse topped with twin cupolas in Bangor. Besides a rumored ghost, the place also features all manner of video games, a videocassette recorder and even a computer. But the Kings' pleasures are simple. Stephen likes to bowl, show off his red 1968 Cadillac convertible and go on an occasional beer binge. Tabby is a full-time mother, part-time student and closet ballet dancer. They are devoted to their children—Naomi, 10, Joe, 8, and Owen, 4. Faced with a tough parental decision, Stephen asks himself, "What would Robert Young do in this situation?"
The marriage is built upon a healthy combination of respect and friendly give-and-take. "We have a pact not to argue about drinking, hair and dope," says Tabby, but everything else is fair game. She describes with relish Steve's bit part as a half-wit farmer in an upcoming movie he wrote called Creepshow. "He fell right into it," snickers Tabby, "truly typecast." Stephen tries to respond to her quick-witted barbs with zingers of his own, but as Tabby says cheerfully, "He never won a cuttin' contest with me yet."
Both partners admit to rough patches in their years together. "It ain't all hearts and flowers," declares Tabby. Steve is just as blunt: "No marriage has a life lease and we recognize that. If Tabby got crunched in a car, I would go somewhere and lick my wounds, but I could never live with another woman." Tabby feels the same way about Stephen. Besides, she adds, "Nobody else would put up with me."
After lunch the other day, Tabby headed off to her class—in erotic literature—at the university, and Stephen tooled around town in the Caddy. It was a blustery spring afternoon, but the top was down. "Everything is going so well for us," he reflected, "that I keep expecting the doctor to tell me I have cancer or one of our kids has leukemia." The lowering sky mirrored his mood. Then his favorite deejay, WACZ's "Humble Yet Nonetheless Mighty" John Marshall, played Let the Good Times Roll. Steve shook off his gloom like a shaggy dog fresh out of the water, turned up the radio and put his foot to the floor.
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