Mike Ramsden interview

Mike Ramsden interview with Bev Vincent, July 2003

MR: How closely have you worked with Stephen King during the writing of Road to the Dark Tower?

BV: Since the original proposal, I haven’t worked with King at all. I’ve asked him the occasional question, but I don’t want to bother him too much with my labors. He’s a busy guy, with upcoming TV series, Dark Tower rewrites, promotion for THE GUNSLINGER, etc. For business-related things I generally correspond with his extremely knowledgeable and helpful office staff. I’ve interacted with his research assistant, Robin Furth — whose Concordance will be out very soon, as well.

That being said, though, this project would never have gotten off the ground as quickly as it did without King’s cooperation. Perhaps not at all. When I first conceived of THE ROAD TO THE DARK TOWER last fall, I thought it would be something I’d be working on for the next couple of years as the final three books appeared in print, rather than something I’ll be delivering to the publisher at the end of the month. (July ’03).

MR: What can we expect from your book?

BV: I’m looking at the series as a whole and as a sum of its components. Some chapters will look at the individual books and other chapters will examine the bigger concepts — the epic sweep of the quest. One chapter recounts the epic publishing history of the series itself over the past twenty-five years since “The Gunslinger” first appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine. Another chapter looks at the major characters and how they evolve over the seven books. I’m also pulling in the major non-series books, because important concepts within the Dark Tower series were often introduced in non-series books. The Crimson King, for example, first shows up in INSOMNIA (though King has inserted him into the newly revised edition of THE GUNSLINGER). Breakers are first mentioned in “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” and what the Crimson King and Breakers are up to is explicated in BLACK HOUSE. I’m not going fishing for every little tie-in — there’s already a book out there that does that (THE STEPHEN KING UNIVERSE by Wiater, Golden and Wagner). Rather, I’m concentrating on the major external links, the ones that illuminate the series.

MR: With thousands of Dark Tower fans eagerly awaiting the final three installments of the series it must feel great being one of the few people that has read the series in it’s entirety. How do you feel about this?

BV: I think a lot of people believe that I’m being inundated with questions about the last three books and this hasn’t proved to be the case. My feeling is that people don’t want to know isolated details about the series. They don’t want to know “does Roland reach the Tower” — they want to experience the journey to find out who gets where and why. I don’t think I’ve gotten a single serious question about a specific incident in the final three books. Just lots of well-wishers who have been offering me support and encouragement. A few volunteers to help with my project, but nothing more than that.

There are advantages and disadvantages to getting to read the series early. Everyone else still has three more Dark Tower books to look forward to over the next fifteen months. As far as the Dark Tower goes — I’m finished. There’s nothing more to look forward to, and that makes me a little sad. I’ve been with the series almost since the beginning — I read THE GUNSLINGER in 1984 — and what a long, strange journey it has been, and part of me is sad it’s over. That’s not to say that I didn’t sit enjoy every second of the reading process and the subsequent rereads over the past six or seven months. The morning I finished reading THE DARK TOWER the first time, I was late to work. I had about 200 manuscript pages left to go and I kept telling myself I’d stop after the next paragraph, or section break or chapter…and I just couldn’t.

The other disadvantage, though, is that I’ve had no one to talk to about this. Literally no one I can call up and say — did you see the part where…? This is so cool! And can you believe…? I remember back when THE GREEN MILE was being published in monthly installments. For me, that was one of the most exciting and vibrant times to be a King fan because everyone everywhere was on the same page at the same time. No one could read ahead to spoil the story for everyone else. The newsgroups and other on-line forums were full of excited readers who grabbed the next installment the minute it came out. We all played the on-line trivia contests at the Penguin web site and speculated about what certain things meant and what would happen in the next installment. The same thing has been going on with the Dark Tower books, just on a much longer scale. Everyone’s been speculating about Susannah’s pregnancy, who’s going to make it to the end, and what’s Father Callahan going to do in the series. I look forward to the time when other readers catch up with me so I can join in these discussions. Lately I find I’ve been holding back a little because I don’t want to accidentally let anything slip, and when I do join in I take extra precautions to make sure that my contributions are based on knowledge of the series up to and including the published books and nothing beyond. It’ll be a relief to be able to talk freely about this with everyone else!

MR: Are you just a Tower Junkie, or are you a Stephen King fan in general?

BV: I loved THE GUNSLINGER from the beginning. Part of the thrill was getting to read a book few other people knew about or had read at the time (1984). But I loved the dark, existential mood of that first book. I’ve been caught up in the story as it has unwound over the years but I haven’t been one of the impatient ones chafing for the next installment. I’ve taken them as they come and been glad to get them. I didn’t send letters demanding the next installment and it would never have occurred to me to ask when the next book was coming out when I first met him at a signing in Houston in 1988.

Now that I have the entire series bouncing around inside my head after six months of working with the books intensively, I’m a serious junkie. I can spout trivia from the series at the drop of a hat. Tiny details no person should have at the forefront of their mind! The series’ amazing scope has captured me.

But I’ve been reading King since 1979 and have read everything he’s published. Only a couple of his books have disappointed me. I’ve often said that if he decided to write romance novels I’d probably still read him because, at the core, his books are about characters. He is unchallenged at creating people readers fall in love with. How else can you explain reader reaction when something bad happens to a character? I remember reading THE STAND in 1979. When I reached the section where the group of four is heading west and Stu falls and King writes something like “None of them ever saw Stu Redman again” I was distraught. Angry, but sad. When a major character dies in BLACK HOUSE, I was equally disturbed. These are just words on the page…but they take on lives beyond mere ink. There’s a real power in the ability to do that and it’s something I aspire to in my own fiction.

MR:  What other King books do you like?

BV: A lot of people play the top-10 game but I have a hard time doing that. It’s easier for me to point out the books that I don’t particularly like. I was okay with the beginning of THE TOMMYKNOCKERS. I was interested in Bobbi and Gard, but when the book went off on a tangent and abandoned them for hundreds and hundreds of pages, I got impatient. I wanted to get back to Bobbi and Gard. I read pages like you do some mundane, mindless chore — a necessity, something you had to get through to get to the good stuff. For that reason I’m not very fond of that book. With NEEDFUL THINGS, I never found my character, the one I connect with and root for. Pangborn, obviously, is the hero of the piece, but I didn’t connect with him and everyone else in the book turns into such selfish little piggies, despicable, the whole lot of them. So, again, not my favorite book.

I’ll always have a fond place in my heart for SALEM’S LOT, because it was my first. I also strongly connected with BAG OF BONES for some reason. It’s a great book to listen to on audio because the combination of the first-person narrative and King’s voice makes it seem like a personal campfire story. GERALD’S GAME gets rough treatment from a lot of readers, but I think it is a real accomplishment. When I first read it, I thought it was fine. When I read it again a few years later, the perception and depth of character, the awareness of what Jessie’s mind was like constantly and how that would run amok in her situation, that just blew me away.

MR: What other authors do you like?

BV: My tastes are diverse! Though people associate me with King and thus, by extension, horror, I’d say that most of my reading tends to be in the crime/mystery/suspense genre. Some books I read because the authors are gifted storytellers even if they aren’t particularly artful writers. Clive Cussler, for example, writes some torturous prose, but his novels are roller coaster rides that I always enjoy. John Grisham can usually sweep me away for a day or two, though his characters have little more depth than the pages they’re written on. Michael Crichton — I always learn something from his books, though I also don’t rate him highly as a writer.

I’ve read and enjoyed all of Peter Straub’s books. Peter introduced me to a British writer named Graham Joyce who I absolutely love. He writes dark fantasy books where the line between what’s real and what’s supernatural wavers back and forth. You can read most of his books as supernatural and read them again with a completely alternate interpretation of events that doesn’t require anything supernatural. THE TOOTH FAIRY, REQUIEM and DARK SISTER are award-winning novels that don’t get much play on this side of the Atlantic, but you can’t go wrong with any of his books. I’m hoping to do a chapter on him for DISCOVERING MODERN HORROR III.

I also liked Douglas Clegg’s THE HOUR BEFORE DARK and Robert McCammon’s BOY’S LIFE and SPEAKS THE NIGHTBIRD a lot. I’ve read all of Dan Simmons’ books in every genre he’s published and anxiously await his upcoming science fiction reworking of THE ILIAD.

In the crime fiction field, I read Robert B. Parker, Jonathan Kellerman, Dennis Lehane, Laurence Block, Scottish writer Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Spanish writer Arturo Perez-Reverte and David Lindsey. Ed McBain, Elmore Leonard, Martin Cruz Smith, George Pelecanos, PD James, James Lee Burke, Tony Hillerman — the list goes on. Take a look at my web site for the reviews I’ve written for the Conroe Courier and you’ll get an idea of what I’ve read recently, though I read a lot more than I review.

I met Michael Slade at a World Horror Convention a few years ago and we’ve become good friends in the interim. So much so that I’m a celebrity victim in his newest novel, BED OF NAILS. He writes psycho-thrillers that would appeal to any Hannibal Lecter fan. Non-supernatural horror and some of the sickest villains ever to grace the page.

I like some fairly obscure writers. Haruki Murakami is Japan’s Stephen King, they like to say. THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLES is a great, strange, eerie and disturbing novel. I’ve read all of Umberto Eco’s novels from THE NAME OF THE ROSE to his most recent BAUDOLINO. He’s a deep and playful thinker and I wish I could read him in the original Italian. Jonathan Carroll — a hard to classify author. THE WOODEN SEA is amazing.

My wife signed me up for a World Literature course at the local community college last year. It was a birthday gift, which sounds unorthodox, but it is a testament to her understanding of and support for my writing career. Everything is based on the classics in one way or another and I was delighted to finally get the chance to read THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY and BEOWULF and THE CANTERBURY TALES, things like that which I believe everyone should be conversant with because all of a sudden you see how they permeate everything else you read. Roland takes Nort’s body down after he’s crucified in Tull. It’s a sign of respect for the dead body that has its roots in Odysseus, who went many miles out of his way to bury the body of one of his crewmen who fell to his death in THE ODYSSEY. They don’t assign these books in school purely out of cruelty!

I also like to find a more modern classic to take with me when I travel for a change of pace. Hemingway, Faulkner, the writers whose names you’ll also know from high school English. What is it about them that made them classics? Sometimes I find things in them I like, sometimes I’ll admit to being unimpressed. Faulkner, for example, left me shaking my head. I have a book of two of Joseph Conrad’s novellas for my next trip. One of them is HEART OF DARKNESS, which was inspiration for APOCALYPSE NOW. Kurtz in DREAMCATCHER is a nod to Conrad, and there’s a line in THE GUNSLINGER that echoes a line from HEART OF DARKNESS. “Mistah Norton, he dead.” Again, the influence of classics. If you read Dan Simmons, you’ll appreciate his books a lot more if you have at least a passing knowledge of T.S. Eliot or John Keats.

MR:  Which of your published works would you recommend to a die-hard King fan like myself?

BV: You can read “Harming Obsession” at The Harrow’s web site, linked through mine. It’s a creepy little Halloween story. A lot of people have written me about that one and it’s been republished twice, once in Cemetery Dance magazine. I’ve been pleased with the response to “Ever Had One of those Weeks?” by the few people who’ve read it so far. It will be in this fall’s BORDERLANDS 5, an anthology I’m thrilled to be part of, since it also includes stories by folks like Stephen King, Whitley Strieber, John Farris, and David Schow. It’s a Twilight-Zone-esque story. See www.borderlandspress.com for information and the table of contents.

One of my personal favorites is called “Something in Store,” which will be in SHIVERS 2 from Cemetery Dance Publications later this summer. There are also links to a couple of my dark suspense stories on my web site. I think King fans might like “Dig In,” or “Answer Me.” It’s hard to be objective. They’re all precious to me for various reasons. I have a story coming out in All Hallows next summer that is a rather personal piece. It’s a quiet ghost story of the M.R. James sort called “Unknown Soldier” and it arose from a trip to Hong Kong where I made a side journey to a memorial wall that has my uncle’s name on it. He was killed in Hong Kong in World War II and my trip there made me ask myself why Canadian forces were in Hong Kong before Pearl Harbour.

MR:  Do you think Stephen King has achieved his original goal of writing an epic masterpiece?

BV: Without hesitation…yes! What more can I say about that? Well — a whole book’s worth! THE ROAD TO THE DARK TOWER — NAL, November 2004!

MR:  Which book do you think is the best?

BV: I have a fondness for THE GUNSLINGER, even though it was a stumbling block for a lot of readers and may have turned some people away from the series. The best book, though, hands down, is THE DARK TOWER. It’s where everything comes together, all debts are paid, all deals are closed, all disparate threads weave together to make the complete fabric that is the Dark Tower series.

In closing, I’d like to invite your readers to come by my web site (www.BevVincent.com) and visit the message board, where I’m keeping a weblog of what’s going on as the book progresses along the road to publication. I’m discovering that writing a book is only half the process and what happens in the next months is terra incognita for me. Interesting times ahead, indeed.

I also have a thread of current King publications, as well as my own. Check it out!

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