Owen King, interviewed by Noreen Tomassi
The author of Double Feature on the long gestation of a first novel, dealing with reviews, managing expectations (no, it won't change your life), and thriving as a working artist
Owen King's richly layered first novel centers on Sam Dolan, a young filmmaker, coming to terms with life, dealing with a difficult father, confronting failure, letting go and moving forward. Here, he answers questions about his own creative journey and what he has learned along the way:
Can you begin by talking a bit about your evolution from the time you were an MFA student at Columbia to the publication of Double Feature, your debut novel?
I went to Columbia in 1999 and at that time I had an idea that I knew what I was doing—and in a way I did. I went to Columbia with a work ethic, something that I had picked up from my parents who are both writers. So even before my MFA program, when I was a senior in college, I had written pretty thick manuscripts.
I was able to work every day or almost every day; I already had some discipline. So when I got to Columbia, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t mostly thinking about what I needed to learn. I was thinking about, “Going to Columbia is going to give me some time to write more and will help me avoid gainful employment a little bit longer.”
What I discovered at Columbia was that I really did have so much to learn. I always go back to this one workshop I took with David Plante; I think it was the first workshop I took at Columbia. I was writing some sort of baseball-themed story that I don’t think I ever finished; it was pretty poor. And I remember David asked me about this one detail: “Well, you say this guy is wearing a hat. Why is he wearing a hat to play baseball?” I said something like, “Well, baseball players wear hats.” And David said, “No, baseball players wear caps.” Now, this is an argument that could ultimately go either way, but what struck me about that conversation was that David was intense about these incredibly specific details. He was thinking harder about my work than I was. I was prolific but not particularly thoughtful.
What I learned at Columbia was that to write the kind of fiction that I aspired to write, I needed to be more present in the experience of the writing and especially in the rewriting process. I could sit down and hammer out a couple thousand words in a couple days but then I was going to need another couple more days to go back and consider all of the things that I had written and whether I had truly managed to convey what I wanted to convey. That was something that as an aspiring writer (and of course I’m still an aspiring writer) I had not really bent myself to. I wasn’t an editor. I wasn’t a thoughtful editor. I wasn’t a careful writer. I was just a dedicated writer, and that wasn’t good enough.
My first semester I was with Scott Snyder, who went on to publish a book, and Hillary Jordan, who has published at least two books, and Jennifer Epstein, who has published a couple books, and some other terrific writers whom I’m forgetting. It was an incredibly talented group.
Looking at what they were doing and at what I was doing, I did see there were some things I could do that not everyone could at that point. I had that discipline and I had a sense of trying to get my story to go somewhere that not everybody had, for example. But I had a lot to learn about writing carefully and writing smartly and being as exact as possible.
My output dramatically slowed down in the two-and-a-half or three years I was there. I think I probably wrote only six stories. In retrospect I don’t feel that’s such a bad pace. I grew enormously by seeing what other people were doing, both what they were doing well and what they were doing not so well, and by reading things so closely and editing so closely in a way that I never had. When I came out of the program I was a much, much better writer than when I entered.
Then I spent a couple more years working on some of the stories that I already had. Adjusting to doing it entirely on my own again, which was a big change. I sense that after an MFA, a lot of writers find themselves struggling with the absence of immediate, intelligent response to their writing. Suddenly, they’re alone and they’ve got to make up their minds without any immediate feedback about when things are done or not done. That did take me awhile. I still had some people to read my stuff but I had left that warm environment of the MFA program.
Eventually, after a couple more years I finished writing a novella. I thought about it for a long time, but I actually wrote it very quickly once I figured it out. It probably only took me four months, five months to write a first draft of what turned out to be about 130 or 140 pages long. I put this novella and some stories together. By then I had found an agent and she had placed one of my short stories for me at Book Magazine, which doesn’t exist anymore. The book ended up being called We’re All in This Together and it was published by Bloomsbury USA.
For the most part, it was a good experience. The book came out looking a lot like what I wanted. I’m still proud of it in a lot of ways. I think it shows some of my weaknesses a little bit more than I would like and in some ways there’s nothing I would like more than to be able to rewrite the whole book, but I’m definitely still proud of it.
Did you know when you began writing the novella that it would be a novella or did you think it would be your first full-length novel? How did it find its shape?
I thought it was going to be a short story. I had this memory of when I was a kid. There was this person who lived around the corner. I still don’t know who it was, what their deal was. They had this little billboard on top of a hill beside a playground and they would use it to present some sort of piece of cartoon artwork to celebrate holidays. So there would be a Halloween billboard with a ghost and a Christmas one with a piece of mistletoe; you get the idea—a dozen or more of them every year. They were pretty amateurish.
I remember once a friend came into an apartment I was subletting and pointed at this painting over the couch that I’d barely even registered and said, “Oh look, that painting was done by somebody’s friend,” and that’s what these billboards looked like. But I always thought they were so curious and I could never figure out exactly what compelled the person. So that stuck in my mind, that image of the sort of random home billboard. I had that idea about somebody vandalizing a home billboard and that idea got put together with the idea of somebody who is so mad about the 2000 election and the Gore vs. Bush result in Florida, which was an expression of how I felt at the time. So I had these two pieces.
The owner of the billboard, who is the main character’s grandfather, turned out to be a retired union organizer. I started to fill in the backstory and I started to research as well as I could, as well as I sort of knew how. I think I know a lot more now about researching than I did then. The story just grew and grew and grew.
Maybe the best thing in some ways about the story that resulted was that I didn’t know enough to really get myself in trouble by expanding it. I never digressed in a way that would have sunk the little ship I’d built. I’m positive that Double Feature, my novel, is a vastly superior book to that in almost every way except one. There is a gravity and a straightness to the first book that I do think is a special accomplishment of its own. The novella is immediate and urgent and at the same time has some good flesh on it, but it doesn’t digress.
It’s so interesting because your novel, Double Feature, seems to me to be so intricately structured and there are layered digressions that are very purposeful. So did you begin writing it with an idea of structure or with an idea of story?
I wrote a bit in 2006 or 2007. About 25 pages. Just about Sam making his movie. I saw that it would be about the movie being made and destroyed and then it would go forward in time and be about his life. I saw all that. But I only went a little way.
I don’t know that I had even envisioned those intermediate passages about Booth, then about Allie, but the fact that it was clearly going to stretch over years just to cover Sam’s experiences intimidated me. I set the manuscript aside and began to research another book that I didn’t, in the end, write. I barely wrote anything of it, but I did spend over a year researching it. Then I went back to Double Feature, which at that time was called Reenactment, and I was able to write the first three sections in just a year and a half.
I built in the making of Booth’s movie and in that you see why people find him charming and likeable. Then I realized that I would want to add another one of these Booth passages after the next section and then I would want to have another one after the next section. These intermediate sections function as bridges between the parts of the main story. So it filled itself in as I was going. I was meticulous about trying to find ways to repeatedly use the details I had already laid out, but to use them each time in ways that were, I hope, unexpected.
One of the aspects of a literary novel or any good novel, really, that makes it different from, for example, an entertaining mainstream thriller-type movie is that in those kinds of movies you know that any detail will be used to advance the plot. So if you see that the main character’s garage door is on the fritz in the first act you know that that detail will play an important part somewhere in the second act.
In a literary novel not every single specific detail is going to be used for narrative forward motion. Perhaps you want to use your garage door detail to emphasize a theme: Maybe one character has a garage door that’s always broken and there’s another character who refuses to even use his garage at all, keeps it empty and immaculately cleaned, but has to be up every morning at 5:00 to brush the snow off of his car. The detail is used to say something about these two characters—how they compare to each other and the way they live.
So I kept thinking about the details I had laid out there, how to use them, where people were at certain times, where would they be later, and so on. It was very time-consuming. It was nerve-wracking, having to keep so much in mind, very unlike writing a short story or the novella.
How long did it take you?
I think it took six years.
So the greatest challenge for you in writing a novel rather than novella was making sure that as you moved through the story and layered it you were doing so meticulously enough so that things would connect…
Yes, getting the different wires connected to the different sections. That was a huge challenge, the biggest challenge. Also, the invention that went into the intermediate sections was pretty challenging because that wasn’t the story I had envisioned initially. I had to think hard about what would make sense in those sections and there was a lot of trial and error.
It’s interesting because it ends up being a novel about storytelling in a significant way as well. Do you see it that way, that you were telling a story about how we tell our stories and how stories go awry?
I think that that’s true. The novel is largely about artistic failure and what that does to a person and what that means, what actually is a failure and what isn’t and how you live with whatever results, however it’s taken and responded to by an audience. Those are the things that the book continually circles around but at the same time it’s the story of the people, the story of the family. Sam and his father spin on those wheels of artistic failure that drive the plot and they’re affected by them. But I’m finally more concerned with how they react than I am with actually answering the questions.
What was the process like once the novel was complete or a first draft was complete? Who was your first reader? Was it your editor? Was it your agent? Was it someone else?
A few friends read the book before it ever went out. My agent read the book and offered some thoughts. My wife, who is also a writer, read the book and offered some thoughts. So it was a group of people. Then my agent took it out. I knew it wasn’t going to be the world’s easiest sell but it did find its way to Brant Rumble at Scribner, who turned out to be the absolute best person for it, somebody who really, really understood it and could relate to what I was trying to do and help me get the rest of the way there. And it did change quite a bit. It was a complete novel when it was bought by Scribner, but it had a different last section. It also was too bloated and that changed a lot. There were two more drafts that sharpened the prose a great deal and clarified things in ways that were invaluable.
You did most of that work on those two drafts with Brant?
I did. But let me rewind a little bit. This was my first novel but it was my third book. I think that I thought I would feel like a different person when my first book came out. But I felt like exactly the same person. It was really exciting to see the galley. It was really exciting for people to read it and to like it, but I still had the same old problems in my life. I still had the same old challenges every single day.
Then, of course, not everybody did like it. That was difficult. We’re All in This Together did get a lot of nice notices and only got one really poor review, which unfortunately was in The New York Times. So it took me a long while to sort through the feelings that came with that first book coming out.
There are some particular things I needed to deal with: My father is a very famous person and I’d honestly believed when my first book came out it would be recognized outside of his context. That just goes to show I was pretty naïve about the size of my father’s shadow. The book never quite escaped that shadow and that was a huge disappointment, and a shock to me more than I was able to admit to myself at the time. The book has a lot of elements that I like; I think it's a good book but it was not a supremely ambitious undertaking.
So by the time Double Feature came out, even though it’s my first novel, my expectations were different than they might be for another debut novelist. I did not expect it to change my life, change how I felt about myself. I did not expect it to give me some new kind of independence that I’ve never had in a public way. By the time this book came out I was very at peace with being Stephen King’s son. It just is what it is and as problems go it’s really a pretty minor one, not really worth complaining about. So when Double Feature came out I was more focused on letting people know what it was about and trying to get as many people to take a chance on reading it as possible. I was thinking a lot less of myself and a lot more about the book.
That’s really the difference between having a first book published and having a little more experience.
Yes. The book is more ambitious so there is more ego involved in that sense, but in every other way there was a lot less ego. I was so focused on just making it good. I wasn’t thinking at all about anything after that. So I was involved in the whole process—in the marketing of the book, what the flap copy was going to look like, in the blurbs, in the choice of cover. I put as much effort into all those parts of the process as I possibly could. I didn’t want to regret anything. I wanted to pay back Brant and Scribner for taking a chance on me.
And all that was tremendously satisfying. Because it is so much like what I wanted it to be, I have felt very committed to promoting the book in a way that I was never eager to do before. Oh, I’m sure down the road I’ll look at the book and have numerous misgivings, the way I did with the first one, but the pleasure of touring with this book was very real.
When people publish books—before it comes out they think, “Everything for the rest of my life is gravy. I published my book.” I thought that. It’s not true, though. You always want a little bit more. I’ve been lucky with my reviews for Double Feature. The book has sold pretty well but, of course, like anybody else I want more. Who doesn’t? So I think that the degree of disappointment is something that people should be prepared for because I believe a degree of disappointment is inevitable unless your book receives unanimous praise and massive sales.
This time I was prepared for it. I knew it was coming. I knew that unless the book sold 25,000 copies and got a rave in the daily section of The New York Times I would want more because everybody wants those things. But since I already had the first book and had wallowed in a pretty deep post-publication depression I knew that I wasn’t going to get everything I wanted—because you don’t.
Were you prepared for how much you would need to be personally involved in marketing? I see you’re active on Twitter and Facebook. You have a web page. Do you have any advice to young writers about that whole process—whether or how much they should participate in social media marketing?
Well, I don’t think it’s helpful for your writing process, that’s for sure. I never did Facebook or Twitter until my book was done. Eventually I’m going to have to go away completely, in order to finish the next book. I don’t want to do that while Double Feature is still somewhat fresh. As is true with all the creative arts, when there is less money available for marketing, the artist has to be more responsible for being a part of the promotion.
And that has its up sides and down sides. In some ways it’s nice to feel a part of it but if you're unpublished I don’t know what it gains you to be tweeting or Facebooking to any great degree. You probably want to use most of that spare time to write. My feeling is that you’re going to learn a lot more by reading books and writing your own work than you are from reading tweets or reading Facebook. I think that that’s the sort of thing an aspiring writer might want to get into after they’ve sold a book, not before. But who the hell am I to advise? I’m not Philip Roth.
You are not only a novelist, but also a screewriter, yes? Are you interested in writing across different media, for film, for television? What do you see as your primary interest going forward?
I do want to write for screen. I’m on a never-ending mission to get my first screenwriting credit, but I also want to keep writing novels. I want to keep trying to write in new fields. I like to review. It’s been a long time since I’ve done any real journalism. I’d like to do that at some point. I like interviewing people and writing about music. So I’d like to do all that at some point. But I’m not there yet.
Can you end by giving a little preview of you are working on now?
I have a graphic novel that I have co-written with Mark Jude Porier that’s being drawn by a wonderful young artist named Nancy Ahn and that’s going to come out from Scribner in 2015, I hope. I’m excited about that. Mark’s written a couple stellar novels. He wrote one called Goats, which I think is brilliant, and he’s also an accomplished screenwriter. So that’s been a really special experience to work with a writer who I admire enormously in a field that’s new to both of us. So that’s the very next thing. And I’m researching a new novel.
That’s a pretty wonderful life, moving back and forth between collaborations with people you admire and working alone. Will you continue to do that?
I hope so. Writing is such a lonely vocation. It’s nice to have something that I can do with my friends.
Photo Courtesy of Danielle Lurie
Owen King is a graduate of Vassar College and the MFA program at the Columbia University School of the Arts. He is the author of the novel Double Feature, We’re All in This Together: A Novella and Stories, as well as the co-editor of Who Can Save Us Now?: Brand New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories. His writing has appeared in Fairy Tale Review, One Story, Prairie Schooner, and Subtropics, among other publications. He has taught creative writing at Columbia University and Fordham University and is a working screenwriter with a script in development by the producer of Winter’s Bone. He is married to the novelist Kelly Braffet.
Noreen Tomassi is the Executive Director of the Center for Fiction.