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

Categories: Writing
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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?"

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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