By Ian Walkley
Aficionados of the epic fantasy series THE DARK TOWER will be delighted at the April release (from NAL) of THE DARK TOWER COMPANION by Bev Vincent, the foremost authority on Stephen King’s evolving magnum opus. Whether you are a fan who has followed Roland’s journey or are discovering it for the first time, THE DARK TOWER COMPANION gives a fascinating overview of the series and an inside look at the creative process of one of the world’s most popular authors.
Featuring interviews with Stephen King, Ron Howard, DARK TOWER expert Robin Furth and others, Bev Vincent reveals THE DARK TOWER’s influential literary origins, examines its connections to the vast majority of King’s other novels, explores the expanded universe, catalogs the major characters, locations and concepts, and includes a travel guide to the story’s real-world locations.
This ultimate compendium has been described by the master Stephen King himself as: “…a valuable tool for exploring the series. Both newcomers and frequent visitors to Mid-World will be informed and delighted.”
A prolific short story writer, with over 70 published stories, including award winners, Bev is the author of THE ROAD TO THE DARK TOWER, nominated for a Bram Stoker Award, and THE STEPHEN KING ILLUSTRATED COMPANION, which was nominated for an Edgar Award and a Stoker. He writes News from the Dead Zone for Cemetery Dance and is a member of the Storytellers Unplugged blogging community. He also writes book reviews for Onyx Reviews. Bev lives in Texas with his wife.
Bev, THE DARK TOWER COMPANION is the second you have written about Stephen King’s horror fantasy western series. What is it about the series that fascinated you enough to want to write not one, but two companion books?
THE ROAD TO THE DARK TOWER was meant for people who had read the series and were looking for someone to help them explore the references, crossovers and subtexts. It was a way to analyze King’s work without having to tackle everything he’s written. A thorough exploration of his oeuvre would take a lifetime. The seven books (at the time) in the series were produced throughout his career and have tentacles that extend into much of his non-series work, so it seemed like a manageable project.
Several events inspired me to write THE DARK TOWER COMPANION. First was the news that Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman were preparing a film adaptation of the series. Then King wrote THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE, which filled some gaps in the story. Finally, the Marvel graphic novels appeared and expanded upon Roland’s early years. I wanted a book that could be read by people who were introduced to the series from something other than the books—a companion that would orient them to the stories and characters without immersing them in deep analysis and—more importantly—without spoiling the end of the series early on in the book.
And for those who may already have THE ROAD TO THE DARK TOWER, what extras have you included in THE DARK TOWER COMPANION? Or is it a whole new take?
At first, I thought I would simply update THE ROAD TO THE DARK TOWER to address the new developments in the ten years since it was first released. However, my agent suggested that something new would be better, so that’s what I did. It is all new material.
The approach is different. I don’t assume that you’ve read any of King’s books. It is more of a reference than an analysis, although toward the end I do wax philosophical about what I think it all means. It has a thorough glossary of people, places and things from the series, and essays on things like Mid-World geography and history. I drew a couple of maps, too—one featuring the places in Manhattan that are mentioned in the series and another of the known region of Mid-World.
It’s the first book to accept the expanded universe material into the fold, too. There is some debate as to whether the Marvel comics should be considered canon. They’re based, for the most part, on stories that King recounted but were written by someone else—his former research assistant, Robin Furth. A common saying in the DARK TOWER series is that “there are more worlds than these,” which provides a convenient way of looking at the comics: Perhaps this is how things happened in a parallel timeline or universe. There’s also a section that discusses the DISCORDIA interactive game on King’s website. It uses the Dark Tower series as a launching point for an adventure that features none of the series’ characters.
People develop their imaginative world from an author’s writings. Somehow, you’ve managed to put together a map of Mid-World, an amazing feat in itself. How do you manage to build a companion world and fill in the author’s gaps? How can you be confident other readers will accept your interpretation?
I don’t think everyone will accept my interpretations. I present my theories, and I hope that people will tell me theirs in response. In my interview with Stephen King for this book, I tried to get him to go on the record with his view of what happens with Roland, but he wouldn’t bite. He has his own opinions, but he keeps them to himself, either because he intends to explore them in the future or because he is content to allow his readers to come to their own conclusions.
Even my map of Mid-World is open to debate. Although Robin Furth has published maps of sections of Roland’s universe, no one has put the whole thing together before. Because geography isn’t stable in Mid-World—directions drift and distances dilate—I thought it would be a challenge—possibly even impossible. However, when I started sketching it out, aided by new information from THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE that helps pinpoint the city where Roland grew up (Gilead), I was able to come up with something that is internally consistent. I was pleased, for example, when I discovered a detail about a train line that used to run west from Gilead to the Mohaine desert. When I added that to my map, it fit. Only a small slice of Mid-World is ever seen in the series, so there’s a large chunk of terra incognita, but I’m looking forward to hearing how people react to this map.
I understand they may be filming a movie and/or TV series of THE DARK TOWER. Are you involved with that, or would you like to be, given your knowledge of the world?
I’m not involved in it, but I wouldn’t say no if asked! I interviewed both the director (Ron Howard) and the screenwriter (Akiva Goldsman) for this book. It’s the first time they’ve talked at length and in detail about what a series of features with interleaving TV series would look like if they can get the project off the ground. They are passionate about the series and the film, so we can only hope that they can put together a package that will get it made. I plan to send them copies of my book. Maybe it will inspire them to reach out to me in the future. Who knows? One thing I’ve discovered over the years is that the strangest things can and do happen.
Stephen King originally said the DARK TOWER series was finished in 2004, then wrote another, THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE, in 2012, which was set in the middle of the series. Do you believe there is scope for more novels like this? Would you consider writing one yourself, if you had King’s blessing?
One fascinating aspect of this series is how it has called out to King at regular intervals. He wrote the first line in 1970 and even now, over forty years later, he’s still returning to Mid-World every five-to-six years. In his interview he mentioned a story that he’d consider tackling, but I don’t think it would be right away. There’s this idea in the series called “the voice of the Turtle,” which is a metaphor for inspiration plus motivation. King waits for those two things to come together to work on a Dark Tower novel. Returning to Mid-World has always been a challenge for him, and he has to ease into it—or throw himself at it—when he’s ready.
I don’t think he’d ever give anyone else his blessing to play in his sandbox. If he hadn’t lived to finish the series, he would have passed the torch to his son, Joe Hill, to tie things up, but I can’t see him allowing others to write independent Dark Tower material. He once approached the estate of the late crime writer John D. MacDonald with an idea for a final Travis McGee book and I think he took to heart their refusal to allow him—or anyone else—to write in MacDonald’s universe.
That said, I don’t think I would have the nerve to write a Dark Tower book. The story is so uniquely King’s.
You previously wrote THE STEPHEN KING ILLUSTRATED COMPANION. That must have been a daunting exercise, both in terms of writing about King himself, and obtaining the information you needed? I mean, Stephen King must be a pretty busy guy…?
THE STEPHEN KING ILLUSTRATED COMPANION was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had as a writer. King was not directly involved, though. As you said, he’s a busy guy. He had final approval over any of the archival material we wanted to duplicate for the book, so he looked that over, but that was it. His personal assistant, who has become a good friend over the years, was a great help, though.
I prepared a detailed outline for the book packagers—becker&mayer!—who were contracted to do the book for Barnes & Noble’s Fall River Press imprint. I picked the King novels I planned to explore. The book is a reader’s companion that ties together biography and inspiration, so I selected novels with significant autobiographical components or ones where something interesting was happening in King’s life at the time he wrote them. When the outline was approved, I wrote the text in six weeks.
Amazing – six weeks? How did you manage that?
Because I’ve been writing about King for years, I had everything I needed in my office. Also, when I was working on THE ROAD TO THE DARK TOWER, I took some time out to organize and file all the printouts and clippings I had accumulated over the years, which proved extremely helpful when it came time to write the COMPANION.
Once becker&mayer! had my manuscript, they sent out a researcher to gather the ancillary material that was included in the book. I connected him with a friend who has an amazing collection of rarities, and he also went to Bangor, where he was given full access to King’s literary archives at the University of Maine, as well as to photo albums at King’s office. He’d e-mail me scans of material and we’d decide what to use and where to put it in the book.
Would you believe that I started writing it on January 1, 2009 and the book was in stores that September? Nine months from first words to finished books—and in truth, I think I received my first copies in July or August. I’ve never seen a book come together that fast—especially one that is so design-intensive. In addition to reproductions of book covers, letters and manuscript pages, there are several pouches that contain documents that you can remove and explore, creating an interactive experience, like rummaging through an attic and discovering treasures in old envelopes. I’m very proud of this book and the response to it has been overwhelmingly positive.
Stay tuned to my website, there may be forthcoming news about this book, which went through two printings but is now out of print.
Many of us have a favorite book of Stephen King. Mine is THE STAND. What’s yours Bev?
The one that usually comes to mind when I’m asked this question is BAG OF BONES, his first book for Scribner. It’s one of the first novels that critics took seriously for its literary aspects. I’m also impressed by the way he took a suggestion from his wife and wove it into the book upon revision to make it seem like an original element of the story, all accomplished with subtle little daubs throughout. The book has a “twinner,” in Stephen King parlance: LISEY’S STORY. In one the writer’s wife dies and the writer tries to figure out how to go on without her and in the other the writer dies and the book explores his widow’s life thereafter.
You also write fiction, mainly horror. Are we going to see a horror novel with Bev Vincent’s name on it sometime down the road? What sort of world might you create if you did so?
I’m not sure that you’ll ever see a horror novel with my name on it. Though I’ve written a lot of short stories in that genre, my interests have turned toward crime fiction. I’ve written a few novels, but haven’t sold any yet. The one that my agent and I worked on several years ago was a sort-of ghost story, but it was a sort-of crime story, too, and that blend didn’t work for most editors who saw it. I think they expected something more in the Stephen King vein, and instead what I wrote was subtle and ambiguous as far as the supernatural elements were concerned.
My hope is to write another novel this year. I’ve written one already that features the same protagonist, but that was a few years ago and my agent pointed out some structural flaws that were going to require a major overhaul. I decided instead to write a new book and I have the first section done but have had to put it on the back burner for other projects. I’d love to be able to write a series character and I think my guy has some potential to be that.
Best wishes with that novel, Bev. You sure are a prolific writer, with your blog and contributions to other websites. What do you enjoy doing in your “spare time”? (Apart from reading!)
There’s not much spare time, to be honest. In addition to writing, I have a full-time day job. With that and writing and reading and keeping up with some favorite TV shows and watching movies, there aren’t many spare hours in the week. My wife—who is just as busy as I am—and I like to travel, but often our spare time is spent making dinner, playing cards and catching up with each other.