By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 7, 2008
Owen King is stealing the show from his famous dad. Stephen King just sits onstage and grins.
It's Friday morning at the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium, where three members of the prose-possessed King family have come to read and talk with students from several District high schools. Up first was Owen's mother, Tabitha, author of eight published novels, which is eight more than her son has managed to date. (So far, he's published only short fiction.) Up last will be Owen's father, who has churned out upwards of 50 books since he broke through with "Carrie" in 1974. He measures sales by the bajillion and has made the family name synonymous with the horror genre.
It's Owen's moment now.
At some point in his childhood, the 31-year-old King explains to his young listeners -- gathered this day as part of the PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools program -- he was reading a Fantastic Four comic and the question of superhero sex occurred to him. "I was looking at Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Woman and I was thinking, well, how does this, you know, how do they do it?"
This draws a bit of nervous laughter.
"Dirty-minded as I am," he says the question never left him. And when the Fantastic Four movie came out, with Jessica Alba, "it was even more on my mind."
Loud laughter and applause.
Next -- now listen carefully, all you would-be writers out there, to see how literature is made -- he became fascinated with a TV animal show called "Meerkat Manor."
"It's about these little sort of desert squirrels that live in Africa," he says. "And I was running on a treadmill one day and I thought to myself that, you know, there are all these animal superheroes but there's not a meerkat superhero." Before long he was writing a story about an ordinary guy named Wade who "gets possessed with all the powers of a meerkat, so he can climb walls and he's got little claws, but he's also weirdly cute."
He reads part of the story that resulted. It begins in Washington, where Wade has come to register his new powers with the government. Already they've cost him his relationship with his girlfriend, who can't deal with his furry alter ego. A grim old bureaucrat from Homeland Security takes him to a K Street steakhouse, where she uses her own super powers to make gin gimlets leap straight down her throat and persists in confusing meerkats with domestic felines.
"Don't worry. They know all about our kind here," she tells him. "You can order whatever you want. Friskies or whatever."
After Owen has finished and the applause has died down, it's Stephen King's turn.
He has never done a reading with his wife and son before.
"This is bliss for me," he says.
He's a tall, thin man of 60 with big hair and a wide grin. Owen gets his height from his dad and the roundness of his face echoes his mom's. Later in the day, the three Kings sit side by side for an interview about writing and family. Owen's wife, Kelly Braffet, is there, too (naturally, she's a published novelist as well).
The only King writer missing is Owen's older brother, Joe, who writes under the name Joe Hill, and who, his mother says, was kept at home by a combination of work and being the father of three boys. The Kings' oldest child, Naomi, is a Unitarian Universalist minister who channels her storytelling impulses into sermons.
When the King children were growing up in Bangor, Maine, Joe invented a kind of literary tag that he and Owen used to play. One of them would write for a certain amount of time, Owen says, and then the other would pick up the story "and then you'd go on until you'd created an ungodly mess, because you never planned anything when you started."
Reading and writing, he says, were in the household air: "From the time we read 'Kidnapped' out loud I was hooked." With both parents writing and succeeding at it, he knew -- as a lot of aspiring writers don't -- that it could be a paying job. Besides, "I wasn't all that good at anything else."
His childhood can sound idyllic, but there was at least one dark side to deal with: his father's alcoholism and drug addiction. By the late '80s, Stephen King was in bad enough shape that Tabitha organized an intervention. Owen was 11, she recalls.
Does he have memories of that period? "None that I'd probably want to get into," he says.
Fair enough, but he's a writer. Might he be able to milk it for material, at least?
The Kings laugh. "Undoubtedly, undoubtedly," Owen says.
He and his brother have taken different approaches to dealing with Stephen King's enormous shadow. Joe chose to employ a pseudonym and for eight years wouldn't even tell his agent who his father was. It wasn't until he'd published his best-selling first novel, "Heart-Shaped Box" -- which a New York Times reviewer called "a wild, mesmerizing, perversely witty tale of horror" -- that he confirmed rumors about his identity.
"I think he felt he had to make a separation," Owen says. The reason seems obvious: "Joe Hill's" work had a good deal in common with Stephen King's.
Owen published his first book, a 2005 collection called "We're All in This Together," under his own name. Consisting of a novella and four stories, it carries a blurb comparing its author to Anne Tyler and John Irving.
"I sort of felt like I was pseudonymous by writing about something completely different," he says.
Tabitha King, meanwhile, hasn't always found it easy to be the other writer in the King household. As Stephen has often pointed out, one of the things he loves about his wife is her willingness to say exactly what she thinks. And on the subject of their side-by-side writing careers, she stays true to form.
"I think of myself as toe jam," she says.
Um -- meaning?
"Well, there's this elephant in the room, always."
Both halves of the couple were already writing when they met at the University of Maine at Orono. "She was writing wonderful poetry," Stephen says, and when she eventually collected it, she "submitted it to the Yale Younger Poets, where I still think it should have won."
Tabitha isn't buying this. "It was returned by return mail," she says.
She persevered, switched to prose, managed to write with three children in the house. "I ignored them," she deadpans. Then she explains that by the time she was finally able to finish a novel, the kids were old enough so that "it wasn't a case of having to constantly watch them to prevent fatalities."
Six novels later, in the late '90s, she and Stephen were sharing an editor at Viking Penguin when he got into a fight over money. "It's a political story," Tabitha says, involving dueling editors and their mega-selling novelists, the other being Tom Clancy.
"Basically, they had payroll for one big writer," Stephen says. Before the dust settled, he'd changed publishers. Shortly afterward, his wife had no publisher at all. "Basically I got fired," she says.
Years later, she was asked to complete a book called "Candles Burning," by her old friend Michael McDowell, who died before he could finish it. It came out in 2006. She has a couple of other novels in a drawer, but no publisher for them.
The last decade or so "has been a difficult time . . . for what they used to call the midlist writer," she says.
Nobody would ever call Stephen King a midlist writer, and he'll never have trouble finding a publisher. He does have some issues, however, with getting respect.
"A lot of people are dismissive of Steve's work who have never read it," Tabitha says. "There is actually this huge range. It's not all guts and monsters." When people tell her they don't read his books because they don't like scary stuff, she sometimes asks if they've seen "The Green Mile" or "Stand by Me." When they say yes, she tells them they've seen her husband's stories onscreen.
There is a widespread notion that "if you sell a lot of books, you've got to be peddling crap," she adds, and the problem is, it's sometimes true. There are big-name authors who "can't write and they can't plot."
"But we won't mention any names. Like James Patterson," Stephen says.
In 2003, the National Book Foundation gave King its special medal for "distinguished contribution to American letters." There was some grumbling among the literati, and in his acceptance speech at the National Book Awards that year, King grumbled back. Thanking the members of the foundation's board, "who took a huge risk in giving this award to a man many people see as a rich hack," he argued that "bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and the so-called literary fiction" and urged the foundation to consider the best popular writers for its regular awards.
"What do you think? You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?" he asked.
This made news, of course. It's part of a debate that won't be over anytime soon. But if you go back and read King's speech, you'll see that it wasn't the most important thing he had to talk about that night.
He spent more than half his time thanking his wife for his career.
When he and Tabitha were starting out, he said, "we lived in a trailer and she made a writing space for me in the tiny laundry room." When they had two kids, menial jobs and no money, she never once said, "Why don't you quit spending three hours a night" trying to write?
"If she'd asked, I almost certainly would have done it," he said. Instead, she fished the first pages of "Carrie" out of the wastebasket where he'd consigned them, "told me it was good, said I ought to go on."
Now the family man is back onstage, on the evening of the Library of Congress appearance, watching his wife and son read to a packed house in a Capitol Hill church.
Tabitha goes first again. He beams at her as she reads from a novel-in-progress.
Owen threatens to steal the show once more. No meerkat superhero this time, just a story called "Nothing Is in Bad Taste" that could never, ever, have been written by Stephen King. It draws uproarious laughter. Owen's father laughs along.
When it's the old man's turn, he reads a passage from his latest novel, "Duma Key." In it, a character named Wireman tells the story of how he won and then lost in life's Powerball game, first winning a beautiful wife and daughter, then losing both on the same horrific day.
" 'Click, click, click, click. And then clack,' " King reads in Wireman's voice. " 'God punishes us for what we can't imagine.' "
As you listen, you can't help thinking: Stephen King is reading his own worst nightmare. But he can imagine it, and with luck that means his family is safe.