PW met with Peter Straub, coauthor with Stephen King of Black House, sequel to the 1984 bestseller The Talisman, in Straub's townhouse on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Well scrubbed and clean-cut in pressed shirt and slacks, Straub looks more like a banker on holiday than anyone's likely image of a winner of numerous Bram Stoker and World Fantasy awards. Or at least until he speaks. Then the rush of words testifies to his passion for writing and for books—and to his good humor, embodied in the full-size Howdy Doody puppet sitting in a chair nearby, bearing silent witness to our conversation.
Why did you decide to write a sequel to The Talisman?
The bluntest answer is that he [King] sort of asked me if I'd be interested. A more nuanced answer is that Stephen and I had been very interested in this, seeing that he and I again seemed to be converging a bit in what we were thinking about. We both seemed to be obsessing about Rebecca at the same time, and thinking about "Bartleby, the Scrivener." And we both had come to the same conclusions independently. That the book would be mainly about Jack Sawyer, that Jack Sawyer would be in some melancholic position, and would not remember what he had once done. That the point of the book would be the recovery of that achievement through some necessity. And that it would be a lot more like a horror novel than a fantasy novel. All that was gratifying, and made us feel less anxious. I think we both did feel anxious—you didn't know if you were going to endanger your friendship, or enhance it, and you never know how much control you're going to give up, or how much you want to give up.
Things went smoothly?
It was as if the book had its own sail and wind. We really knew where we were going. I went to Florida about a year and a half ago, where Steve had rented a place. He got a room for me at a health resort nearby. He came over to my bungalow, and I went to his, and we made up a fast-forward version of most of the novel. When we were done, we had about 35 or 37 single-spaced pages, but in 14-point print because Steve's eyes are lousy and he needed big print. It looked skimpy to me. I said, "Are you sure this is going to be enough stuff?" He laughed and said, "You bet it is!" As I discovered when I began; I think I wrote 50 pages without ever getting off the first page.
How did the writing progress?
Like a Ping-Pong game, except with one guy in New York and the other in Maine or Florida, and with a long table. I shouldn't admit this, but it's written chunk by chunk. I had to start it, because one of Steve's better ideas was that we set it in the heart of Wisconsin, which I knew from childhood vacations.
Do some of the characters belong more to you and some more to King? I'm particularly interested in Henry Leyden [Jack Sawyer's blind friend], who nearly walks away with the book.
Oh, that's the point. We wanted to make somebody really lovable and cool. Before we started, Steve said, "Let's put somebody in there the readers are going to love, and then we'll kill him."
Even though the book was written "chunk by chunk," it's difficult to discern who wrote which chunk. One thing I was looking for were italics, which King uses more than you do.
Yeah, not to mention caps and exclamation points. So sometimes I'd stuff in caps and exclamation points. But now and then I made a deliberate clank in tone, so that somebody reading would say, "Okay, now that was Peter, now it's Steve." But there are times now when I look at something, and I think, "Jeez, Steve was really good," or "I was really good," and I'm wrong! I don't remember who wrote what. The way we did that was to establish a tone that was neither one of us in the beginning, and stick to it for a long time.
From time to time during the writing I caught myself thinking that this collaboration could be working itself out in an unusual way, by permitting its partners' talents to complement one anther, creating something unique. My tendency to linger over visual details in support of a kind of solidity was held in check by King's momentum, and sometimes his desire to zip along was contained by mine to slow things down. In the end, the pacing feels just about right.
I am very fond of metafiction, intertextuality, a kind of deliberate irresolution. The tone of my things is very different from the tone of his. Certainly I bring a tendency toward complexity that Steve doesn't want to have. And one of the reasons he was pleased at the beginning was that he could see we were going to have a bit of that, and he liked it. But I like a lot of writers that he can't stand, and he likes a lot of writers for whom I don't have much time. I'm not sure if Steve likes Nabokov very much.
How can he not like Nabokov's magic with words?
It's not the kind of magic that Steve cares for. Steve has within him, like a glowing coal, a sense of the sacredness of the story itself, and anything that gets in the way of that is frippery.
Why did you agree to bring the novel within the Dark Tower mythology? After all, you're your own writer.
PS: It was my idea to incorporate it. One reason is that I wanted to know what that stuff was. I had no idea what a "Breaker" was, what the Tower was, what the Crimson King was. And The Talisman is all but a Dark Tower book. When I suggested it to Steve, he said, "I'm glad you said that, because I don't know if I can keep it out. At this point, everything I write is connected to it."
What's in the future for your solo writing?
I want to publish something soon as I can. I have a big idea that, like most of my ideas, is actually two ideas, and I'll figure out how to sew them together. And sometime I suppose there will be another collaboration with Steve.
Will we have to wait another 17 years?
I don't think so. The life expectancy of the authors would make that an actuarial risk. But sometime after five years probably. We sort of know a bit about it. Besides, fantasy novels are supposed to be in trilogies.