Writer Stephen King makes much of the importance of the Ideal Reader (in his case, wife Tabitha King) in his memoir On Writing, but he doesn’t talk much about his reliance on his good right hand.
King’s hand is Russ Dorr, a mild-mannered physician’s assistant who has been at Sir Stephen’s side since just after Carrie came out in 1974. I ran into Mr. Dorr last month as part of the New Hampshire Writers Project’s annual “Writer’s Day.” Dorr and King hooked up when the author fell ill and came in for a doctor’s appointment. They hit it off, and King asked Dorr for some advice about a book he was writing (a super flu kills 98 percent of the population and spawns dueling religious cults). More consultations followed.
“He’d write a book -- it would be his first draft – and he’d ask me to take a look at it,” Dorr said. “We started with the manuscript typed. He’d give it to me, and I’d read it. And I’d make corrections or suggestions. Then he’d do a second draft, and the book would be published.”
Dorr said King usually takes his advice, but there are exceptions. In one notable case, Dorr asked King to scrap a book entirely. “Pet Semetery. I told him it was a horrible story and [that he] shouldn’t publish.” Dorr said. “He laughed.” Still, Dorr said, even King gets uneasy at some of the things he has to do to make a story work. “In Cujo, he did not want to kill that boy, but he said he had to do it.”
The men’s working relationship has changed over the years. Nowadays, King is as likely to consult Dorr before writing as he is to send him pages afterwards. Recent examples of this are Under the Dome and 11/22/63. Dorr said King came to him with a rough outline about what Under the Dome was going to be about and asked the PA to do research about what kind of problems might crop in a sealed city. “I gave him a three-ring notebook full of research,” Dorr said. “He said, ‘How do you know what I need before I know what I need?’ I said, ‘Steve, we’ve been buddies a long time. I know what you’re going to need for this story’.”
Dorr traveled to Dallas, Texas for extensive on-the-ground research for King’s time-travel novel 11/22/63. “I met a woman in Fort Worth who’d met [Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey] Oswald’s wife. He’d come to the night before the assassination to plead for her to come back to him. She didn’t. Imagine how history might have changed if she had.”
Dorr said King relies heavily on research to ground his books, making the fantastic seem feasible. “He takes these threads or reality and weaves them together in a way that makes you accept the fiction.”
Dorr said he’s looking forward to many future King collaborations, but stayed mum on any current projects.