Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY
- A novel about a famous father and a resentful son
- Stephen King on his sons: "Male counterparts of the Bronte sisters."
- But the father in the novel is not the author's father
POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. - When you're the youngest son of Stephen King, the master of literary horror, and your first novel is about a famous father and a rebellious, resentful son, you know the questions you'll be asked.
Owen King, 36, is almost apologetic when he says that the father and son in his novel, Double Feature (Scribner), to be released Tuesday, are in no way based on himself and his dad or their relationship.
On a visit to Vassar College, his alma mater and the model for the campus in his novel, King says he knows that his answer is "disappointing," at least for those who want "an easier narrative" about a debut novelist and his best-selling father.
In the novel, the father, Booth Dolan, is a cheesy, excessively theatrical and philandering B-movie star. He appears in films about killer rats and the outbreak of werewolf attacks in ancient Greece.
"I know readers will want to know if Booth is based on my dad," King says. "But two people couldn't be more different."
Much the same can be said of the fiction of Owen and Stephen King. Double Feature has no ghosts, no monsters, no time travel - but lots of sex and dark comedy.
As the novel opens in 2001, Booth's angst-ridden son, Sam, is embarrassed by his dad. Sam, 22, wants to make a serious no-budget film, set on a college campus, about "the costs of growing up - and not growing up. And that was heavy stuff."
Owen King, who has written screenplays but never made a movie, says he shares little in common with Sam, except for a passion for films ranging from Dog Day Afternoon to Citizen Kane. (King based parts of Booth's oversized personality on Orson Welles.)
King says the 40-year age gap between father and son in his novel "afforded me a wonderful opportunity to dip into different periods." (For those keeping score, Stephen King is 65 - 29 years older than Owen.)
He struggles to explain why he wrote about a father and son: "They would be so different if they were otherwise. I can't envision it. To a large extent, the polarization of the two characters is the story. Except, they're actually not as polarized as they believe."
He adds, "The questions about my father are inevitable, regardless of the characters I create or the subject matter."
In the 419-page novel, a version of Sam's film becomes a cult hit. (To say more would be a spoiler.) That allows King to explore the question: "What happens to people who become famous for things they didn't want to be famous for?"
The novel is set in places King knows, especially the Hudson Valley, north of Manhattan where King and his wife, novelist Kelly Braffet, live. (A dutiful spouse, he touts his wife's next novel, Save Yourself, out Aug. 6, as "extraordinarily moving in its portrayal of American working-class life at the edge of poverty.")
To protect his private life, he doesn't do interviews at home. He prefers meeting at Vassar, across the Hudson River, 12 miles away. (King's boyhood home, a Victorian mansion in Bangor, Maine, is an unofficial tourist attraction, surrounded by a wrought-iron fence decorated with spider webs and bats. It was erected after an overzealous, mentally unbalanced reader broke in.)
At Vassar, it's spring break, although just being on campus reminds King, who has taught creative writing at Columbia and Fordham, "how young the students now seem and how much older I feel. I'm just 36, but there's a big difference between 36 and 19 or 20." It's an echo of Sam's question late in the novel: "How are you supposed to be old in a place that knew you when you were young?"
King looks a bit like a younger version of his dad, especially his black, bushy eyebrows. He says he has accepted the reality "that the first line of my obituary will say I was Stephen King's son."
"I'm at peace with that," he adds. "But it's not something I think about a lot."
He's from a family of writers. His mother, Tabitha King, has published seven novels, from suspense to science fiction. His brother Joe, 40, is releasing his third supernatural novel, NOS4A2 (the title is the license plate of a kidnapper), on April 30.
Joe, who writes under a pen name, Joe Hill, didn't publicly acknowledge who he was until five years ago after publishing scores of short stories.
Owen King decided to use his own name because unlike his brother, he doesn't write using their father's supernatural elements. "I was pretty naïve about how hard it would be to get out from under the family name," he says. "Not that I'm complaining."
He didn't consciously set out to write in a different style: "But I had to find my way to the kind of voice and stories that felt right. It's not easy for me as a writer to suspend my disbelief in a fantastical zone. I can do it. But it's more natural for me to write stories that are comic." He pauses, "or hopefully comic."
And dad? By e-mail, Stephen King says, "I'm sort of bowled over by both boys publishing novels a month apart, with good advance reviews for both." He has his own novel coming in September, Doctor Sleep, a sequel to 1997's The Shining. He calls it his "return to the real creepy scary stuff."
As for his sons, he adds, "You should remember that they get it from both sides." He mentions his wife. "I think of Owen and Joe as the male counterparts of the Brontë sisters."
He likes "Joe's way with suspense and Owen always amuses the hell out of me. Both of them are natural storytellers. They are guys I'd read even if I wasn't related to them. There's a lot of love and pride involved here."
But he "absolutely" never tried to raise his sons to be writers: "Tabby and I were good with whatever they wanted to do. What we tried to make them see - by example, not by preaching - is that working is an important part of life, and there's no such thing as a free ride. They both work hard, as does our daughter," Naomi, a Unitarian minister.
Double Feature is Owen King's first novel but not his first book. We're All in This Together: A Novella and Stories was released in 2005.Who Can Save Us Now? Brand-New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories, followed in 2008. Both got good reviews, but King struggled to be judged on his own.
In his earlier brushes with publicity, he talked about being a "big Stephen King fan," but pointed out that unlike his father and brother, he didn't write "genre."
Now, he says, "some people seemed to think I was looking down my nose. But that's not how it was meant. I didn't want anyone to feel ripped off. I didn't want anyone to buy what I wrote thinking they were going to have a Stephen King experience." He pauses. ""But I'd love it if they buy my book and feel pleasantly surprised."
His publisher, Scribner, also publishes his father, but Owen says that's mostly because he wanted to work with editor Brant Rumble, "a beacon of good taste and calm."
Rumble says "being Stephen King's son can be a double-edged sword. It attracts the kind of attention most debut novelists rarely get. But cynical readers might dismiss him and overlook his talent."
In a early review of Double Feature, Kirkus doesn't mention his father and praises Double Feature as "weirdly funny" and "superbly imagined."
King shares his dad's love of baseball, especially the Boston Red Sox. He played on Bangor's all-star Little League team that his dad helped coach to the Maine championship in 1989, the subject of a Stephen King essay in The New Yorker. Owen's baseball's career ended in high school where he played "mostly the bench."
One of the secondary characters in his novel is a retired New York Yankees catcher who couldn't hit but became famous for blocking home plate against stampeding base runners.
As a Red Sox fan, King finds "the Yankee culture silly, but someone could say the same thing about the culture of Red Sox Nation. We're not a nationality. ... I don't remember getting to vote on John Lackey," a pitcher who contributed to the Red Sox's epic season-ending collapse of 2011.
King has known disappointments as a writer. After attending Columbia's graduate program in creative writing, where he met his future wife, he says he collected his share of rejection letters from literary magazines for his early short stories. He and his brother collaborated on a screenplay about a dead private investigator who investigates people who are alive.
It's in what Hollywood calls "turn-around," which, he says, "means it's not likely to be made. I was hugely disappointed at first, but I've learned how typical that is."
He's working on another screenplay, a college comedy, with Mark Poirier, a screenwriter and novelist (Goats) and writing a novel about minor league baseball. But one thing he expects won't change: "I could write a story about coal miners in West Virginia or birdwatchers in Vancouver and people would feel the same tug of curiosity. 'How does X or Y relate to Stephen King?' "
He adds, "And I can't make this clear enough, I don't begrudge people for their interest along those lines. My father has been a major force in the popular culture for a long, long time. He's a fascinating person. All I hope is that, once the novel gets going, that the story will capture the reader, and those questions will fall by the wayside."