Kevin King talks with Book Glow about the inspiration behind his novel, Phantom.
BG: Describe the book in one sentence.
KK: It is about love—hopeless love—a serial philanderer, Waddy Googan in love with a much younger woman who marries in part out of desperation, and impossible love—Waddy’s wife Casey and a black boxer. But calling it a love story, or triangle, in the context of boxing and rat-baiting and a lot of shenanigans involved with sculling races, bar room brawls, and the like is a bit dichotomous, and I like that contrast; but that’s two sentences.
BG: What led you to write it?
KK: I’ve always found the turn of the 20th century fascinating. I found myself reading newspapers from that time and came across a play called ‘Waddy Googan.’ I fell in love with the name and began looking for a story for him. Another article in the same paper dealt with a boxer named George Godfrey. So now you’ve got two characters. How do they meet? How could they interact? Much of the rest then fell into place almost out of necessity.
BG: How long did it take?
KK: The first version of the novel was written decades ago. It was postmodern before that term was coined. It took me years to learn how to develop a plot.
BG: How historical is the novel and how much is fiction?
KK: There is a great deal of verisimilitude in the novel. Sorosis, the boat clubs, the rat-baiting, the hot-air ballooning, dandies in broughams racing fire engines, the Boston fire of 1872. And the characters—Isabella Stuart Gardner, Colonel Mann, John Brooks, John McKane, Ellis Ward, and the boxers—Mysterious Billy Smith, Knucksey Doherty, Elbows McCracken, Haystacks Johnny. And the Chelsea Sporting Club. The dialog, the idiom, the slang, the fashions. The list goes on.
BG: The novel is designated literary as well as historical. What makes it literary?
KK: The prose, I should hope. Thematically, there is a lot here about class and one man’s attempt to circumvent its constraints. And that’s wound up with Waddy’s being Irish and the treatment of the Irish at that time. Casey is a proto-feminist. And there is also the whole homoeroticism of boxing at that time; pugilists wore something like a loincloth, and Waddy’s attraction to Laz has an element of homoeroticism. Thematically, there is a lot going on.
BG: The novel is about sculling and boxing, what is your history with those sports?
KK: I was a member of the Harvard Boxing Club for a decade. After that I did some work at the Boston Sport Boxing Club and the Haverhill Boxing Club for about two years, winding down. As for sculling, I picked it up one summer teaching at Harvard Extension. Six weeks later the summer session was finished and I no longer had access to the boathouse and never had a chance to pursue it further.
BG: There is a lot about fashion. How did you get interested in that?
KK: I’m not, as anyone who knows how I dress can attest. Waddy became a fashion designer by accident, and I had to weave that into the story, which turned out to be a lot of fun. Writing about an aspect of a character that is orthogonal to yourself is just a hell of a lot of fun. Those fashion scenes I think are hilarious.
BG: Is there anything autobiographical in the novel?
KK: People have asked me, “Are you Waddy?” And of course the answer is yes—part of me is Waddy. Part of me is Laz and even Casey. I think most authors are all of their characters to some extent. Maybe that is part of the impetus of writing fiction—dissatisfaction with oneself and extension of oneself. I identify with the Irish part of Waddy, and the obsession with classism has a lot to do with the prejudice my father suffered from the “high hats,” as he called them.
BG: People have said there is something cinematic about Phantom. Your thoughts?
KK: I write what I see happening as a movie unfolding; fortunately I’ve got a pause button.
BG: What book most influenced your life?
KK: Impossible to say. At the time I was writing this I was reading The Relacion of Cabeza de Vaca, and that resulted in the healing ability of Nemo, the trainer. I did like The Billy Goats Gruff.
BG: Where do you write?
KK: I have the ability to focus on writing anywhere. Everything else becomes white noise.
BG: Any advice for novice writers?
KK: I always thought that you learned to write by yourself, immersing yourself in different worlds, like Orwell and Hemingway. I never much liked Updike, for instance, who never ventured far from Harvard, but maybe that’s jealousy for the guy’s intelligence. Or Mary Oliver, nature poet who takes weekend walks in the woods and smells the roses in the arboretum. A lot of my youth was spent globe-trotting, but to be honest, that never resulted in much fiction, and I now think I might have developed faster as a writer if I’d done an MFA, like a lot of the poets I know. I would be a much different writer. Better? I don’t know. I also think poetry is the hardest thing to write, and if you want to write good prose you’d be well-advised to devote some time to that.
BG: What’s next?
KK: Immediately—poetry. When I have no novel ideas I write poems. In fact, I probably read more poetry than fiction. But there may be a thriller in the works; Dan Brown and the lot need to share the wealth.