Owen King likes humor. Owen King, 35, thinks life is pretty funny. Owen King always sees the humor in life. “I find that I’m extremely unattracted to anything that’s humorless,” he says. “There is writing that is entirely serious, and it doesn’t ring true to me, because I think often times life is very, very funny. Even the worst, most humiliating, savage disappointments in retrospect have elements of bleak humor.” At the same time, King says, he tries to “write seriously about the contemporary world I know—I’m in my mid-30s, I come from the Northeast, I try to write about the places I’ve been.”
His third book, Double Feature, comes out in March—it’s his first novel. We’re All in This Together (Bloomsbury, 2005), King’s debut, is a novella and short stories, with definite hints of the macabre (a giant reptile; a 19th-century dentist snowed in with a group of trappers), while the anthology Who Can Save Us Now (Free Press, 2008), which King co-edited and contributed to, features modern-day superheroes.
Double Feature spans several decades and follows Sam Dolan, a filmmaker who has a tumultuous relationship with his B-movie-actor father, Booth. King was originally inspired after reading about a movie that was made but never seen, after the film it was shot on was destroyed while it was being developed. “The film actually got fried, and I remember thinking, that is the worst—I can’t even conceive of how horrible that would be, to actually make a movie and, through no fault of your own, not be able to show it to anybody.” The idea that the movie did exist in some sense, in some form, haunted King. He says that while he is a big film fan, he is not by any means an expert and has only taken one film class in his life. He did, however, major in English (at Vassar College, which he loved) and then went on to study creative writing (at Columbia University, where he got his M.F.A.). Many of the movies in the book fall into the category of the ones King saw as a child: “the really accidentally hilarious B-movies of the ’80s.”
For the book, which took years, he spent hours and hours, he says, watching films on Netflix, researching. Double Feature is a long book; King says he intended on writing a long book from the very beginning. “Those are the kinds of novels that are most important to me, those kinds of arcing novels, where it’s not just about long periods of time, but also about the ways things connect.” King recalls a David Foster Wallace quote about how, when details come back in a story, it makes the reader feel smart. This concept resonated with King. “I love that feeling as a reader, and I wanted to write a novel that had that quality to it, that had a lot of moments like that, because I like a big, expansive story with a large cast of characters.” King, who grew up in Maine—and yes, he’s the youngest son of that King—read a lot as a child. He especially remembers reading John Irving novels, along with Dickens.
When asked how much of his book is autobiographical, King explains that “it’s not autobiographical in the ways people would think it would be.” The college in the book was inspired by Vassar, he says, and the parts of the novel that take place in Brooklyn, N.Y., have a basis in the time he spent there in his 20s, though the story ends up “in a very different place.” King, who is close to his family, feels that “anybody who reads the book and tries to see the shape of my family is going to be pretty disappointed.” His father, he acknowledges, is an extremely popular and famous writer “who people probably have a lot of preconceived notions about. But” King adds, “anybody who knows me and Stephen King personally are not going to see him [in the novel].”
A big theme in Double Feature is the strange ways that people become famous in our time. “The viral nature of video and the way the Internet moves things around and makes people famous in a way they really don’t want is something that you see every day.” King was interested in writing about the bizarre 15 seconds of fame that people experience. “I don’t know if my interest in that subject is autobiographical, because I grew up with someone who is famous. A lot of storytelling... you’re a bit hypnotized by it and things just come out in certain ways, and you look at it and try to gather it.”
King says the upstate New York town described in Double Feature is similar to the one in Maine where he spent his childhood. He lived in Brooklyn for eight years before moving to the Hudson Valley with his wife, novelist Kelly Braffet. (“I give my work to my wife first to read, then I try to find new people who haven’t read my work before, to get a new perspective.”) King says he enjoyed living in New York City (“It’s still my city,” he says) but describes it as being “a little dense sometimes, with all the writers around, not that they’re not wonderful people.” King has spent a lot of time in upstate New York, a place where he feels “really comfortable.”
King loves to teach and has taught writing at Fordham University and Columbia. It’s something he hopes to do more of. “It’s hard for me to teach and write my own work at the same time,” he says. “It’s very all-encompassing for me because I teach writing workshops—I spend a lot of time with the stories, and it’s not easy to get out from under them.”
Asked to describe his writing process, King says he’s keen on research. “That’s the hard part, getting to the place where you know enough but not too much.” Since he’s spent the last year rewriting, he’s looking forward to getting back to research, and is thinking about writing a novel about baseball. “I love baseball, I grew up a Red Sox fan, and I played, for the [Maine] state-champion Bangor Rams—well, I shouldn’t say I actually played... I was on the team!”
King wrote as a child, but until college wasn’t sure it was something he would ever do seriously. “I don’t know if there was a moment,” he says. “Growing up around writers [both his parents write—his mother is Tabitha King], you see what a grind it is, what hard work it is.” Still, King tries to write every day. “Writing makes me happy when it’s going well. As I get older, it takes longer, but I enjoy it more and more.” Double Feature has him very excited. “It’s the completion of a long passage in my life, so it’s satisfying on that level.” It’s daunting, King admits, to write big novels, because there’s always the possibility “that you could work for years and have nothing to show for it.” He has come close to quitting, but “you really have to accept the idea that maybe it won’t work out. You can get stuck in a box, but you do it and just hope that people will find it.”