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.” 

26 Amazing Books by LGBTQ+ Authors You Should Add to Your Bookshelf

iStock/Mitshu
iStock/Mitshu

With the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots coming up on June 28, it seems like the entire country is celebrating LGBTQ+ Pride. But what happens on July 1, when all the rainbow logos and flags get put away for the year? Don't worry—we've got a list of incredible books by LGBTQ+ authors to keep you occupied all year long. Like the queer community itself, this reading list is diverse and exciting, representing a wide variety of genres, time periods, and identities. Here are 26 great books to add to your bookshelf.

1. Fingersmith // Sarah Waters

The cover of 'Fingersmith'
Riverhead Books

Sarah Waters is the reigning queen of lesbian historical mysteries, and Fingersmith is her answer to Oliver Twist—only with more, well, twists. So-called "genre" stories rarely get recognized for major literary prizes, but Fingersmith not only won the Crime Writers Association's 2002 Historical Dagger award, and it was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that year.

Find it: Amazon

2. Eighty-Sixed // David Feinberg

The cover of 'Eighty-Sixed'
Grove Press

In the last few years, a host of historical novels have delved into the first wave of the AIDS crisis, from Rebecca Makkai's The Great Believers to Joseph Cassara's House of Impossible Beauties. But no retrospective look captures the unknowability of the queer community's sudden descent into the plague years as well as David Feinberg's seminal Eighty-Sixed, which blends humor, fear, loss, and anger into a genuinely fun—if incredibly harrowing and sad—chronicle of the 1980s.

Find it: Amazon

3. Stone Butch Blues // Leslie Feinberg

The cover of 'Stone Butch Blues'
Alyson Books

Winner of the 1994 Stonewall Book Award, Stone Butch Blues is one of the earliest American novels told from the point of view of a genderqueer, trans-masculine person—a “stone butch,” in the parlance of the 1970s (when the majority of the book is set). Leslie Feinberg’s last words were “remember me as a revolutionary Communist,” and in that spirit, the 20th-anniversary edition of the book is free to download on hir website. (Feinberg used the pronouns ze/hir.)

Find it: Amazon

4. [insert] Boy // Danez Smith

The cover of '[insert] Boy'
YesYes Books

This first poetry collection from queer, black, nonbinary Midwesterner Danez Smith shows that the best spoken word poetry can also light up the page. Showing the true breadth of their talent and appeal, in the years since [insert] Boy (2015) was published, Smith has appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and won a number of awards, including a nomination for the National Book Award for their 2017 collection Don't Call Us Dead.

Find it: Amazon

5. I’ve Got a Time Bomb // Sybil Lamb

The cover of 'I've Got a Time Bomb'
Topside Press

In this whacked-out road novel, Sybil Lamb borrows deeply from her own experiences as an underground, always-on-the-move, crust punk trans artist—including the time she was beaten and left for dead after a gay wedding in New Orleans, causing her permanent brain damage. The result is surreal and disturbing, yet somehow still hopeful.

Find it: Amazon

6. The Color Purple // Alice Walker

The cover of 'The Color Purple'
Open Road Media

The Color Purple is a timeless American classic that has won accolades in print, on film, and on the Broadway stage. Yet it's not often recognized for the queer sexuality and unconventional family structures at its heart. If you haven’t read this book since it was assigned to you in school, come back to it with adult eyes to find a beautiful story of queer resilience.

Find it: Amazon

7. Sketchtasy // Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

The cover of 'Sketchtasy'
Arsenal Pulp Press

Young queer people might be prone to wax nostalgic about the 1990s (as many of us do). But Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s third novel, Sketchtasy, presents a different perspective on the decade, delving into the dangerous and confusing side of being a young queer outsider in Boston, America’s most parochial city, in the mid-1990s.

Find it: Amazon

8. I, the Divine // Rabih Alameddine

The cover of 'I, the Divine'
W. W. Norton & Company

Rabih Alameddine’s sumptuous prose would make a to-do list mesmerizing, but the real delight of I, the Divine is its experimental structure: The book takes the form of a series of attempted first chapters of the memoir of its protagonist. Alameddine is a master of using nonlinear forms to build powerful and unexpected narratives, and I, the Divine is one of his best.

Find it: Amazon

9. Blackwater: The Complete Caskey Family Saga // Michael McDowell

The cover of 'Blackwater'
Valancourt Books

Michael McDowell was only 49 years old when he died of AIDS in 1999, but he was already the “finest writer of paperback originals in America today,” as Stephen King put it. Although you may not know his name, you almost certainly know some of his writing, such as the script for Beetlejuice. Blackwater is McDowell’s six-part serial Southern gothic horror epic, which follows decades of one family’s haunted life along the Perdido River in Alabama.

Find it: Amazon

10. We the Animals // Justin Torres

The cover of 'We the Animals'
Mariner Books

Justin Torres’s loosely autobiographical first novel follows three brothers growing up in upstate New York in the 1980s in a family that is at turns loving and violent. A beautiful coming-of-age story about being queer, brown, and working class, Torres fills his pages with gorgeous sentences that linger in your mouth, like, “We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”

Find it: Amazon

11. Outline of My Lover // Douglas Martin

The cover of 'Outline of My Lover'
Soft Skull Press

Douglas Martin's exquisite, short, experimental roman a clef shines a queer light in an unexpected place: the indie music scene of Athens, Georgia, circa the late 1980s and early 1990s. Following a fey young man's limerent crush on a closeted rock star, Outline of My Lover was published by Soft Skull Press, a New York City underground institution whose earliest books were printed on pirated Kinko's copiers.

Find it: Amazon

12. This Bridge Called My Back // Cherrie Moraga & Gloria Anzaldua

The cover of 'This Bridge Called My Back'
SUNY Press

If you love the concept of intersectionality, This Bridge Called My Back is the throwback read you need. Combining everything from poetry to memoir to theory, this slim anthology is one of the ur-texts that brought an explicitly anti-racist, women-of-color-centered, feminist lens to queer studies—without being so full of academic jargon you’ll want to throw it across the room.

Find it: Amazon

13. Conflict Is Not Abuse // Sarah Schulman

The cover of 'Conflict Is Not Abuse'
Arsenal Pulp

Sarah Schulman is one of the queer community's fiercest public intellectuals, with a critical eye that has tackled topics as diverse as Palestinian liberation and American gentrification. With Conflict Is Not Abuse, she examines the “supremacist thinking” that undergirds everything from our current presidential administration to that Twitter fight you got in last week.

Find it: Amazon

14. I’ll Give You the Sun // Jandy Nelson

The cover of 'I'll Give You the Sun'
Speak

This beautiful young adult novel proves that writing for teens can be as poetic and lyrical as writing for adults—without losing the unputdownable quality that animates the best YA books. In alternating chapters, Nelson’s twin brother-sister narrators slowly circle the devastating secrets that transformed them from best friends into virtual strangers. We dare you not to cry at the end.

Find it: Amazon

15. 7 Miles a Second // David Wojnarowicz

The cover of '7 Miles a Second'
Fantagraphics Books

Following his 2018 retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York, the late artist and activist David Wojnarowicz has exploded back into cultural relevance. This posthumous graphic novel (illustrated by Wojnarowicz’s friend, James Romberger, and originally published by DC Comics), turns his autobiographical stories of homelessness, sexual abuse, and AIDS into a fever dream of stream-of-consciousness prose and hallucinatory images.

Find it: Amazon

16. Trash // Dorothy Allison

The cover of 'Trash'
Penguin Books

Dorothy Allison is rightly famous for her novel Bastard Out of Carolina, which drew on her experiences growing up poor, Southern, queer, and sexually abused. But the novel’s protagonists, Bone and Shannon, made their debut in this early collection of Allison’s short stories, which won multiple Lambda Literary Awards in 1989.

Find it: Amazon

17. Written on the Body // Jeanette Winterson

The cover of 'Written on the Body'
Vintage International

The unnamed, ungendered protagonist of Jeanette Winterson’s magical novel Written on the Body is both philosopher and seducer, approaching love as a conundrum to be sorted and a prize to be won. The result is a genderless eroticism that is both intellectual and physical. This one is best read with your lover(s).

Find it: Amazon

18. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls // T Kira Madden

The cover of 'Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls'
Bloomsbury Publishing

T Kira Madden’s lush, wild, and disturbing memoir seems to take every insane “Florida woman” Internet meme and explode it, revealing the tenderness, love, fear, pain, anger, and joy that nestle within stories of crazy nights and lost days. But Madden’s lyric prose and unique voice are what truly make this autobiography shine.

Find it: Amazon

19. Go Tell It on the Mountain // James Baldwin

The cover of 'Go Tell It on the Mountain'
Vintage International

James Baldwin is one of the lions of 20th-century literature, renowned for his gorgeous writing, his gripping narratives, and his ability to grapple with some of the major social issues of his time. Go Tell It On the Mountain is his first book, the one that years later he would call “the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” Start here, and then read everything Baldwin wrote after.

Find it: Amazon

20. No Ashes in the Fire // Darnell Moore

The cover of 'No Ashes in the Fire'
Bold Type Books

Darnell Moore’s memoir of coming of age queer and black in Camden, New Jersey, is equal parts harrowing and beautiful. His ability to interweave his personal journey with the larger story of the structural racism and disenfranchisement faced by Camden residents makes No Ashes in the Fire fascinating on both a personal and political level.

Find it: Amazon

21. Confessions of the Fox // Jordy Rosenberg

The cover of 'Confessions of the Fox'
One World

Transgender writer Jordy Rosenberg’s stunning debut novel ping-pongs back and forth between a lost 18th-century manuscript that purports to be the true autobiography of Jack Sheppard (an infamous historical figure and thief) and the story of the beleaguered academic who finds the book in a library sale at his second-rate university. Rosenberg himself teaches 18th-century literature as well as gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and for anyone who’s spent too long in academic circles, the present-day parts of this book will feel all too realistic.

Find it: Amazon

22. Dancer from the Dance // Andrew Holleran

The cover of 'Dancer From the Dance'
Harper Perennial

Nothing can recreate the hothouse nature of post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS urban gay male life, with its heady mix of liberation and oppression all set to a throbbing disco beat—but Dancer from the Dance certainly comes close. It’s a portrait of shallow hedonism filled with unexpected depth and pathos.

Find it: Amazon

23. Leaves of Grass // Walt Whitman

The title page of a 19th-century copy of 'Leaves of Grass'
Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library

If the last time you tried to read Leaves of Grass was in a high school English class, it deserves a second look. Whitman’s poems are queer, erotic, sensual, sexual, and sometimes downright dirty. As the poet himself wrote, “I am for those who believe in loose delights—I share the midnight orgies of young men.”

Find it: Amazon

24. SCUM Manifesto // Valerie Solanas

The cover of 'SCUM Manifesto'
AK Press

If you only know Valerie Solanas from her attempt to shoot Andy Warhol or her recent cameo on American Horror Story, you’re missing out on one of the most outrageous feminist texts of the mid-20th century. Is SCUM Manifesto a Swiftian satire of Freudian misogyny, or actual propaganda for the violent overthrow of the patriarchy? Unclear. But either way, it's hard to put down a book that begins like this:

"'Life' in this 'society' being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of 'society' being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex."

Find it: Amazon

25. The Queen of the Night // Alexander Chee

The cover of 'The Queen of the Night'
Mariner Books

Like the arias sung by Alexander Chee’s protagonist—a 19th-century opera diva with a hidden past—The Queen of the Night is lush, dramatic, passionate, and melodramatic (in the best way). This book is a confection for opera queens and Francophiles, but even tone-deaf readers will revel in its murders, affairs, intrigues, and mysteries. We've previously put Chee on our list of great Asian American authors to read, so suffice it to say we're big fans.

Find it: Amazon

26. Complete Poems // Marianne Moore

The cover of Marianne Moore's 'Complete Poems'
Penguin Classics

We might think of the terms asexual and aromantic as modern identity labels only recently recognized under the queer umbrella, but throughout history, there have been people who have lived queer lives very much in those modes—like the extraordinary poet Marianne Moore, one of the most talented (and longest lasting) of the Modernist poets of the early 20th century. Complete Poems gives readers a broad overview of her work, from her early, dense, Imagist pieces (often drawn from scientific sources, like 1936's "The Pangolin"), to her later, more accessible and popular work (like 1961's "Baseball and Writing").

Find it: Amazon

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Joy Harjo Named First Native American Poet Laureate

Carlo Allegri/Getty Images
Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

Since 1985, the United States has appointed poet laureates to promote the reading and writing of poetry among the public. As The New York Times reports, poet Joy Harjo now holds the prestigious title, making her the first Native American poet laureate in the country's history.

A member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, Harjo was born on Native land in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1951. She was introduced to poetry as a college student in New Mexico, and she further honed her skills as a graduate student in the distinguished creative writing program at the University of Iowa. Today she's the author of eight volumes of poetry, including She Had Some Horses, How We Became Human, and In Mad Love and War. She's also taught classes at UCLA and the University of Tennessee.

In her work, Harjo grapples with themes of tradition, loss, and myth-making. Her Native heritage has had a major influence on her poetry. She spoke of the honor of being named poet laureate in a statement: "I share this honor with ancestors and teachers who inspired in me a love of poetry, who taught that words are powerful and can make change when understanding appears impossible, and how time and timelessness can live together within a poem."

Harjo will take over the position of poet laureate from Tracy K. Smith, who held it for two years. As the United States' new poet laureate, Harjo will be responsible for raising "the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry," according to the Library of Congress, which bestows the title. Official duties are kept to a minimum so poets can work on their own special projects that boost the medium's profile.

[h/t The New York Times]

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