Much like Roland Deschain does in the second Dark Tower book, The Drawing of the Three, Stephen King has drawn various individuals into his strange and captivating world as his long journey in Roland’s world has progressed. These people have become part of King’s own ka-tet, a group united in purpose. King’s purpose was to create the journey; these others have been brought in to enrich it.
Among them I count Michael Whelan, whose art graced the first Dark Tower book (The Gunslinger) as well as the last (The Dark Tower). I count Robin Furth, who came on as a research assistant when King began work on the what was then the final three volumes of the series, and has gone on to contribute much to this ever-expanding world. And I count Bev Vincent, who has now written two books about the Dark Tower series, each of them providing valuable insight into King’s complex masterpiece.
In this exclusive interview, we talk some about Vincent’s first book, The Road to the Dark Tower, but concentrate mainly on his new project: The Dark Tower Companion, due out on April 2 from New American Library (with special limited editions forthcoming from Cemetery Dance). We also talk about many of the topics Vincent covers in his new book, from proposed film versions of the Dark Tower story to the compelling, divisive way in which King ended the series. (Don’t worry, there’s a large SPOILER ALERT in place before you get there!)
How did The Dark Tower Companion come about?
I’ve been asked a number of times whether I planned to update The Road to the Dark Tower to include The Wind Through the Keyhole and other material that has been released since my first book came out in 2004. When a Dark Tower film was announced for 2013, I pitched this idea to my agent. He suggested that something totally new would be better than an update so that’s what I did. I went back to ground zero and wrote a completely new book—it’s 50% longer than The Road to the Dark Tower, but it uses none of the previous material.
What sets this new book apart from The Road to the Dark Tower?
The Road to the Dark Tower was intended for people who had finished the series and wanted to explore it in greater depth. After the first chapter, there was no safe ground—it was spoilers all the way down. The only way to discuss the ultimate significance of things was to reveal future events.
When it came time to write The Dark Tower Companion, I thought about readers who might be introduced to the Dark Tower series from sources other than the books themselves. For example, the Marvel graphic novels were very popular and some people who had read them but not the books might be curious about certain details. Also, when the movies are produced, there will be viewers who may want to know more about a particular character or event. The Dark Tower Companion was written with these people in mind. I’m careful about what I reveal about the series ending, for example.
However, it’s also a handy reference guide for people who have read — or are reading — the series. It has an extensive glossary of people, places and things, which wasn’t in The Road to the Dark Tower, as well as chapters on Mid-World history and geography, including maps of Manhattan and Mid-World. It’s less analytical than my first book and more expansive. It’s also the first book to explore the Marvel adaptations and how they relate to King’s novels.
What sets it apart from Robin Furth’s The Dark Tower: The Complete Concordance?
Robin’s book is structured like a Biblical concordance, hence the name. People associated with a particular event or location are grouped together. So, if you want to look up Allie, you first have to find the section on people from Tull. There’s a logic and a benefit to this approach, but I used a different one. My glossary is divided into two sections — Mid-World people, places and things, and those from “our” world. Beyond that, it’s all alphabetical.
Also, my book contains plot synopses of the books and essays on various topics, including a few at the end in which I contemplate the significance of certain things, (such as) “Who was Roland’s greatest adversary?” And, of course, “What does the ending mean?”
Also, The Dark Tower Companion contains interviews with King, Ron Howard, Akiva Goldsman, Brian Stark, Robin Furth, Peter David, Richard Isanove, Jae Lee and several other Marvel artists. These pieces all reveal never-before-disclosed details about various aspects of the Dark Tower universe.
What is it about this series that has prompted you to write two in-depth books about it? Are there other series that you’d like to examine in a similar fashion?
As much as the Dark Tower series has been a constant in King’s life—he’s been working on it since 1970 — it’s been a constant in mine since 1984, when I read The Gunslinger for the first time. I’ve lived with the series in real time, waiting for the next installment to come out at 4-6 year intervals. When I heard that the final three books were done in manuscript, I proposed The Road to the Dark Tower as a way of exploring King’s work and themes without having to tackle everything he’s ever written, a daunting task. I treat the series as a microcosm of his literary world. That first book was my way of solidifying my thoughts and starting a conversation about them.
Having spent so much time deep inside the Dark Tower universe, I find myself thinking about it a lot and discussing it with a wide variety of people, so the second book came naturally. It was probably the backwards way of doing things — in depth first and then more expansive but less analytical second, but I’m glad I did it that way because I was able to cover the newer material in the more expansive book, The Dark Tower Companion.
There are other series that I’ve considered exploring, but the ones I’m most eager to tackle aren’t yet complete, so I have to bide my time if I want to do something with them.
What is your working relationship with Stephen King like on these books? Does he have final approval over what goes in them?
First off, The Road to the Dark Tower couldn’t have happened the way it did without King’s cooperation. He showed a great deal of faith and trust by giving me copies of the first draft manuscripts of Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah and The Dark Tower two years before they were published. I had so many secrets to keep for such a long time!
When I was writing that book, I asked King questions from time to time, but he’s a very busy guy as you might imagine, so I tried not to bother him too much. Mostly I bounced observations off him to see if I was on target or off the mark about something.
When it was going into production, my editor said they wanted to put “Authorized by Stephen King” on the cover. I asked King for his opinion about this and he said he was okay with it, but was that something I wanted? It implied, he said, that he had control over what I’d written, which wasn’t the case, and might weaken people’s perception of the book’s integrity. He did ask to see the manuscript prior to publication, primarily to fact check since I was working from the unedited manuscripts of the last three books, but he didn’t request any changes.
For The Dark Tower Companion, I decided to bother him just the once, for the interview.
Were there significant differences between the first draft manuscripts of the last Dark Tower books and the versions that were published?
There were some substantial changes between the first draft and the copy edited versions and the final published books. I had to verify every quote that I used (a couple of times!) and fact check with each new version. There are a couple of “mistakes” in my chapter on the seventh book in The Road to the Dark Tower because King changed some details in the final version, which I didn’t have access to until after my book was done.
There’s been talk in the past of King going back and revising some of the Dark Tower books, similar to what he’s already done with The Gunslinger. Is that something you’d like to see happen?
I asked him about that in the interview in The Dark Tower Companion and he replied that it would be good, rewarding work for him, but that the differences would be so subtle that only the most dedicated Dark Tower fans would notice. Some readers might be upset to think that they’d bought something new only to discover that it was substantially the same.
I would much rather see him write new material than go back and tinker with books that are already finished and ingrained in my mind. I appreciate what he did with The Gunslinger but, though I treat the revised edition as the “true” version for the purposes of The Dark Tower Companion, I still prefer the original because I’ve read it so many times over the years.
After talking with Ron Howard in preparation for this book, do you feel like his approach to adapting the series for film and TV would work?
Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman are passionate about this series. Goldsman read it in much the same way that I did, starting with The Gunslinger in the mid ’80s. He was the one who brought the project to Howard when they were working on A Beautiful Mind, so it’s something they’ve been thinking about for years. They were disappointed when it looked like J.J. Abrams might tackle it first and elated when the rights freed up again.
I talked to them at length about their approach and it is both unique and logical. Though they’ve made a few general comments about their plan in the past, they discuss it at much greater length in The Dark Tower Companion. They’ve identified certain things that would work well on the big screen and others that would be better served by the more intimate platform television provides — the more character-based elements.
They have revolutionary ideas about how to tackle such a huge story that may not sit well with purists, but people who are willing to treat the film as something different from the books and not as a straight adaptation should be in for an adventure when the project is launched.
The most recent Dark Tower book, The Wind Through the Keyhole, as well as the Dark Tower graphic novels that Marvel has published, have demonstrated that there is a lot of room to tell tales outside of the original ka-tet’s mission. Who are some of the writers and artists you’d like to see take on the series, either in comics or prose?
I don’t think I’d like to see anyone else take on the Dark Tower universe. Robin Furth is an exception because she knows Mid-World better than just about anyone. Besides the Marvel adaptations, the only other “expanded universe” Dark Tower material is the Discordia game on King’s website, where Phase II should launch soon. Though there are occasional mentions of characters from the books, this interactive game primarily uses settings as its basis: the Dixie Pig and the passageway to Fedic in the first adventure and the Rotunda in Phase II. They are free (with King’s approval) to introduce new characters and scenarios to take the story in a different direction. That’s about the extent of what I’d like to see with the Dark Tower, though. I wouldn’t like to see it handed off to other writers. King suggests in his interview that he might return to Mid-World in the future. That’s enough for me.
How many times have you read the Dark Tower books?
My flippant answer to this question is “delah,” that unique Mid-World word that means “many” or “too many to count.” Because I’ve been with the series since the start, I’ve read some books more than others. I read The Gunslinger several times. Then when The Drawing of the Three came out, I read it again. Then when The Waste Lands came out, I read The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three again, and so on.
While working on The Road to the Dark Tower, I probably read the entire series five or six times, often for different reasons. Armed with colored highlighters, I looked for timeline details, character descriptions and characterization details, cross-references, etc. I read it once more while working on The Dark Tower Companion, as well as reading The Wind Through the Keyhole a few times.
Which is your favorite, and why?
For a variety of reasons, The Gunslinger is my favorite. When I first read it, I considered it a mood piece more than a character- or plot-driven novel. I had no idea at the time what it would blossom into. I know it’s a difficult book for some, but I must have read it four or five times before there were other books in the series. I was less interested at the time in its convoluted structure — flashbacks upon flashbacks — though I became more intrigued by that later, especially when I had to unravel it all into a linear narrative.
Who is your favorite character from the series, and why?
It’s hard to pick anyone other than Roland as a favorite character. It’s all about him. He’s there, alone, in the beginning and alone again at the end. He’s a tough guy to like at times, but I think I understand him better than any of the other characters. I don’t generally participate in the casting games people play, but I have the ideal actor in mind for Roland. I even mentioned the name to Akiva Goldsman when I interviewed him, though I doubt it will come to anything: Timothy Olyphant from Justified. I think he’d be perfect. The problem is that he’s probably not a big enough name to be at the center of an expensive project like this.
Let’s talk about the ending of the series. Personally, I think it was a perfect, logical end to the series, but not everyone agrees. Where do you stand on the ending – did it work for you? Why, or why not?
I read the last 100-150 manuscript pages of The Dark Tower early one morning. As I told King later that day, he made me late for work, because I couldn’t stop. I reached the “false ending” and then continued on to the real conclusion. I set the pages aside, stunned and somewhat wrung out, but satisfied.
Since we’re getting into spoiler territory here, let’s warn away people who haven’t gotten to the final page yet.
The ending worked perfectly for me. I couldn’t think of another way to encapsulate the nature of Roland’s existence. The closing line had to be the opening line. Everything in the series pointed toward it. Roland had to face a day of reckoning for many of the things he did during his journey, and his punishment was to be forced to try again.
I discuss the ending at length in The Dark Tower Companion. We know this is Roland’s nth iteration through his tortured existence. Some people believe it is his second-to-last journey to the Tower, but King believes otherwise: Roland has a long way to go until he achieves the perfection that will allow him to break free. I asked him about the “Butterfingers” episode of Kingdom Hospital, in which a baseball player is given a chance to do one thing from his past differently to break out of his private hell, wondering if that was an indicator that the next time might see Roland’s salvation, but King said, no, that was just television. In reality it takes a lot longer.
The big question is: what does salvation look like for Roland? What does he need to do and change? I have an opinion about that, which I lay out in The Dark Tower Companion, but that’s just my view. King hints at his own thoughts on the matter in the interview in the book. There is no right or wrong answer, though.
Outside of the Dark Tower/Stephen King world, what other projects do you have in the works?
I always have a lot of things going on at the same time. I write an essay on writing every month for Storytellers Unplugged; keep up a regular blog that deals with writing projects, books, TV and movies; and review books at Onyx Reviews. I usually have at least one short story underway and it takes quite a bit of time to keep them in circulation with the various markets. I’m currently writing an afterword for an upcoming book (I can’t say more—it hasn’t been announced yet).
However, I’m hoping to clear my plate as much as possible to turn my attention to a novel I’ve wanted to write for a while. I thought I was going to get to that on April 1, but it now looks like it will be either mid-April or May before I can start.