“Rats Have Been Good to Steve and George”: Stephen King and George R.R. Martin in Conversation

On June 16, as part of his book tour for End of Watch, Stephen King shared the stage with none other than George R.R. Martin at the Kiva Auditorium in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The two authors’ paths have crossed since the 1970s and ’80s, when they attended many of the same conventions (and where Martin learned that even in low-stakes poker, “you cannot bluff Steve out of a pot, even if you raise a whole quarter!”). Their shared history was one of many topics they addressed on stage, in what started as an interview but evolved into much more of a conversation.

Martin recently posted the video of their talk to his blog; you can watch the whole thing, which includes fond chatter about King’s son (and New York Times bestselling author) Joe Hill, reflections on how comic books serve as gateway reading material, and two unsettling accounts about how rats played a part in Martin and King’s early literary successes.

Some highlights from the talk:

  • Both authors wrote stories early in their careers in which rodents featured heavily: “Graveyard Shift,” which included the very visceral description of a rat climbing into a man’s mouth and ripping out his tongue, came to King after he turned down a job cleaning out an old building and heard stories about the vermin that had lurked in the basement for years. And high school sophomore George, assigned to write a better ending to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” staved off bullies with his very imaginative take on vengeful rats.
  • Several of King’s stories revolved around the notion of parents reading to kids: To get his son Joe and daughter Naomi to stop bickering, in desperation he grabbed a G.I. Joe comic and read it to them—and they were hooked, especially Joe, who would go on to create Locke & Key. And in King’s own childhood, after his father (also a writer, though unsuccessful) split, his mother would read little Stephen books like Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. That said, it was the discovery of a copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Thing from the Tomb in a box of his father’s things in the attic that spurred King on, as he realized, “This is really scary; that’s what I want to do.”
  • When King was newly married, selling stories for decent sums, and his daughter would have ear infections, his wife would say, “Hurry up and think of a monster.”
  • Martin’s early imaginings leaned more science fiction than fantasy, as he would doodle planets in his notebook, including more than a few of his own invention.
  • King had long avoided reading A Song of Ice and Fire, having had trouble getting into Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Times series as well. But when a nasty case of sciatica had him bedridden, pain-stricken, and sleepless, he changed his mind: “One night while I’m wide awake, I’m saying to myself, ‘I’ll try one of these fucking George R.R. Martin books and see if this thing is any good.’ And it just carried me away. Which is what books are supposed to do, and what I had not expected. The last thing I expected from those books is what page turners they are, and I just got lost. […] They saved my life.”

Watch the entire talk:

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