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Poet Billy Collins

Poet Billy Collins has just been appointed the next Poet Laureate. His books include Picnic, Lightning (University of Pittsburgh Press), The Art of Drowning, (University of Pittsburgh Press), and Questions about Angels (William Morrow & Co.), which was selected as a winner of the National Poetry Series Competition in 1990. John Updike says of Collins' poetry, "Billy Collins writes lovely poems... Limpid, gently and consistently startling, more serious than they seem, they describe all the worlds that are and were and some others besides." Collins currently teaches at Lehman College of the City University of New York.

15:47

Other segments from the episode on June 22, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 22, 2001: Interview with Stephen King; Interview with Billy Collins.

Transcript

DATE June 22, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Stephen King discusses his career and recovery from
injuries sustained after being hit by a van in 1999
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Stephen King was nearly killed in June of '99 while taking his daily walk. He
was walking along the gravel shoulder of Route 5, a two-lane highway near his
home in Maine, when he was struck by a van driven by Bryan Smith, who had
several prior convictions for speeding and reckless driving. A little over a
year ago, Smith was found dead in his home. A toxicology test indicated he
died of an accidental overdose, a combination of medication and alcohol.

King is still recovering from his injuries, which included nine breaks in his
right leg; his right knee split almost directly down the middle; a fracture of
his right hip; four broken ribs and a scalp laceration that required nearly 30
stitches. His spine was chipped in eight places. Yet he's still writing.
His book, "On Writing," is now out in paperback. It's part memoir, part
reflection on his craft. The last chapter is about his accident. When we
spoke about one year ago, he read an except.

Mr. STEPHEN KING (Author): (Reading) `Most of the sight lines along the mile
of Route 5, which I walk, are good. But there is one stretch, a short, steep
hill, where a pedestrian walking north can see very little of what might be
coming his way. I was three-quarters of the way up this hill when Bryan
Smith, the owner and operator of the Dodge van, came over the crest. He
wasn't on the road. He was on the shoulder--my shoulder. I had perhaps
three-quarters of a second to register this. It was just time enough to
think, "My God, I'm going to be hit by a school bus." I started to turn to my
left.

`There is a break in my memory here. On the other side of it, I'm on the
ground looking at the back of the van, which is now pulled off the road and
tilted to one side. This recollection is very clear and very sharp, more like
a snapshot than a memory. There is dust around the van's tail lights. The
license plate and the back windows are dirty. I register these things with no
thought that I had been in an accident or of anything else. It's a snapshot,
that's all. I'm not thinking. My head has been swabbed clean.

`There's another little break in my memory here, and then I am very carefully
wiping palmfuls of blood out of my eyes with my left hand. When my eyes are
reasonably clear, I look around and see a man sitting on a nearby rock. He
has a cane drawn across his lap. This is Bryan Smith, 42 years of age, the
man who hit me with his van. Smith has got quite the driving record. He has
racked up nearly a dozen vehicle-related offenses.

`Smith wasn't looking at the road on the afternoon our lives came together
because his Rottweiler had jumped from the very rear of his van into the
backseat area, where there was an Igloo cooler with some meat stored inside.
The Rottweiler's name is Bullet. Smith has another Rottweiler at home; that
one is named Pistol. Bullet started to nose at the lid of the cooler. Smith
turned around and tried to push Bullet away. He was still looking at Bullet
and pushing his head away from the cooler when he came over the top of the
knoll; still looking and pushing when he struck me. Smith told friends later
than he'd thought he'd hit a small deer, until he noticed my bloody spectacles
lying on the front seat of his van. They were knocked from my face when I
tried to get out of Smith's way. The frames were bent and twisted, but the
lenses were unbroken. They are the lenses I'm wearing now, as I write this.

`Smith sees I'm awake and tells me help is on the way. He speaks calmly, even
cheerily. His look, as he sits on his rock with his cane drawn across his
lap, is one of pleasant commiseration. "Ain't the two of us just had the
shittiest luck," it says. He and Bullet left the campground where they were
staying, he later tells an investigator, because he wanted some of those Mars
bars they have up to the store. When I hear this little detail some weeks
later, it occurs to me that I have nearly been killed by a character out of
one of my own novels. It's almost funny.'

GROSS: That's Stephen King reading from his new memoir, "On Writing."

Stephen King, welcome back to FRESH AIR. And it's so great to still have you
with us.

Mr. KING: It's nice to be here, but I tell people nowadays it's nice to be
anywhere.

GROSS: Right. Did Smith say anything else to you as you were laying there,
drifting in and out of consciousness, after he hit you?

Mr. KING: He said, `I've never had so much as a parking ticket in my life,
and here it is my bad luck to hit the best-selling writer in the world.' And
I think he said, `I loved all your movies.'

GROSS: Did he really say that?

Mr. KING: Yeah.

GROSS: So he's lying to you as you're lying there nearly dying?

Mr. KING: Well, he said he had never had so much as a parking ticket, and God
knows he had a lot of traffic offenses. We don't want to speak ill of the
dead if we can help it because he did die last month, on my birthday, as a
matter of fact, which was a little bit eerie.

GROSS: No.

Mr. KING: Yeah.

GROSS: Gee.

Mr. KING: He and I share the same middle name as well. We're both Edwins.
We were. Now I'm--well, never mind.

GROSS: You know, in that reading, you say that it made you think that he was
like a character in your fiction. Were there other things that made you think
of him that way?

Mr. KING: Well, God knows that I've lived in rural Maine for a lot of years.
It's where I grew up, and it's where my wife and I live now, in a town of
about 900 people. And we don't want to say that Bryan Smith is or was a type,
because I don't necessarily believe that there are types, but he had a certain
back-country quality with the Rottweiler dogs and the old van. And it's
really tough, Terry, to talk about Bryan Smith without making him sound like a
sort of Faulknerian stereotype, and so maybe I'd just as soon steer clear of
the whole issue. He was like a character in a Stephen King book, but only
because he seemed like a real Maine type to me.

GROSS: You were, understandably, really angry with the sentence that he was
given. He was basically given a suspended driver's license for a year. But
when he was found dead in his home toward the end of September, what was your
reaction to his death?

Mr. KING: Oh, I was shocked and I was sorry as well. When he hit me, Bryan
Smith was 42; when he died he was 43. And 43 isn't a natural span, I don't
believe, for a man in 21st century America.

GROSS: Did you feel like this was some kind of larger form of punishment or
that his death was related in any kind of larger way to this accident?

Mr. KING: No. I don't think that the world works that neatly, and I don't
think that justice is meted out by fate, or else people like Adolph Eichmann
wouldn't have lived so long, so well, before anybody caught up to them. And
God knows there are enough people, whose crimes would make anything that Bryan
Smith ever did look very small change in comparison, who have never been
punished at all.

My feeling about Bryan Smith was pretty simple. He had a very long record of
driving convictions and an even longer record--in the book I talk about the
dozen or so traffic convictions, but, in fact, he had been brought before the
courts on twice that many charges, where the charges were either dismissed or
under the seal of the court because he was a juvenile. These go back to the
time of his driver's permit.

And we're not dealing with somebody here who was a bad person or in the sense
that you'd want to see somebody sent to jail for robbery or murder or rape or
any of those things. Bryan Smith was just a bad, negligent driver, and I
wanted to see him not necessarily put in jail, but certainly put into a
situation where he'd be forced to consider the way that he was behaving, you
know, on a wide range of issues, from the way that he was driving and the way
that he was living.

GROSS: Tell us about how you're feeling now, your ability to walk and all
that.

Mr. KING: Well, the accident was in June of 1999, and I was totally
incapacitated at that point. If there was a bone on the right side of my
body, it was broken, with the exception of my head, which was only concussed.
And this is about 16 months down the line, and I'm able to walk fairly well.
I have a limp that I think is a lot more noticeable toward the end of the day
as things start to hurt more. I've continued to work rehab in order to
increase my range of motion. It doesn't seem to do a whole lot for some of
the pain issues that are centered around the hip, but most of the leg is
pretty pain-free now. And I'm grateful for that, and it's nice to be able to
walk at all.

The way it works: When you are in the hospital and you're stuck in bed, and
you've got various appliances attached to your body, you say to people, `Will
I ever get out of this bed?' And they say, `The chances are good.' And when
you get out of bed, you say, `Will I ever be able to bend my leg again?' And
they say, `The chances are good that you will. Most people do.' So that
continues to go on, `Will I walk again?'

And the last question, the one that I'm working on right now, as I said to the
doctor about--the orthopedist, David Brown(ph), who operated on my leg, I
said, `I'd really like to be able to play tennis. Will I be able to do that
maybe next summer?' And he said, `I think that the chances are fairly good
that you'll be able to run again and play tennis.' So nobody comes out and
says yes. They just tell you that the chances are good, I suppose, because
they don't want you to be depressed. But I'm walking, I'm thinking and I'm
really, really grateful to be alive.

GROSS: Do you need a walker or a cane, anything like that?

Mr. KING: No. I went from a wheelchair to a walker and walker to crutches
and two crutches to one crutch and put the last crutch aside in July, and I've
been walking unaided since then. My wife says that she's encouraged by the
trail of discarded appliances I've left behind.

GROSS: I'm glad you've left them behind. For your writing, you've had to
imagine people in extreme circumstances and imagine them in agony. Did your
accident feel like anything you had imagined for fiction?

Mr. KING: It all seemed familiar to me in the sense that there was nothing
involved with the whole deal that I didn't expect, but the odd thing is that
when you've been seriously hurt, there's a kind of numbing shock that sets in,
and as a result, everything is--there's no surprise involved with any of the
things that seem to go on. You just sort of--the things come and you deal
with them. It's like being cast adrift and riding the waves.

They took me to a hospital in western Maine and did a few things to me. They
took a look at the injuries and decided that they couldn't treat them there,
and they got a LifeFlight helicopter to take me to Central Maine Medical
Center in Lewiston. And while I was on the flight, my lung collapsed, and I
can remember one of the guys saying, `Oh, shit. We've got to do something
about this.' And I can remember the crackle of them unwrapping something and
somebody saying that they were going to stick me, and then I could breathe
again because they had intubated me and pumped up my lung again. And all of
this was just a sort of sense of, `Well, this is what's happening now.'

You become a totally passive person, in a way. You recognize immediately that
you've been seriously hurt and that you can't deal with your own life and that
you're going to have to depend on other people to pull you through, so you
just kind of let go. And that's pretty much the way that I always saw things
happening in my books, which doesn't surprise me that much because I think the
imagination--when you really use it at top quality, when you're seeing really
well, the imagination really knows what the reality is.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen King. We'll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview, recorded one year ago, with Stephen
King, after the publication of his book "On Writing." That book has just come
out in paperback. He's still recovering from a car accident that nearly
killed him two years ago.

In an interview in Salon magazine before the accident, you said, `As a kid, my
mother used to say when we were scared, "Whatever you're afraid of, say it
three times fast, and it will never happen," and that's what I've done in my
fiction. Basically, I've said out loud the things that really terrify me and
I've turned them into fictions, and they've made a very nice living for me,
and it seems to have worked.'

Did you ever feel that, this time, the horror stories jinxed you; that
something that you feared and had written about was coming true?

Mr. KING: No, it never even crossed my mind. It's strange because off and on
in my career as a writer, I have certainly written about car crashes and about
characters who've been hurt or injured in car crashes. There's a little boy
who's killed by a truck in "Pet Sematary." And in a book that's done in
manuscript, but hasn't been polished yet and readied for publication called
"From a Buick Eight," one of the main characters' father is killed in an
accident very similar to the one that almost killed me.

But I only used those things in my stories because cars and traffic accidents
are a part of our lives. They're something that, unfortunately, most of us
relate to, probably at a rate of three or four times as much--that is to say
three or four times as many people either have been in a car accident
themselves or know somebody who has, as have been injured with gunshots. So
it's a part of the American experience, and as such, of course, I've written
about it. But I never felt that I jinxed myself, no.

GROSS: When you were on FRESH AIR a few years ago, and we were talking about
the things that scared you most as a kid, you mentioned something that you
also describe in your new book, "On Writing." You talked about how, when you
were a kid, you had strep throat, and after that you had a terrible ear
infection, and in treating it, the doctor had to, with a needle, puncture your
eardrum on three separate occasions to let the infection drain, and it was the
worst agony you'd ever experienced. And, of course, the doctor, before doing
the procedure, kept saying that it wasn't going to hurt. You've had to go
through excruciating pain as an adult now, as a result of the accident and the
procedures and therapies that you've had to do as well. How has dealing with
the pain of the accident, the surgeries, the procedures, dealing with that
pain as an adult compare to dealing with it as a child?

Mr. KING: Well, as an adult, I always felt a lot more as though I were a
participant in what was happening to me. For instance, the therapy--and
anybody who's been in a bone-crunching accident knows that it's a very, very
difficult procedure to go through. When I woke up, I was in something that's
called an external fixator, which is a halo that goes over the leg and it
immobilizes the bone. It also immobilizes the joint, so that from June 19th,
I think, until probably, oh, toward the end of July I never bent my knee. And
in the old days, the '20s and '30s when people recovered from this sort of
accident, their leg was more or less frozen in place, so it became an organic
crutch. And nowadays, at least, we have therapeutic techniques to restore
mobility to the leg, but it's very, very painful.

And I can remember, yeah, in the "On Writing" book, I talk about having my
ears lanced to drain moisture and puss that was behind the eardrum. But as a
child, when you're faced with a procedure like that, you're in a uniquely
powerless situation because you don't understand what's going on, and you're
powerless to stop it in any case. You were mentioning I had to go back three
times, and the first time when I was told, `Don't worry, this won't hurt,' I
believed it. The second time I almost believed it. And the third time I knew
that it wasn't true, but I was still powerless to stop it and, to me, that's
the ingredient of a nightmare, even down to the fact that the doctor never
called me Stephen. He called me Robert. He would say, `Now, Robert, lie
down. This won't hurt.' And in my panicky child's way, I'm thinking, `Of
course it will hurt! Of course it will hurt! You're even lying about what my
name is!'

But when you get to be an adult, although it still hurts, the pain is still
there, I felt as though I were something of a participant in my own therapy,
so that the first step was to get the knee to flex enough so that the leg
would come down and the heel would touch the floor, and the pain of just that
was excruciating, and I just filled the house with my howls. I can't imagine
how my poor wife ever stood it, but the physical therapist, Ann(ph), just
would laugh and say, `You can do a little bit more, Stephen,' and I'd think,
`No, I can't. I can't do any more, Ann. Stop it. Let me stop.' And she
wouldn't. And then come the weights on the leg and all the rest of it, but at
least you know what's going on and you understand what the stakes are. And
when it came to having my ear lanced, children just don't understand.

GROSS: You know, in "Misery," the main character's a writer who's seriously
injured, and the woman taking care of him, his number-one fan, is really
torturing him and not giving him therapy. Did the nurses and therapists who
you worked with make zillions of "Misery" jokes?

Mr. KING: You know, they'd all read "Misery," and they worked for an outfit
called the Bangor Area Visiting Nurses. These are nurses who go into the home
and give home care. And I think one of them told me toward the end of the
period, where I needed full-time nursing, that they had all read it, and they
had all been called into the office by their superior and told in no uncertain
terms, `You don't make any "Misery" jokes.'

GROSS: And did they restrain themselves?

Mr. KING: They did. They were great.

GROSS: Stephen King recorded last year. His book, "On Writing," is now out
in paperback. We'll continue the interview in the second half of the show.
Here's King singing "Stand By Me," the song used in his film adaptation of the
same name. Warren Zevon is at the piano.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KING: (Singing) When the night has come, when the land is dark and the
moon is the only light we'll see. I won't cry, I won't cry. No, I won't shed
a tear just as long...

(Credits)

GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

Coming up, we continue our conversation with Stephen King, and we hear from
the new poet laureate Billy Collins. He writes about subjects like
forgetfulness, stopping smoking, insomnia, canceled vacations and the pictures
in the Victoria's Secret catalog.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with more of our interview with Stephen King. He's still recovering from
the car accident that nearly killed him two years ago, but he continues to
write. His book "On Writing" is part reflection on his craft, part memoir.
It's now out in paperback. We spoke one year ago when it was published in
hard cover.

You write in the book that at some point you had to admit to yourself that you
had serious problems with alcohol and with cocaine. And because your wife
organized an intervention, you finally did something about it and got over
those addictions. After the accident, you had to take some pretty heavy
painkillers.

Mr. KING: Right.

GROSS: And those are pretty addictive. What's it like having to go back on
drugs, addictive drugs, knowing that you'd had a problem with them and that
you have what you describe as an addictive personality?

Mr. KING: Oh, one of the ways that--the way that it was described best to
me--you know that people who are alcoholics and drug addicts generally get
involved with support groups. And I heard one guy who'd been through this
himself describe it as being in one of those log-rolling competitions, where
you get up on a log and you see how long you can stay up before you get dumped
back into the river.

If I thought anything was unfair about what had happened to me, it was that
after struggling and winning a battle to get off all sorts and drugs and
alcohol--and I just didn't have a problem with beer and cocaine; I was an
addictive personality, period. I was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.
I loved Listerine. I loved NyQuil. You name it. Boy, if it would change
your consciousness, I was all for that. And I was able to jettison almost all
of those substances out of my life.

And suddenly, you wake up in a hospital bed and you've got a phenyltol patch
on your arm and you're jacked up on morphine and you've got all these
different medications. And I was as grossed out by that, I think, as I was by
the injuries, thinking, `My God, I'm a junkie again.' And the way that I deal
with it, rightly or wrongly, is to try and make sure that you never exceed the
dosage that you're supposed to have for things like Percocet or Vicodin or any
of those things. And as long as you stay below the prescribed levels and as
long as you're making a reasonable effort to get clean, that's a good thing to
do.

On the other hand, as other people say in those programs that I attend, I
didn't get sober to suffer. And if I'm in a situation where I'm miserable and
medication will help that suffering, I'm going to take it.

GROSS: Do you still have to take painkillers?

Mr. KING: I'm almost off, but I still do take some, yeah, toward the end of
the day. Mostly, though, I'm clean.

GROSS: As you point out in your new book, "On Writing," one of the plots that
has interested you in several of your books is `If there is a God, why do such
terrible things happen?'

Mr. KING: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And that's one of the themes in "The Stand," "Desperation," "The Green
Mile." Is that the kind of thing you were wondering about yourself after the
accident? And I'm wondering if you believe in God--if you did before the
accident; if you did after the accident?

Mr. KING: Oh, I've always believed in God. I also think that's the sort of
thing that either comes as part of the equipment, the capacity to believe, or
at some point in your life, when you're in a position where you actually need
help from a power greater than yourself, you simply make an agreement. `I
will believe in God because it will make my life easier and richer to believe
than not to believe.' So I choose to believe.

Then, of course, you're left with these questions. `Why did this happen to
me?' you know? There's a story that I've told a couple of times about Job,
you know, the sorrows of Job. Job loses his wife. He loses his children.
He's covered with diseases. His land is taken away from him, all these
sorrows. And finally Job goes down to the coast of the ocean and faces the
waves and says, `God, all these terrible things have happened to me. All
these things, and I still love you. But I want to know why. Why did these
things have to happen to me? Why did they have to happen to Job, your good
and faithful servant?' And this cyclone comes down, and it comes across the
waves and it stops in front of him. And it says, `Job, I guess you just piss
me off.' And that's one way of looking at how God treats us.

I can also say, `God, why did this have to happen to me when if I get another
step back, you know, the guy misses me entirely?' Then God says to me, in the
voice that I hear in my head--which probably comes from the Boys in the
Basement as much as from God, the muses that I have, these guys say, `On the
other hand, Steve, if you'd taken another step forward, you would have been
killed. You didn't have any permanent nerve damage. You've got a numb place
on your leg, but your foot works and your leg works.' So there are all these
things.

And then these voices can go on and say, `Steve, why don't you get serious?
Six million Jews were killed in the '30s and '40s as a part of Hitler's little
ethnic cleansing program, and a million more Bosnian Serbs were killed in
their program of ethnic cleansing in the mid-90s. So what are you complaining
about? You got a little busted hip. Why don't you just, you know, pick
yourself up and dust yourself off and get over it and don't be worrying about
things you can't understand?'

So again, I think that you make an agreement, and you say to yourself, `OK.
There's a God. Why? Because I choose to believe there's a God. Believing
makes my life better than not believing. Why did this happen to me? It
happened to me for some good purpose. What is that good purpose? I don't
know, but I choose to believe it's good because to believe it's bad would bum
out my whole day.'

GROSS: I had read that you were going to buy the van that struck you and
smash it. Did that actually happen?

Mr. KING: It never did happen. The van has been cubed. When I was in the
hospital, mostly unconscious, my wife got a lawyer who's just a friend of the
family. My son and his son went to school together, so we know him really
well. And she got in touch with him and said, `Buy it so that somebody else
doesn't buy it and decide to break it up and sell it on eBay, on the
Internet.' And so he did. And for about six months, I did have these, sort
of, fantasies...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KING: ...of smashing the van up. But my wife--I don't always listen to
her the first time. But sooner or later, she usually gets through. And what
she says makes more sense than what I had planned. And her thought was that
the best thing to do would be to very quietly remove it from this plane of
existence, which is what we did.

GROSS: Oh--and you can't say how.

Mr. KING: Sure I can. It went through a car crusher. It's a little cub
somewhere.

GROSS: Oh! Oh--so rather than you attacking it yourself--I got it. Oh,
that's...

Mr. KING: Yeah.

GROSS: And did you keep the cube?

Mr. KING: No, I didn't. I don't really know what happened to the cube. But
my idea about the van had always been to sort of smash it up the way that--in
the carnies of my youth, sometimes somebody would put a car up on in the back
of a flatbed truck and charge a quarter for three smacks with a sledgehammer.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. KING: And I thought we could do that for charity. And it still, at
times, seems to me like a good idea. But I have sort of a carnival mind, and
my wife is a little bit more sober.

GROSS: So great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

Mr. KING: It's so great to talk to you. Just to hear your voice in my
headphones is nice.

GROSS: Thank you and continued good luck with your recovery. It sounds like
you've really been doing terrifically so far. So I thank you so much for
talking with us.

Mr. KING: Thank you for talking with me.

GROSS: Stephen King recorded one year ago after the publication of his book
"On Writing." It's now out in paperback. He's still recovering from his
accident.

Coming up, the new poet laureate Billy Collins. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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