Russell Dorr, a physician’s assistant who has worked with Stephen King for decades as a consultant and researcher, has a unique, behind-the-scenes perspective on King’s work. Here, he answers questions about their collaboration, friendship, and King’s latest release, Doctor Sleep, reviewed in this issue.
LJ: How did you start working with Stephen King?
RD: Thirty-five years ago, I was in practice in Maine, and Steve came in with food poisoning. He’d listed “author” as his occupation on the form, so I asked him what he wrote.
He said he wrote a book called Carrie, and I asked him what it was about. He said it’s about a young girl who sets things and people on fire. And I said, oh, that’s nice. Have you written anything else? And he said he had a book called Salem’s Lot coming out the next week that was about vampires invading a small Maine town.
We were both young, and we’d run into each other around town and got to be friendly. I was working on a master’s degree and asked him to come talk to my class, then he asked me to help him. He was working on a book about a virus that was going to kill off 98 percent of the world’s population—would I read it? I was taking three courses and it was 1,500 pages long! I didn’t have time, but I told him I’d sit down and help him craft the virus and figure out how it would morph over time.
Then I started reading whole books. Back then, he’d hand me a typewritten manuscript. I’d read it and put in changes for the medical stuff. I can’t even remember all the books. I didn’t touch every book, but I did work on most of them.
I’ve morphed from being a medical consultant to being his research associate. For Under the Dome, he approached me ahead of time with an idea for a story—a small Maine town that would be sealed off for months—and asked me to think of all the ramifications…food sources, energy, medical issues. He’d send me 50 pages at a time as he wrote, I’d give notes, then he’d send the rewrites to me. And he’d have questions on the fly: How do you build a nuclear warhead? What’s the most corrosive acid?
With 11/22/63, he had this idea about going back in time, so I started doing research six months before he started writing. I had a huge three-ring binder that was as big as the book. Since it was historical fiction, I had time lines for [Lee Harvey] Oswald’s locations and so on. It was a lot of work but also a lot of fun.
What research methods do you use?
A bunch of sources. I use reference books at the library. The Internet is very good, but like in All the President’s Men, I make sure I have three independent sources. Not everything is true out there.
And I have people I can contact. In Under the Dome, there’s a scene where a cruise missile [is] aimed at the Dome. It’s going to be released from a B-52. So I called a retired air force colonel who had flown B-52s to find out where they keep the planes, how long it would take to get one, that sort of thing.
What is the most difficult research question King has asked you?
He wanted to know where this fellow General Walker had lived in the Dallas area. He was the first person Oswald had tried to assassinate. I spent three or four days researching. I couldn’t sleep at night. I just could not find him. It wasn’t essential to the story. If I couldn’t find the address, it would be okay, but I really wanted to get it.
Luckily, my partner, who’s in real estate, has access to websites with old tax records. I finally found the address on a tax receipt from 1963.
What’s the most disgusting thing he’s ever asked you to research?
The most disgusting thing was how to make [methamphetamine]. It’s a side story in Under the Dome. There’s a character who was cooking crystal meth. I told him I had a problem with it, but he said we weren’t going to make it a cookbook, he just wanted to make sure we got the ingredients right, that kind of thing. I’m just not into drugs. That really turned me off.
Also, I thought Pet Sematary was just a horrible story about child death. I told him he shouldn’t publish it. He laughed when I said it, but that was a really tough story.
What can you tell us about Doctor Sleep? [note: answer contains spoilers]
His books are sort of like a seven-layer dip. There’s plenty there for the fanatic who likes his scary stuff and gore. But you also have a story about a struggling recovering alcoholic. The main character [Danny Torrance, who was a little boy in The Shining] works in a hospice. There are these creatures, the Tribe, who kill children who have “shining” powers. They capture the dying breath and store it in a sort of steam. They live for centuries by breathing the steam. One of the children they kill is sick with the measles, and it’s the measles that ends up killing the Tribe.
It’s pretty well known how the measles virus affects the body, but we had to figure out how it would affect these creature-people and morph inside their bodies and how to make it plausible. He weaves this stuff into a tapestry that people will believe and care about.
You have such an intimate look at his upcoming releases. Do you have to sign nondisclosure agreements for the books you work on?
No, of course not! This is Maine, not New York City.
Is there anything you’d like people to know about Stephen King?
He’s a very regular guy. We’ve been buddies for years. His wife called the day after his accident [in 1999, King was hit by a van while taking a walk and suffered extensive injuries to his legs and hips] and we spent three weeks together. He was a huge help to me when my wife was dying of cancer. He’s a very nice guy.