Whitney S May Interview

Encountering Pennywise Cover Credit: University Press of Mississippi

Written By: Hayden Claborn, Entertainment Reviewer

Stephen King fans rejoice! In addition to getting two new books from the Master of Horror this year, we also get a whole book dedicated to perhaps his most iconic work. Encountering Pennywise: Critical Perspective on Stephen King’s It is an excellent collection of essays that cover a variety of angles on the classic novel. I was lucky enough to conduct an interview with the book’s editor Whitney S. May, a lecturer for the Department of English at Texas State University whose work can be found in Representing Kink: Fringe Sexuality and Textuality in Literature, Digital Narrative, and Popular Culture and The Big Top on the Big Screen: Explorations of the Circus in Film. In this exclusive interview we talk about Stephen King, capitalism, haunted clown dolls, and everything in between. 

Hayden: What is your Stephen King origin story? 

Whitney: I honestly came to Stephen King by way of clowns. As much as I love Stephen King, it was started entirely by the idea of the scary clown– I feel like you can’t get into scary clowns without finding yourself in King territory. By way of clowns, by way of Pennywise especially. 

Hayden: Was the book your introduction or the miniseries? 

Whitney: I’m sure I saw the miniseries probably in the late ‘90s, early 2000s. I liked the miniseries and I love Tim Curry a lot but I didn’t find it particularly scary. And then I read the novel and loved the novel, and then the reboots came out which are a closer match to the novel. I love the Pennywise in the reboot. It was a journey that way. 

Hayden: How did this come together? The clown thing obviously, but when it comes to Stephen King It doesn’t have much academic analysis. 

Whitney: I read the novel again in an academic setting. And as I was reading it I was in the headspace of the history of capitalism, and was marking “this could be a cool paper” and “this could be a cool paper,” and eventually my copy was just full of post-it notes. I did research on what people have already said about King and many people analyze the miniseries or movie but not the novel. It’s so long and it’s intimidating so there’s not a ton of academic scholarship on the novel exclusively. I saw a bit of a gap there and wanted more people to talk about the novel. I wanted to learn from more people about the novel. I thought a collaborative project was the best way to go, so I put a call out in January 2020 and then of course COVID happened. I began accepting chapters, putting it all together, deciding what goes in; all that good stuff. And then I happened to acquire what is allegedly a haunted clown doll around the same time. 

Hayden: Oh really? 

Whitney: It’s the most bizarre story… I got a clown from someone at a conference… his mom made it for them and they were scared of it. Strange things kept happening around this cloth handmade from around the ‘70s. He said he couldn’t throw it away or donate it in good conscience, so I took it home. I got the clown doll sitting in my room and lightning struck my house. The house burnt down. I have footage of the clown doll totally wrecked. It became the book that had to be finished; nature itself was conspiring against the process. I keep expecting that doll to come back. It’s a wild story. 

Hayden: You were talking earlier about ‘80s capitalism in It, what are some examples of that? 

Whitney: My go-to is the moment when Eddie is thinking about the contents of his medicine cabinet. King spends three paragraphs on descriptions of the medicines. Our eyes were being drawn to brands. There’s also a moment when Bill as an adult is driving back to Derry and looking at the old shopping mall, and he’s contending with how the shopping mall has decayed around him. And we’re seeing at that point King is thinking in the ‘80s the decay of the shopping mall is entering a revamp. There are just so many interesting things: traumas, nostalgias all coming together in this gap between the ‘50s and ‘80s. The reboots echo so clearly now that there’s gotta be something there. 

Hayden: In the book there are four sections: countercurrents, countercultures, counterclaims, and counterfeits. We open up with the essay about the moral panic and from then on we’re getting into more interesting and different interpretations. You’re guiding the reader– was that on your mind when editing? 

Whitney: Thank you, I’m delighted beyond measure that was noticed. It was for sure on my mind. The book gets more complicated and layered as you read. You can read each essay individually, but if you stack them in that order each new lens gets more complex so that the one it ends on by Shannon Shaw about colonialism feels like the grand finale. The order was very deliberate. 

Hayden: A problem with academic texts is that they can be daunting while this book is very accessible. 

Whitney: I pitched it to the publisher as academic…but I also really wanted fans of King to pick it up and have a fun time with it. The point was to have fun.

Hayden: I know it’s hard to pick favorites, but what would be your two favorite essays from the collection? 

Whitney: That is hard. I loved them all for different reasons. I really enjoyed the last one (“Send in the Clowns: Pennywise and the Monstrousness of Colonialism” by Shannon S. Shaw) because it very much felt like a climax of the book. However, for different reasons I really loved (“The Townspeople of Derry in Stephen King’s IT: Bystanders and Responsibility for Evil” by Penny Crofts). It was such an oddball edition and came together so beautifully. She is a legal scholar in Australia and the whole time she was “this isn’t my daily job, I’ve never really written for this kind of avenue” and I was “No, it’s cool. I think this will be really interesting.” At every stage of the project it was very interesting seeing this totally different discipline folding into this multidisciplinary book. It was a fun chapter. 

Hayden: Let’s put Pennywise aside, what is your favorite clown? It doesn’t have to be a scary one. 

Whitney: My favorite clown is Weary Willie. He is the hobo clown you’re probably used to seeing from the ‘30s and ‘40s but got popular again in the ‘50s. He was supposed to be a relic of the Great Depression– his gags were trying to sweep up a stage light thinking he could but never did. There is this feeling of hope in the midst of suffering with him that I find very poignant. I also really enjoyed Twisty the Clown from American Horror Story

Hayden: It was incredible talking to you. Thank you for doing this interview. 

Whitney: No problem. I enjoyed it as well.

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