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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.”

Getty Images

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.” 

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The Best Children's Books of the Year, According to Bank Street College of Education
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The Children's Book Committee at Bank Street College of Education in New York City recently released its 2018 list of the best children's books on the market. Separated into five age-appropriate categories, the list includes more than 600 titles published in the U.S. and Canada in 2017.

In making their selection, judges considered books' literary merit, presentation, and potential emotional impact on young readers, as well as originality of the story, credibility of the characters, and absence of stereotypes. They also looked for positive representations of religious and ethnic differences.

Nonfiction books were checked for accuracy, balance, and documentation, while poetry books were assessed for their language, sound, rhythm, substance, and emotional intensity. Each book on the list was read and reviewed by at least two members of the committee, and then considered by the committee as a whole.

Of the books on the list, three are selected for special awards each year. For 2018, the Josette Frank Award—given to an outstanding novel in which a child character handles difficulty in a positive and realistic way—was awarded to Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson. The Claudia Lewis Award for poetry went to One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes, and the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for inspiring nonfiction went to Hawk Mother: The Story of a Red-Tailed Hawk Who Hatched Chickens by Kara Hagedorn.

Below is a selection of some of the books on the list. All of the titles below were awarded "outstanding merit" by the committee. For the full selection, click on the PDF link next to each individual category.

Under five category [PDF]
Anywhere Farm by Phyllis Root and G. Brian Karas
Big Cat, Little Cat by Elisha Cooper
Creepy Pair of Underwear! by Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown
Mine! by Jeff Mack
Noisy Night by Mac Barnett and Brian Biggs
Sam & Eva by Debbie Ridpath Ohi
Snow Scene by Richard Jackson and Laura Vaccaro Seeger
Winter Dance by Marion Dane Bauer and Richard Jones

Five to nine category [PDF]
After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat
Alfie: The Turtle That Disappeared by Thyra Heder
Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas by Russell Hoban and Lillian Hoban
Good Night, Planet by Liniers
Pandora by Victoria Turnbull
Robinson by Peter Sís
Sleep Tight, Charlie by Michael Escoffier and Kris Di Giacomo
Spiders!: Strange and Wonderful by Laurence Pringle and Meryl Henderson

Nine to twelve category [PDF]
All's Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson
A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander and Kelly Murphy
If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams
Little Bits of Sky by S. E. Durrant and Katie Harnett
Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King
Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce
The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine by Mark Twain, Philip C. Stead, and Erin E. Stead
The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Twelve to fourteen category [PDF]
Girl Rising: Changing the World One Girl at a Time by Tanya Lee Stone
Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling
Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali
Satellite by Nick Lake
The Book of Chocolate: The Amazing Story of the World's Favorite Candy by H. P. Newquist
The Exact Location of Home by Kate Messner
Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner and Maxime Plasse
Yvain: The Knight of the Lion by M. T. Anderson and Andrea Offermann

Fourteen and up category [PDF]
Between Two Skies by Joanne O'Sullivan
Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia
Far From the Tree by Robin Benway
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson
Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick
The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F. C. Yee
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

A print copy of The Best Children's Books of the Year, 2018 Edition ($10, plus $3 shipping) can be purchased by emailing bookcom@bankstreet.edu.

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You Can Now Rent the Montgomery, Alabama Home of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald Through Airbnb
Chris Pruitt, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The former apartment of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps the most famous couple of the Jazz Age, is now available to rent on a nightly basis through Airbnb, The Chicago Tribune reports. While visitors are discouraged from throwing parties in the spirit of Jay Gatsby, they are invited to write, drink, and live there as the authors did.

The early 20th-century house in Montgomery, Alabama was home to the pair from 1931 to 1932. It's where Zelda worked on her only novel Save Me the Waltz and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote part of Tender Is the Night. The building was also the last home they shared with their daughter Scottie before she moved to boarding school.

In the 1980s, the house was rescued from a planned demolition and turned into a nonprofit. Today, the site is a museum and a spot on the Southern Literary Trail. While the first floor of the Fitzgerald museum, which features first-edition books, letters, original paintings, and other artifacts related to the couple, isn't available to rent, the two-bedroom apartment above it goes for $150 a night. Guests staying there will find a record player and a collection of jazz albums, pillows embroidered with Zelda Fitzgerald quotes, and a balcony with views of the property's magnolia tree. Of the four surviving homes Zelda and F. Scott lived in while traveling the world, this is the only one that's accessible to the public.

Though the Fitzgerald home is the only site on the Southern Literary Trail available to rent through Airbnb, it's just one of the trail's many historic homes. The former residences of Flannery O'Connor, Caroline Miller, and Lillian Smith are all open to the public as museums.

[h/t The Chicago Tribune]

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