Stephen King's visit to the former Texas School Book Depository wasn't morbid, the best-selling author said before Thursday night's fund-raiser at the Majestic Theatre in downtown Dallas. Instead, he felt "a sense of predestination" while touring The Sixth Floor Museum more than three years ago.
Yet his latest book, simply titled 11/22/63 (the day JFK was assassinated), explores the possibility of altering the fates of Lee Harvey Oswald and John F. Kennedy, as its main character, Jake Epping, attempts to rewrite history by traveling back in time using a portal found at a friend's diner.
Although it was just released on Tuesday, King's novel, like many of his others, is already set for adaptation onto the silver screen. Jonathan Demme, the Oscar-winning director of Philadelphia and The Silence of the Lambs, purchased the movie rights a couple months ago. King said his books make great films because his writing process is so visual.
"I really wanted to get a feel for that place," King said about the sixth floor, "and I did."
King also visited Oswald's former residence on West Neely Street in Oak Cliff, Gen. Edwin Walker's home on Turtle Creek Boulevard and Ruth Paine's house in Irving during his weeklong research trip in February 2008. He even spent some time on Greenville Avenue because he was told it was a popular hangout in the 1960s.
"Greenville is a little bit yuppified," he said about the street's current vibe.
Dressed in blue jeans and a white dress shirt, the 64-year-old introduced himself as "Steve King" and said the city of Dallas "opened up" to him during his brief visit -- one of just a handful he's made to this area throughout his career. However, he admitted not interviewing any of the surviving witnesses to the tragedy.
The idea for the book came to him in 1971 during the eighth anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, according to King, which contradicts his previous statements to The Wall Street Journal (1973) and The Dallas Morning News (1972).
"It was as fresh as 9/11 is now," King recalled.
As people began examining the events that led to the incident, King said he realized that there was a great story with "dramatic pop" to be written about it. He wrote 25 pages at the time but abandoned the effort because his writing career had yet to take off at that point and he didn't have the time or resources to perform the required research.
"I wasn't capable then," he said, stressing that there weren't search engines like Google or Bing available at the time.
In hindsight, King said it also wasn't the right time to write a book on that topic, given that Jacqueline Kennedy and her two children were still alive and the emotional wounds were still fresh. "It wouldn't have been right. I didn't know that then, but I know it now."
Surprisingly, King doesn't engage in any conspiracy theories in 11/22/63, suggesting they exist because it was hard to believe "one unimportant man" could kill the president and because Oswald was mysteriously murdered by Jack Ruby.
"I have no bone to pick with the conspiracy theorists," King said. "They're gonna have a bone to pick with me."
King likened his search for the truth to the words uttered to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward by Deep Throat about Watergate: "Follow the money." But, in the case of JFK's assassination, King said he simply followed the gun. The 6.5mm caliber Carcano rifle used to kill Kennedy was ordered by Oswald, picked up by Oswald, stored by Oswald, held by Oswald in a photo and used by Oswald in an assassination attempt on Gen. Walker.
"When you follow the gun, you have to say, 'It was probably Oswald,'" King said.
King didn't reflect much on his reaction to the event, only mentioning that he was 17 years old at the time (actually, though, he was 16) and that he was told about it on his way home from high school. He remembers the driver saying police would find the "son of a bitch who killed Kennedy" and his mother crying out, "That beautiful man is dead," when he returned home, which struck King as odd because his family was staunch Republicans.
Although he acknowledged a couple mistakes in the book, such as misspelling Killeen with one "l" and referring to the radio station KLIF as "K-Life" instead of "Cliff," King said he's "delighted" by how it turned out and ensured "the story was the star."
King, who lives in Maine and has relatives in Plano, said he hasn't spent enough time in the area to comment about how JFK's assassination has shaped Dallas, but he has "no sense of Dallas being a hateful city." He added that the issue has apparently been dealt with and "put to bed."
The fund-raiser at the Majestic helped raise dough for The Sixth Floor Museum, and it was King's second appearance of only five stops on his book tour after a visit to the JFK Library in Boston on Monday. King drops by McKinney North High School tonight at 7 p.m. for a reading and audience Q&A.
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