How Stephen King's Wife Saved Carrie  and Launched His Career

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How the master of horror got his first big break—and how his wife inspired him.

It was 1973, and Stephen King’s pockets were empty. He lived in a doublewide trailer and drove a rust-bucket Buick held together with baling wire and duct tape. King’s wife, Tabby, worked second-shift at Dunkin’ Donuts while he taught English at Hampden Academy, a private high school in eastern Maine. To scrape by, King worked summers at an industrial laundry and moonlighted as a janitor and gas pump attendant. With a toddler and a newborn to feed, money—and time to write fiction—were hard to come by.

King couldn't even afford his own typewriter; he had to use Tabby’s Olivetti from college. She set up a makeshift desk in the laundry room, fitting it snugly between the washing machine and the dryer. Each evening, while Tabby changed diapers and cooked dinner, King ignored the ungraded papers in his briefcase and locked himself in the laundry room to write.

The early returns weren’t promising. King mailed his short stories to men’s magazines like Playboy, Cavalier, and Penthouse. When he was lucky, every once in a while, a small check would turn up in the mailbox. It was just enough money to keep the King family off of welfare.

One day, the head of Hampden’s English department gave King an offer he couldn’t refuse. The debate club needed a new faculty advisor, and the job was his for the taking. It would pay an extra $300 per year—not much, but enough to cover the family’s grocery bill for 10 weeks.

The lure of extra income enticed King, and when he came home, he thought Tabby would share his enthusiasm about the news. But she wasn’t so convinced. “Will you have time to write?” she asked.

“Not much,” King said. 

Tabby told him, “Well, then you can’t take it.”

So King turned down the job. It was a good call. Within a year, he would write his way out of that trailer with a bestseller called Carrie

A Pair of Writers

There’s a running joke at the King dinner table that Stephen married Tabby only because she had a typewriter.

“That’s only partly true,” King laughed in 2003. “I married her because I loved her and because we got on as well out of bed as in it. The typewriter was a factor, though.”

Growing up, neither of them had much. When King was two, his father went out to buy a pack of cigarettes and never came back, leaving his mother to raise two boys on her own. Meanwhile, Tabby was one of eight children from a modest Catholic family. The two met at the University of Maine in the '60s, fell in love while attending each other’s poetry readings, and married soon after graduation. King had to borrow a suit, tie, and shoes for the wedding.

Both of them dreamed of making it someday as writers, but during their first year together, they amassed a collection of rejections instead. Tabby wrote the first book of their marriage, a set of poetry titled Grimier, that publishers liked but not quite enough to publish. Stephen’s luck was no better. He penned three novels that barely made it out of his desk drawer. (Those manuscripts—Rage, The Long Walk, and Blaze—were published years later.)

King flourished in the nudie mag market, though. Most of his stories were buried behind centerfolds in Cavalier, a magazine that had also featured Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Roald Dahl. Science fiction and horror, for some reason, complemented two-page spreads of buxom blondes, which gained King a meager reputation as a men’s writer and sharp criticism from readers.  “You write all those macho things,” one reader told him. “But you can’t write about women. You’re scared of women.”

King took that as a challenge. The fire for Carrie was lit. 

Creating Carrie

Carrie is the story of Carrie White, a homely highschooler who can control objects with her mind. One day during gym class, she starts having her first period. Long sheltered by an oppressively religious mother, Carrie doesn’t know what’s happening to her—she thinks she’s bleeding to death. Bullies taunt and tease Carrie, but the newfound surge of hormones gives her telekinetic powers, and she uses them to exact revenge on the kids who make her life hell. 

The idea for the novel came to King in a daydream. He had remembered an article about telekinesis in LIFE magazine, which said that if the power existed, it was strongest in adolescent girls. King’s background as a high school janitor also flashed to mind, specifically the day when he had to clean rust stains in the girls’ showers. He had never been in a girls’ bathroom before, and seeing tampon dispensers on the wall was like visiting a distant planet.

The two memories collided. King knew it could make a decent short story for Cavalier. Playboy was a possibility, too. Hef’s magazine paid better, and the Buick needed a new transmission.

King modeled Carrie White after two of the loneliest girls he remembered from high school. One was a timid epileptic with a voice that always gurgled with phlegm. Her fundamentalist mother kept a life-size crucifix in the living room, and it was clear to King that the thought of it followed her down the halls. The second girl was a loner. She wore the same outfit every day, which drew cruel taunts.

By the time King wrote Carrie, both of those girls were dead. The first died alone after a seizure. The second suffered from postpartum depression and, one day, aimed a rifle at her stomach and pulled the trigger. “Very rarely in my career have I explored more distasteful territory,” King wrote, reflecting on how both of them were treated. 

These tragedies made Carrie all the more difficult to write. When King started, he typed three single-spaced pages, crumpled them up in anger, and dumped them in the trashcan. He was disappointed in himself. His critics were right—he couldn’t write from a woman’s perspective. The whole story disgusted him, too. Carrie White was an annoying, ready-made victim. Worse yet, the plot was already moving too slowly, which meant the finished product would be too long for any magazine.

“I couldn’t see wasting two weeks, maybe even a month, creating a novella I didn’t like and wouldn’t be able to sell,” King wrote in his memoir On Writing. “So I threw it away … After all, who wanted to read a book about a poor girl with menstrual problems?"

The next day, Tabby went to empty the trash in the laundry room and found three crinkled balls of paper. She reached in, brushed off a coat of cigarette ashes, and unwrinkled the pages. When King came home from work, she still had them.

“You’ve got something here,” she said. “I really think you do.” Over the next few weeks, Tabby guided her husband through the world of women, giving tips on how to mold the characters and the famous shower scene. Nine months later, King had polished off the final draft.

Thirty publishers rejected it.

Published at Last 

It was fifth period at Hampden Academy, and just as he did during every other fifth period, King was groggily grading papers in the teacher’s lounge, thinking about how nice it would be to take a nap. A voice boomed over the lounge PA system. It was the office secretary. 

“Stephen King, are you there? Stephen King?” King reached for the intercom and said he was there. “Please come to the office,” she said. “You have a phone call. It’s your wife.”

King raced to the office. Tabby never called him at work. Tabby never called him anywhere—they didn’t have a telephone. They had removed it to save money. To make a call, Tabby would have had to dress up the kids, drag them to the neighbors’ house, and call from there. That kind of hassle meant something either terrible or amazing had happened. When King picked up the phone, both he and Tabby were out of breath. She told him that the editor at Doubleday Publishing, Bill Thompson, had sent a telegram:  

“CONGRATULATIONS. CARRIE OFFICIALLY A DOUBLEDAY BOOK. IS $2500 ADVANCE OKAY? THE FUTURE LIES AHEAD. LOVE, BILL.”

King had broken through. The $2500 advance wasn’t huge—not enough to quit teaching and pursue writing full time—but it was the most money he had ever made from writing. King used the advance to buy a shiny Ford Pinto and moved his family out of the trailer and into a dumpy four-room apartment in Bangor, Maine. They suddenly had money for groceries. They even could afford a telephone.

King hoped that fat royalty checks would keep replenishing his bank account, but Carrie only sold 13,000 copies as a hardback, tepid sales that convinced him to grudgingly sign a new teaching contract for the 1974 school year. He started a new novel called The House on Value Street, and, by Mother’s Day, he figured Carrie had run its course. It was the last thing on his mind. 

One phone call changed all that. It was Bill Thompson again. “Are you sitting down?” he asked.

King was home alone, standing in the doorway between his kitchen and living room. “Do I need to?” he said.

“You might," Thompson said. "The paperback rights to Carrie went to Signet Books for $400,000 ... 200K of it’s yours. Congratulations, Stephen.”

King’s legs wobbled and gave out. He sat on the floor, shaking with excitement from winning the literary lottery—and there was no one home to share the news with. Tabby had taken both kids to their grandmother’s house. To celebrate, he felt compelled to buy Tabby a Mother’s Day present. He wanted to buy her something luxurious, something unforgettable. King raced to downtown Bangor. It was Sunday and every shop was closed except for a drug store. So he bought Tabby the best thing he could find—a hairdryer. 

King quit teaching and Tabby stopped peddling pastries. And three years later, King bought Tabby another present. He visited swanky Manhattan jewelry store Cartier and bought her an engagement ring. They had been married for six years.

A Bonafide Hit

Carrie sold over 1 million copies in its first year as a paperback despite a mixed critical response. The New York Times was impressed, considering it was a first novel, while Library Journal called it “terribly overdone.” Falling somewhere in the middle, the critic at the Wilson Library Journal said, “It’s pure trash, but I loved it.” Forty years later, even King is critical of his debut. “It reminds me of a cookie baked by a first grader,” he later said. “Tasty enough, but kind of lumpy and burned on the bottom.”

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The book-buying public was more enthusiastic—Carrie was a hit. The novel struck a sympathetic chord with teens and adults who knew what it was like to be an outsider. In 1975, it was adapted into a profitable feature film, which sparked a sequel a decade later and a remake in 2013. The story has also been adapted for TV and the stage (although the 1988 Broadway production was a forgettable flop). 

King made Carrie, and Carrie made King. Now the 19th best-selling author of all time, King won the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003 and was invited to speak at the National Book Awards. When he spoke, he didn’t talk about writing or success or money. He talked about the woman who rescued Carrie from the trash and insisted he keep going—Tabby. 

“There is a time in the lives of most writers when they are vulnerable, when the vivid dreams and ambitions of childhood seem to pale in the harsh sunlight of what we call the real world,” King said at the ceremony. “In short, there’s a time when things can go either way. That vulnerable time for me came during 1971 to 1973. If my wife had suggested to me even with love and kindness and gentleness ... that the time had come to put my dreams away and support my family, I would have done that with no complaint.”

But the thought never crossed her mind. And if you open any edition of Carrie, you’ll read the same dedication: “This is for Tabby, who got me into it—and then bailed me out of it.” 

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BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images

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7 Pieces of Reading Advice From History’s Greatest Minds

When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
Lucien Aigner/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If there’s one thing that unites philosophers, writers, politicians, and scientists across time and distance, it’s the belief that reading can broaden your worldview and strengthen your intellect better than just about any other activity. When it comes to choosing what to read and how to go about it, however, opinions start to diverge. From Virginia Woolf’s affinity for wandering secondhand bookstores to Theodore Roosevelt’s rejection of a definitive “best books” list, here are seven pieces of reading advice to help you build an impressive to-be-read (TBR) pile.

1. Read books from eras past // Albert Einstein

albert einstein at home circa 1925
Albert Einstein poses at home in 1925 with a mix of old and new books.
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Keeping up with current events and the latest buzz-worthy book from the bestseller list is no small feat, but Albert Einstein thought it was vital to leave some room for older works, too. Otherwise, you’d be “completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of [your] times,” he wrote in a 1952 journal article [PDF].

“Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses,” he wrote.

2. Don’t jump too quickly from book to book // Seneca

seneca the younger
Seneca the Younger, ready to turn that unwavering gaze on a new book.
The Print Collector via Getty Images

Seneca the Younger, a first-century Roman Stoic philosopher and trusted advisor of Emperor Nero, believed that reading too wide a variety in too short a time would keep the teachings from leaving a lasting impression on you. “You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind,” he wrote in a letter to Roman writer Lucilius.

If you’re wishing there were a good metaphor to illustrate this concept, take your pick from these gems, courtesy of Seneca himself:

“Food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong. There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.”

3. Shop at secondhand bookstores // Virginia Woolf

virginia woolf
Virginia Woolf wishing she were in a bookstore.
Culture Club/Getty Images

In her essay “Street Haunting,” Virginia Woolf described the merits of shopping in secondhand bookstores, where the works “have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

According to Woolf, browsing through used books gives you the chance to stumble upon something that wouldn’t have risen to the attention of librarians and booksellers, who are often much more selective in curating their collections than secondhand bookstore owners. To give us an example, she imagined coming across the shabby, self-published account of “a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it.”

“In this random miscellaneous company,” she wrote, “we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.”

4. You can skip outdated scientific works, but not old literature // Edward Bulwer-Lytton

edward bulwer-lytton
An 1831 portrait of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, smug at the thought of people reading his novels for centuries to come.
The Print Collector/Getty Images

Though his novels were immensely popular during his lifetime, 19th-century British novelist and Parliamentarian Edward Bulwer-Lytton is now mainly known for coining the phrase It was a dark and stormy night, the opening line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. It’s a little ironic that Bulwer-Lytton’s books aren’t very widely read today, because he himself was a firm believer in the value of reading old literature.

“In science, read, by preference, the newest works; in literature, the oldest,” he wrote in his 1863 essay collection, Caxtoniana. “The classic literature is always modern. New books revive and redecorate old ideas; old books suggest and invigorate new ideas.”

To Bulwer-Lytton, fiction couldn't ever be obsolete, because it contained timeless themes about human nature and society that came back around in contemporary works; in other words, you can’t disprove fiction. You can, however, disprove scientific theories, so Bulwer-Lytton thought it best to stick to the latest works in that field. (That said, since scientists use previous studies to inform their work, you can still learn a ton about certain schools of thought by delving into debunked ideas—plus, it’s often really entertaining to see what people used to believe.) 

5. Check out authors’ reading lists for book recommendations // Mortimer J. Adler

mortimer j. adler in 1983
Mortimer J. Adler in 1983, happy to read the favorite works of his favorite authors.
George Rose/Getty Images

In his 1940 guide How to Read a Book, American philosopher Mortimer J. Adler talked about the importance of choosing books that other authors consider worth reading. “The great authors were great readers,” he explained, “and one way to understand them is to read the books they read.”

Adler went on to clarify that this would probably matter most in the philosophy field, “because philosophers are great readers of each other,” and it’s easier to grasp a concept if you also know what inspired it. While you don’t necessarily have to read everything a novelist has read in order to fully understand their own work, it’s still a good way to get quality book recommendations from a trusted source. If your favorite author mentions a certain novel that really made an impression on them, there’s a pretty good chance you’d enjoy it, too.

6. Reading so-called guilty pleasures is better than reading nothing // Mary Wollstonecraft

mary wollstonecraft in 1797
Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, apparently demonstrating that a book with blank pages is worth even less than a novel.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

To the 18th-century writer, philosopher, and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, just about all novels fell into the category of “guilty pleasures” (though she didn’t call them that). In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she disparaged the “stupid novelists, who, knowing little of human nature, work up stale tales, and describe meretricious scenes, all retailed in a sentimental jargon, which equally tend to corrupt the taste and draw the heart aside from its daily duties.”

If her judgment seems unnecessarily harsh, it’s probably because it’s taken out of its historical context. Wollstonecraft definitely wasn’t the only one who considered novels to be low-quality reading material compared to works of history and philosophy, and she was also indirectly criticizing society for preventing women from seeking more intellectual pursuits. If 21st-century women were confined to watching unrealistic, highly edited dating shows and frowned upon for trying to see 2019’s Parasite or the latest Ken Burns documentary, we might sound a little bitter, too.

Regardless, Wollstonecraft still admitted that even guilty pleasures can help expand your worldview. “Any kind of reading I think better than leaving a blank still a blank, because the mind must receive a degree of enlargement, and obtain a little strength by a slight exertion of its thinking powers,” she wrote. In other words, go forth and enjoy your beach read.

7. You get to make the final decision on how, what, and when to read // Theodore Roosevelt

theodore roosevelt in office in 1905
Theodore Roosevelt pauses for a quick photo before getting back to his book in 1905.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Theodore Roosevelt might have lived his own life in an exceptionally regimented fashion, but his outlook on reading was surprisingly free-spirited. Apart from being a staunch proponent of finding at least a few minutes to read every single day—and starting young—he thought that most of the details should be left up to the individual.

“The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be,” he wrote in his autobiography, and rejected the idea that there’s a definitive “best books” list that everyone should abide by. Instead, Roosevelt recommended choosing books on subjects that interest you and letting your mood guide you to your next great read. He also wasn’t one to roll his eyes at a happy ending, explaining that “there are enough horror and grimness and sordid squalor in real life with which an active man has to grapple.”

In short, Roosevelt would probably advise you to see what Seneca, Albert Einstein, Mary Wollstonecraft, and other great minds had to say about reading, and then make your own decisions in the end.