Damien Echols Tells Us How Stephen King Novels Taught Him to Write

Categories: Writing
damien echols life after deat.jpg
Free but still not quite exonerated, Damien Echols spent half his life in prison -- much on death row -- as punishment for a crime that he has never been linked to with, say, evidence. Many of those years he suffered in solitary confinement, even as the documentaries Paradise Lost and its sequels revealed this injustice to the world.

As he recounts in his new memoir, Life After Death, Echols taught himself meditation, the particulars of a host of religions, and even the one thing that might be truly unteachable: how to write well.

He credits his success with the latter to the years he's spent in the company of Stephen King. Echols has never met or communicated with King -- "I don't know that he knows my story," Echols says -- but it's possible that, after 18 years of incarceration, there's no other adult mind with whom Echols has spent more time. The Voice called Echols to ask about King's influence yesterday.

I heard an interview where you said you learned to write from reading Stephen King novels over and over in prison. You were actually reading these beforehand, too, right?
It goes back to when I was ten or eleven years old. My grandma got one of his books at a garage sale, and I want to say the first of his I ever read was Night Shift. I'm not 100 percent positive, but that's one of the earliest I remember. The reason it sticks out so much is the cover. It had a hand with a bunch of eyes looking out of it, all wrapped in gauze or a bandage. I thought, "What the hell is that?"

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Johnnycompton.com
I remember that. Book covers used to be more lurid.

I think that's what drew my grandma in. I remember her having all of these True Detective magazines, and on the cover of every one it was something like Bettie Page/Klaus Kinski bondage material. You've got this curvy damsel in distress on the cover of every magazine!

The books were the only escape I had. We grew up in an almost obscene level of poverty - there's no reason people in America shouldn't have running water or heat. We lived in a sharecropper's shack in the middle of a field. I didn't have the money to buy books, so the only thing I had was the public library. I would go in and read the Stephen King novels over and over. It got tot the point where the librarians, whenever they got a new one in, they would hold it back for me.

Librarians are often there for outcasts.
They liked me because I was really quiet and read a lot, the two things that are a direct route to a librarian's heart.

Weren't the King books part of the "evidence" that was brought against you?
Absolutely. They brought that up in court. They said, "You put all these things together: The music he's listening to, the book's he's reading, and what you've got is a person with no soul."

Even though these are books by far-and-away this country's most popular author? Why would True Detective have been acceptable in Arkansas in the early 90s, while Stephen King wasn't?
What is he now? The most popular author ever in the history of the world? But people are weird. That's what it comes down to. People. Are. Weird. They used the fact that we listened to Metallica against us. Back then that was dark, scary stuff. Now you hear it played on classic rock stations.

How did you get the books in prison? The library?
No, people sent them. It's almost impossible to get a book from the prison library, and when you do it's going to be something horrific. Somebody donated a box of Harlequin Romances, once.

Did you ever resort to those?
I tried. I read one all the way through. I thought, "That was kind of crappy, but maybe I just got a bad one. I'll try another." So, I did, and about a third of the way through I realized, "This is the exact same book I just read. They changed the names, and they changed it from an Old West setting to a Victorian setting."

Anyway, the prison says you're allowed to have three books at a time. With Stephen King's books, I went through multiple copies of some to them. I tried to save some as a treat, and read them only at certain times of the year. Like Pet Semetary I would hold and save for October-- that was my Halloween treat.

By far the ones I read the most were the Dark Tower series. I probably read the first one in the double digits. It came out before I went to prison. I would read it over and over and think, 'My God, I can't wait for the next one.'

You mentioned once that there was a rhythm to the language that you felt matched up with something in you.
I don't know what the technical term would be for it. You know how when you listen to music and you hear a beat to the song? And you could sit down and maybe write a new song along the beat of the old one? It's the same thing for me when I read. I read these novels until that beat became sort of ingrained in me. So, when I sat down to write, I wrote to that beat.

It's a rhythm, not a style. You never refer to yourself as Big Damien or open with quotes from John Fogerty?
It's not like I tried to match it. It's just that it felt right to me. It's almost like if you dance to a certain beat for years, you can't dance to anything else.

Next: Echols on The Stand, Stephen King's New England, and a story about a haunted house



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20 comments
gottawannabsteve
gottawannabsteve

@damienechols hey, great interview but they forgot to ask you your favorite color BTW do you still enjoy torturing and killing animals and do you think you'll ever kill anymore children?

ikebarrows
ikebarrows

@text_publishing @text_publishing @damienechols I'm getting ready to read all the Dark Tower books.Just got done w/11/22/63

robinson.folan
robinson.folan

The tragedy of life is not that it ends so soon, but that we wait so long to begin it.

ShonaMichel
ShonaMichel

@damienechols this is great ! We want to learn more about you... the case may have decided you but it does not DEFINE you!

AlinaMorrison2
AlinaMorrison2

@damienechols The way you can evoke emotion with your words is a gift. You are the inspiration for other writers as Mr. King was for you!

binska64
binska64

@damienechols King is the best!! Going to see him speak in Lowell next month!! I am more than excited!!

joeltesch
joeltesch

@studiesincrap @damienechols Great interview! Liked the comp of New England to the South re magickal places & summary of Echols' short story

PythiaB
PythiaB

@damienechols Excellent interview. Now I'd like to read the short story you mentioned.

EvoBaBee
EvoBaBee

@damienechols yeah always talking bout the past problems is kinda hard and annoying... great interview!

Jason_Tremper
Jason_Tremper

@damienechols Interesting that you mention the rhythm of a story. It's impossible to miss the lyrical, almost musical feel of your writing.

MattBouchard_
MattBouchard_

@damienechols Is Metallica still your favorite band and have you caught up on their catalog?

JGrant3974
JGrant3974

@damienechols Have you been able to read any of his son's stuff? "Joe Hill" is his son's pseudonym. SK influenced me too.

Hache_L_Jones
Hache_L_Jones

@damienechols Good read. Are you writing again?

dixiemsrebel
dixiemsrebel

@damienechols Great interview!! I too love Stephen King & read his books....he is the master at what he does.

RicciGallagher
RicciGallagher

@damienechols Brilliant interview, thanks for tweeting this.

TheAlmightyOx
TheAlmightyOx

@damienechols ordered "life after death" from states as im too damned impatient to wait for UK release. you're inspirational, man.

mindnumbing_77
mindnumbing_77

@damienechols I know the rhythm you are referring to. Pet Semetary was my first King book back in 4th grade. Long live the King! ;)

kylieab31
kylieab31

@damienechols up to page 105 of ur book.....scarier than any stephen king book ive ever read :/

caulkthewagon
caulkthewagon

@damienechols aw man, my gf's mom's best friend lives in Stephen King's hometown. Let's try to get y'all to meet!

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