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Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: Catching up with Stephen King’s Maryland collaborator, Richard Chizmar | COMMENTARY

Another book by Stephen King went into official release this week, which is akin to reporting a full moon. But there’s a twist. The latest King book, “Gwendy’s Final Task,” comes with a double byline. Unless you’ve been closely following King’s career, you might not be aware that the Maine-based master of horror stories sometimes takes on a collaborator. This time it’s Richard Chizmar of Bel Air, Maryland.

In fact, Chizmar has collaborated with King on writing projects before. It’s a long story, and about time we caught up.

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Chizmar, a Harford County native, has been cranking out thousands of his own words — in novels, novellas, short stories — since he was a college student. He established his own publishing house, Cemetery Dance, in 1988, and it’s still going strong as a specialized press. In fact, it’s the publisher of “Gwendy’s Final Task,” the third of a trilogy with King, along with hundreds of works by numerous writers of horror, mysteries, crime and suspense.

The first book in the “Gwendy” series was “Gwendy’s Button Box,” published in 2017, a dark fairy tale about a 12-year-old girl, Gwendy Peterson, who receives a magical box from a stranger in King’s fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine.

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I asked Chizmar how the collaboration on that book came about. Turns out, the prolific King asked him for help. “I had a story I couldn’t finish,” King explained at the time. So he tossed a draft to Chizmar and Chizmar took off with it, writing another 10,000 words. The two writers went back and forth with drafts. “Next thing you know,” Chizmar said, “we had a full-length novella on our hands.” A good one, too. It made the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists.

The Gwendy character seemed a natural for a sequel, so “Gwendy’s Magic Feather” came out in 2019. But Chizmar flew solo on that mission; King only wrote the foreword. I asked why.

“I woke up one morning with a very clear picture inside my head regarding what Gwendy Peterson had been doing with her life since the end of the first book,” Chizmar explained in an email exchange. “I wrote Steve and said, ‘What if Gwendy was a newly-elected member of Congress, and the button box showed up in her D.C. office one day?’ He wrote back: ‘That’s a terrific idea. I’ll be busy with Holly Gibney [a character in another series of King novels] for the foreseeable future, but you should write it.’

“I took that to mean, ‘Go ahead and write the first pass, Rich, and I’ll come back later and do a pass or two and make you look good.’ But that’s not what Steve meant. When I sent him the finished manuscript a few months later, his response was essentially, ‘This is good to go. I’ll do a quick editorial pass if you want, but this book is all you.’ His notes were minor but very helpful, mainly just killing some adverbs and improving clarity in a handful of spots. I never in a million years expected to fly solo with ‘Gwendy’s Magic Feather.’ It just turned out that way.”

For the latest book, “Gwendy’s Final Task,” the two men returned to a shared credit.

I asked Chizmar how this happens, a collaboration on fiction. For works of nonfiction — history, biography, narrative journalism — it’s easy to imagine authors sharing the research and writing duties, chapter by chapter. But how do two writers of horror and supernatural fiction have a meeting of minds on storyline, characters and prose?

“One of us writes a chunk of pages and sends it to the other,” Chizmar said. “The other picks up and writes his own chunk of pages, then sends it back. Back and forth it goes, a kind of literary pingpong via email. It requires a lot of trust and confidence and a sense of fun for both writers. Steve and I never even discussed what we felt came next. We each had complete freedom to take the story wherever we felt it needed to go.”

Note the word “fun,” because that’s what it sounds like, especially if your writing mate is a guy with an otherworldly imagination, who has authored some 63 books, written numerous short stories and screenplays, and had sales in the hundreds of millions.

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And especially if you’re kindred spirits. Especially if you’ve become friends over the years.

The span of time in the “Gwendy” trilogy is more than 50 years. The first book was set in 1974. The new one takes place in 2026, with Gwendy a U.S. senator.

While King and Chizmar collaborated on the final “Gwendy” book, they were each working on novels. King’s “Billy Summers” came out in August as did an unusual turn on crime fiction by Chizmar.

Set in Edgewood, Chizmar’s hometown, “Chasing The Boogeyman” (Gallery Books) is about a serial killer in the late 1980s. Chizmar almost fools the reader into believing he’s written a memoir about horrors that took place one summer in Harford County. The book even comes with black-and-white photographs of people who are supposedly the key figures in the mystery. If you picked up “Chasing The Boogeyman” in a bookstore and thumbed through it, missing the word “novel” on the jacket, you might think it was from the true crime genre. It’s not. All but the settings are fiction — and a good read — from Stephen King’s buddy in Maryland.


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