Losing It At the Movies: An Interview with Owen King

Andrew Ervin

I’m a big fan of that cringing sensation I get, every so often, while watching through my fingers as some character makes a terrible and humiliating choice. The chief practitioners of our time are Ricky Gervais as David Brent in the original run of “The Office” and David Cross in “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret.” These shows are hilarious, and painful to watch. The effect is much harder to achieve on the page, which is one reason Elizabeth Searle’s Celebrities in Disgrace remains so memorable and why I adored Owen King’s debut collection We’re All In This Together  so much. Neither of these books is knee-slapping funny nor are they meant to be; they’re horrifying. King’s reads like a masterclass: not only do we get that delightful, glorious cringe, we get five different flavors of it in the title novella and the four stories that follow. It’s a great book.

I’ve never met King, but we got in communication somehow after I reviewed that collection for the Washington Post Book World and we struck up a friendship via email. I turned to him when I needed some advice on an early draft of the novel I’m writing and his suggestion, while radical, made a tremendous difference. He identified a loose narrative thread and when I pulled it, my entire book came unraveled. Now that I almost have it stitched back together, it’s so much stronger than it would have been otherwise. Shortly after that, he asked me to return the favor and I was happy to oblige. Then a massive, 562-page manuscript arrived at my door. It was called Reenactment and I had no idea where I’d find the time to read it and critique it.

Of course, our favorite books make us make time for them. I burned through Reenactment in a matter of days, enjoyed the hell of out it, and mailed King a long letter in which I made some small suggestions that I encouraged him to ignore and, finally, expressed my jealous admiration for his talent. That book, his debut novel, will be published in March under the title Double Feature. There’s one character in particular—no spoilers here—who I can’t wait for others to meet.

Double Feature is about an aspiring filmmaker named Sam whose father Booth is a legendary figure in the industry. As a B-list actor, Booth has been responsible for producing a great deal of schlock, and the more artistically-inclined Sam has to find his own way while dealing with his father’s cheese-ball legacy. Lazy critics and amateur psychologists will be drawn to look for parallels in King’s personal life—maybe that’s inevitable considering that his own father is one of the preeminent authors of our time. Say what you want about Stephen King, but there’s no arguing with the timeless mythos he has created; it’s a body of work that historians will one day consider as vital to our time as Hawthorne’s or Melville’s were to their own. What impresses me the most about the stories in We’re All In This Together and, now, Double Feature, is that they draw in some ways from that same sense of historical reach, but they do so in new ways. Owen King has a literary sensibility that’s all his own; two books is too soon to draw overarching conclusions about his writing life, but these two books are as impressive as any first two books I’ve read in ages. It’s a spectacular start to a career and I can’t wait to see what he does next, and what he does after that.

Own answered a few questions via email in December and January.

Andrew Ervin: Do you ever question the implicit assumption that what we have to say is so fucking important and interesting that people should spend money on our books and then commit time to reading them?

Owen King: Stories are what make human beings human. Stories are essential intellectual and palliative elements in our daily attempts to make sense of our fellow apes, and novels are among the most advanced forms of storytelling. But, to the question of whether I myself, in either my novel Double Feature or any other previously published writing, have written anything vital to the species? No.

Double Feature’s main character, Sam Dolan, puts all his chips on an artistic endeavor that washes out, and then, even worse, washes back in under terms that he never agreed to. While his reasons are (hopefully) somewhat sympathetic, to make his art he behaves not just badly but unreasonably. You can be a thoughtful, serious, successful artist without being a gigantic, self-important asshole. From the reverse: if you can’t, then why bother trying to be an artist in the first place? (Aside: I hope we can all agree that “successful” can mean different things.)

There’s an applicable couplet in the Kanye West song, “Runaway”: “Let’s have a toast to the jerkoffs/ that’ll never take work off.” Double Feature is, at least in part, a toast to one such jerkoff. The other part of the novel is about how that character (the jerkoff) starts to find a less insufferable middle ground where his life and his artistic aspirations can share space.

A Tale of Two Newts

I will admit that what I write is vital to me—after all, I’m the star of The Adventures of Owen King, a self-produced sitcom nearing renewal for its 36th season despite mixed reviews—but I could never make a claim for its necessity to anyone else. Maybe it’s different if you’re a once-in-a-lifetime genius, Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Maybe the stories those artists have given to us are worth more than any amount of suffering they may have caused their loved ones. (Not to cast aspersion on Ms. Austen, who I have no reason to think was anything less than an A+ in her intrapersonal dealings. Dickens, on the other hand, while surely possessing some good qualities, treated his wife so horribly that he makes Newt Gingrich look like a master of chivalry.)

Now, because I have worked diligently at my craft, and because I do have things to say that I feel like are potentially interesting to a wider audience, and because my angle is original, and because I feel like the sum total is diverting, I do feel good about requiring consumers to spend money on my book. It’s my licensed intellectual property and I think it has value, and that people will enjoy it and remember it. Are there other books that a reader would value and enjoy and remember as much? Of course! Those books tell different stories, though.

AE: Your hero Sam is a serious, up-and-coming filmmaker following in the footsteps of his father, a famous B-movie actor. Readers always want to scan for autobiography in fiction, but I imagine that’s even more likely to happen here in your case. Does that concern you?

OK: I’ve said this in other places before: the first line of my obituary will be that my father is Stephen King. I could write a book set on a banana plantation in Central America in the sixties and there are people who would read it looking for Stephen King. I have had to accept that I have no control over that.

I made a decision early in my writing career to write using my own name. The core (though not the entirety) of that decision was that because I wrote “straight” fiction with a comic bent—very little, if any supernatural stuff—and because I had studied hard and put in the hours to improve at my art, and not least because I felt that I was pretty good at it, I believed that I would be insulated against accusations of nepotism. Oops! I got that one wrong. Then again, other people should have such problems, right? I grew up with all the enormous advantages that come with being a child of wealth in the wealthiest country in the world and if that means I face a few unique challenges in my professional life, no one should be spilling any tears for me. It’s just not that big of a deal.

The bottom line is that I hope that readers who come to my books because of the connection to my father—who, let’s be clear, I love very much—will find something that they like even if it’s not what they might have wanted. All I can do is write the things that I’m moved to write and cross my fingers that it works out. I’ve also been very open about the fact that what I write are not horror novels. I don’t want to deceive anyone or make anyone feel ripped off.

One final, Double Feature-specific note: no one who has ever met Stephen King will see him in B-movie star Booth Dolan. Parts of my life are refracted in the book, but not that part.

AE: Do you find it true—as Pauline Kael once said—that trash has given us an appetite for art?

OK: I do, sort of. The qualification comes from her use of “trash.” I don’t like that. If, in an artistic context, there is such a category as “trash,” it’s a really narrow category that should be reserved for works that either have no ambition or have an evil ambition (the Left Behind series comes to mind viz. the latter). Art can be terrible, can fail utterly, but if someone had ambition, and tried to bring something new to life, whatever happens, the result isn’t trash.

But art that’s somehow busted—variously, in novels and film: clunky sentences, characters who behave insensibly, flat dialogue, poorly composed images, leaden deliveries, continuity problems, predictable plot turns, inexplicable plot turns, etc., you get the idea—I do feel like those kinds of works do create a hunger for something that attempts to do something similar but is much more successful. This goes across genres and fields. A novel like The Ghost can be an antidote for a novel like The Da Vinci Code. A movie like Funny People can be an antidote for a movie like Spanglish.

AE: Explain to me how time functions in Double Feature. Was working out the timeline the toughest part of writing this?

OK: The book starts in 2002 with Sam, my main character, drops back to 1969 to his mother Allie’s perspective, jumps forward to Sam in 2011, drops back again to Sam as in a kid in 1989, forward a second time to 2011, backward to 2000 again from Allie’s perspective, and finishes with a last part in 2011. (Booth, who is the third leg of my tripod, appears throughout, but he doesn’t get his own scenes. He wouldn’t be surprised. It’s the plight of the character actor.)

It’s a lot of story, and it was remarkably difficult to coordinate, but broadly, that’s the kind of novel I’m most attracted to; novels where long narrative lines cross and connect in ways that simultaneously surprise and yet make sense. Equally valuable, to me, is the way that when so much time elapses, characters oftentimes change a great deal. Pip is an interesting little fellow at the beginning of Great Expectations; his evolution across the span of the novel is what makes him fascinating.

And because the book has so much to do with film, the passage of time allowed me to have a lot of fun with what I referenced. In the background and at the edges, while the characters are changing, the movies are, too.

AE: The knowledge of film history and theory here is amazing. Steve Erickson’s the only other novelist I can think of who can translate cinema into fiction the way Double Feature does (though Robert Stone’s Children of Light is also incredible). Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to the movies and the kind of work that went into getting it so right here?

OK: The only film class I’ve ever taken was a seminar on Billy Wilder with Andrew Sarris while I was in graduate school, so I make no claim for expertise. I did, however, spend the weekends of my adolescence watching my way through the entire B-movie library of the local video store. My knowledge of the often dreadful sci-fi, horror, and action films of the late-seventies through the eighties and early nineties is solid. I hold a great affection for these movies, which were often—especially in retrospect—unintentionally hilarious. (There are also the intentionally hilarious ones, like Evil Dead II and Re-Animator. I like those even better.)

Modern B-movies, like Saw and Hostel and Hobo with a Shotgun and so forth, are typically much harder edged. I’m not as enthusiastic about those movies. So, in creating the character of Booth Dolan and all the movies I made up for him to feature in (New Roman EmpireFangs of FuryRat Fiend!Buffalo Roam, etc.), I was inspired by those earnestly bad B-movies I watched when I was growing up. I also went backward and better familiarized myself with the early films of Roger Corman, which are seriously trippy and again, much gentler than modern genre films. (The exception is in The Masque of Red Death when Vincent Price is killed by an attack of modern dance. Could there be a more gruesome way to go?) Then, I sort of put myself through my own personal “Introduction to Classic Film” course, supplemented by lots of reading about filmmaking, cinema history, and cinema theory. All that stuff went into the mix, helping me to figure out Booth and what he was all about, and just as important, what Sam (Booth’s son) is therefore reacting against in his own film work. Sam is way over on the other side of the moon with Dogme 95. And it’s not as simple as lowbrow versus highbrow. The gulf that exists between their cinematic affections speaks to vastly different personal experiences and desires.

Anyway, the last step in the process was to ask a trio of incredibly generous film professionals, headed by the estimable critic Glenn Kenny, to take a look at the book and challenge me on the bullshit. It was a long process, but I love movies, so it wasn’t too arduous. Netflix was a big help.

AE: Who will win the inevitable war between the Humanoids from the Deep and the C.H.U.D.?

OK: The Humanoids from the Deep, but it would be a good fight. If the Ghoulies entered the picture you’d have a free-for-all where anyone could come out on top. Speaking of Ghoulies, please look  up the classic poster of a little goblin emerging from a toilet and featuring the tag line, “They’ll get you in the end!”

Andrew Ervin is the author of a collection of novellas, Extraordinary Renditions.