What Screams May Come: Owen King’s THE CURATOR

banner What Screams May Come by Rick Hipson

The Curator by Owen King
Gauntlet Press(limited/signed editions)/Scribner & Schuster (March 2024)

The Synopsis:

cover of The Curator It begins in an unnamed city nicknamed “the Fairest,” distinguished by many things from the river fair to the mountains that split the municipality in half; its theaters and many museums; the Morgue Ship; and, like all cities, but maybe especially so, by its essential unmappability.

Dora, a former domestic servant at the university, has a secret desire — to understand the mystery of her brother’s death, believing that the answer lies within The Museum of Psykical Research, where he worked when Dora was a child. With the city amidst a revolutionary upheaval, where citizens like Robert Barnes, her lover and a student radical, are now in positions of authority, Dora contrives to gain the curatorship of the half-forgotten museum — only to find it all but burnt to the ground, with the neighboring museums oddly untouched. Robert offers her one of these, The National Museum of the Worker. However, neither this museum, nor the street it is hidden away on, nor Dora herself, are what they at first appear to be. Set against the backdrop of an oddly familiar and wondrous city on the verge of collapse, Dora’s search for the truth will unravel a monstrous conspiracy and bring her to the edge of worlds.

(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)

CEMETERY DANCE: Owen, it’s great to catch up with you again! Feels like an eternity since we chatted about your debut novel, Double Feature. When you look back over your writing life so far, does your style, the stories you’ve told and what writing has given back to you compare closely to what you may have envisioned before it all started?

OWEN KING: As most readers of Cemetery Dance probably know, my parents have done a fair amount of writing themselves and done pretty well at it. The funny thing is, I’m not sure I ever envisioned all that much commercial success for my own work. My main hope was that writing would be something I’d be able to keep doing. So far, I have been able to, and I’m enormously grateful for that. So, in that sense, I couldn’t be more satisfied. 

With regards to the kind of writing that I’ve done, when I was starting out, I never imagined writing a book like The Curator (or for that matter, Sleeping Beauties) that features so many genre elements. I worried about the comparisons to my father’s work that it would invite, but as I’ve grown older, that seems less important — I just need to write the stories I’m inspired to write. 

Considering your adept talent for creating complex, full arching characterization across sprawling novels, is fair to suggest that putting fantastical worlds as the backdrop to your tales is a natural fit because of the unending, often upending, possibilities it provides?

I do enjoy telling stories with a large ensemble, and the fantasy elements often put the characters in situations which are simultaneously surprising to them and to the audience.  

Despite — or most likely because — your stories tend to be populated with complex yet fully relatable characters, do you find you have a subconscious place you go to when writing them out? I remember Elmore Leonard used to eavesdrop on conversations at coffee shops to help get his dialogue across organically, and I’m curious if you have any similar creative wells?

I don’t go anywhere specific to eavesdrop, but I do listen closely to what people say, especially to the refrains in their speech (think of the Raymond Carver short story title, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”), to the way they return to the subjects that are comfortable to them (there’s a character in The Curator who soothes himself by threatening to beat people up), and to unique lingo (another character in The Curator frequently talks about “putting [superb] things in a frame to admire,” which is probably inspired by “put that in your pipe and smoke it”). I don’t generally borrow overheard speech, but I definitely grab on to bits of overheard attitude, humor or irritation or whatever, how it’s expressed, and find inspiration there.

As with all sprawling creations, it starts with a single seed. If you try to trace The Curator to its most singular seed, Owen, what does that look like?

Oddly enough, I was just free writing random sentences, and I hit on something like, “In the aftermath of the coup d’etat, D contrived to obtain the curatorship of the Museum of the National Worker.” I mused on that, on who D might be, on why they’d want a museum curatorship, and so on, and the possibilities came rushing in. It was very exciting. 

I would imagine it would be a bit like cheating to write a book with such a rich layer of history woven into it without first researching elements of history that you felt would help tell your story in the most believable ways. What, if any, research might you have done to map out this aspect of your tale?

I researched Victorian London — that’s where I drew from the most — but I also did some reading on the Five Points in New York City, and on Vienna in the 19th-century. I stirred in bits from those places at slightly different periods, and then added some particulars of my own. I also spent a great deal of time studying databases of photographs of 19th-century and early 20th– century New York, getting a feel for the way the people wore their clothes, the details of their spaces, how they looked in relation to each other, just trying to imagine their day-to-day lives. 

With so many layers going on in The Curator such as the alternate Earth, the historic museums, and the societal chaos running rampant throughout, did you have to outline extensively to make sure it all came together as seamlessly as possible? I can’t imagine it would be an easy task “pantsing” such a book and not catch every possible continuity error that’s bound to happen.

It was a short story first (published in the anthology Detours and in the zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet), but in the story nearly all the action takes place inside the National Museum of the Worker. (If you haven’t read the novel, it all proceeds from this starting point: following a revolution, the main character gains the curatorship of an obscure museum.) However, there was a ton of stuff that the story gestured at, and I wrote the novel because that bigger story was so interesting to me. So, before I began the novel, I had this 40-page core, and I could use the incidents in that to set some guideposts for the narrative. I built my outline from there. 

In other words: yes, I had an elaborate outline!

I had not been a big outliner prior to collaborating on Sleeping Beauties with my father, but that experience was illuminating. It really helps to have a track to follow. You can make changes to that track, of course, even radical changes, but you have it to fall back on and to help you see the whole picture.   

I’m a bit surprised to hear you say this as I always thought of your dad as a bit of a notorious “pantser” (I really do hate that term, if I’m being honest). Was writing a detailed outline for Sleeping Beauties a bit of a first for you both, other than the actual collaboration? I wonder if maybe your dad only outlines when another writer is working with him, or if doing so was perhaps at your suggestion.

I can’t speak for my dad in terms of his past collaborations, but it was a first for me. Well, let me correct that slightly: When I’d collaborated previously, there was always some sort of an outline, it just only hit the major narrative points. We did more than that with Sleeping Beauties. Still, I don’t want to make it sound like the SB outline was so, so detailed. It was still loose enough to allow for improvisation.  

How long was the process of getting ready to write the first draft for The Curator compared with actually writing out that first draft?

Believe it or not, I feel like the outline came together quickly. The novel took… three years? 

After building a solid resume of highly acclaimed short stories, you burst onto the scene as a novelist with Double Feature before collaborating with your dad on Sleeping Beauties. And now, of course, you give us The Curator. Looking back at your trio of massive novels, is there any glaring difference to adjust to between writing solo or as a collaborator? I wonder if one helped to educate or strengthen the other…

In a collaboration, you’re kind of writing for each other, if that makes any sense. That’s the joy of it. You have a shared vision.

Solo writing is scarier. The vision is all your own, and you have to continually convince yourself that it’s worthy, and just keep digging and digging away. 

I find it fascinating that you have blended history with a sort of dystopian future while putting those in the present right in the middle of having to navigate both in, perhaps, equal measure. What does it mean for you to be able to explore both ends of our timeline without having to leave the singular sandbox that is this novel?

I certainly don’t mind if readers draw parallels between the troubles and structures of my imaginary quasi-19th-century city, and our world — and (spoiler alert!) between what’s hinted about the other world that eventually intrudes on my imaginary quasi-19th-century city! My main focus was always on D’s journey, the mystery of her life and what’s driving her. 

When it comes to the past, present or future, where do you find your subconscious is apt to drift more towards when imagine the what ifs of our existence and what we’re doing on this planet? 

This is a big question! Let me say this: the great inspiration for The Curator is my love for Victorian novels like Little Dorrit. What I love about Dickens is that his intelligence, humor, and imagination reach out to me from the 19th-century. He’s so close to me when I read his novels. His characters are so vivid, and his plots are so involving. The immersive experience of wonderful Victorian novels such as Little Dorrit is enormously special. I’m somewhere far from my own reality, and yet, I recognize it, and I recognize the people, and their problems and relationships enthrall me. 

(Sidebar: The Curator is no Little Dorrit! Let’s be clear!)

The experience of reading novels like Little Dorrit collapses time. It’s quite near to time travel. The Curator is my attempt at that sort of time travel, maybe — a Victorian novel for a planet that’s not ours, but is a lot like ours. 

Is it fair to say that you put a decent amount of value on protecting our own history? And, if so, where do you see the significance of protecting our history as we continue to collect more of it, at what often seems like breakneck speed?

Very much so. Museums are one of humanity’s best inventions. The most basic thing they teach us is that human beings are ephemeral, but some of our stuff sticks around. The future is the past soon enough. History asks what we want to leave behind. 

When you get to incorporate such socially important values into your complex tales, what, for you, is the biggest reward you tend to gain on a personal level? 

I find it hugely meaningful when people tell me that something I wrote connected with them. 

And for all the horror-loving readers reading this interview, what fears or surprises do you think might resonate or maybe even catch them off guard with The Curator?

Without giving too much away, the sense of building unease that you detect in the first half of the story  pays off in the second half of the book with lots of action. It gets hairy!

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