The Kings and the Straubs: All in the Family
A report from the event at St. Francis College, Brooklyn Heights, April 21, 2015
Last Tuesday, I attended an event held in Founders Hall at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights that featured Stephen & Owen King and Peter & Emma Straub. The event was co-sponsored by BookCourt, a bookstore where Peter Straub’s daughter Emma worked for several years.
It was billed as a “round table,” despite the absence of any table, round or otherwise. The four authors faced the audience of approximately 300 on tall, low-backed bar chairs that didn’t look terribly comfortable. King joked that the setup was a little like a Jerry Springer episode: Writers whose children grow up to be writers.
The first two rows were reserved for SFC students. Two additional rows were occupied by people in publishing and the media. Admission was free, so the event “sold out” quickly. An overflow room was set up nearby where other attendees could watch the discussion on a simulcast. A hodge-podge of signed novels was on sale in a nearby room—it was a terrific opportunity for fans to get inexpensive signed King books. They were generally later printing paperbacks, but even so.
Isaac Fitzgerald of BuzzFeed Books moderated the evening. He started off by asking how the authors were influenced by the other members of their family. King talked about how all of the writers in his family shared their material back and forth, and that Owen provided valuable feedback on Mr. Mercedes and the forthcoming Finders Keepers. He said that his other son, Joe Hill, had emailed him the previous day saying that his editor decided that instead of starting his next book, The Fireman, in media res he might consider telling the story linearly. Hill asked his father if he could send him the first 150 pages for his input.
Peter Straub talked about collaborating with his daughter on a short story that grew into a novella, an experience that taught him that brevity works. You don’t have to fill in the back story of every character and their grandparents, he said. He appreciates the fact that Emma knows that writing is work, that you have to put in the time. He recalled an incident when she was visiting them and they were just about to sit down to dinner but she said she had to leave. She still had to write two pages that day. “My daughter,” he said with obvious pride.
Owen Kikng and Emma Straub agreed that at an early age they were disabused of some of the more romantic notions about what writing entails. Owen remembered as a child thinking that his father’s job was to go up to his office, close the door and listen to the Ramones. It seemed like a good gig. Then he realized he did it seven days a week and it was actually a very hard job to write a novel, day after day. This knowledge made them put off wanting to become writers for a number of years. Straub said she wanted to be a poet at first, and her father chimed in that he started out as a poet, too. His motivation was that it required much less typing than writing books!
Peter Straub recounted the story of how he and King decided to collaborate, which happened late one evening (after many cigarettes and much beer) the first time King visited Straub in England. After King suggested they write a book together, the first thing they did was figure out when they could do it, taking into account their respective contracts and the relative speeds at which they wrote. They decided they could begin in two years. When they got down to it, they worked on the story’s “Bible.” Instead of a quest to get rid of something, as in The Lord of the Rings, they decided on a quest to bring something back. They started stringing out the story from there and hit it back and forth like a tennis ball. “Never in the middle of a sentence,” Straub said, “but sometimes in the middle of a paragraph!” The second time they collaborated, Straub said they were more relaxed. There was no spirit of competition. King talked about how they made an effort to copy each other’s styles so no one would be sure who wrote what.
Emma Straub explained why she decided to set her first novel in the world of Hollywood. She’d already published a collection of stories that were about things that were similar to her life: young women in New York encountering problems. She grew bored of anything that had to do with New York City. She wanted to go as far away from herself as she could. She had never done research for her writing before and discovered that she loved it. You can actually write about things that you think are cool and want to know more about, she said.
The Kings shared a humorous story about how Owen (and his other children) used to make money by reading books onto tape for his father to listen to while he traveled, and how he used to do funny voices when reading works like Dune. Owen said he has recovered all of those tapes so no one else will ever hear them.
The moderator took questions from the audience and, given that Straub and King were together, one of the first concerned the status of the follow up to The Talisman and Black House. King said that they always knew that the story wasn’t done with the second novel, that there were things that needed to be finished. Peter sent him a book called Redheaded Peckerwood that set his imagination on fire. He described the book as a photographic-impressionistic thing about Charles Starkweather. “We can use this,” Straub said. “It can be a motor.” Straub jokingly suggested calling the next book A Girl, A Car and a Gun.
When the subject of music came up, King talked about buying “Funky Town” by LIPPS INC. He said that he got into a fight in college because he wrote disparaging things about Blood, Sweat and Tears. Straub recalled that they each had their own record they would put on when it was their turn to work on the ending of Black House. King’s choice was “Electric Avenue” by Eddie Grant. King laughed, saying that Peter couldn’t believe that one of the lyrics was “Deep in my heart I abhor you.” Owen said that he listened to Wings Greatest Hits when he was writing his first book. “I don’t even like them that much.” His wife was ready to kill him by the time he was finished. His father said he had the same experience with Mambo No. 5. He added that everything he said about playing music in Revival also applied to writing. Only Emma Straub said that she couldn’t listen to music while writing, especially not anything that has lyrics.
One question concerned what everyone was writing at present. Peter Straub said that he has been working on a novel called The Way It Went Down for three or four years. He also has a big collection, Selected Stories, due out in April 2016. King said that he is trying to finish up the third book in the Detective Hodges trilogy, the title of which will be The Suicide Prince. Emma Straub said that she is on page 247 of a novel that takes place in Brooklyn, but she doesn’t have a title for it yet. “A lot of people are having sex,” she said, which the moderator suggested might make a good title. Owen King said that he has a graphic novel coming out in September that he co-wrote with Mark Poirier, called Intro to Alien Invasion. He’s also working on a TV project that he’s contractually forbidden to talk about.
Here are two other reports about the event:
And here are the event photographer’s pictures. The event video should be available soon.