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Onyx interviews: Owen King

Owen KingOwen King is the youngest of the three children of novelists Stephen and Tabitha King. He has been writing since he was a kid in Bangor, Maine, but started considering it as a possible profession in high school. “That was around that time that I realized that my prospects as a pro ball player were probably not so bright.” His first published work was a poem in his high school literary magazine. “It was a deeply emotional—not to mention ill-considered—verse that I produced in response to being dumped for a hockey player. Unfortunately, a friend of mine still has a copy of it.” A few years before that, Hasbro named a GI Joe figure after him. “Sneak Peek. I'm not sure what his specialty is. He comes with a big telescope thingy, though. Maybe he's supposed to be the GI Joe voyeur.”

After high school, he attended Vassar College and subsequently received a Masters in Fine Arts from Columbia University in New York. Writing programs aren’t for everyone, he says. “For instance, if you want to write straight genre stories—hard sci-fi, noir detective stories, Cthulhu horror stories—you'll have a real uphill battle on your hands. Writers like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem have helped open some literary doors for genre writing, but if you've got an orc in your story, things generally aren't going to go well for you in a writing program. That said, I loved Columbia. I had wonderful teachers who focused very hard on the details, on the precision of good writing, and helped coax work out of me that I'm very proud of. There's a school of criticism that hates MFA programs, and for the life of me, I'll never understand why. For most people good writing isn't the product of genius. Life experience informs great stories, but you also need to write well. That takes practice, and it takes criticism. An MFA program is a place to get both.”

Now, writing is his day job. “To me that encompasses more than just sitting down to write stories—it includes correspondence, research, and most of all, reading as much as possible. I do tend to push really when I'm inspired, working four or five hours at a time, and then I like to let stories lie around for awhile before I rewrite. It's been my experience that everything is clearer with a degree of distance.”

He is the recipient of the John Gardner Award, which he called a confidence booster, and his story “Wonders” was nominated for a National Magazine Award. “Sometimes even the smallest award will catch the attention of someone who can help you [in your writing career].” He recommends that aspiring writers focus at least some of their submissions on contests. “The world of journals, literary and genre, is very incestuous. While it's obviously nigh on impossible to get a story into the New Yorker off a slush pile, it's not exactly a piece of cake to get one into the Old Tire Review either. Understandably, readers and editors want to champion their favorites. When you submit to a contest, however, the process is entirely blind.”

We’re All in This Together is his first book-length publication, a collection from Bloomsbury USA consisting of a novella and four short stories that has been favorably reviewed in Publishers Weekly. His publisher has presented the book on its own terms without invoking the names of his famous parents. King acknowledges that story collections by unknown authors are a hard sell these days. “I did get my MFA at Columbia, which is credited as being one of the better writing programs around, and as much as it helped me improve as a writer, I also think that the pedigree helped get my manuscript a little more notice. A lot of people will also tell you that being Stephen King's son didn't hurt, and in terms of raising the curiosity of editors, I'm sure that's true. However, bearing in mind that I don't write genre stories—like Anne Rice's son, for instance—anyone who thinks my book was sold the minute it hit the mail doesn't know the first thing about publishing.”

The stories are set in different periods, though the eras are generally unspecified in the text. “There are a few markers in the historical stories which I hope inform the general time. For instance, in ‘Wonders,’ the movies are talkies. So, you know it's sometime after The Jazz Singer, and since no one mentions it, before World War II. So, it's the 1930's. The story is meant to explain the time—of segregation, of the golden days of Coney Island—as the narrative goes along.”

Inspiration is a rather nebulous thing, he says, and it comes from different places. “If something is peculiar, if something is emotionally resonant, if something seems worth exploring, then there might be a story in it.” The story “Frozen Animals,” for example, came from his desire to write a tale in a very constricted, wintery setting. “I had an image of men walking up a mountain path in a blizzard, and then I suddenly thought that if one of the men had to urinate it would be impossible—too cold—unless the other men blocked the wind for him. After that, the story emerged fairly organically.”

His tales often focus on broken families or strange relationships, and explore forgiveness and redemption. King says that he finds writing about domestic situations interesting. “Some people find fiction about domestic discord precious; sometimes I find it precious. Still, family is pretty universal. It's a subject that tends to creep into almost every narrative.”

King has received his fair share of rejection notices over the year, usually with vague, unhelpful comments that did little to help him reshape the stories. Any kind of written reaction—something beyond a form rejection—was a tremendous source of encouragement to him. While assembling this collection, though, King says he was blessed with an incredible editor, Gillian Blake. The previously published stories (in Book Magazine and the Bellingham Review) were revised a great deal (“I love rewriting,” King says), and he believes they are far stronger in the book than they were in their previous incarnations.

People coming to this collection expecting to find tales reminiscent of young Stephen King will likely be disappointed. Owen King’s approach is more literary, and any terror contained in his stories is wholly inspired by real life. "It's not a genre book,” he told the New York Daily News. “I don't expect it to zip off the shelves in massive quantities.” He says that he tries to make every story as different as possible so that readers will wonder what’s coming next. “One of the best compliments I received on the book was from someone who said that ‘each of the stories could have been written by a different writer.’ My tastes are eclectic and I hope my writing reflects that.”

In keeping with the literary style, some of the stories end on unexpected notes. “I usually know how a story ends before I know much of anything else. A lot of the work I do involves finding the right way to get to the destination I have in mind. I also suppose there's a certain ambiguity in the conclusions to those stories. Trying to work through those kind of uncertainties is one of my great pleasures as a reader, and I recognize that this isn't the case with everyone. If you read an Agatha Christie novel, you get a fairly straight solution, and that's fun, too. It's all according to an individual's pleasure. Maybe I like questions more than answers. To my point of view, that's more true to the world as I understand it, which is a very complicated place with very few inviolable truths. (I can't help recalling the NY Times Magazine article which quoted a Bush official who referred to a critic as part of the ‘reality-based community’ and the administration as part of the ‘faith-based community.’ How scary is that?)”

Though King says that while many of his characters are probably subconsciously inspired by people he knows and the qualities they possess, he doesn’t recall intentionally modeling any of his characters after a real person. However, he cites George, the grandfather in the novella “We’re All In This Together,” as something of an exception. “On some level I used him as a conduit for my own feelings about the 2000 election. I was furious about the result, and furious that other people weren't furious, and finally, furious that I couldn't understand why other people weren't furious. And I was also completely powerless to change anything. I felt voiceless and baffled and sad. In a lot of ways, Henry gives voice to those feelings, although his reasons are not identical to mine. His history as a labor organizer is something I created out of whole cloth. The last few years have shown the 2000 election as the beginning of a period of time in our country which is remarkable not just for its divisiveness but for an epidemic of incivility masquerading as Christian principle. Henry's experience with collective bargaining, and the increasingly quaint notion of negotiation, was intended to be evocative of a time and place when people could still have a difference of opinion and live with it.”

King’s first reader is his fiancée, novelist Kelly Braffet. “Her first book is called Josie and Jack. Go buy one now!” he says with obvious pride. “If anyone else likes my writing it's just gravy. I like to keep my family and my work as separate as possible. Everyone in my family is an incredible writer, but too much shoptalk is claustrophobic and boring. To me my parents are my parents, and the writer part is in the background. To them, I'm sure it's the same—I'm their son first, and the writing is secondary. They'd love me even I was Harold Bloom.”

He reads as widely as he can. His current selection is a book by an old classmate, The Hazards of Good Breeding by Jessica Shattuck. “It's about a family of faded and fractured Boston aristocrats. It's very good, and 180 degrees away from what I read before it, which was the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series.”

Though interviewers seem to want something macabre to connect King to his father (much was made of the fact that the Brooklyn apartment he and his fiancée share is in a deconsecrated Catholic church), the strongest similarities between the two seem to be their political inclinations and a love of baseball. After plugging Braffet’s novel, King says, “I want to impress her so she'll make me dinner and let me watch the Red Sox.” Though King gave up on his aspirations of playing professional baseball, one of his former teammates, Matt Kinney, is a major league pitcher. Stephen King helped coach their Bangor West team to the Maine Little League Championship in 1989, recounted in the New Yorker essay “Head Down.”

When asked what he thinks about the Red Sox’ prospects for the 2005-2006 series, he replies like a dedicated fan. “If Schilling wins nine or more games, then I believe the Red Sox will return to the World Series. After that, my crystal ball starts to get cloudy, but if they don't have to play the Marlins (too much pitching) or the Cardinals (too much revenge) I think they'll win the whole cupcake again.”

In King’s future is a screenplay (which has been described as a basketball murder mystery) he’s working on with his brother, Joseph, and a novel. He has a few ideas for the latter, but hasn’t yet settled on a definite story.

Owen King's home on the internet is http://www.owen-king.com/

This interview was conducted in June 2005. Owen King photograph © Tabitha King


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