Richard Chizmar is an author, publisher, and Stephen King fan. He joins the show to discuss his career, his process, and his opportunity to write a novella with one of the world’s biggest authors.
- Richard Chizmar, publisher of Cemetery Dance, co-author of Gwendy’s Button Box
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From Fan to Collaborator: How Richard Chizmar wrote a Novella with Stephen King
Marty Peterson: Storytelling dates back to the beginning of time – ancient civilizations told stories in caves and around fires, in more modern times we have Netflix subscriptions and packed theaters with 3D glasses on. But the general idea is the same – storytellers want to entertain friends and maybe give audiences something to think about. For some people those skills just come naturally.
Richard Chizmar: I wrote like monster and war stories when I was probably 8 or 9 years old, so I didn’t walk around with this self-awareness, “yeah I’m growing up wanting to be a writer” but it’s interesting to go back and talk to my friends now because they’re all like, “of course you were gonna be a writer – you were always the one who scared us with his stories when we were walking up the dark driveway of the Myers house, which was our neighborhood haunted house, you’re the one who always would interrupt a story with a scream and take off running and we would all scream and chase after you…” and I’m thinking back to the stories they tell and I’m like, “man, you guys are right it was always there!”
Peterson: That’s Richard Chizmar, an author and a publisher of Cemetery Dance Publications. His latest book is a novella he co-wrote with Stephen King called, Gwendy’s Button Box. Chizmar says writing a story with King was a real full-circle moment for a boy who grew up a constant reader.
Chizmar: I grew up in a big family of readers, one of five kids but my parents were big readers. So I was given books as gifts from early on and was pretty much surrounded by books, but I was in 10th grade in high school when my English teacher brought in – his name was Richard Gallagher – he brought in a photocopy of the Stephen King story called The Monkey that appeared in one of the men’s magazines, so he brought in a stack of photocopies stapled together and we read it out loud in class. You know, that’s kind of when I knew – this is what I wanted to do. He took a sophomore class of high school students who are usually rowdy and not paying attention and pretty inattentive and we were all captivated by this story over the course of a couple of afternoons. And yeah, something clicked.
Peterson: As a natural storyteller it makes sense that Chizmar was immediately a big fan of Stephen King, the man often referred to as “The Master Storyteller.”
Chizmar: I can almost remember where I was in my life when I read each one of his books. Peter Crather in England asked me to write an afterword to an anniversary edition of Christine, I saw down, I wrote it and it just hit me, “you know I can do this for every single book because I remember.” And that’s the power; I mean that’s the magic of Stephen King. Again, I think he’s figured out a way to kind of worm his way into our psyche’s and our brain here. To take a look at the world around us, to look inwards, and based on the stories that he tells. I mean Carrie – I’ve never known anyone in my life who could move things with their mind or start fires or do the various things that she did, but I’ve certainly known girls like Carrie and boys like that character who have been bullied to the point where they want to strike back and I’ve certainly known people like the other high school students in that book.
Peterson: Chizmar says that as he grew older he started to itch to be a published author himself.
Chizmar: When I was in college I started writing my own short stories and sending them out and selling them. I was fortunate to sell quite a few of them but to not very big publications. And that’s kind of where my publishing company started because I would sell these stories and I’d be so excited I’d get my check for like $10 and I’d get my contributor copies and at least half of the time I was disappointed in the quality of the publication – somewhere along the line the thought, “maybe I can do better than this” came into my head and I started my own magazine during my last year of college and just never stopped – I never went out and got a real job I just continued publishing the magazine. It started growing, that turned into publishing hardcover books.
Peterson: Chizmar’s publication company Cemetery Dance was doing pretty well for Chizmar who ran the publisher in addition to writing his own stories. He says the company allowed him to keep fiction in his life even if his own stories never became international best sellers.
Chizmar: I’ve always felt like, “yeah, my stuff might never reach a bigger audience,” because I write what’s important to me and a lot of times it’s really small things, it’s really small stories. I would never be good work-for-hire, I would never be someone they could plop down a nice paycheck and say, “write this story about these characters,” that I really don’t care about because it would come through that I was kind of connecting the dots and my thing was – I think the way I stated it was, “I just have to write about small moments in time, or people, or places that mean something to me.” That kind of collates into a story and then I just have to hope that people will connect to it.
Peterson: As a lifelong fan of King and now the publisher of a magazine full of horror stories, Chizmar says it just made sense for him to send a copy to his favorite writer.
Chizmar: I was not in contact with Steve back then but I was sending him everything we published; every copy of the magazine, every copy of each book we published and of course I was asking him “hey if you ever want to send us a story.” But somewhere along, I think year 3, he sent an original story called Chattering Teeth to publish in the magazine, and gave us a nice promotional blurb talking about how much he enjoyed the magazine.
Peterson: Chizmar says from there, a friendship was born. He and King went to baseball games together and regularly exchanged emails and it was through email that the two writers became collaborators.
Chizmar: It’s usually more about movies and books and sports and family and that sort of thing. But I brought up the idea of round robin writing projects. I thought they were kind of cool where you have anywhere from 3 or 4 or a dozen different writers, writing a chunk of a story and that turns to talking about collaborations, next thing you know he just mentioned out of the blue that he had a story that he had started last year that he couldn’t finish. And I just very casually said, “well you if you ever want to send it my way, please do – I’d love to read it.”
Peterson: The next day King sent the story over and just like that Chizmar had his favorite author ask him if he’d like to help finish the book.
Chizmar: All the email said was “do with it whatever you wish” or something like that. So I emailed him write back, told him I read it, loved it and would love to take a crack at it. And that was on a Friday and I spent the weekend in a state of mild terror thinking “what’ve I done” and I sent it in on Monday and started handwriting some notes for the story long hand and I realize my hand was shaking. I was like, “oh my god” but the cool thing was then I sat down, pulled out my laptop, started writing maybe within 30 minutes all the nerves were gone and I was just completely swallowed by the story and I was essentially in Castle Rock.
Peterson: Chizmar said the nerves mostly stayed away until it came tome to send his revised version on over to King.
Chizmar: I think I wrote probably around 10,000 words over the course of the next 3 days and then I did, I sat down, I cleaned it up and I emailed it to Steve right away. Because a little bit of the nerves did come back then because I was so busy in the writing process that those 3 days that I didn’t even really have time to think about well, “is he gonna like this?” So once I was finished that section and I sent it on to him for his turn, that’s the first time I kind of had thoughts, “well I wonder if he’s gonna like this character that I completely invented out of the blue. I wonder if he’s gonna like what I did with his character.” That sort of thing, but it was a cool process I mean he had a obviously a totally freehand in rewriting anything he wanted that I did. He made it clear that I had the same freedom – so yeah it was strange to add things to his sections and to change a few things and it was just fascinating to see what he did with mine. There might be a 200-word section where he left 195 words alone and added 20 of his own, and it was just completely kind of fascinating to see what he did with it from a writing standpoint.
Peterson: The novella they sent back and forth was released in hardcover this month. Chizmar says that after years of being a King fan it was a surreal experience to become a King co-author.
Chizmar: His stories have had a way of making me look inward and observe the world around me in a way that no other stories do. I mean I love John Sanford – I read his books – I’m finished, I don’t walk around with that echo of the story for days. With Steve, it’s obvious; I’ve walked around with the echoes for years.
Peterson: Gwendy’s Button Box written by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar is available now and can be purchased at CemeteryDance.com. For more information on all of our guests visit our site, ViewpointsOnline.net. You can find us on Twitter @ViewpointsRadio. Our show is written and produced by Evan Rook and Pat Reuter. Our executive producer is Reed Pence. Our production director is Sean Waldron. I’m Mary Peterson.