Stephen King returns to the 'Tower'
Early volume rewritten, new ones due
(CNN) -- Eighteen months ago, Stephen King said he was winding down his writing career.
"You can either continue to go on, or say 'I left when I was still on top of my game.' I left when I was still holding the ball, instead of it holding me," he told the Los Angeles Times in January 2002.
Fortunately for readers, King hasn't quite let go of the ball yet. Last year he put out a new novel, "From a Buick 8," and a collection of short stories, "Everything's Eventual."
His byline has been all over the place this summer -- a short story in The New Yorker, a review of the new Harry Potter in Entertainment Weekly (he liked it), and a thoughtful and funny essay on popular writers vs. "literary" writers in Book magazine.
Now King has returned to his roots, reissuing the first four books of his "Dark Tower" series and readying a fifth, "Wolves of the Calla" (Donald M. Grant/Scribner) for publication in November.
He started writing the series when he was 22, he told Aaron Brown in a late June interview on CNN's "Newsnight," but put the first book aside while he worked on other projects. Over the years, "it's ballooned into this very long fantasy Western," he said, comparing the series to a cross between "The Lord of the Rings" and Clint Eastwood's spaghetti Westerns.
"I knew when I started, I was just totally taken by 'The Lord of the Rings,' " he said. "In the late '60s, when I read [Tolkien's work], I thought, I would like to write something with this sweep. But I didn't want to sit down then, because I was afraid that I'd end up rewriting Tolkien, and nobody really needed that."
'The best stories are stories that are generous'
King's still not entirely satisfied with "Tower." He completely rewrote the first book, "The Gunslinger," because he wanted to "make it a little bit more reader friendly."
"I was a writing seminar survivor at 22," he said impishly. "You know, I'd been in college, and I had a lot of pretentious ideas about how stories were supposed to be told."
He takes issue with the high art-low art divide in his Book magazine essay. He castigates "The Corrections" author Jonathan Franzen, who, in a Harper's magazine essay, very publicly bemoaned the decline of a certain kind of accessible, big-thinking novel and its audience. King points out, in exaggerated terms, that America still reads, and that it reads all kinds of books. And that books need not be self-consciously "literary" to be good.
"I believe now that the best stories are stories that are generous and welcome the reader in," he told Brown. He hopes the rewritten "Dark Tower" stories meet that standard, he added.
Writing, 'the best medicine'
It's not like King has to write for the money. He's one of the best-selling writers that's ever lived; his works -- which the prolific author has produced at the rate of pretty much one a year since the mid-1970s -- have sold tens of millions of copies.
"I haven't had to write for the money in probably 20 years," he said. "If it were just an issue of money, I would have quit a long time ago and taken my family and moved to Aruba."
As he's recalled many times, he's always had a compulsion to write. But his 1999 accident -- in which he was hit by a minivan while walking along a Maine road -- gave him the impetus to push harder.
"I discovered, in the wake of the accident, that [writing] was the best medicine I could possibly have, because your mind and imagination turns to the work, and it kind of divorces from your body," he said.
With "The Dark Tower" series, "I got an idea after that accident about how really fragile life is, and how quickly that thread [of storytelling ideas] ... can be snapped. So I wanted to finish them. I didn't want it to end up in the file with 'Canterbury Tales' and 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood.' "
King plans two more "Dark Tower" books after "Wolves of the Calla." And then -- who knows?
"With his interest in other things, I think he'll focus on other kinds of projects. He has nothing to prove, [so he should do] whatever makes him happy," his friend Dave Barry told CNN.com in October.
Regardless, never count Stephen King out. After all, there were some fans convinced "The Dark Tower" would never be resolved.
"I had two guys at an autographing session in Michigan who got to the head of the line and just said ... 'He's never going to finish that thing now,' " King said. "But I did."