In 1990, twenty-six years old and at the lowest point in my career, I was working for a pittance as a cook in a restaurant where the owner’s dogs defecated in the kitchen. My flat had no heating and I was in the early stages of pneumonia. In the boredom of being bed-ridden I asked friends and neighbours to bring me things to read, leading me to collect a pile of dog-eared paperbacks, comic strips and old detective stories of a series that, fifteen years later, I would become the editor of (but that’s another story).
One of the books that surfaced from that pile had the picture of a typewriter on it and the name of an author I was not very familiar with: Stephen King. I liked horror stories, though less than science fiction which is what had shaped me. But until then I had only read one Stephen King vampire story that I had not really enjoyed. By contrast, this one blew my mind. It was Misery and it changed my life.
As is known, it is the story of the writer Paul Sheldon who, following a car accident, ends up the prisoner of a nurse who is in love with his novels: his Number One Fan, as she likes to describe herself. When Annie, his kidnapper, finds out that in his last novel Sheldon “kills” the heroine Misery, she forces him to destroy it and write another in which Misery lives.
Sheldon, suffering deeply from the wounds caused by his accident and from the torture inflicted on him by Annie – among other things she cuts his foot and cauterises the wound – is forced to give it his best. Because Annie is not easy to please, she wants a great novel.
We therefore follow two parallel stories. The one in which Sheldon is trying to survive an existence increasingly blurred by painkillers, and the one of the novel he is writing with the progressively worn letters of his old typewriter.
I’m not going to disclose the ending, but that novel that I read on a feverish night exposed something I had within but which I could not yet give a name or shape to. I realized I too had some form of Annie inside me and that it was so terrible it had completely crushed me. I wanted to write but I was frightened of doing so because my Annie expected masterpieces and my efforts had never met those expectations. Because of this, and despite my sane side imploring me to just sit at the keyboard and write, I had never been able to complete even a single story since the humiliation of my school years. At most I would knock out short articles for underground newspapers or flyers for the anti-nuclear movement I belonged to.
Reading Misery, I realized that even Sheldon – and therefore King – suffered my same torments and doubts. I was not alone in that war of words and the more time passed the harder it would become to get started. Because disillusionment would eat away at what little enthusiasm was left of my adolescent self, the one who had left home in search of experiences that would allow me to be what I wanted to be.
A week later I quit my job and became a proof-reader for a TV program magazine and was soon promoted to writing the film reviews.
It was a difficult time, full of disappointments and fruitless efforts, but at least I had stopped cleaning up dog shit.
So you’ll understand why Stephen King is my guru: his photo is always on my desk. Next to an old typewriter.