Through the Black Hole » STEPHEN SPIGNESI – Interview


Written by Tony Northrup

Known as, “the world’s leading expert on Stephen King“, Stephen Spignesi is a talented writer on several levels. However all stories have a beginning, and Stephen’s began in the New England state of Connecticut. Born July 16, 1953, Stephen always had a passion for writing.

After graduating from the University of New Haven, Stephen’s career began with articles, essays, and other contributions to such magazines as, Harper’s, Cinefantastique, Saturday Review, TV Guide, Mystery Scene, Gauntlet, and Midnight Graffiti, along with articles in The New York Times, New York Daily News, New York Post, New Haven Register, and an Italian online journal named HorrorIt. Stephen has written a variety of books ranging from Historical biographies, Pop Culture, History, and Contemporary fiction. He is a novelist, poet, screenwriter, musican, and Founder and Editor-in-Chief of,” The Stephen John Press Publishing Company”.

He has been a nominee of the Bram Stoker Award for his book, “The Complete Stephen King Encyclopedia”. Stephen has been on the New York Times Best-Seller List for his biography on JFK Jr. His books range from, “Mayberry: My Hometown”, to,” The Kennedy’s”. He’s also written books for the ever popular how to series ,”For Dummies”, Odd & Unusual Facts, Italian Quiz Book, The Titanic, UFO’s, The Beatles, Stephen King, to name just a few. When he’s not writing, Stephen is a professor at the University of New Haven, where he still teaches and has taught classes on, English Compostition and Literature, Writing for Publication, The New Gothic Horror of Stephen King, and unique pop culture courses on subjects such as, ” The Sopranos,” and,” The Titanic”.

Even though he has written over 50 books, which includes,” DIALOGUES”, his first novel to make the New York Times Best-Seller list, several factual based books on The Beatles, John Lennon in particular, and even written about the Kennedy’s, Stephen is renouned as the first and foremost leading expert on author Stephen King, who is coined the,”master of horror and story telling”. With six books to his credit on the world famous horror novelist, Stephen Spignesi is a go to for his works on Stephen King. Stephen resides in New Haven CT, and enjoys life with his wife Pam, and cat Chloe. He has recently completed two new book,” GROVER CLEVELAND’S RUBBER JAW”, for Penguin Publishing as well as,” THE TITANIC FOR DUMMIES”. for Wiley Publishing. Currently Stephen is co-writing a novel with one of his students. “CRYSTAL PALACE”, is a story set in 1851 during the Great Exhibition in London.  He is also working on a second edition to accompany his already well known,” LOST WORKS OF STEPHEN KING”, series. I’m sure many of us are looking forward to these new books by this well known and talented author. I hope you enjoy reading my exclusive interview with writer Stephen Spignesi, as much as I enjoyed doing it.

1. At what age did you discover that writing was the career for you?
I was nine when I wrote my first short story. It was a satirical spy story. My mother, bless her heart, was my first reader and she very gently told me that ironic, sardonic satire might be a bit of a stretch for a nine-year-old. And of course, she was right. From that point on, I just continued to write and began thinking about publishing in my late high school/early college years.

2. You’ve written many articles, essays, and books on quite a variety of subjects. Were there any influences that helped you along in your writing career?
I have to credit voracious reading from a very early age. There’s a story in my family about me reading a biography of WW I Fighter Ace Eddie Rickenbacker that my mother had received from the Book of the Month Club when I was around 10 or 11. There is also a story that my siblings love to remind me of: whenever we were all outside, I could be found sitting in the rafters of the garage eating an apple and reading a book. Until high school, books were my primary source of knowledge, inspiration, and entertainment, Once I got into high school, one particular English teacher, John Schread, was a huge influence on broadening my interests. Then in college, there were two professors, Dick Allen, and Jay Halpern who set me on the path of not only being a better writer, but helping me understand the dichotomy, the duality of the writer; that he or she must be both artist and marketer. Once I sold my first book, and found my agent, who I’m still with 28 years later, I set my sights on a full-time writing career and managed to achieve that for over ten years. But then the publishing industry tightened up, rejections became more plentiful, advances and royalties shrunk, so I moved into teaching full-time and writing part-time. I still set my sights on one book a year (although this year I published two — The Titanic for Dummies and Grover Cleveland’s Rubber Jaw), but the teaching is my full-time job now and I love it.

3. You have written many books about the author Stephen King. How was it that you met him, and what was it about this particular author that has kept you fascinated all these years?
The first King book I read was The Shining, in 1977 and I was immediately hooked. A literary horror novel! I was astounded and went back and read Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot and then read everything that followed. At the time, I was researching and writing my first book, Mayberry, My Hometown. After that book sold to a publisher in 1984, I started thinking about my next book and decided to do the Stephen King Encyclopedia. I wrote to King and he essentially sanctioned it. His assistant, Shirely, who is now retired, helped me over the five years it took to write it, and I was able to interview his brother and other family members for the book. As to why King still fascinates me, it’s his powerhouse storytelling abilities. I also write fiction and am ceaselessly impressed with his creativity and output. Plus he’s a far more literary writer than the perception of him over the years (this negative interpretation of King is fading, thankfully), and I’ve always enjoyed his writing.

4. Entertainment Weekly Magazine has said,”Stephen Spignesi is the leading authority of Stephen King.” That sounds like quite an honor to say the least. Has this made you feel that you now need to live up to a certain expectation?
That comment was made after my Stephen King Encyclopedia had been published. Considering the scope of that book, it makes sense that they would honor me with that accolade. But today, I would happily cite many authors (all of whom are friends) about whom such praise could be leveled, including George Beahm, Michael Collings, Kevin Quigley, Bev Vincent, and Rocky Wood, for starters. My last King book was The Essential Stephen King, and since then I’ve written 20 other books. However, I will be returning to the King world with a second volume of The Lost Work of Stephen King, and a huge King project next year that I think fans will go crazy for but which I can’t talk about yet. As to living up to a certain expectation, I put everything I have into every book I write, so yes, I do have standards I try to live up to, but for all my work, not just King-themed tomes.

5. I own many of the books you’ve written about author Stephen King. From quiz books, to trivia, lost works, and a book that is actually called The Complete Stephen King Encyclopedia, which was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. Do you feel that you have covered all there is to know about author Stephen King?
Hardly. I’ve covered specific elements of King’s body of work but he is a prolific writer with an astoundingly creative imagination and so I really don’t think the day will come when we know all there is to know about King or his work. He’s a true artist and his body of work will continue.

6. You”ve said that your two favorite novels by Stephen King are IT and “The Body” (Stand By Me). Your two favorite short stories being ‘The Jaunt” and “The Reach.” Out of all his many works what is it that made these particular stories stand out most?
IT is King’s magnum opus. It is epic in its narrative brilliance. “The Body” might be the definitive literary recapturing of childhood and all its attendant emotions. “The Jaunt” is excellent science fiction (which I wish King would write more of). “The Reach” is King’s most poignant story and one that deserves acclaim as one of the best American short stories of all time. Not to mention that King’s writing in these works is superb across the board.

7. You have written books about many subjects including biographies on The Beatles, the Kennedys, and Stephen King. You have also written books about popular television series such as The Sopranos and The Andy Griffith Show, to name a couple. Out of the many books you’ve written was there any one particular book that you enjoyed writing more than the others, and why? 
My King books, my Beatles books, my Sopranos ebook, and my Woody Allen book were absolute delights to write. Why? Because whenever a writer tackles a project about something they love, the writing is better and they enjoy the process more. I employ this philosophy in my Composition and Literature classes. It’s one thing for me to teach my students how to write an Argumentative Essay. It’s quite another to ask them to write one about something about which they feel strongly. For example, as a prompt for my Argumentative Essay assignment, I show an episode of House called “Half-Wit” which guest-stars Dave Matthews. (Yes, the musician Dave Matthews.) It is an extraordinary episode about a mid-30s man who has the mind of a 9-year-old from brain damage caused by an accident when he was young. When he awakened after the accident, however, he manifested incredible musical skills and was a gifted pianist, a savant. Something had happened to his brain that triggered incredible musical skills. House gives his father, who is his caretaker, the option of surgery that will restore some abilities and allow him to be more independent, but will take away his piano-playing abilities, which is something Patrick loves enormously. The assignment: you’re the father. What would you do and why? The writing and passion in the essays are far better than if I had given them a topic about which they weren’t all that engaged.

8. It’s been said that John Lennon was your favorite of the Fab Four. What was it about John that made you feel this way?
John was a visionary. He saw far and wide and understood that the only way mankind was going to survive was to love one another. “All You Need is Love.” “Give Peace a Chance.” Anthems for a more evolved world and for more enlightened people.

9. You wrote a book called American Firsts. Which American first fascinated you most, and why?
There are many more than one, but the American firsts I’m most grateful for, and which I believe changed the world for the better, are air conditioning, the airplane, anesthesia, carbon dating, cortisone, deodorant, email, free public schools, the lightbulb, the microwave oven, the nuclear power plant, the personal computer, the smoke detector, the tampon, the telephone, toilet paper, the TV remote control, and the zipper. And potato chips and the Moonpie.

10. One of the courses you’ve taught was based upon the television series The Sopranos. I would like to know why you chose this program, and what are your thoughts on the controversial final episode?
The Sopranos is the greatest telvision drama of all time. It was an 86-chapter novel for television and was written and produced novelistically, like literature, with long story arcs, intense characterizations, and multiple, layered themes. Creator David Chase eschewed all the standard television tropes and created the first genuinely cinematic TV series. Without The Sopranos we would not have had Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Dexter, and other series that have co-opted the “movie”-type approach perfected on the show. Plus, the acting was Oscar-quality across the board. Chase and his cast created a real world which, after all, is the first commandment of art: mirror life, mirror reality. As for the final episode, I thought it was brilliant. Speaking to the theme of the creation of a real world, David Chase opened the curtains on the world of the Sopranos in the first episode and closed them in the last episode. As to the question of whether or not Tony was killed, the answer is unequivocally no. I’ve written about this before. We have concrete proof that Tony Sopranos lives. Here’s what I wrote about it on my blog on Now we know! Now we know what happened after the screen went to black in the final episode of the greatest show in the history of television, The Sopranos. Tony was not killed by the guy in the Members Only jacket. And right now, he is apparently in the Witness Protection Program with his wife Carmela. And he’s grown a beard. How do we know this? We know this thanks to NBA star LeBron James. I’m not a follower of sports, but apparently, the Knicks really want LeBron to play for them and somehow convinced James Gandolfini and Edie Falco (who played Tony and Carmela Soprano) to bring back their characters for a video presentation for LeBron. In the video, Tony is in Witness Protection and is trying to find a place to stay for a good friend of his who is coming to town. Carmela suggests Madison Square Garden and tells Tony that the place is ready and waiting for LeBron. For Sopranos fans, this is huge news. My thinking is that David Chase had to have approved usage of his characters, Gandolfini and Falco had to agree to revisit their iconic roles, and everyone had to agree to the storyline. This would seem to resolve the matter once and for all, don’t you think? All the interpretation and analysis that many put forth to “prove” Tony was assassinated now seem to be moot. Plus, we know with certainty that Sylvio Dante, who was in a coma when the series ended, is alive (thanks to Stevie Van Zandt revealing this tidbit and stating that it came from David Chase himself). And Paulie and the rest of the Tony’s immediate family are still alive. Sounds to me like there’s plenty there for a movie, doesn’t it? We can only hope.

11. As always when I do an interview for my column I choose one of my readers to ask a question. This time it is Marie Dolan-Semendoff from Albuquerque NM that asks, ” If you were to be stranded on a deserted island which books would you take?
You don’t limit me to a number of books? I’m sure there are authors I’ve overlooked in the following list and will miss once I’m on the island, but these should keep me busy until the Professor figures out a way of getting us all off. (Although Gilligan will most certainly screw things up, so I hope I have enough books). The complete works of Raymond Carver, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, TS Eliot, David Foster Wallace, Charles Dickens, the Brontes, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, WH Auden, Jane Austen, Philip K. Dick, JRR Tolkien, Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Michael Crichton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, John Cheever, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Henry James, James Joyce, John Irving, Marcel Proust, Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald, DH Lawrence, Cormac McCarthy, Leo Tolstoy, Edith Wharton, Isaac Asimov, Italo Calvino, Robert Heinlein, Herman Hesse, Tom Wolfe, Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Robert Ludlum, James Patterson, Tabitha King, Norman Mailer, and James Michener.

12. You once said, “Take the pain, use the pain, lose the pain.” What exactly does that mean?
That’s actually a quote from Lewis Black the comedian and social commentator . It means accept suffering, learn from it, and then move on. It’s a very Buddhist-type philosophy that I think is enormously insightful and valuable. Black was using it specifically to refer to a stand-up comedian flopping on stage, but it applies to all suffering in life and I’ve always liked it’s conciseness. It packs a powerful thematic punch in only nine words.

13. With many great books behind you, and an avid teaching career, I now understand you are currently working with one of your students on a novel titled Crystal Palace, as well as a second volumn of The Lost Works of Stephen King. Would you like to share a little about these two projects with us?
Crystal Palace, which I am co-writing with Rachel Montgomery, a former student of mine, is set in 1851 during the Great Exhibition (the first World’s Fair) and is the story of 14-year-old Amelia Vickery, who lives a privileged life with her parents in a beautiful four-story house in Bloomsbury in central London, blocks away from Tavistock, where Charles Dickens lives and works, and a short walk to the Crystal Palace, where the Great Exhibition is being held. Tragedy strikes her during this halcyon time when both her parents suddenly die and she becomes the ward of her drunkard Uncle Quinn. We’re writing it in a Dickensian/Bronte voice and are about a third of the way through. Rachel is a gifted writer who can turn on the Dickens voice at will and so we’re having a great time swapping chapters and writing the book. We know the whole story so now it’s just getting it done. Rachel’s first novel, Ragnarok, is book 1 of a fantasy trilogy and is being shopped to publishers. The second volume of Lost Work will concentrate on genuinely surprising works by King that readers will be amazed to learn about.

14. My last question for you Stephen is of course,”What’s next for Mr. Stephen Spignesi”?
What’s next for me is more of the same: teaching and writing. I recently took the Jungian Personality Type Test and learned that I am an INFJ. INFJ’s are value-driven individuals who are often creative. The best careers for INFJ’s, believe it or not, are writing and teaching. I love doing both and plan to continue both until I drop. One of the essay questions I give my students is “If you win $100 million, would you quit school and do what you wanted? Or would you continue your education simply for the purpose of acquiring an education and personal enrichment?” This is a self-exploration question that helps students analyze their motives and figure out what they want out of life. I know that my answer would be that I would continue doing exactly what I’m doing. I had an old friend who used to tell me he never woke up dreading going to work. (He was a watchmaker in a jewelry store.) I know how he feels. So for me it’ll be more students, more classes, more books. And the occasional Sopranos, Deadwood, Fringe, and Breaking Bad marathon, of course.

I want to take a moment and thank Stephen Spignesi for his time and effort helping me with this interview. It was an honor and a privilege.

Posted in Interviews and Literature by Tony Northrup on September 21st, 2012 at %I:%M %p.

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