March 29, 2011

The seeds of one writer’s inspiration

Behind the Book by
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Writer Owen King makes his fiction debut this summer with the publication of We're All in This Together, a collection that includes the novella of the title and four short stories. Ranging from serious to hilarious, from blunt to delicate, the volume showcases King's accomplished storytelling style. Here, he reflects on the people and places that have inspired his writing.

I sometimes worry that living in New York City will eventually jade me to eccentricity after all, everyone who lives here, who sleeps behind paper-thin walls, and who packs into the subway and rides ass-to-ass for an hour on a daily basis, has at least contemplated the possibility of descending into some florid, screaming insanity. As a New Yorker, when you see a man with a tie knotted around his head, goose-stepping around and around the statue of Gandhi in Union Square Park, cackling to himself and rapping Havah Nagilah, your best instinct is to keep right on going straight ahead and never look back. If you live in this city long enough, proximity teaches you to cut as wide a berth as possible. One realizes that another refrigerator leak, a few more sleepless nights on account of the stud operation next door, another evaluation without a raise, and that could very easily be you doing the Gandhi circuit.

For better or worse, however, I'm sure that it's no anomaly that as a writer I tend to be inspired by exactly that kind of self-displacement: What was that man doing two years ago? Does someone love him? How long will he keep going? Where does he go when he's finished? Why Gandhi, for God's sake? That is to say, I tend to start with a situation, or even just an image, and then use the story to try to figure it out: how did this happen, who was involved, in what ways did it change them.

For instance, in my new book, the story Wonders germinated from a (possibly apocryphal) anecdote about the great Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice: one game, as a pop fly took Rice to the edge of the stands, a fan reached out, took the hat right off Rice's head and went running. Then, the story went, the entire Red Sox team barreled into the stands to get the hat back. I had no idea if the story was true, but I wanted it to be, and although the scene it inspired turned out to be the end of Wonders, that was how I began.

I like to think that the bucolic hometown of my youth, Bangor, Maine, was rich in the peculiar episodes and individuals that make for promising fiction. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have to concede that by bucolic Maine town standards, my own family is as peculiar as any. My parents, Stephen and Tabitha King, are both authors, and during daylight hours, my father actually dozes in a large, leathery cocoon suspended from the rafters of the barn.*)

We're All In This Together, the novella that accounts for the bulk of my collection, was primarily inspired by my own feelings about the results of the 2000 election—I wasn't happy but the motor of the narrative belongs to the owner of Bangor's only billboard, a roughly 10×10 piece of miter board. This monument near the corner of Union Street and West Broadway stands angled on a brief, privately owned patch of grass in order to, somewhat charmingly and somewhat inexplicably, remind passersby of the seasons.

In the spring, the billboard will usually be covered with something like a rendering of frolicking puppies, along with the legend, SPRING. In the fall, we might get a tow-headed boy chasing a kite through a couple of swirling leaves, and in case that didn't fully explain it, the title FALL. While I've never learned the identity of the seasonal billboard artist, or if he or she means to convey some larger point about the dangers of forgetting the seasons, at some point in 2002, I had a daydream about getting my own billboard and writing down my feelings about the current administration in BIG BLACK LETTERS for everyone in the neighborhood to see. Of course, that was just a daydream; it wasn't something I would actually do. . . . But who would put up a sign that said all the angry things that I and so many people I knew were feeling about the direction of our country? Why would he do it? How would it change him?

The story I wrote ballooned to touch upon subjects ranging from organized labor to softcore television to fathers and stepfathers, but the seed was in that eccentric little billboard near the corner of Union and West Broadway.

* Kidding.

Owen King

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