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A special feature brought to you by
Salon Magazine

Up close and personal with Stephen King

By Andrew O'Hehir

(SALON) -- Publishing insiders and general readers alike have been eagerly anticipating "Bag of Bones," which is both one of Stephen King's most ambitious novels and his first for Scribner after his much-publicized split with Viking, his longtime publisher. All the fanfare has focused the literary world's attention, gradually and groggily, on what should have been obvious all along: King is one of the most important writers of our age.

In this interview, the horror master talks about the latent violence of males, childhood terror and an "odious little man" named Kenneth Starr.

Stephen King reads Chapter 7 of "Bag of Bones"
(Audio only, 35 min.)

Windows Media: 28k or 56k
Real: 28k or 56k
(Courtesy Simon & Schuster Audio)

An interview with Stephen King
(Audio only, 25 min.)

Windows Media: 28k or 56k
Real: 28k or 56k
(Courtesy Simon & Schuster Audio)

Begin reading "Bag of Bones"

There's a relationship in "Bag of Bones" between a middle-aged man and a much younger woman, and it's presented in strongly unfavorable terms. I was wondering if that reflects your views about that, and how it relates to current events.

You're the first person to ask me that question, about Mike's relationship with Mattie. And I'd say that what I presented, I presented from the viewpoint of a 50-year-old man who's been happily married and happily monogamous for the entire course of that marriage. But certainly, we'll be driving along the street and my wife will say to me, "What are you looking at?" And she knows perfectly well what I'm looking at. There'll be some cute little girl on the other side of the street, maybe 22 years old, wearing shorts and a mini-top. And I'll always tell her what my brother used to tell me: "A man on a diet can read a menu." But there is a real attraction in guys my age to women who are younger. It's a male version of the body clock, where women start to look at babies and want one as they get older. Because you get to a stage in your life where it just becomes a biological imperative. It's probably your body's way of saying, "You've only got so many years left where you're viable as a reproductive entity. Hurry up!" And that comes later with men than it does with women, because we last longer as reproductive entities.

As far as it applies to the president of the United States, which I assume is what you're intending, the man has clearly got serious problems with controlling his sexual urges. I don't think that this is a substantive issue in his presidency, and basically there are a lot of right-wing groups in this country that want to see him impeached for adultery. I'm sorry, adultery is not an impeachable offense. The lying that he did was the sort of lying that anybody does when they've been caught in an embarrassing sexual situation. And that's not substantive in terms of his constitutional duties. Ken Starr is an odious little man who is trying to justify all the money that he's spent by finding anything that's dirty on this guy. And God knows, sexually speaking, Clinton's hands are not clean. But the American people knew what he was when they hired him. The crucial difference between Mike Noonan -- a 40-year-old man who's attracted to a 20-year-old woman -- and Bill Clinton is that Bill Clinton was a 50-year-old man attracted to a 21-year-old girl. But even that, I don't exactly have a problem with. They're both consenting adults. They didn't catch Clinton with a 9-year-old, did they? The problem is that Bill Clinton is married, simple as that. The man is married. But whether he's married or whether he's single, it's not an impeachable offense. It's not the end of the world.

To get back to "Bag of Bones," you seem to be suggesting that the kind of attraction Mike feels for Mattie, and that she feels toward him, creates an imbalance that presents the opportunity for bad things to happen. Do you think that happens in real life?

I don't think it really happens. I think that what Mike feels, particularly in this case ... Here's a guy that's been grieving for four years. It's been raining in his life for four years. And she's the first ray of sunshine that he sees. He's sexually attracted to her -- she's young, she's beautiful, she's vivacious, she has all of that energy. What he sees in her is a kind of joyfulness. And I certainly react very positively to that.

Mike says to himself that just because you want something, you don't necessarily have the right to have it. Not every thirst should be slaked.

That's the married man's philosophy. It's gotta be.

That's an interesting thing to appear in a novel now, when there is almost a guiding ethos that you're supposed to take whatever you want from life.

Well, we have a problem both ways. The foreign press around the world will look at the situation we're going through right now and their reaction -- and that of a lot of American people, including myself -- is to throw up your hands and say, "Oh, please -- get over it. This is a juvenile preoccupation. People are starving in Africa. People are killing each other in Africa. Stop worrying about Monica Lewinsky's thong panties."

I won't give away how you resolve the issue between Mike and Mattie. But in the book Mike sees the resolution of this dilemma as an unsatisfying novelist's trick. How do you plead to that charge?

I plead guilty and not guilty at the same time. The situation that Mike is in is a melodramatic one. You have to ask yourself, What happens to these relationships when, say, the man is 60 and the woman is 40? Or when the man is 80 and the woman is 60? In several of the reviews of "Bag of Bones," people have said, about Mattie, that she's an unformed character -- that she's not as satisfying as some of the other characters in the book. Well, I'm sorry, but when you have a 20-year-old girl who lives in a trailer, who's been married since the age of 17 and widowed a couple of years later, who's trying to sort of scrape by -- that is not the stuff of which fascinating, paradoxical, bewitching characters are made. So, I did the best with it that I could. What I'm saying is, you get married, or you have a relationship, you have weeks, months, maybe a year of delirious sex. Then one morning you come down at breakfast and you look at each other and you say, "What do I talk about?" In the course of "Bag of Bones," as you say, we won't give this away, but that situation is resolved. I have a lot of questions about the way the situation is resolved, and I think I express them in the book.

Page 2: Is there a killer inside every man?

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