It seemed many of the more than 3,000 fans who packed the Tsongas Center last night knew well the legacy of literary icon Stephen King. “Carrie,” “The Stand,” “Misery,” “The Green Mile,” and dozens more, scalded into the memories of readers, staples in the diet of modern literature.
And when King and host Andre Dubus III got together onstage for “A Conversation with Stephen King,” folks saw their rapport, genuine friendship and good humor. But what some may not have known until his daylong visit to UMass Lowell yesterday was the Maine-based writer’s generosity. Not only did he sign every book, mug for every photo and chat with a slew of anxious fans, his visit raised more than $100,000 for the Stephen and Tabitha King Scholarship Fund, which will benefit UMass Lowell’s English students. King donated his speaker’s fee to the cause.
And for nearly 30 minutes, King read to the rapt crowd a new, unpublished piece, “Afterlife.” The vast arena fell nearly silent.
The 90-plus minutes of King and the inaugural event in the Chancellor’s Speakers Series kicked off with a lively, humorous and sometimes poignant interview conducted by Dubus – the UMass Lowell English professor, author and no stranger to bestseller lists – and ended with several questions for King from the crowd.
There were moments where the rock star author seemed in concert, the mention of one of his book titles drawing a roar from the crowd. And for those wondering about the drawing power of literature, it was a night of reassurance, a packed hall for an author.
It was a rare college date for King, 65, who has sold 350 million copies of more than 50 novels, which often traffic in fright and end up on the silver screen. What scares him?
“Everything. Spiders, snakes,” the tall, lanky King told group of English students. “My mother-in-law.”
He was once and perhaps best described as, “the writer everyone knows.”
Many Memorable Moments Throughout the Day
King left his Maine home at 8 a.m., and by 1 p.m., was in the Paul Tsongas Boardroom at the University’s Inn and Conference Center, signing 100 copies of his “11/22/63,” swapping jokes with Dubus.
Then, for an hour, King gave a master class for nearly 150 English students gathered at the hotel. He took questions, including the one from sophomore English major Maddie Koufogazos about the art of creating characters.
“Stephen King is my favorite writer,” Koufogazos said later. “When I heard he was coming to campus I knew I had to be there. Seeing him speak and sitting in the same room with him reminded me that he’s just a normal man that can captivate readers and really connect with them.”
The session inspired her to “go home and get writing to see what I can do ... It was pretty much the coolest thing I’ve ever done. Sitting three rows away and asking him a question was a dream come true.”
The student session was followed by a faculty reception and a crowd half as big. King honored every request, signed each book and fielded every question.
Bridget Marshall, associate professor and assistant chair of the University’s English Department, ended her Gothic seminar Friday, then told her class, ‘Okay, let’s go see Stephen King.’
She was still amazed, standing near King at the faculty reception.
“How many times can you do that? I couldn’t make that up. We read ‘The Shining’ last week.”
Among the projects King discussed during his visit are a “Carrie” film remake, a 13-year musical project he is producing with John Mellencamp (the star-studded sound track is due in March), and a 2013 sequel to “The Shining,” called “Dr. Sleep.”
“I do some colleges,” King had said in a phone interview with reporters two weeks earlier. “But I don’t do a lot of stuff because, frankly...it’s kind of scary. I’m a writer, I’m not a performer. And when I get out in front of a bunch of people, I get a little nervous and a little self-conscious. It’s strange to think that so many people actually want to come out and see you know, somebody who isn’t Justin Beiber.”
He could not say no to Dubus, who approached him with the idea.
“I love Andre, and it’ll be great to be with him, and I have read everything he’s written. And I love it. And so, when Andre says, ‘Frog,’ I say, how high should I jump?”
King told the students in the afternoon that he was “just an ordinary guy.”
But people came from all over to see him. David Wroblewski, the author of “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” (which carries a blurb of praise from King) flew in from Denver with his wife, finally meeting King in the Tsongas Center hallway. People came from Montreal. People wept when they met King. When he walked through a crowd every eye was peeled on him. A man from Penn. told King that reading his work through powerless nights in the wake of Superstorm Sandy kept him from despair and cold.
King couldn’t resist one final nudge toward the darkness, reminding folks that seven percent of people leave their cars unlocked. “I’m not suggesting there’s a maniac out there ... but I’m just suggesting you might check your back seat.”
Watch videos of Stephen King's visit to UMass Lowell.