Owen King: It Runs In The Family
Establishing a name for yourself in a very famous literary family can seem quite daunting, especially if you're Owen King. His father is legendary horror writer Stephen King, and his mother, Tabitha King, has written eight novels to date. Even his brother is a well-known horror and comic book writer, under the name Joe Hill. Yet with his family's support, and a focus on contemporary literature, King has managed to carve his own path. King's debut novel, Double Feature, tells the story of a complicated relationship between a father and son, and the horrors of filmmaking.
King put down his pen for a bit to chat with Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg about growing up in a family full of writers. He admitted that watching his mother and father making a living as writers gave him a false impression of the literary world. "I understood that it was hard work," King said. "My mother and father go to work every day like people go to work in an office, but I didn't understand that it wasn't normal to do that and get paid for it." Over time, he has learned that a writer has to be able to work on a project for a few years and potentially fail. So when aspiring writers ask him for advice, King said, "I only finish probably 1 out of every 10 things I start. I give up all the time ... I think you have to have the courage to give up on things."
King drew inspiration for Double Feature from the myriad B-movies he saw on Cinemax while growing up. In preparation to write the novel, he spent two to three years watching B-movies from the '60s and '70s. While King enjoys films in the genre that are intentionally funny, like Re-Animator and Evil Dead II, his favorite B-movie is The Masque of the Red Death, starring Vincent Price. "At the end of the movie, Vincent Price, he's the evil prince, and to kill him, his court just like, dances at him. They just modern-dance him into a corner, and he dies."
For an Ask Me Another challenge, we pitted King against a childhood friend with a similar background and career path: author Emma Straub. She's also the child of a well-known horror writer, Peter Straub. Her most recent novel, Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, features characters in the movie business as well. In a game called Movies About Movies, King and Straub answered questions from Eisenberg and house musician Jonathan Coulton about films in which the characters made a movie. The loser had to take the winner out to the movies and pay for tickets, snacks, drinks — what better way to celebrate their mutual love of film?
About Owen King
Owen King is the author of the novel Double Feature. He's also the author of We're All in This Together: A Novella and Stories, and co-editor (with John McNally) of the fiction anthology Who Can Save Us Now? His fiction has appeared in One Story and Prairie Schooner, among other publications. He has been nominated for a National Magazine Award and recognized in the Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories series. He is married to the novelist Kelly Braffet.
Watch a scene from one of King's favorite B-movies, The Masque of the Red Death. The court performs the "Dance of Death" in order to kill the prince, played by Vincent Price.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of trivia, puzzles and word games. I'm Ophira Eisenberg, and joining me is author Owen King.
OWEN KING: Hi.
EISENBERG: You are clearly from a very famous literary family on so many accounts. Your father, your mother is a famous published author. Your brother is well known.
EISENBERG: I mean, what kind of toys did you guys have growing up, little tiny toy typewriters or whatever?
EISENBERG: I mean, was it educational? How did this happen?
KING: Well, I mean it's the family business, right. So I saw my mom and dad...
EISENBERG: So you were encouraged?
KING: ...writing and it did leave the impression that it was much easier than it appeared. Or maybe not that it was easier but that you could make money as a writer was a falsehood that carried on for a long time. Of course, my father did very well at it, but that was unusual.
EISENBERG: Oh, that's funny that you grew up with the idea that being an artist paid.
KING: Yeah, exactly.
KING: And so, I understood that it was hard work. My mother and father go to work every day like people go to work in an office. But I didn't understand that it wasn't normal for them to do that and then get paid for it.
EISENBERG: Did your father, Stephen King, say I want you to write, specifically?
KING: No, but he didn't say he didn't want me to either, so...
EISENBERG: Did he encourage you? Was he, like, come on, I'll read your stuff? Was there collaboration?
KING: No. I never...
EISENBERG: Was there support?
KING: Yeah, actually, there was support. It's funny. I think, of course I write sort of mainstream contemporary fiction with no monsters or very little murder.
KING: And my father and brother both are horror writers. And so I was sort of working outside the family milieu. So my parents were just more rooting for me than criticizing and working on things.
EISENBERG: No, that's supportive.
EISENBERG: That sounds like supportive. Now, did you ever collaborate with anyone in your family on a writing project?
KING: I've collaborated with my brother.
KING: Yeah, a little bit on - we did a screenplay together a few years ago, which was fun.
EISENBERG: Now, you kept the family name, your brother did not. I'm sure there's a lot of perks and a lot of problems that come with having that family name, but why did you decide to keep it?
KING: I was very naïve about that. I didn't think anybody would care, but they did. Whereas, my brother, of course, was writing horror fiction and so he wanted to get away from the family name.
And then another reason - this is actually kind of a funny story why I chose to write under my own name is that my brother is older than me and he was writing under a pen name for a long time with sort of limited success.
And then he started to have a little bit of success and he was like, well, I'm thinking about hiring an actor to play me out on the road. You know, I'm thinking about hiring a man to be me.
EISENBERG: Like decoy?
KING: Yeah, like a - and I thought wow, that's really going to be a lot of effort that I just don't think I can do. Like, if that's what it takes to write pseudonymously is that you have to have a you, you know, like you're a dictator.
EISENBERG: Right, you've got to hire you.
KING: You know, like you're tyrant and you have a bunch of doubles. I found that very disturbing. And so, I thought, well, I'll just write under my own name and hope everything turns out for the best.
EISENBERG: Right, who has time? Right, who has time for those auditions?
KING: And of course, you know, he never did find an extra him.
KING: He went ahead with that. But I give him a hard time about that.
EISENBERG: Speaking of double, your novel is called "Double Feature." And this is a story about a complicated relationship between a father and a son. The father is a B movie actor. Now, I understand that you have watched a lot of B movies.
KING: I have. I grew up watching Cinemax the late night Cinemax of the 80s and early 90s.
KING: Watching it attentively. And so I had a real background in all sorts of B movies from the 80s, the early 80s, late 70s that would play at that time. And then to write the book, I just spent two or three years getting 60s and 70s B movies on Netflix and just watching those continuously.
EISENBERG: Do you have a favorite that you always come back to as one that...
KING: A favorite B movie?
KING: I like some of the B movies that are intentionally funny. I like "Reanimator" and I like "Evil Dead 2." But I really like the Corman movies from the late 60s and early 70s and my favorite is "The Mask of Red Death," with Vincent Price because - spoiler alert - but at the end of the movie, Vincent Price, he's the evil prince and to kill him, his court just like dances at him.
KING: Until he - they just modern dance him into a corner and he dies.
KING: And it's a really long scene and it's really funny.
EISENBERG: Danced into a corner, literally.
EISENBERG: And "Double Feature" spans a lot of different times. You go from the 2000s back to the 90s; you're saying the 70s. And "Double Feature" is actually a double feature, it's a long novel, over 400 pages. Did you start the project thinking I'm going to make this really long or is that just something that happened as you were writing?
KING: No, I had a pretty good with the story that it was going to be about the main character making an independent movie in the early 00s and then the story of his father making movies in the late 60s. And then that allowed me to make up movies from a lot of different periods, which is a lot of fun.
EISENBERG: Oh, yeah. What advice would you give - I'm sure you're always asked for advice by young writers or older writers looking to finish a project that they started when they were young perhaps.
You know, a lot of people work on these projects tirelessly. You work on it for years and then you get to the point where you want to abandon it. And you're like, you know what, I'm just never going to figure this out.
KING: I only finish probably one out of every ten things I start. I give up all the time.
EISENBERG: I didn't expect to be your answer, by the way.
KING: Well, I think you have to have the courage to give up on things. People ask me all the time, well what do you do when you get to the hard part, and I just quit.
KING: If I can't find my way through it, it's obviously not going to work, so I start on something new. But then also, I think, when you write a novel, and I think this is the thing that a lot of people struggle with, is that you have to be willing to work on something for two or three years and potentially fail.
EISENBERG: Yeah, and be like, oh well.
KING: Completely. Yeah, yeah, there goes those years.
EISENBERG: I'm going to have to enroll in modern dance.
KING: Yeah, exactly.
EISENBERG: All right. Well, speaking of advice, let me give you a little advice. Please answer yes to this next question. Owen King, would you be up for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
EISENBERG: All right.
EISENBERG: Owen, we found the perfect person to play against you. Please welcome author Emma Straub.
EISENBERG: Emma, you're also the child of a well known horror writer, Peter Straub. And you're a novelist, your most recent novel, "Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures." Thank you so much for joining us, Emma.
EMMA STRAUB: Thank you for having me.
EISENBERG: Now, Emma, let me establish this, do you know Owen?
STRAUB: I've never seen this person before.
STRAUB: Yes. Yes, I do.
EISENBERG: How long have you known him?
STRAUB: I think since before I knew anything. I mean, our parents were friends before I was born, so the whole time, the whole time.
EISENBERG: The whole time.
EISENBERG: The entire time. Do you have like memories of, like, playing hopscotch or something like that together?
KING: Not hopscotch.
STRAUB: I have an older brother, so I feel like there was a lot of, like, Star Wars boy time that I was not really invited to participate in.
EISENBERG: Oh, now it's coming out, Owen. You owe her.
EISENBERG: There you go. See?
EISENBERG: That's our show. This was just about getting you to apologize. Okay, Owen, Emma, since both of your recent novels feature characters in the movie business, what we thought we'd do is subject you to a quiz about movies about movies.
So in each of these films, the characters are making a movie. You just have to tell us what the real movie is. And the winner of this game will not only receive bragging rights, the loser of the game will take the winner out to a night or an afternoon at the movies, pay full ticket price, popcorn, drinks, Twizzlers, whatever the winner wants.
And you might also get a limited edition ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube. A lot is at stake is what I'm trying to say here. Also, to help me out, house musician Jonathan Coulton.
JONATHAN COULTON: Hello.
EISENBERG: And our puzzle guru Art Chung.
ART CHUNG: Hey, Ophira.
EISENBERG: Contrary to popular belief, they did not use milk instead of water in shooting this 1952 musical's most famous scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
KING: "Singing in the Rain."
EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right.
EISENBERG: You were skeptical about that but you got it right. Did you know that fact or you just put together a...
KING: No, I just believed in myself.
EISENBERG: You just believed in yourself.
KING: I just hoped.
STRAUB: See, I didn't believe in myself.
KING: It was the rain. You said something about rain, so I thought - and a musical.
KING: What else could there be? Probably a lot but that's what I had.
COULTON: In this 1994 film, the main character, a quirky director, has a problem. One of his film's actors has just died. Thinking way outside the box, the director casts his wife's chiropractor as a replacement, even though the two looked nothing alike. The movie inside the movie, "Plan 9 from Outer Space," is considered one of the worst films of all time.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
KING: "Ed Wood."
COULTON: Yes, "Ed Wood."
EISENBERG: Have you seen "Plan 9 from Outer Space?"
KING: I have but I've never seen "Ed Wood."
COULTON: Oh, it's really good.
EISENBERG: So you just knew the movie within the movie and then you...
KING: I did.
EISENBERG: Again, I bet you believed in yourself in that moment. Did you believe in yourself?
KING: I felt really good when you said that.
COULTON: That's your edge, Owen, is that you believe in yourself.
COULTON: That's what I'm discovering.
EISENBERG: I think Emma believes in herself.
STRAUB: I need to start, really.
EISENBERG: We'll see how you do on this one. Robert Downey Jr. said he based his character in this film on the Australian method actor Russell Crowe, but Russell Crowe never underwent pigment augmentation surgery to play a black soldier.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
STRAUB: "Tropic Thunder."
EISENBERG: You harnessed the power.
STRAUB: I got one right.
EISENBERG: You got it right.
COULTON: For film studies' majors, the first eight minutes of this 1992 Robert Altman movie are legendary, as it's all shot in one continuous take, with no cuts.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
STRAUB: "Short Cuts."
COULTON: No, I'm sorry.
EISENBERG: This is no cuts.
KING: Is it "Pret-a-Porter?"
COULTON: I'll give you both a hint, since you both got it wrong.
KING: We certainly did.
COULTON: You know, I'm not trying to make you feel bad. I'm just stating a fact. Hollywood satire, Tim Robbins stars as a studio executive. Does that help?
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
COULTON: Oh, Emma, wow.
STRAUB: "The Player."
COULTON: "The Player."
EISENBERG: So far you guys are even. Three student filmmakers get way more than they bargained for when they head off into the Black Hills of Maryland in search of a local legend.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
STRAUB: "Blair Witch Project."
EISENBERG: That's right.
EISENBERG: One of my favorites.
EISENBERG: Just like, I want to apologize to Mike's mom. I love that part.
COULTON: All right, here's your final question. In this 2011 movie, a famous American actress travels to England to star in "The Prince and the Showgirl," directed by Sir Laurence Olivier.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
STRAUB: "My Week with Marilyn."
COULTON: That's right.
EISENBERG: And let's check with Art Chung.
CHUNG: We have a winner and it's Emma.
EISENBERG: Congratulations, Emma. Thank you so much to Owen King.
SEAN RUPPERT: Thank you.
EISENBERG: A fabulous VIP. Ladies and gentlemen, Jonathan Coulton.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
COULTON: Good morning, good morning, we've talked the whole night through. Good morning. Good morning to you. Good morning, good morning, it's great to stay up late. Good morning. Good morning to you.
And the bands begins to play, the sun was shining bright. Now the milkman's on his way, it's too late to say goodnight. Good morning, good morning, sunbeams will soon smile through. Good morning. Good morning to you. Good morning. Good morning to you.
COULTON: Jonathan Coulton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.