Peter Straub MCDS’61 is the author of 17 bestselling novels, which have been translated into more than 20 languages. He has won numerous awards and has co-authored two books with close friend Stephen King. Straub also taught English at USM in the late 1960s. He is married to Susie (Bitker) Straub MUS’62 and they live in Brooklyn, New York.
By the mid-1970s, I had published three books and my wife and I were living in London. I hadn’t met Stephen King at that point, but I knew of him. One day I wandered into a very good book store and saw “Salem’s Lot” on the main table. If I had known that the book was about vampires, I might not have bought it. But I did buy it, and when I learned that one of the main characters was a vampire, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought, “Oh my God, this guy is working with a very tired, almost exhausted, trope and he’s making something really vibrant out of it.” So I became a huge Stephen King fan on the spot. Later I read “The Shining” and I thought it was one of the best, most beautiful books I had ever read. So I wrote to him and said, “You’re as good as it can get. I hope people notice how exciting your books are.” Little did I know.
Eventually, Steve and I met and we got along really well. One day he asked me if I wanted to collaborate on a book, and I said, “Of course; let’s do it.” We wrote the first 50 pages in Westport, Connecticut, where Susie and I had moved in 1979, in an intensely collaborative style. I’d sit down at my machine and write a few pages, and then he’d sit down and start banging away on his pages. There was no transition when he worked; he would get a distant look in his eyes and start clacking away. He just dove right in, whereas I generally need a little time to warm up. I was impressed by the ease of his access to his imagination.
We tried to make it as difficult as possible for readers to identify who wrote what. Eventually, we were able to successfully imitate each other’s style to the point where there was only one person we knew who could positively identify the correct writer, and that was author Neil Gaiman.
After a while Steve went back to Maine and, for about a year, we continued to write the book by sending our pages back and forth using primitive modems and big floppy disks. But to write the ending, my family and I drove up to the Kings’ house in Maine. Steve had a little shed where he set up his computer, and he and I wrote the last 100 to 150 pages there in about a week. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. It was real collaboration in the most elemental manner, at a very deep level. He could jump into my imagination and I could dive into his imagination; it was really profound. It was so much fun I can’t tell you. On the long drive home I was in a terrible mood because I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to go back to that little shed and keep writing with Stephen King.
Their resulting book, “The Talisman,” was published in 1984. Their sequel, “Black House,” was published in 2001.
Peter Straub MCDS’61 on…
Working from home:
I have always worked at home, right from the beginning. I wanted a short commute—to be able to get to where I was going to work in about five minutes or less. I can’t imagine a better situation because it means my work is always close at hand and there’s no parking. Currently we live in an apartment in Brooklyn. Fortunately it’s a really big apartment with huge ceilings because it’s an old factory. We live in the building where Jehovah’s Witnesses used to print and store “The Watchtower.”
Being motivated to write:
It takes a little bit of time for me, a little hesitating on the diving board. When I collaborated with King, I saw what he was like when he worked, and there was no transition. He would sit down, get a distant look in his eyes, and his fingers would start clacking away. He just dove right in. I generally have to take a little time to warm up. The main point is that I was impressed by the ease of his access to his imagination. There are other times on my way to my office when it’s already starting in my head and I have to sit down and start writing so it’s not all gone. Usually on days like that I always get somewhere, which is quite nice.
Reading as a young child:
My capacity for storytelling was sort of built into me, I think, because as a child I read my head off. As Charles Dickens said of his own childhood, “I read as if for life.” And that’s not an exaggeration. I really did read as if for life when I was a little boy, rather worrying my parents because they didn’t know what good it was. It wasn’t like hitting a baseball, which they could see the value of.
Learning to relax and trust his instinct:
Eventually, in spite of all the self-doubt, I learned to really trust my own imagination, which was, in a way, the strongest thing about me. I learned not to worry. And I learned that unhappiness and despair, and the feeling of being totally lost, is part of the job. It’s part of the process. Process is a very difficult matter, especially if you’re herding this mountain of sheep and ants and wild dogs up a hill and trying to remember all their names and trying to remember how they’re all connected and what they’re supposed to do. It’s a complicated job that you have to keep in your head all the time. But if you kind of relax, you can be even more intense on the page than you would be if you were all wrapped up in your own worries.
His book “Koko”:
When I wrote “Koko” I was trying to do something different. I was bored in effect with horror novels, bored with the metaphorical stock that you have to use in horror novels. I was never interested in writing novels about vampires and zombies. With “Koko” I wanted to write a novel that didn’t have anything in it in which I did not actually believe. Before I started the book, I had seen a documentary about the unveiling of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. There were all of these ragged guys with long hair and weird facial hair, half of them still dressed in their uniforms, walking across this flat plain of grass towards this thing that was half buried in the ground. When they got to the wall they cried, they brushed their fingers against the names of their fallen friends, which was one of the most moving things I had ever seen in my life.
I had a notebook next to me on the sofa, and I wrote down “Never write anything you don’t believe in.” I was trying to be responsible to what I knew about the emotional situation of trauma, about what happens to people when they are exposed to situations of great extremity for a very long time, as in combat. I realized eventually that I was writing about trauma and all my earlier books had also been about trauma, but they exteriorized the trauma and made it literal in the horrible spooky things that made our protagonist feel threatened or frightened. In “Koko,” when characters feel threatened, it’s by things that are real, that emerge from their own lives. That was my goal, and I noticed right away that I was writing a little better than I had before, with more control and using vastly more editing of my own work. I was raising my game.
His work with Vietnam veterans:
As part of my research for the book I talked to every Vietnam vet that I could, which was really interesting and moving. At that time, whenever I walked into a room with a lot of people, I could identify just by looking who’d been to Vietnam. They seemed to have some kind of quality, which I could almost refer to as spiritual, which set them apart or made them identifiable. I was crazy about these people, even the ones who weren’t particularly nice. I so much respected what they had been through, what they had done. I liked them an enormous amount as people.
Growing up in southeast Wisconsin:
My parents were both from small towns in Wisconsin. My mother was from a farm in Norway Valley, Wisconsin, and my father was from the dog-patch-like town of Lone Rock, Wisconsin. My father happened to be a very good and funny story teller, he was always uncorking these amazing tales about Lone Rock and the people who lived there. When I was about 5 or 6 we moved to 100th street in Wauwatosa, and across the street there was a huge field with actual woods at the south edge. In the middle of forest there was a weird white stone building that was totally out of place. I spent a lot of time making up games by myself in that field. Eventually we moved to Brookfield and I was sent to a tiny grade school that went from kindergarten to 8th grade. I was quite happy at that school because it was a simpler world. I did quite well at that school, I learned grammar and the parts of speech, including what a verb was, what a participle was, and how to diagram sentences. This held me in great stead when I earned a scholarship out of 8th grade to Milwaukee Country Day School, way across town.
Attending Milwaukee Country Day School:
I earned a scholarship to attend MCDS and was very relieved because the public high school where I would have gone was rough and I knew I wouldn’t fit in. MCDS served me very well. It taught me two very important things: one, that there were plenty of other kids in the world who were as smart as I was or smarter; and two, to work very, very hard. I had a couple of astonishingly good teachers, including a man named Ernie Livingstone who taught German and had a wonderful soul and immense amount of patience. I still remember a ton of German that I learned in two years from Mr. Livingstone. He was the best teacher I ever had, and the most I ever learned was in his classroom at MCDS. I also had Worden “Sandy” McCallum, who was a golden example of one way to be a civilized, responsible, decent human being. He was also surpassingly cool.
Teaching English at University School of Milwaukee:
I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for my bachelor’s in English, and finished my master’s in English at Columbia University. In 1966, McCallum wrote to me and asked, “Would you be interested in teaching English at USM?” I thought I’d work at USM for maybe two years and save money to pursue a Ph.D. at Columbia. When I moved back to Milwaukee and started teaching English in McCallum’s old classroom, I discovered that the school was better than its predecessor I knew, MCDS. It was just as good academically, but it was like a kinder, smarter, place. I think a lot of that had to do with John “J.S.” Stephens, who had come to MCDS when I was a sophomore. I liked the school a lot and I liked the new campus, it was a lovely place and I was a very good teacher, although I didn’t know that I would be. I understood that my role was to provoke, awaken, unsettle, and do all these things that could lead students into an actual education.
Writing horror novels:
The reason I chose to write scary books was because, at the time, there were three horror novels that had been enormously successful: “The Exorcist,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” and “The Other.” But there were only three of them, so it looked to me as though there was plenty of room for newcomers. And if I wrote in the horror genre, I knew I could do anything. I could experiment. I could make a dozen mistakes and nobody would notice because nobody paid any attention to them, really. Nobody expected a lot from them. So if I approached them with some degree of real seriousness, and the kind of willingness to see where it might lead, I could possibly have a future as a writer.
Writing “The Talisman” with Stephen King:
I don’t think we had any disagreements during the writing of the book, but part of the reason for that is because we had worked out an insanely detailed outline before we started writing. We couldn’t even follow everything we had on the outline, because by the time we got to page 200 of the book, we realized we were only on like, page 12 of a single-spaced, 90-page outline. So we would’ve ended up with a 4,000 page novel. Now I wish we had written a 4,000 page novel because we could’ve published it in four or five volumes and it would’ve been a huge success. Anyhow, we chopped the outline in half, and then later we chopped that half in half, and what we had was just enough for a long novel.
What we did, what we tried to do, was to make it impossible for readers to look at certain paragraphs, or pages, or phrases, and be able to identify who wrote it. We wanted to make that as difficult as possible. We started off aiming at a midpoint in our style. Steve threw in more commas or clauses, and I kind of made things more simple in sentence structure. And I tried to make things as vivid as I could because Steve is just fabulous at that, and also I tried to write more colloquially. After we had been working along like that we decided independently to try imitating the other guy’s style, so if someone did try to identify who was writing, they’d be wrong. So sometimes I stuck in names of rock ’n roll musicians because Steve worships rock ’n roll, and he’d put in the name of jazz musicians because he knew I worshiped them. We did achieve a middle style pretty much, and we did succeed in imitating each other’s style.
Removing yourself from your writing:
In writing you have to park your ego, because it’s not about you, it’s about what you’re doing. The only thing that’s worth anything is what you actually get on the page and what you do with it. I realized that one of my central jobs as a writer was to get myself out of the way so that I didn’t contaminate everything with my own ideas and my own bad qualities.
You have to pay attention to what is actually on the page. You have to think about it and why it is happening. Why are you interested? Why are you actually writing this? Eventually you discover it’s never why you think, it’s always more psychological than one had imagined. It’s a fascinating process. Steve [King] once said his way of envisioning the writing process is as if he comes upon something sticking out of the ground, like the corner of a few bricks. So he gets a shovel and he starts digging, and then he discovers that the structure he’s beginning to uncover is much bigger than he thought, but he still doesn’t know what it is, so he just keeps digging until finally he gets an idea of the general layout and can dig down further. That’s what it’s like to write a novel if you’re not thinking about yourself all the time.
There’s something magical about writing, but it also involves dedicated hard work, guess work, and intuition. It may sound silly, but for me, writing is as though something is being transmitted to me from another realm and my job is to let it come through undamaged. It’s not about me at all. What I can’t do is to try to predetermine the material I’m writing because of what I know about the events of my life. I can’t say, “Oh, now it’s time for the trauma and to show a very injured little boy.” No. You can show a very injured little boy and I have, many times, but only because that is what came through, that’s what’s supposed to be there on the page at that moment. After I turned 40, and after writing “Koko,” I learned to censor myself very strictly and strongly. Severely. And the point of that is to remove my personality traces. I want the writing to be as clean as I can make it. For a long time I wanted my writing to be transparent so there’d be no static, no fuzz in the transmission from the writer to the reader. I wanted the reader to be able to look at a page and sink right into it and not be distracted by, say, a beautiful phrase. I wanted to have beautiful phrases, but I didn’t want them to be very noticeable. I’ve changed a little since and can allow myself a little more leeway in my prose, but I still edit myself seriously. That, to me, is one of the real essential steps in fiction writing, but also one of the most enjoyable. When you’re editing away, and doing it well, you can see the work get better. You can see sparks jump from passage to passage if you take away the fuzz between those passages. You do things many readers wouldn’t notice at all, except you make the entire act of accessing a novel, or walking into it, you make that easier for the reader.