I had arranged to meet Owen King at The Three Arts, a bookstore across the street from Vassar College, his alma mater, in Poughkeepsie, New York. I browsed the small store and waited nervously for Owen to arrive. When he did, he towered over the shelves.
Owen has been published in One Story and Prairie Schooner, and appears here at The Rumpus and NPR, but I first read his work in The Fairy Tale Review and was immediately taken by how simultaneously funny and sad “The Idiot’s Ghost” was. I read his novella, We’re All in This Together, a month later. I waited anxiously for his novel, Double Feature, to come out, and bought it as soon as I could. And I ordered Who Can Save Us Now: Brand-New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories roughly two minutes after I found out it existed. Owen has never disappointed, and his work taps into my interest in the how and why of comedy in literary fiction.
Over lunch, Owen and I talked about him living in New York as a Red Sox fan and me living in Boston as a Yankees fan, how writing screenplays differs from writing novels, and what it’s like to be married to another writer (he is married to the novelist Kelly Braffet). Owen was every bit as funny in person as he is in his books. More than that, he was smart, insightful, and gracious. After lunch, we went to the tennis courts at Vassar and had the conversation below. For the sake of realism, please imagine the sounds of tennis volleys as you read.
The Rumpus: I actually got exposed to your work through The Fairy Tale Review and “The Idiot’s Ghost.” Then I went on and read We’re All in the This Together on a four-hour bus trip. Everyone must have thought I was crazy, because I was laughing until the ending came and I cried. All of your work has that kind of balance between humor and sadness. How do you achieve that balance? And how do you bring those elements out in your work?
Owen King: I would start by saying that as a reader, I find it extremely difficult to read things that aren’t funny in any way. It seems unnatural to me. That’s one of the reasons I love that poem by Jack Gilbert, “A Brief for the Defense,” that gets referenced and quoted at some length in Double Feature. I quoted that poem because I feel like it says, better than I ever could, how I feel. There’s this line in the poem that I’m probably going to butcher, about these women in Calcutta who have these horrible lives, but even among them you hear laugher. And so, it seems to me if you want to write something that is authentic, that speaks to the way that we actually live, if there’s not some element of humor then I’m probably not doing a good job.
But at the same time, humor can sting. I mean, the joke isn’t always on someone—but a lot of the time it is. One of the major inspirations for Double Feature can be found in the many viral YouTube videos that have appeared over the last few years. I’m thinking of the clips where people trip or crash or lose their pants or whatever, and you laugh—you can’t help laughing—but consider it from the perspective of the person involved. Imagine being in that position. It’s distressing, to say the least.
Star Wars Kid is the ultimate one. It is funny. People have treated his clip with great creativity and that’s only made it more funny. But at the same time, he’s a real person. It’s got to be really hard to be him. So on the one side, there is the humor, but from the other, there’s a pretty dreadful experience.
And so that’s a long way of saying that I don’t know how I do most of what I do as a writer, but I know why I do the things that I do, or why I try to do them, at least.
Rumpus: So for you, humor is a way to bring authenticity into a story?
King: It’s an element in it. It’s an element in it for sure. And that’s not to say, there aren’t exceptions to the rule. I don’t think there’s a laugh in Madame Bovary. I’m not sure there’s even a smile in Madame Bovary, and that’s unquestionably one of the best novels that I’ve ever read. Utterly authentic.
I’m not saying humor is a prerequisite for good writing, but it’s a prerequisite for the point of view that I present. And I think it is rare to read something that is totally deadpan that really succeeds. And that’s my problem with a lot of genre fiction. I think it’s laugh-free. It’s humor-free. It takes itself extremely seriously. Again, there are plenty of exceptions, but broadly speaking, that’s how I feel.
Rumpus: That’s a good point. Another thread I actually picked up on in your work is a typically genre element—the supernatural. In “The Idiot’s Ghost” you’ve got the ghost; in “The Meerkat,” from Who Can Save Us Now, the anthology you edited, obviously the kid’s turning into a meekrat; even in the novella, you’ve got the vision at the beginning. And I found in Double Feature, the films that you make for them to grow through really deal with the supernatural. Can you speak to that? How do you think these things affect your audience?
King: Each one of those stories is different in the way that the supernatural plays. With “The Meerkat” and “The Idiot’s Ghost,” the conceits were fantastical. Which is difficult for me, because as much as—taking the case of “The Meerkat”—as much as I’ve enjoyed superhero comic books and films in my life, to have a character basically doing magic, that was hard to describe—to get to write in such a way that I could believe it. But I feel like those stories are a bit outside the mainstream of my stuff.
In We’re All in This Together, the vision at the beginning of the story is really just a sort of framing device. The main character—if I remember correctly, it’s been a few years since I’ve read it—George has a vision of his mother’s ex-boyfriends coming around. And of course at the end of the book they do come around, but she’s—spoiler alert!—she’s dead. The story is largely concerned about the way that we handle ourselves in the face of adversity, political and personal. There are forces at work that are bigger than us. Not-so-friendly forces. In the context of the story, the vision is sort of unpacking the thing entirely: a metaphor for these larger, ominous forces at work. So how do we adapt? How do we live? Can we work together and find a way to persevere against the darkness? That’s the idea. I don’t know how effective it was.
Then in Double Feature, Booth, who acts in so many of the movies that you’re talking about, that have the supernatural element—he’s of his time in film and of his area in film: B movies. Those are the kind of movies they were, and that’s where Booth is from. So what I tried to do was create fictional movies that felt like they could be real. Which meant they had to have supernatural elements, exploitation elements, drive-in movie elements. That was what you would see at the drive-in in the late ‘60s and ‘70s and even in the early ‘80s, before all the drive-in screens started to come down. If those elements weren’t present, it wouldn’t have felt true. I tried to be very generous to those movies, which I love, because they are frequently hilarious, but unintentionally so. You know, generally, the people who are making them didn’t think that they were making something funny. They were working in earnest, and that’s very winning to me.
Rumpus: Do you think that really comes back to the YouTube thing?
King: It does a little bit, yeah. I’ll give you an example. I’ve used it in other interviews, but it’s my favorite thing to talk about. There’s this Roger Corman version of The Masque Of Red Death, with Vincent Price, which is a very scary movie in places. It’s scary when Vincent Price is walking around and he’s all dressed in red, and he’s got the red hands, and he’s talking in Vincent Price’s voice. He’s a scary dude. But then, at the same time, at the end of the movie, everybody modern dances him to death, which is so weird. His court just dances at him until he dies. And that is funny, but I’m positive they didn’t mean for it to be funny.
Rumpus: One of the things I noticed is that, in all of your longer works, the mother character dies. Is there a reason for that? Did it just happen to be that way?
King: It just happened to be that way. The two main characters in the books do have a lot in common. The key difference: Sam in Double Feature is much older, for the most part, than George in We’re All in This Together. George has the excuse of being an adolescent. Sam doesn’t have that excuse. He just behaves like an adolescent a lot of the time. The deaths of the mothers end up serving different roles. The death of Sam’s mother explains a lot about how he behaves, whereas the death of George’s mother in We’re All in This Together is more a function of the theme of the book, those larger forces at work. It is an interesting coincidence, though. I’ve thought about it. I’m not sure what it means, but the mother can’t die in my next book, obviously, for sure. (That’s a spoiler in advance. The mother in the next one is safe.)
Rumpus: In Double Feature, Booth, Sam’s father, calls Sam’s first movie script “portentous.” Obviously your work’s not portentous now, but was it at some point?
King: Sure. Young people who want to make stories—novels or films or comic books or whatever they want to make—they tend to take themselves really, really seriously. And that’s, as I said before, hard to pull off—to look at yourself and your life experiences, to make an honest self-examination, without a certain amount of humor.
So, when I was a college student and when I was in high school, I wrote lots of things that were extremely portentous. The life and death stuff of being a teenager, of being a young adult, and in retrospect, it’s totally unconvincing. That’s what Booth is talking about.
However, without letting Sam’s pretensions off the hook, it’s also necessary to point out that it says something about Booth that he is so casual in his criticism. There is a failure of empathy there. You see that aspect of Booth. He’s never quite a whole person. He can be terribly selfish.
Rumpus: I’m going to change tracks a little bit here: how does the experience of writing a novella differ from the experience of writing a novel or a short story?
King: My friend Drew Ervin has argued to me that a novella is a purely commercial distinction, and while he’s persuasive, I have a real, albeit vague, definition. To start, I’d say that a novella has more in common with a novel than it does with a short story, because a short story—a truly successful one—is such a perfect little thing, that it almost seems more like poetry than a novel. With a short story, any sort of digression is doom, right? Everything feels wrong if you digress. You have to be brutal and efficient and only the important, telling details can be in the story. And to me, that edges the short story form closer to poetry than to a novel.
A novella is like a novel with one major element missing. If you take We’re All in This Together, what’s missing is the breadth of time you’d probably get in a novel. The other aspect that’s missing is a lot of scope. The place is pretty tight. The setting is pretty tight. And the world is pretty tight in the story. No one travels. So writing it was like writing a novel in the sense that the characters got a lot of string. They got to interact with each other in different pairs, and talk a lot, and experience a lot—within the limited physical area—the way that they might in a novel. The story had scenes and exposition and movements that you would associate with a novel, but it didn’t have those other things that you would associate with a novel. In a lot of ways, I think it was the easiest thing I ever wrote because I could be a little bit more expansive than I had been in short stories, which are nearly always an agony to write, and I also didn’t have to build a world, which is a big task.
In Double Feature, I did have to build a whole world. A place where Sam grows up and goes back to. It’s very much like the town that I live in and I had to do a certain amount of work to create that place. I had to draw a long roster of characters. There are various time periods and the passage of years. There are different textual things, screenplay elements, text messages. There are two different perspectives in the book. And then on top of everything else, you rewind to We’re All in This Together and it’s in the first-person. Everything is limited by the perspective of the character. In Double Feature, it’s third-person. It’s a limited third-person, but it’s still a much wider viewpoint.
Whether Double Feature was successful or not isn’t for me to say, but it was a huge undertaking with the research. And that’s another thing, right? Any time I write, there’s nearly always a part of the project that’s about me wanting to learn about a subject. With We’re All in This Together, I was really interested in union politics—less the structure of unions and more the way that you think when you’re in a union, what unions are supposed to do and what they fight for. I did a certain amount of reading on unions. We’re talking like a half a dozen books. And then for Double Feature, so much reading and so many movies to watch. I didn’t go to film school. I didn’t major in film in college. I just decided that I wanted to write about these people who had a certain background, and so I had to see enough of the things that they had seen, and read enough about the kinds of things that they would do, to be able to make a case that they were real.
Rumpus: So when you do all of this research, like the six books on unions, how do you decide what to put in, and more importantly, what to leave out?
King: I try to leave out everything that’s not essential to either explaining the kind of character that the information belongs to or that’s not adding some sort of depth to the world or the plot. There’s a—you might have to refresh my memory—but isn’t there something about the Taft-Hartley Act in We’re All in This Together?
King: Explaining what it is?
King: Okay. What the Taft-Hartley Act actually did isn’t crucial to the narrative of the book, it’s not a hinge of the plot, but it is important for establishing the portrait of George’s grandfather, of letting us see what he believes in. By virtue of his explanation [of the Act], your sense of his point of view is given extra depth. So that had a purpose, but if I had digressed into lots and lots of stories about union actions he participated in, the way that he had lived in the ‘60s or whenever—that kind of stuff—that would have made for a very involved story that’s much more like the one I wrote with my second book. I had to be judicious about what I would use.
Maybe one good rule about research and writing is that just because something is fascinating is not enough reason to put it in the book. There is this fabulous detail in The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, the novel that’s being deservedly praised everywhere, where the main character gets her photograph taken as what they used to call a China Girl—which is a picture of a woman holding a color card that’s at the head of a film reel. The photo of the China Girl is put there to help the people developing the film with color correction. (I might have butchered that, but that’s my understanding.) And that’s fascinating. It’s fascinating that there are projectionists that clip them and keep them. They have collections of China Girls.
Kushner does a lot with the subject. If I had known about the China Girls when I’d been writing Double Feature, I could imagine myself being like, I’ve got to find some way to use this. And then I imagine myself getting sucked down a two-month rabbit hole, trying to incorporate this amazing element that has no business appearing in my story. You really have to be focused and strict and tough about what you’re going to use that you find out, because people don’t read a novel for informational reasons. It should be part of the story in some way. And it can be part of the story in lots of ways, in terms of character development, world-building, and narrative structure, but it does need to justify itself. That means that ninety-five percent of your research shouldn’t end up in the book.
Rumpus: In Who Can Save Us Now, did you and John McNally come up with that project or is that something a publisher brought to you?
King: Just to sort of fill in the blanks: we did an anthology of superhero stories, brand new superhero stories by short story writers. It was an idea that I pitched to John because I was exhausted by the recycling of superhero characters. A lot of other people have spoken to this [issue] in greater depth than we need to get into here, but one of the things that’s really tiresome about comic books and superhero movies is that no one goes away. They always come back. I remember when I was a kid, there was this comic book—I think it predates me, but my brother had it—where the superhero, Iron Fist, gets killed. And that just blew my mind, that a superhero could die. Now, superheroes die constantly and come back with different identities and they start over and it’s sort of meaningless. So I thought that it would be fun to have the kind of writer you wouldn’t expect to be writing about superheroes come up with a new superhero and see what happens. I pitched the idea to John, and I wrote my story, and we got a bunch of writers to agree to do it, and we went out with the pitch that was the introduction to the book, or a version of it. The Free Press was awesome enough to want to do it.
It’s certainly a different experience to edit other writers and be the person to say, “You’ve got to improve this. Here are some ideas to improve this.” Or even, “This isn’t going to work. Let’s try something else.” Or ,“Hurry the fuck up. You know, we need this now.” It was really fun, and in a lot of ways, I feel even more strongly about the premise now than I did then. I couldn’t be more exhausted by Iron Man and the Avengers and the rest. Maybe it’s that I’m thirty-six and I’m turning into an old man, but when I look across the field of summer movies all I see is wall to wall superheroes and it bores me. I don’t think it’s especially elitist to point out that Superman and Spider-Man, while they are exciting characters with good stories, if you constantly put the costumes through the washing machine, it’s not quite Hamlet. They start to get kind of thin. It may be time to put them away for a while, for their own good, and to think up some new things.
Featured image © by Enid Alvarez.