Thursday, April 11, 2013

An Interview with Owen King

If you've been reading my blog of late, you'll know that I'm a big-time fan of Owen King, whose novel Double Feature was recently published by Scribner.  You may have read my review of it, or my review of King's first book (the excellent story collection We're All In This Together).

Well, today I'm pleased to announce that Mr. King agreed to take part in an interview, and to prove it, I'm going to post that interview for you to read.  I'm generous like that.

No need for further preamble; let's just dive right in to the questions, which Mr. King was gracious enough to answer via email.

photograph © Danielle Lurie
Bryant Burnette:  Double Feature reads like a novel written by someone who is utterly in love with movies, and with going to the cinema.  Assuming I've intuited correctly, is there a specific movie that you think might have started that love affair with cinema?

Owen King:  Movies have been a part of my life for about as far back as I can remember, so I'm not sure that there's a particular film that set me off.  Movies were just always there, you know?  I do recollect that the first film I ever saw on a big screen was Key Largo, which is odd because I'm 36 and that's an old one.  It must have been at a revival theater or something.  Anyway, as a whole it baffled me.  My one (not insignificant) takeaway was that Bogey was very, very cool. 

For what it's worth, the film that probably best reflects my point-of-view is Billy Wilder's The Apartment.  It's a comedy, and a great one, but it's also quite moving in its portrait of loneliness. 

Burnette:  You've mentioned in other interviews that the novel was to some degree sparked by the desire to explore the life of someone who'd become famous for something they didn't want to be famous for (not unlike Internet celebrities like the "Star Wars kid").  The end result is a very empathetic novel, in which we see and experience from Sam's vantage point what it would be like to have that sort of thing happen.  Did your ideas about that sort of fame and celebrity change or evolve at all during the writing of the novel, or did you wind up at essentially the place you expected to wind up?

King:  In a lot of ways, the reason I wrote the book was to figure out how I felt about that weird, upside down brand of fame.  With that in mind, I'm leery of spelling out my conclusions.  I don't want to step on anyone's interpretation.  I should say, though, that, ultimately, the novel keys on Sam as a character.  It's not so much about how I feel about that weird, upside down brand of fame, and more about how he feels about it - and how his feelings change.

Burnette:  I enjoyed every element of the novel, but I think the sections that made me laugh the most were the sections in which you described -- frequently in lovingly intricate detail -- the plots of the fake movies that Booth made, or that Sam goes to see.  Did you have fun writing those?

King:  The challenge of the made-up films was to make sure that they made sense in their respective milieus - i.e. B-movies or indies or avant garde or mainstream or whatever.  It was definitely fun, though, and probably the part of the novel where I was most able to let my imagination run wild.  (Much of the pleasure, from my standpoint, is that they're just brief descriptions.  Actually drawing stuff out - i.e. turning a story into prose - is what makes writing fiction so agonizing!)  

Burnette:  If you could pick just one of those movies and have it actually get filmed, which would you pick?

KingThe Pit, which is a blockbuster about a giant sinkhole that swallows Las Vegas, would be cool to see if for no other reason than that there is a subplot involving "circus cats."  I'd be super curious to see how that was done. 

Burnette:  I would not be on firm ground if I decided to categorize Double Feature as a thriller, but during the long section in which Sam is not answering Tess's calls, I was as tense as I would be during a way-above-average if-this-guy-doesn't-stop-that-
guy-then-the-world-is-DOOMED novel.  The reason for that is that during those scenes, it really felt like something was at stake for Sam, and I was so scared that he was going to screw it up that it caused me to stay up way too late one night when I had to be at work early the next day.  But, like, I had to know what happened!  Sam and Tess have great chemistry, and I was put in mind of something I once heard about movie romances: if there's no chemistry between the actors, then the romance between the characters will not work on-screen.  In terms of writing prose, does the romantic chemistry between two characters evolve naturally, or is it something you have to put extra effort into making?

King:  With Sam and Tess, the chemistry is pretty straightforward: when they talk at the wedding, they have a kind of common language. That rapport was there from the first moment they spoke (on the page).  Most of the time there is a lot of trial and error - not just in every scene but in every sentence.  Perhaps their relationship was an instance of having a strong sense of who he was, and who I imagined her to be, right from the get-go.  That's probably why it clicked as easily as it did for me.

BurnetteSam places a lot of emphasis on the idea that "dishonest" art is bad art.  What makes bad art in your opinion?

King:  Tom Bissell writes so astutely on this subject in his essay collection Magic Hours, I'm tempted to defer to him.

Briefly: Like Tom, I make a distinction between art that is "successful" and art that is "unsuccessful," and art that is "bad."  I have respect and sympathy for unsuccessful art.  "Bad" art is something else.  "Bad" art is art that is created for entirely insincere reasons.  Such art is, in fact, dishonest.

Now, having said that, Sam's notion of what constitutes "dishonesty" (earlier in the book) is another matter altogether.  For one thing, he's espousing a kind of ascetiscism that I don't believe in. 

Burnette:  One of the best sections of Double Feature for me involves the filming of Sam's movie Who We Are, which takes place in a single paragraph spanning fourteen (!) pages.  I've never made a movie, but the implications of the way that section was composed just felt right to me: that making a movie, especially on a shoestring budget, must be like trying to run a race with your pants falling down (i.e., no time to stop, just keep running toward the finish line and let whatever happens happen).  The lack of paragraph-breaks hammers that home beautifully.  With that in mind...  
I'm a big fan of audiobooks in general, but I'm also fascinated by the ways in which there are things that simply cannot be converted -- at least not easily -- from prose into a narrative performance.  Does it bum you out at all that the prose-specific effect of that massive paragraph will be different for people who listen to the audio version?

King:  I'm not sure! I haven't listened to Holter Graham's reading of that scene yet.  He's so talented, though, I bet he nailed it.  I mean, I can hear how it should sound in my head. 

What's more problematic are the screenplay fragments; I'm not sure there's a way to read those aloud that's not somewhat unnatural.  

Burnette:  If I recall correctly, the novel was originally titled Reenactment.  What prompted the title change?

King:  I wrote about this a bit over at the Weeklings website, but the bottomline is that there was a conflicting title, The Reenactments by Nick Flynn. (It's great, by the way.) Luckily, my editor, Brant Rumble, had Double Feature in his back pocket, and it's a better title for the story - it touches on more aspects of it. 

[Bryant's note:  Readers should by all means follow that link and read King's essay about the title change.  It's good stuff, and touches not merely on his own work, but also on other notable books throughout history that have undergone title changes.]
Burnette:  Booth Dolan is one of the most enjoyable characters I've read in a novel in recent memory.  I immediately wanted to own the DVD of every movie he'd ever made, just because I know he'd have done commentary tracks for them at some point; what a hoot those would be!  When you were writing his scenes, did he ever threaten to become too larger-than-life and have to be reined in a bit?

King:  You've pinned down a recurring challenge: keeping Booth off-screen as much as possible.  Too much of him, I suspect, could have spoiled a good thing.  He's a supporting actor through and through.

Burnette:  I got a big kick out of the Grantland article you wrote about Steve Buscemi.  Those are some genius re-casting ideas; my favorite was the one in which Buscemi plays the Wizard of Oz.  Oh, how much better than James Franco that would have been.  Am I correct in assuming that Buscemi was something of a model for the character of Rick Savini?

King:  Steve Buscemi, John Hawkes, Paul Giamatti, William Macy - those are definitely the kind of exceptional character actors I was thinking of when I created Rick Savini. 

Burnette:  If I could step away from Double Feature for a moment, I'd like to ask a couple of questions about the novella "We're All In This Together," which I also loved.  The first one that springs to mind is this: in 2008, would Henry have been an Obama supporter, or a Clinton supporter?  [Bryant's note: the plot of that novella revolves partly around Henry's ire over Al Gore having "lost" the 2000 Presidential election.]

King:  My instinct is Clinton, but, sadly, I doubt he lived to see that election. 

Burnette:  Novellas must be difficult to find a market for.  Did you ever feel tempted to pad it out a bit and turn it into a novel?

King:  I didn't, believe it or not!  I have no idea why.  There was probably a little more story in there, too.  At the same time, I like the urgency of that story and I wonder if I could have maintained that with the addition of other subplots. 

Burnette:  As much as I love Double Feature, I think my favorite thing you've published so far might still be "Wonders."  [Bryant's note: "Wonders" is a short story that can be found in We're All In This Together, as is "Frozen Animals," which comes up in the next question.]  To this day, I believe it is the only story I've read that combines vampire movies, baseball, and carnival freaks.  What prompted that particular story?

King:  I was so inspired by my first visit to Coney Island.  This was in the late nineties, when the Coney ambience was very bleak and creepy - dangerous-seeming carnival rides and sand whipping around on the empty beach.

Since then the area has really been spruced up and they've built the new minor league ballpark.  

MCU Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones

BurnetteThe dentistry scenes in "Frozen Animals" are marvelously gruesome.  Did writing that story involve a great deal of disgusting research?

King:  Yeah. I read a lot about old-time dentistry. Let's not linger on the subject! 

Burnette:  Returning briefly to Double Feature, I'd like to say that it reminded me a bit of some of Larry McMurtry's best books.  Is there any chance you might, a couple of decades down the line, pull a Texasville and let us know what Sam, Tess, Mina, Brooks, and the rest of the gang have been up to in the intervening years?

King:  I would love to do that. 

[Bryant's note: Texasville is a sequel to McMurtry's classic The Last Picture Show, which takes place thirty-plus years after the original and gives us a novel-length look at where life has taken the characters in the decades since last we visited with them.]


And there you have it!  I had fun writing those questions, and I deeply appreciate Mr. King taking the time answer them.

If you haven't read Double Feature (or We're All In This Together) yet, pick up a copy today, won't you?


  1. John Hawkes was not someone I immediately thought of for Rick Savini, but now that choice seems kind of perfect.

    How about for Booth? (Staying with the casting game for a second.)

    Lot of different ways that one could go... I'd love to see Pacino do it, but at the same time, no.

    I think "We're All in This Together" is fantastic as is, but the addition of an extra subplot would not in my opinion affect the urgency. Hell, I'd love to see a whole novel around "Frozen Animals." Or "Wonders." ("My Second Wife" too.)

    (I love that collection, I guess, is a shorter version of that.)

    Fun stuff and well-done!

    1. I can't think of anyone who seems perfect to play Booth, mainly because of the immense difference in age the character goes through. For the younger version, I kinda pictured Michael Gladis (he played Paul Kinsey on "Mad Men," and looks/sounds quite a bit like Orson Welles). For the older version, the best I can do is John Goodman. When and if a movie version gets made, he'll be by far the most difficult character to cast.

      I agree with everything you see regarding "We're All In This Together" and its affiliated stories.

    2. I also agree with everything you SAY...

  2. Wow, this is yet another one of those posts that could turning post comment tree with branches going everywhere if you're not careful.

    I'll stick with just the most pertinent stuff, I guess.

    First off, holy crap, you actually got O. King for an interview?! How on earth did you make that happen?

    I agree with King's talk about insincere art, whether that puts my in agreement with a critic like Bissell remains to be seen (I haven't read his book though it's on my to read list now, also haven't seen The Apartment yet either).

    As for who should play therole of Booth? Simple: Bruce Campbell, he's the star of who knows how many B-Movies (some of them more A-List than given credit for) and it could make a nice feather in the cap, especially if directed by Wes Anderson.

    I also wondered who i saw as Savini in the film in my head when I thought, "Why not have Campbell play both roles"? I thought it would be neat to have Campbell in a dual role where in one he's this seemingly firendly, yet failed father figure that Sam looks down on, and in another he's this tough old school professional who somewhat looks down on Sam. I liked the interesting thematic tension such casting might create as a sort of link between characters and what ideas that might generate.

    Does that sound like a good idea?


    1. As long as he wore a fake mustache as Rick, I guess that could work. It's a little more gimmicky than I'd go, BUT...the idea of having gimmicks like that in a movie that would partially be about gimmicky movies is kind of appealing, I have to admit. So if I went that route, I'd probably have Campbell play Tom, as well; why not? Heck, maybe even Costas the satyr...

      I should confess that I, too, have failed to see "The Apartment" so far in my life. Nor have I seen "Key Largo." I've had 'em both in my mental Netflix queue for a couple of decades now. Maybe someday!

      I'm also unfamiliar with Bissell, although King's thoughts on the subject make that book sound like something I'd probably enjoy.

    2. Bruce Campbell is an inspired choice. Just so long as he's more "Bubba-Ho-Tep" and less "My Name is Bruce."

  3. Yes. Bruce Campbell. He's who I thought of EVERY time Booth came around.

    1. My only real counter-argument to the idea of Campbell as Bruce would be to say that Campbell's virtue as an actor seems to be intense self-awareness, whereas Booth is, in some ways, not at all self-aware. But if I were the director of the movie (a ludicrous idea, but let's roll with it), I'd definitely give him a screen-test for the part.

  4. Great interview! I just finished Double Feature, and it is the best book I've read in a long time. I loved it. Loved it.

    1. Glad to hear it! I can't wait for his next book; whatever it is, whenever it comes out, I'm on it as soon as possible.

  5. Well, actually, in terms of character self-awareness, I always saw Booth as a fundementaly self-aware character. His problem is he's too frightened of reality even as he wants to to connect with his son, he keeps deliberately slipping into these slightly off role playing games around Sam and others which just serves to highlight both his hidden awareness of just how much of a train wreck he's made of his life and his quietly desperate attempts to put things right.

    For Campbell as Savini, I was thinking on several thematic levels. One part was the idea of Sam trying to run away from home to join the circus, only to find out that the circus is home, if that makes any sense.

    For me, the idea of Sam meeting Savini is sort of like a faint hidden current of recognition that he's put himself back into the same trap he's been trying to get out of, yet the difference here is he doesn't quite want to get out this version the trap that is his life because know he's just about "Hit the Big Time".

    The best analogy I got for that is imagine Wile E. Coyote with the Truck from Dual barreling down on him (the coyotes eyes going wide, his face and ears going slack at the realization of the oncoming impact, maybe holding up a sign that reads, Mother!, or maybe, Oh Crap!) and yet then he tries to befriend thee truck!

    I also liked the idea of Campbell as Savini in that it's like thematic commentary on Booth. With Campbell playing both roles, the audience maybe begins to think they are being given an idea of what Booth COULD have been like under a worst case scenario, say, if he never married and started a family. In that way,Campbell as Savini represents the harsh reality underneath the mask that Booth wears toward the world.

    That didn't make much sense, did it?


    1. No, it made perfect sense. You're talking about the subtext commenting on the text, and vice versa.

  6. Just discovered your blog! Love it... I posted your interview here:

  7. After your recent positive review of WE'RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER, I decided to pick up a copy. I'm glad I did. Like you, I believe "Wonders" is by far the best story in the collection. For a short story to be successful it must be memorable. Most short stories start fading from memory the moment you finish them. Not so with "Wonders."

    What intrigued me the most when reading your review of the book was your description of the vampire movie the character watches. I love stories within stories--it's something I've experimented with in my own fiction--and, as I hoped, the scenes set in the movie theater were the most entertaining.

    1. I'm glad my recommendation worked out for you!

      Yeah, we're in total agreement about "Wonders" -- terrific story. Best of luck with your own writing!

  8. Loved the book too. It comes across like a mashup of The World According To Garp, The Big Lebowski, and The Shawshank Redemption.

    I picture Jeff Bridges as the older Booth.

    1. YES!

      I pictured Bridges some of the time, and John Goodman at others. I typically try to not really picture somebody at all, but in this instance, I apparently couldn't help myself.

      Glad to hear you enjoyed the book! I hope it turns out to be a big success.

  9. I would have never guessed that the filming sequence mentioned above was written that way with the way Holter Graham's reading. He is great though and I really enjoyed the book.

    This is a great interview and thanks for posting links to his other stuff!

    1. I really want to listen to that, but I don't have Audible! Next time I buy a phone, though, I'm going to get one that is Audible-compatible, so I'll get to listen to it eventually.

      Glad you enjoyed the interview! It was a massive thrill for me to do, and I hope I'll get to do another one with him one of these days.

    2. I finished the story this morning and I didn't really like the ending, it seemed rushed, kind of silly how everyone was at the party and things were wrapped up so quickly.
      I did love hohw one of the items on the list of things that cause stress was the use of semi-colons. I hate that!

      I had a hard time deciding to use audible (I actually went through iTunes) because of my dislike of their company's decision to release ripped cassette versions of books that have perfectly good cd versions available.
      I had to do the same thing with Nos4r2, it's a bummer.
      Not really sold of the narrator for that one.

    3. I had much the same reaction to the ending of "Double Feature," but I didn't mind it too much. I think the idea was that it was a very contrived ending, of the sort you'd only see in the types of movies Sam typically has no use for. Kind of a cue that Sam has changed a bit thanks to the events of the book. It worked okay for me, although I kinda wish the ending had been a little stronger.

      As for NOS4A2, that is narrated by Kate Mulgrew. I think she's pretty good, but then, I'm a Kate Mulgrew fan, mostly because of "Star Trek: Voyager." But also because of "Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins." FUCK YEAH REMO WILLIAMS! Cheesy as hell, but I love it so.

      I didn't know Audible did that with some of their older titles! That's a shame; why would they do that when a perfectly good alternative is available...? Weird.

  10. "FUCK YEAH REMO WILLIAMS!" well, yea of course any movie where a skinny white dude dodges bullets is good. Well, one bullet I think.

    She sounds like she is rushing through the story, I just want to yell at her to SLOW DOWN you're giving me a heart attack.

    I see what you're saying about the ending being a spin on the movies he hates that makes sense. By the way Holter Grahm doing JoJo is awesome.


    1. That sounds very promising.

      Fun fact (that you may already know) about Holter Graham: he's also a film actor, and one of his roles was as the kid who escapes the little-league slaughter in "Maximum Overdrive." How cool is that?

    2. I did not know he was in MO. That is cool.

  11. I'm still amazed I got the opportunity to interview Owen King. I kind of forget about it sometimes, and then remember it again and get thrilled all over.

  12. Well, I've just ordered "We're All in This Together" and "Double Feature" and I'm really looking forward to reading both.

    I enjoyed Tabitha King's first three novels (and hoping to read her later novels soon), and I love everything that Joe Hill has published, but somehow I've never read anything written by Owen King, other than "Sleeping Beauties" of course.

    This great interview and earlier blog posts on Owen King's work has gotten me really looking forward to reading him. I'll forget the few spoilers by the time I get started.

    Rich Krauss

    1. A faulty memory ain't all bad, is it? It's worked in my favor a few times, too.

      I hope you'll let me know what you think of both books when you read them. I loved both, and the only problem I have with Owen's work is that he's not as speedy as his father is in producing it. But that's just me being greedy; I'm happy for Owen to take as much time as he needs, if books like these are the end result!

      I hope to read another of Tabitha's books soon. I feel bad for not having worked my way through all of them already -- but I also feel good, because I've still got "new" ones by her to read!