Retirement, the Stephen King way: writing, not publishing

Stephen King surveys the fish-sandwich platter in front of him at a grill in Pleasantville, N.Y., then holds up two oversized onion rings in front of his eyes like breaded eyeglasses.

"Binoculars," he says and chuckles, putting them back on the plate. "See, that's what happens when I get out in public away from my wife. I can do stuff like that."

Which might explain why he giggles when, as he emerges from the Jacob Burns Film Center on his way to dinner, he is greeted with the cry of "It's God!" from one of his faithful (who've been queueing up since 5 p.m. for a 7:30 show). Now here he sits, making funny faces with deep-fried food.

But this particular literary deity is serious about his very public declaration that he's calling it quits. Not writing, of course: "I would never quit writing," he tells host Janet Maslin, New York Times book critic, during his appearance, made in conjunction with the release of his latest novel, "From a Buick 8" (Scribner, $28). "I love to write. I don't know what I would do with those hours."

Rather, King is giving up publishing what he writes. He is completing the final three volumes of his "Dark Tower" series, and then that will be it. He will continue writing — but he won't be putting the books out for others to read (at least not for now).

"I see myself repeating phrases," he said. "There are only so many ways to describe someone pulled screaming into the drain. ... "

Part of it, he says, is fatigue with what the publishing industry has become. No longer, he says, will he have to think about comparisons between his sales and those of other best-selling writers: Tom Clancy or John Grisham or Danielle Steele.

"I love the idea of the pressure being off," he says. "If I decide to pull the plug on a book before it's finished, I can."

Which he's done on a number of occasions. One such volume was "a book called 'Cannibals.' It was about these people trapped in an apartment building. And I followed it to the end. I wanted to watch the social structure break down. I was having fun with it, but I didn't know where to go next. So I put it away for a year and a half. And then one day I thought, I want to go back to that. And I couldn't find the manuscript. My office generally looks like a cyclone struck it. There are papers everywhere. I'm not very organized; and now with the word processor and those disks — they're so small. I can never find anything."

Quitting is a decision that has left his legion of fans in despair. King tells the story of walking from his Upper East Side hotel to a coffee shop earlier this week, a 16-block jaunt to a favorite Manhattan haunt: "And in that 16 blocks, five people stopped me to say, 'Don't quit!' "

Hope for fans

But almost in the same breath, King gives new hope to fans who are in despair: "Look, this is not rocket science. If I write something five years down the line that I really like, then I'll publish it. Writing is such a blast. But to write, if you need money, you have to publish. I'm so lucky that I never had to write for money. But if I write something and I think, 'This is a gas,' then I suppose I'll want people to see it."

His newest book, "From a Buick 8," is about a car with a history and an evil power. Like most of his books, it started out as "something bright and shiny, that I wanted to get down." In this case, it was an idea that sprang from something that happened to him before the roadside accident that nearly killed him in 1999. (King, a pedestrian, was hit while walking on a road near his home in Maine; he still walks with a slight limp as a result.)

He had stopped for gas in Pennsylvania at "this little gas station with a human being pumping the gas," he recalled. As he walked to the rear of the gas station to the restroom, he decided to take a picture of a roaring brook he found there — and then lost his footing and nearly fell in. "And this book grew out of my wondering how long my car would have sat there before this guy wondered where I went."

Even then, the book changed because King was changed by the subsequent accident: "The book was done in a first draft, but I wasn't satisfied with it. After the accident, I was able to sit down with a fresh eye. I keyboarded the whole thing in, and that made it a different book."

King thinks cinematically when he writes, but that's just his way of visualizing the action. He never writes with movies in mind.

"I don't think about movies, but I do see it in visual terms," he says. "I have a tendency to see things in the frame."

The films

At this point, there are more than 70 films, TV movies, miniseries and TV episodes derived from his work that are listed in the Internet Movie Database. People are forever stopping him on the street to say, "I love your movies," a dead giveaway that they aren't readers, he says.

His favorites among the movies made from his work? Rob Reiner's "Stand By Me," and Frank Darabont's "The Shawshank Redemption."

"I get this label as a horror writer, which I don't mind because it pays the light bill," he says. "But those aren't horror stories. 'Dolores Claiborne' isn't a horror film. I happen to think 'The Dead Zone' is a love story."

One adaptation he doesn't have much time for is Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film of "The Shining." King was vocal about his disdain for the film after it was released, at least until he had to get rights from Kubrick to make a TV miniseries of the book a couple of years ago.

"And Kubrick says, 'I'll allow you to do it if you don't bad-mouth my movie again,' " King recalls. "So I didn't."

He pauses, then grins: "But now he's dead."

Asked whom he would choose if he could have worked with any director who ever lived, King immediately replies, "Hitchcock. That would have been great. I can think of a lot of things I would have liked Hitchcock to do. There's a story called 'The Mist.' And 'Gerald's Game.' And 'Misery': two people in a cabin in the woods? Hitchcock could have hit that one a mile."