It is a back-to-the-future idea: a serialized novel appearing in monthly installments, just like Charles Dickens used to write and written by an author with the kind of following today that Dickens had a century and a half ago.
The author is Stephen King, and the novel is “The Green Mile,” a Depression-era death-row thriller appearing on bookstore shelves in six once-a-month installments starting this week.
For King, who lives near Bangor, Maine, and is already the author of 30 novels and a half-dozen story collections, the idea “struck a bright spark in my imagination.” From the serialized stories in the Saturday Evening Post of his childhood, he has “always loved stories told in episodes.”
He can’t but love the serialized salary, too: King reportedly will get a cool $1 million for each of the six installments. For the first 75-page book, that computes to $13,333 a page.
Each serial will have a first printing of 2.6 million copies in a thin, 4-by-7-inch paperback reminiscent of chapbooks, the smaller-than-average books in which 19th-century serial novels appeared.
With a $6 million advance, King is in the same league with celebrity authors like retired Gen. Colin Powell ($6 million for his memoirs) and actress Joan Collins ($1.3 million for a book that publisher Random House called too awful to publish).
“We leapt at the chance to do it,” said Elaine Koster, Dutton Signet publisher and executive vice president. “It’s so fresh an idea.”
And while it seems a bit like a publishing gimmick - as was the anonymous author of “Primary Colors,” the best-selling novel based on the 1992 Clinton campaign - publisher Koster says it has been “a learning experience for all of us.”
Not only are there the logistics of getting 2.6 million copies on the shelves for six different one-day “laydowns” - the trade term for putting a book into stores - but also the fact that the final installment is still somewhere in King’s creative process.
“It’s due in two weeks,” said Koster, adding in a classic of understatement, “I’m dying to read it.”
King started thinking about the project after a casual comment on Dickens from British publisher Malcom Edwards when he was a house guest at the Long Island home of King’s foreign rights agent, Ralph Vicinanza. The author actually put aside several other projects to tackle “The Green Mile” and is now on location in Colorado overseeing the filming of a television movie based on his novel “The Shining.”
In a charmingly personal letter to his readers that appears in the first installment, King says the serial idea attracted him partly because he remembers being appalled at his mother “peeking at the end of an Agatha Christie paperback while her finger held her actual place around page 50.” He also recalls his own pleasure in reading the Saturday Evening Post serials and feeling “an almost equal participant with the writer.”
During the writing process, the story line has evolved, “little by little,” King has said in media statements. It started as a story about a convicted killer on a Southern penitentiary death row who thought he might be able to escape if he learned magic.
“His last trick,” King has said, “after he’d made all these coins and oranges and apples disappear, was, before he was executed, to make himself disappear.”
There are no magic tricks in the first installment, “The Two Dead Girls.” It is a 72-page scene-setter that introduces the main characters: the narrator, the chief guard on the prison’s death row who is afflicted with a painful urinary infection, and the convict, sentenced to death for the rape and murder of 9-year-old twins.
“I couldn’t help it, Boss,” he tells the guard. “I tried to take it back, but it was too late.”
Equally important as characters are “Old Sparky,” the electric chair that sits in a corner of the prison’s tool-storage shed with its metal cap “usually hung jauntily on the back of the chair, like some robot kid’s beanie in a Buck Rogers comic strip,” and Mr. Jingles, another convict’s pet mouse.
King is setting the stage for Mr. Jingles’ key role in the final installment with a television spot airing next week, in which a real mouse crawls up his arm and sits on his shoulder.
As for Old Sparky, King writes in the letter to his readers that the electric chair “has fascinated me ever since my first James Cagney movie, and the first Death Row tales I ever read (in ‘Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing,’ by Warden Lewis E. Lawes) fired the darker side of my imagination.”
As for the process of writing a novel in six installments, King has compared it to frosting a cake.
“You’ve got the frosting in a bowl, and you’ve got the cake on a plate and you’re saying to yourself: I hope that I have enough to frost the last side, and I hope I don’t have so much left over that I have to make cupcakes and frost them.”
Plans call for each of the first five installments to be priced at $2.99. The sixth will run about 140 pages and sell for $3.99. There is also a Green Mile web site (http:/ /www.greenmile.com) that features a preview of the book, an interview with King, and an e-mail function for readers to send their comments about the book back to King.