How Stephen King's Wife Saved Carrie  and Launched His Career

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How the master of horror got his first big break—and how his wife inspired him.

It was 1973, and Stephen King’s pockets were empty. He lived in a doublewide trailer and drove a rust-bucket Buick held together with baling wire and duct tape. King’s wife, Tabby, worked second-shift at Dunkin’ Donuts while he taught English at Hampden Academy, a private high school in eastern Maine. To scrape by, King worked summers at an industrial laundry and moonlighted as a janitor and gas pump attendant. With a toddler and a newborn to feed, money—and time to write fiction—were hard to come by.

King couldn't even afford his own typewriter; he had to use Tabby’s Olivetti from college. She set up a makeshift desk in the laundry room, fitting it snugly between the washing machine and the dryer. Each evening, while Tabby changed diapers and cooked dinner, King ignored the ungraded papers in his briefcase and locked himself in the laundry room to write.

The early returns weren’t promising. King mailed his short stories to men’s magazines like Playboy, Cavalier, and Penthouse. When he was lucky, every once in a while, a small check would turn up in the mailbox. It was just enough money to keep the King family off of welfare.

One day, the head of Hampden’s English department gave King an offer he couldn’t refuse. The debate club needed a new faculty advisor, and the job was his for the taking. It would pay an extra $300 per year—not much, but enough to cover the family’s grocery bill for 10 weeks.

The lure of extra income enticed King, and when he came home, he thought Tabby would share his enthusiasm about the news. But she wasn’t so convinced. “Will you have time to write?” she asked.

“Not much,” King said. 

Tabby told him, “Well, then you can’t take it.”

So King turned down the job. It was a good call. Within a year, he would write his way out of that trailer with a bestseller called Carrie

A Pair of Writers

There’s a running joke at the King dinner table that Stephen married Tabby only because she had a typewriter.

“That’s only partly true,” King laughed in 2003. “I married her because I loved her and because we got on as well out of bed as in it. The typewriter was a factor, though.”

Growing up, neither of them had much. When King was two, his father went out to buy a pack of cigarettes and never came back, leaving his mother to raise two boys on her own. Meanwhile, Tabby was one of eight children from a modest Catholic family. The two met at the University of Maine in the '60s, fell in love while attending each other’s poetry readings, and married soon after graduation. King had to borrow a suit, tie, and shoes for the wedding.

Both of them dreamed of making it someday as writers, but during their first year together, they amassed a collection of rejections instead. Tabby wrote the first book of their marriage, a set of poetry titled Grimier, that publishers liked but not quite enough to publish. Stephen’s luck was no better. He penned three novels that barely made it out of his desk drawer. (Those manuscripts—Rage, The Long Walk, and Blaze—were published years later.)

King flourished in the nudie mag market, though. Most of his stories were buried behind centerfolds in Cavalier, a magazine that had also featured Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Roald Dahl. Science fiction and horror, for some reason, complemented two-page spreads of buxom blondes, which gained King a meager reputation as a men’s writer and sharp criticism from readers.  “You write all those macho things,” one reader told him. “But you can’t write about women. You’re scared of women.”

King took that as a challenge. The fire for Carrie was lit. 

Creating Carrie

Carrie is the story of Carrie White, a homely highschooler who can control objects with her mind. One day during gym class, she starts having her first period. Long sheltered by an oppressively religious mother, Carrie doesn’t know what’s happening to her—she thinks she’s bleeding to death. Bullies taunt and tease Carrie, but the newfound surge of hormones gives her telekinetic powers, and she uses them to exact revenge on the kids who make her life hell. 

The idea for the novel came to King in a daydream. He had remembered an article about telekinesis in LIFE magazine, which said that if the power existed, it was strongest in adolescent girls. King’s background as a high school janitor also flashed to mind, specifically the day when he had to clean rust stains in the girls’ showers. He had never been in a girls’ bathroom before, and seeing tampon dispensers on the wall was like visiting a distant planet.

The two memories collided. King knew it could make a decent short story for Cavalier. Playboy was a possibility, too. Hef’s magazine paid better, and the Buick needed a new transmission.

King modeled Carrie White after two of the loneliest girls he remembered from high school. One was a timid epileptic with a voice that always gurgled with phlegm. Her fundamentalist mother kept a life-size crucifix in the living room, and it was clear to King that the thought of it followed her down the halls. The second girl was a loner. She wore the same outfit every day, which drew cruel taunts.

By the time King wrote Carrie, both of those girls were dead. The first died alone after a seizure. The second suffered from postpartum depression and, one day, aimed a rifle at her stomach and pulled the trigger. “Very rarely in my career have I explored more distasteful territory,” King wrote, reflecting on how both of them were treated. 

These tragedies made Carrie all the more difficult to write. When King started, he typed three single-spaced pages, crumpled them up in anger, and dumped them in the trashcan. He was disappointed in himself. His critics were right—he couldn’t write from a woman’s perspective. The whole story disgusted him, too. Carrie White was an annoying, ready-made victim. Worse yet, the plot was already moving too slowly, which meant the finished product would be too long for any magazine.

“I couldn’t see wasting two weeks, maybe even a month, creating a novella I didn’t like and wouldn’t be able to sell,” King wrote in his memoir On Writing. “So I threw it away … After all, who wanted to read a book about a poor girl with menstrual problems?"

The next day, Tabby went to empty the trash in the laundry room and found three crinkled balls of paper. She reached in, brushed off a coat of cigarette ashes, and unwrinkled the pages. When King came home from work, she still had them.

“You’ve got something here,” she said. “I really think you do.” Over the next few weeks, Tabby guided her husband through the world of women, giving tips on how to mold the characters and the famous shower scene. Nine months later, King had polished off the final draft.

Thirty publishers rejected it.

Published at Last 

It was fifth period at Hampden Academy, and just as he did during every other fifth period, King was groggily grading papers in the teacher’s lounge, thinking about how nice it would be to take a nap. A voice boomed over the lounge PA system. It was the office secretary. 

“Stephen King, are you there? Stephen King?” King reached for the intercom and said he was there. “Please come to the office,” she said. “You have a phone call. It’s your wife.”

King raced to the office. Tabby never called him at work. Tabby never called him anywhere—they didn’t have a telephone. They had removed it to save money. To make a call, Tabby would have had to dress up the kids, drag them to the neighbors’ house, and call from there. That kind of hassle meant something either terrible or amazing had happened. When King picked up the phone, both he and Tabby were out of breath. She told him that the editor at Doubleday Publishing, Bill Thompson, had sent a telegram:  

“CONGRATULATIONS. CARRIE OFFICIALLY A DOUBLEDAY BOOK. IS $2500 ADVANCE OKAY? THE FUTURE LIES AHEAD. LOVE, BILL.”

King had broken through. The $2500 advance wasn’t huge—not enough to quit teaching and pursue writing full time—but it was the most money he had ever made from writing. King used the advance to buy a shiny Ford Pinto and moved his family out of the trailer and into a dumpy four-room apartment in Bangor, Maine. They suddenly had money for groceries. They even could afford a telephone.

King hoped that fat royalty checks would keep replenishing his bank account, but Carrie only sold 13,000 copies as a hardback, tepid sales that convinced him to grudgingly sign a new teaching contract for the 1974 school year. He started a new novel called The House on Value Street, and, by Mother’s Day, he figured Carrie had run its course. It was the last thing on his mind. 

One phone call changed all that. It was Bill Thompson again. “Are you sitting down?” he asked.

King was home alone, standing in the doorway between his kitchen and living room. “Do I need to?” he said.

“You might," Thompson said. "The paperback rights to Carrie went to Signet Books for $400,000 ... 200K of it’s yours. Congratulations, Stephen.”

King’s legs wobbled and gave out. He sat on the floor, shaking with excitement from winning the literary lottery—and there was no one home to share the news with. Tabby had taken both kids to their grandmother’s house. To celebrate, he felt compelled to buy Tabby a Mother’s Day present. He wanted to buy her something luxurious, something unforgettable. King raced to downtown Bangor. It was Sunday and every shop was closed except for a drug store. So he bought Tabby the best thing he could find—a hairdryer. 

King quit teaching and Tabby stopped peddling pastries. And three years later, King bought Tabby another present. He visited swanky Manhattan jewelry store Cartier and bought her an engagement ring. They had been married for six years.

A Bonafide Hit

Carrie sold over 1 million copies in its first year as a paperback despite a mixed critical response. The New York Times was impressed, considering it was a first novel, while Library Journal called it “terribly overdone.” Falling somewhere in the middle, the critic at the Wilson Library Journal said, “It’s pure trash, but I loved it.” Forty years later, even King is critical of his debut. “It reminds me of a cookie baked by a first grader,” he later said. “Tasty enough, but kind of lumpy and burned on the bottom.”

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The book-buying public was more enthusiastic—Carrie was a hit. The novel struck a sympathetic chord with teens and adults who knew what it was like to be an outsider. In 1975, it was adapted into a profitable feature film, which sparked a sequel a decade later and a remake in 2013. The story has also been adapted for TV and the stage (although the 1988 Broadway production was a forgettable flop). 

King made Carrie, and Carrie made King. Now the 19th best-selling author of all time, King won the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003 and was invited to speak at the National Book Awards. When he spoke, he didn’t talk about writing or success or money. He talked about the woman who rescued Carrie from the trash and insisted he keep going—Tabby. 

“There is a time in the lives of most writers when they are vulnerable, when the vivid dreams and ambitions of childhood seem to pale in the harsh sunlight of what we call the real world,” King said at the ceremony. “In short, there’s a time when things can go either way. That vulnerable time for me came during 1971 to 1973. If my wife had suggested to me even with love and kindness and gentleness ... that the time had come to put my dreams away and support my family, I would have done that with no complaint.”

But the thought never crossed her mind. And if you open any edition of Carrie, you’ll read the same dedication: “This is for Tabby, who got me into it—and then bailed me out of it.” 

15 Fascinating Facts About Beatrix Potter

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Getty Images

Even today, more than 75 years after her death on December 22, 1943, celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter's beautifully illustrated tales—featuring animals and landscapes inspired by her beloved home in England’s Lake District—are still hugely popular. Below are 15 fascinating facts about The Tale of Peter Rabbit author.

1. Beatrix wasn't Potter's real first name.

Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and was actually christened Helen after her mother, but was known by her more unusual middle name: Beatrix.

2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by a letter.

The first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Aleph-bet books via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Potter’s most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit , was inspired by an illustrated letter Potter wrote to Noel, the son of her former governess, Annie, in 1893. She later asked to borrow the letter back and copied the pictures and story, which she then adapted to create the much-loved tale.

3. Peter Rabbit and her friends were partly based on Beatrix Potter's own pets.

Peter was modeled on Potter’s own pet rabbit, Peter Piper—a cherished bunny who Potter frequently sketched and took for walks on a leash. Potter's first pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was the inspiration for Benjamin Bunny, Peter's cousin in her books. Potter loved sketching Benjamin, too. In 1890, after a publisher purchased some of her sketchers of Benjamin, she decided to reward him with some hemp seeds. "The consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was intoxicated and wholly unmanageable," she later wrote in her diary.

4. Potter’s house was essentially a menagerie.


Riversdale Estate, Flickr // Public Domain

Potter kept a whole host of pets in her schoolroom at home—rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, and mice. She would capture wild mice and let them run loose. When she needed to recapture them she would shake a handkerchief until the wild mice would emerge to fight the imagined foe and promptly be scooped up and caged. When her brother Bertram went off to boarding school he left a pair of long-eared pet bats behind. The animals proved difficult to care for so Potter set one free, but the other, a rarer specimen, she dispatched with chloroform then set about stuffing for her collection.

5. Peter Rabbit wasn’t an immediate success.

Potter self-published the Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901, funding the print run of 250 herself after being turned down by several commercial publishers. In 1902 the book was republished by Frederick Warne & Co after Potter agreed to redo her black-and-white illustrations in color. By the end of its first year in print, it was in so much demand it had to be reprinted six times.

6. Beatrix Potter understood the power of merchandising.

In 1903 Potter, recognizing the merchandising opportunities offered by her success, made her own Peter Rabbit doll, which she registered at the Patent Office. A Peter Rabbit board game and wallpaper were also produced in her lifetime.

7. Potter was a naturalist at a time when most women weren’t.

Potter was fascinated by nature and was constantly recording the world around her in her drawings. Potter was especially interested in fungi and became an accomplished scientific illustrator, going on to write a paper , “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, ” proposing her own theory for how fungi spores reproduced. The paper was presented on Potter’s behalf by the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens at a meeting of the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897, which Potter was unable to attend because at that time women were not allowed at meetings of the all-male Linnean Society—even if their work was deemed good enough to be presented.

8. Potter sometimes wrote in secret code.

Between 1881 and 1897 Potter kept a journal in which she jotted down her private thoughts in a secret code . This code was so fiendishly difficult it was not cracked and translated until 1958.

9. Potter was reportedly a disappointment to her mom.


Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite her huge success, Potter was something of a disappointment to her mother, who had wanted a daughter to accompany her on social calls and make an advantageous marriage. In 1905 Potter accepted the marriage proposal of her publisher Norman Warne. However, her parents were very against the match as they did not consider him good enough for their daughter, and refused to allow the engagement to be made public. Unfortunately, Warne died of leukemia just a few weeks after the engagement. Potter did eventually marry, at age 47, to a solicitor and kindred spirit, William Heelis.

10. Potter wrote much more than you. (Probably.)

Potter was a prolific writer , producing between two and three stories every year, ultimately writing 28 books in total, including The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin , The Tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle , and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher . Potter’s stories have been translated into 35 different languages and sold over 100 million copies combined.

11. Potter asked that one of her books not be published in England.

In 1926 Potter published a longer work, The Fairy Caravan . It was at first only published in America because Potter felt it was too autobiographical to be published in England during her lifetime. (She also told her English publishers that it wasn’t as good as her other work and felt it wouldn’t be well-received). Nine years after her death in 1943, the book was finally released in the UK.

12. Potter's later books had to be cobbled together from early drawings.

As her eyesight diminished it became harder and harder for Potter to produce the beautiful drawings that characterized her work. As a result many of her later books were pieced together from earlier drawings in her vast collection of sketchbooks. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was Potter’s last picture book, published in 1930.

13. A lost work of potter's was published in 2016.

A lost Potter story , The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots , was rediscovered in 2013 and published in summer 2016. Publisher Jo Hanks found references to the story in an out-of-print biography of Potter and so went searching through the writer’s archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Hanks discovered a sketch of the kitty in question, plus a rough layout of the unedited manuscript. The story will be published with supplementary illustrations by Quentin Blake.

14. Potter was an accomplished sheep farmer.

Potter was an award-winning sheep farmer and in 1943 was the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.

15. You can visit Hill Top, Potter's home.


Strobilomyces, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

When Potter died in 1943 at the age of 77, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land in the Lake District to Britain’s National Trust, ensuring the beloved landscape that inspired her work would be preserved. The Trust opened her house, Hill Top, which she bought in 1905, to the public in 1946.

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

This article has been updated for 2019.

No, Ernest Hemingway Didn’t Write That Six-Word ‘Baby Shoes’ Story

Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper (right) leave a cinema on the Rue Royale in Paris, France in 1956.
Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper (right) leave a cinema on the Rue Royale in Paris, France in 1956.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Journalist-turned-novelist Ernest Hemingway was known for his clean, restrained writing style. Which makes it conceivable that he's the author of the most famous six-word short story of all time.

The story goes that Hemingway wrote the gut-punching line "For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn" to win a bet against his writer friends. But there's no evidence that such a bet ever took place, and it's likely that one of the best-known works attributed to Hemingway has nothing to do with the author at all.

According to Open Culture, the urban legend sets Hemingway in a hotel (usually the Algonquin, but the location varies) some time in the 1920s. He was allegedly having lunch with a group of writer pals when he bet them he could write a story with a full narrative in just six words. After his friends put their money down, Hemingway jotted down a few words on a napkin and passed it around the table. Though brief, the other writers couldn't deny that "Baby Shoes" was indeed a full story.

Chances are this story actually originated years after Hemingway's 1961 death. It first appeared in print in the 1991 book Get Published! Get Produced!: A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing by agent Peter Miller. When recounting the anecdote, Miller wrote that he first heard the tale from an unnamed newspaper syndicator in 1974.

The story spread from there and its original source only became murkier. A retelling of the tale was included in the one-man biographical Hemingway play Papa in 1996, and then in a Reader's Digest essay in 1998. The internet—for which Hemingway's punchy, compact style was a perfect fit—got "Baby Shoes" in front of more eyeballs than ever.

Though it's been cited in articles and books numerous times, no one has ever been able to trace the story back to a first-hand source. As for the true author of "Baby Shoes" if it isn't Hemingway, flash fiction fans may never know his or her identity. It's possible that the line was never meant to be a fictional story in the first place: Real ads that bear striking similarities to the legendary work predate the myth.

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