A few months after his father died, Abe made his usual check on his mother and found her eating a burnt television dinner and watching a movie in the company of the old man’s Navy portrait and urn. The framed photo was on the coffee table, set leaning against the urn and facing the television, as if it could see. This wasn’t the first time that Abe’s mother had hinted at her desire for more company, but she had never been so overt. “Christ, Mom,”he said. “You know I haven’t got the room.”
What are you talking about? This isn’t some sort of ploy. You’ve made your position very clear. Very clear indeed. Now I’m simply watching television with my husband’s photograph is all. It’s a comfort.”
Everything about his mother’s appearance spoke to a bright and unaltered cognizance. A small, stout woman, she was structured like a monument of cemented cannonballs. Her pure white hair spilled back in an elegant mane-like swoop. At seventy-four, she still wore the same kind of polished, teacherly saddle shoes as when Abe was a boy; to his knowledge, she had never purchased a pair of sneakers in her life.
Owen King grew up in Bangor, Maine. He is a graduate of Vassar College and holds an M.F.A. from Columbia University. He is the author of We’re All In This Together: A Novella and Stories (Bloomsbury USA), and his fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The Bellingham Review, Book Magazine, The Boston Globe, Paste Magazine, and other publications.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- OK: My music tastes have always tended to run toward the nasal-voiced-guys-with-acoustic-guitars genre, so when my fiancé introduced me to the Cure, I wasn’t all that optimistic. But to my surprise, I found that I really loved their music. That started me thinking about the differences between the people we set out thinking we want to be with, and the people we actually need to be with. In my case, for years I labored under the misbegotten notion that I wanted to marry someone who would go to Wilco concerts with me. Now Wilco is obviously a wonderful band, but this was a shitty criterion for selecting a partner. The person I actually needed to be with was a complete surprise—a Goth fan of all things.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- OK: In general, I always find it difficult to keep the narrative from expanding out of control. I love to digress, which is doom for a short story. I try to keep in mind Elmore Leonard’s famous advice—“Leave out the parts that people skip”—but it’s easier said than done. One aspect of the story that worried me a lot was everything that had to do with Dorothy’s website. I didn’t know if I could write in her voice, and I also wasn’t sure if I could convincingly describe the design of her website, or any website really. The latter difficulty seems to me to be similar to the problem a writer faces when they describe lots and lots of foreign geography—you wonder how much is really coming across to the reader. It occurs to me now that if I ever wrote a novel where a website played a crucial part, for clarity I might try putting a map of it at the front, like in a storybook. The internet is such an enormous part of our lives, though, there’s no avoiding it. All that said, I’m sure that anyone who knows me would guess that the hardest part of the story must have been the construction stuff. I am not a handy person.
- HT: Did you start off with the intention to make this a love story?
- OK: My main objective was to tell the story of how this very unhappy man finally opened himself up to the possibility of love, and accepted that if he was ever going to find someone, she wasn’t going to come according to his specifications. That he actually found the right person came as a bit of a surprise.
- HT: Abe’s mother is an amazing character. How did you conjure her? Was it her voice, or something you pictured her doing?
- OK: I played around with her when I first began the story, searching for some detail that would explain what she was all about, and then I hit on this image of her hair, this white mane, and it suggested this kind of bizarre dignity. After that, she came along fairly organically.
- HT: Have you ever finished Gravity’s Rainbow?
- OK: No, although I got a little farther than Abe. I have to concede that his impressions of the book are fairly similar to my own at age sixteen when I finally pitched the book against a wall. Anyway, I actually just bought a new copy and picked up this primer to help me, and I’m planning to give it another try. Wish me luck!
- HT: (Spoiler alert!) Did you set out to chronicle the mom’s decline alongside the relationship’s incline? And do you think Abe’s mom had to die in order for him to get to the place he needed to be with Dorothy?
- OK: The parallel made a lot of sense to me—love is the best thing in our lives, but at the same time everything in our lives eventually comes to end, including love. To me, that makes it even more necessary to cherish the people we love. I don’t know if Abe necessarily needed to experience that loss to move on, he just couldn’t avoid it.
- HT: What does Dorothy finally “cure” Abe of?
- OK: I have an idea, but I don’t want to be too definitive. A hint: it’s not rickets. Okay, another hint: I kind of gave it way in question #3.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- OK: I wrote the 1st draft in ten days, but I worked on it off and on for months afterward.
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- OK: To treat it like a regular job.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- OK: I’m currently editing a story called “The Meerkat.” I probably shouldn’t say too much more, though. I can confirm that it has meerkats in it. I’m also working on a novel. It has no meerkats in it...probably.