The Green Mile by Stephen King
Foreword: A Letter
Dear Constant Reader,
Life is a capricious business. The story which begins in this little book exists in this form because of a chance remark made by a realtor I have never met. This happened a year ago, on Long Island. Ralph Vicinanza, a long-time friend and business associate of mine (what he does mostly is to sell foreign publishing rights for books and stories), had just rented a house there. The realtor remarked that the house “looked like something out of a story by Charles Dickens.”
The remark was still on Ralph’s mind when he welcomed his first houseguest, British publisher Malcolm Edwards. He repeated it to Edwards, and they began chatting about Dickens. Edwards mentioned that Dickens had published many of his novels in installments, either folded into magazines or by themselves as chapbooks, (I don’t know the origin of this word, meaning a smaller-than-average book, but have always loved its air of intimacy and friendliness). Some of the novels, Edwards added, were actually written and revised in the shadow of publication; Charles Dickens was one novelist apparently not afraid of a deadline.
Dickens’s serialized novels were immensely popular; so popular, in fact, that one of them precipitated a tragedy in Baltimore. A large group of Dickens fans crowded onto a waterfront dock, anticipating the arrival of an English ship with copies of the final installment of The Old Curiosity Shop on board. According to the story, several would-be readers were jostled into the water and drowned.
I don’t think either Malcolm. or Ralph wanted anyone drowned, but they were curious as to what would happen if serial publication were tried again today. Neither was immediately aware that it has happened (there really is nothing new under the sun) on at least two occasions. Tom Wolfe published the first draft of his novel Bonfire of the Vanities serially
in Rolling Stone magazine, and Michael McDowell (The Amulet, Gilded Needles, The Elementals, and the screenplay Beetlejuice) published a novel called Blackwater in paperback installments. That novel – a horror story about a Southern family with the unpleasant familial trait of turning into alligators – was not McDowell’s best, but enjoyed good success for Avon Books, all the same.
The two men further speculated about what might happen if a writer of popular fiction were to try issuing a novel in chapbook editions today – little paperbacks that might sell for a pound or two in Britain, or perhaps three dollars in America (where most paperbacks now sell for $6.99 or $7.99). Someone like Stephen King might make an interesting go of such an experiment, Malcolm said, and from there the conversation moved on to other topics.
Ralph more or less forgot the idea, but it recurred to him in the fall of 1995, following his return from the Frankfurt Book Fair, a kind of international trade show where every day is a showdown for foreign agents like Ralph. He broached the serialization/ chapbook idea to me along with a number of other matters, most of which were automatic turndowns.
The chapbook idea was not an automatic turndown, though; unlike the interview in the Japanese Playboy or the all-expenses-paid tour of the Baltic Republics, it struck a bright spark in my imagination. I don’t think that I am a modern Dickens-if such a person exists, it is probably John Irving or Salman Rushdie – but I have always loved stories told in episodes.