The rock that has been the foundation of so much of Stephen King’s fiction is again the setting for a new work, “Gwendy’s Button Box,” written with veteran author and Cemetery Dance founder Richard Chizmar.
No matter that King destroyed the fictional setting of Castle Rock with 1991’s “Needful Things,” he’s revisited his signature small town in Maine time and again. This novella takes us back to 1974 and 10 years in the life of young Gwendy Peterson, but now, Castle Rock feels … different.
It’s not that King partnered with Chizmar on the work. King has worked with other authors in the past — think Peter Straub, Stewart O’Nan, Joe Hill, Owen King — and this particular collaboration is remarkably seamless.
It’s not that the authors have offered a different type of Stephen King story. When 12-year-old Gwendy is fat-shamed by kids at school, she takes matters into her own hands. Determined to change her image before middle school begins, she takes daily to climbing the “suicide stairs” up to Castle View — a vertical rise of 305 steps that leaves her in increasingly better shape.
It’s this resolution that not only captures the attention of the stranger in a suit coat, white shirt, black jeans and small, black cap, but leads Gwendy to become the sole caretaker of the stranger’s button box — a device that dispenses gifts (chocolates that quell your hunger, rare silver dollars) and also happens to have a multi-colored row of domesday buttons capable of targeting a specific continent, or the entire planet at once.
That’s a lot of responsibility for a pre-teen, and that’s where the work diverges from the Castle Rock canon. Sure, King’s characters have had a lot of world-crushing weight on them in other Castle Rock stories — “The Body,” “Cujo” and “The Dead Zone” among them — but in this one, Gwendy bears the burden of life as we know it.
Which, of course, brings up a favorite King theme, responsibility versus retribution — very Lord of the Flyish, given that Gwendy is not yet a teenager.
Speaking about that theme and the collaboration with one of the world’s most famous authors both though his publishing house and putting pen to paper, Chizmar recently agreed to take a few questions from Mountain Times.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tom: Your specialty publishing house, Cemetery Dance Publications, has offered special editions of select Stephen King’s works since 2002. That includes unique industry surprises such as 2010’s “Blockade Billy,” 2013’s “The Dark Man” and now “Gwendy’s Button Box.” How did this collaboration come about — both in publishing the author’s works, and in this more personal partnership in coauthoring a novella?
Richard: It grew from when I started my magazine, Cemetery Dance, back in 1988. I sent Steve every issue from the very beginning and expressed how much of an inspiration he was for my own writing and publishing.
He’s always been very supportive. As early as year two, he sent me a really nice blurb to use for advertising. In ’91 he sent me an original story called “Chattery Teeth” to publish in the magazine. It grew from there. Like you said, 2002 was the first limited edition from him we did, “From a Buick 8,” and I know he was pleased with how that turned out. That steamrolled into other projects. We did limiteds of several books that were available from his big publisher, and then “Blockade Billy” came about. That was kind of unique in that, initially, we were the sole publisher of that. Quite a big deal.
Somewhere along the line, a friendship developed. We have a lot in common as far as books and movies. We’re both family guys and have kids. We both love sports, baseball, that type of thing.
But there were no plans to ever collaborate or anything like that. We were emailing back and forth one day and the subject of collaboration and round-robin novels came up. He mentioned to me that he had a story, didn’t give me a title or anything, that he had started the previous year and that he couldn’t finish it. I said, as I often do when he mentions a piece of work, I’d love to read it if you feel like sending it. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t. In this case, the next day, the next evening, a Friday night, I got an email that was titled “Gwendy” and it had an attachment and the email read, do whatever you want with it.
That’s kind of how it happened. It was early January (2017). I read it right away and emailed him back and said, I’d love to take a crack at finishing this. He said, go to it. It all happened very quickly. It was Jan. 5, and I spent that weekend in kind of a state of mild terror because I said, how am I going to collaborate with Stephen King? That Monday, I sat down to write some notes regarding the story. My hand was shaking and I said, OK, this is ridiculous. I put the pen down, pulled out the laptop and just started writing. The very cool thing about it was that within probably 30 minutes, I was in Castle Rock, Maine, and just lost in the story.
So, I sent Steve maybe 10,000 more words. After like three days, it just kind of poured out of me. He really liked what I wrote, added a few thousand, sent it back. I added a couple thousand, sent it back, and we just played ping pong back and forth and exactly one month later, on Feb. 5, we were finished.
It was literally a very surreal month.
Tom: You’re a best-selling author in your own right, and your ability to work with King on his unique brand of storytelling — strong characterization, clear, nonsense prose — seems seamless. How did this particular story develop?
Richard: It’s interesting. I asked Steve after the fact — in the audio version of “Gwendy’s Button Box” that Simon and Schuster published we did a little mini-interview and they actually asked the question that then prompted me to ask him (about that). Because we never really discussed it. For me, it was just a dream that he trusted me with his work and trusted me to do this with him. I was well aware he’s collaborated fiction-wise with both of his sons (Owen King, Joe Hill), Peter Straub and Stewart O’Nan, so it’s a very short list, and certainly they are all more accomplished than I am. So, again, it was a shock. It was a dream.
Later on in that interview … Steve was asked, how did you know it would work? He answered, well I just finished reading Rich’s — and he reads a great deal of my stuff; I’ll send him stories from time to time if I think it might be one that’ll interest him — title novella from my last collection, “A Long December,” and he had sent me a very kind, lengthy email about that. So, I knew he liked it, but I didn’t know it was the deciding factor. He said, I had just read that around the holidays in December, so I knew it would work.
A lot of critics have mentioned that my work is very straightforward, plainspoken and all about the narrative drive in telling the story. I guess that — well, Steve’s an infinitely better writer than I am — we do have those traits in common. We like to just tell our story and not get in the way of it with too much flowery language. We also focus very much on the characters.
An honest P.S. to that, I was reading design pages in the very later stages of production, and I couldn’t remember who wrote what section. That’s a nice observation for a collaboration. That’s the ultimate compliment when someone does note that and says, I can’t tell where he started and you finished. When I sit back and think about that, that’s a wonderful thing.
Tom: You mention characterization, and certainly, the characters in “Gwendy’s Button Box” are very accessible, developed and tend to stay with the reader.
Richard: Steve and I both talked about the fact that it’s interesting that Gwendy is a female character and we’re both males, and he actually at some point observed that … that probably helped us in that she is a young lady and we were writing from an outside perspective. … It probably prevented us from trying to do too much there, but we just both fell in love with the character and wanted her to have a good fate.
My original ending to the novella was much darker … pretty darn dark. I sent it to Steve and said, as with so many of my stories, I think she deserves a better ending — so let’s talk. He came back with an idea. The last 15 percent of the book truly is a collaboration in that there were paragraphs in there that we each contributed sentences and it was a mixture. The fact that it doesn’t read that way is a tribute to the fact that we both cared so much about the character.
Tom: King famously took the name of Castle Rock from the “Lord of the Flies,” and although we don’t have tribes of warring children, “Gwendy’s Button Box” somehow seems, of all the Castle Rock stories, the most closely aligned with Williams Golding’s seminal novel. Would you agree?
Richard: That’s a great observation and one that no one has made until now. I look forward to mentioning that to Steve, because I hadn’t really thought of that.
Tom: So, at the end the day, is this novella a cautionary tale?
Richard: Absolutely. I can’t say that that was the theme running through it as I was writing it. But, obviously, it’s there. When you read the story as a whole, it’s definitely a cautionary tale. As J.J. Abrams said — I’m kind of name-dropping here — it’s a story for our time. I agree with that.
Tom: I’d like to take a moment to comment on the beautiful production of the hardcover edition of the book itself. From the jacket art, the lettering on the cover, the illustrations and quality of the paper, you obviously put a lot of care into the book. An author doesn’t typically get to make these kinds of decisions — how did it feel to take a story totally from idea to bookstore?
Richard: We have a great production crew (at Cemetery Dance Publications) … so everyone lends a hand from the color of the cloth to the binding to the endpapers. Everything comes through my desk, but they do a great job and they certainly have many good ideas, many times better than mine.
The cover is interesting. Ben Baldwin is a UK artist who did the cover for my last collection, and everything was a big time crunch. I knew that Steve and (King’s son) Owen have a big book coming out (“Sleeping Beauties” September 2017) and once we had decided which route we were going to go — Steve and I finished this with no idea where it was going to go — it was Steve who actually said why don’t we do what we did with “Blockade Billy,” which was a very small, limited and lettered edition, trade edition from Cemetery Dance. In this case, we had the e-book rights, too.
So, it was deciding after the fact … looking at it as both a writer and a publisher. That’s where the rush came from. We knew we’d have to crash production, and the interesting thing about the cover is that we didn’t have time for Ben to read the manuscript at first. We were copy editing it and didn’t want to send it to him until it was ready.
So, I told Ben, I’ll get you a manuscript in about a week, until then, start thinking about … and, I gave him a half dozen images: the stairs going up to Castle View Park, the man in the bowler cap, Gwendy as a 12-year-old girl. We wanted to keep the button box off the cover. So, we gave him a jumble of images, and before he even read the manuscript, he came back with this cover.
I said, wow, well I still want you to read it because I think you might enjoy it, but I just want you to know that you nailed it. Literally, what you see is what he sent us. It was just phenomenal that he captured the spirit of the story without even reading it yet.
As far as the production, we try to put that care into everything we do. Obviously, the better selling the author the larger the budget is for production and illustrations and print runs and all that. We always have a great time with Steve’s books because we know they will be very profitable and we can afford to spend more money than on the normal title. On this one, my name was on there with his and we definitely viewed it as something special.
It turned out beautifully, and I’m glad you mentioned it, as many readers have.
Tom: That’s an amazing story — producing a book like this, start to finish in just a few months, that doesn’t look forced or rushed.
Richard: That surprised people too, that it turned out as nicely as it did because it was such a rush job — and particularly the cover and marketing and cover page. It surprised some people in the industry that it happened overnight and it’s been on the best-seller list for four weeks. That’s something we didn’t even think about, but, of course, Stephen King’s name is on the cover and the reviews are out. But, it was so much of a personal project to me that the publishing accomplishments of it were secondary. It’s all just been a nice surprise and a fun ride.
Tom: A rich novella such as this one makes the reader wish for the novel. Are there any other collaboration plans in the works?
Richard: Most readers seem to like (the ending) and some are saying, this is begging for sequel. … At some point? We’ve seen Steve grumble and say, the story is done. … People want sequels to several of his books. He’s said, no, the story’s finished. So, I’m not going to ask him and say, Steve, let’s write a sequel.
But, at some point I’ll figure out the proper way to let him know that people would really love to hear more of the story and, if there’s another month down the line where we are both inspired, we should do it again. It was simply fun from start to finish. Fingers crossed, I would love to do it.