In the Beginning, There Was Stephen King


MEPMAfter years of contributing to school publications, I decided to pursue my love of writing when I arrived in Seattle in 1999. I stumbled upon the Seattle Writergrrls, and prodded for recommendations on building a writing portfolio. Write for us, they suggested, and so I did.

My first article was an essay about how I had kept journals since my earliest years, documenting my adventures from junior high and beyond. How those journals became the most valuable writing I had as a writer, enabling me to relive experiences – places, friendships, highs and lows – that had long since passed. I excitedly submitted it to The Writer for their “Off The Cuff” column – my first magazine submission. Weeks later, their senior editor responded by email with a resounding yes.

The issue went to print in early 2004, just shortly after I had moved down to Portland for love. On a drive through southern Oregon, my then husband, a career chef, and I developed a plan for Zen Kitchen, a full-service organic catering business still a niche back then. We quickly grew within the burgeoning “green” community, and my work week soon became too hectic for reading or writing.

And then the spring of 2006 arrived. Knee-deep in wedding receptions and corporate gatherings, we were hit with an unimaginable personal loss, a grief that buried me in deep darkness, leaving me to recover during what little time, as an owner, I could take from my daily duties. Amid a purposely stark schedule, I received an email from the Portland Literary Arts group during their quest for a caterer. It was a year-long contract, a series of caterings for their upcoming author season. You come highly recommended, they said. If there’s anything that can pull me from sorrow, I thought, it would be this.

As we sat in the offices reviewing the proposal – a near-donation supplemented with promotions, tickets to readings, and autographed tomes – I read a list of names that had yet to become familiar. Frank Rich, Frank McCourt, David Sedaris, George Saunders. But I nearly leapt with joy when I noticed one of the season’s ‘special events’…

I had read Stephen King throughout my younger years, despite – or perhaps fueling – my fear of the dark. Three books stood out from the rest, three that featured a hidden spirituality uncommon in horror writing amongst his more popular tales of scary clowns and man-eating cars. The Green Mile, The Regulators, and Desperation. Books that spoke to me.

We accepted the catering proposal without hesitation.

Fall began, and once every few weeks, we would set up shop in the marble-laid lobby of a government building across from the theatre. A pain to say the least – parking a catering van on a busy downtown, one-way street, shuffling enormous amounts of catering equipment in and out each night, anticipating an up-in-the-air guest number ranging from 50 to 300 guests. The readings would take place on the theatre stage, top donors trailing the night’s featured author across the street to our reception where wine glasses and photo flashes would clink and snap every few seconds in every direction. Drifting through the high energy crowds at each gathering, I found solace and encouragement – a tribe of writers and readers big and small, a community of word appreciators.

Reading after reading, I waited impatiently for my day with King to arrive.

When it did, my ticket was secured and double-checked. The desire overwhelming to have my first author meeting captured professionally to ensure years of continued inspiration from behind a picture frame in my office, I scheduled a photographer friend to join us at the reception. I took my seat in the theatre early, a few rows from the stage, anxiously awaiting his reading.

He appeared as I imagined he would, as I had seen in television and print. Tall and lanky, with thick glasses perched on his nose the way they had been in every press photo. He moved slowly to the podium – the unfortunate result of being struck by a van only a handful of years earlier – and began his reading of Lisey’s Story. Slips of paper were passed throughout the crowd for questions, folks scrambling for pencils in hopes that their inquiry would be answered. When King finished reading, a stack was handed over to begin the Q&A. Questions were answered on his writing process, his character development. He told a story of driving across country to see his daughter at college, how the small town he stopped in for gas began the wheels for his next novel.

It was his final answer that gave me pause.

“Are you afraid of anything?” King read from the next piece of paper in front him, letting out a short chuckle. “Well, of course,” he said, with quick mention of a handful of his well-known characters. “But then I write about it, and I’m not afraid anymore,” he finished, handing the rest of the stack to a stage assistant before departing.

I knew my writing would get me out of the dark as well.

I hurriedly raced over to the reception, chatting with the photographer about the reading, waiting for the author of the hour to appear. The crowd began to trickle in until the hall was filled, though King remained curiously absent. “He stopped attending receptions after accident,” a theatre rep explained when I inquired.

“I see,” I answered, dismayed but undeterred.

My copy of Lisey’s Story arrived by mail soon after, and I tore open the package, running my hand over the autographed handwriting of the title page a million times. Sliding it back into the bubble-wrapped envelope, I shuttled it home as though I was carrying a golden egg, methodically organizing my collection of writing-related books in my home office, and placing the book, in its bright red cover, squarely in the middle.

Weeks later, with my contract for Career Diary of a Caterer signed, I hunkered down on that first day of 2007 to pen 30,000 words by the start of February. And silently whispered a ‘thank you’ to Stephen King.


~Jennifer Heigl