Trading a Brush for the Written Word

Trading a Brush for the Written Word

Dave King’s “The Ha-Ha” tops the fiction charts and launches a new career

In a time when debut novelists trade in age for marketing success, the story of Dave King’s freshman novel is all the more refreshing. King began writing his critically acclaimed novel, “The Ha-Ha” (Little Brown) while in his 40s.

“When I first met my publicist, she asked if there was anything I didn’t want the press to know,” said King, now 49. “I said, ‘Well, I’m a little sensitive about my age.’”

The publicist was referring to King being gay, which he didn’t mind talking about. It was his age he wanted to keep hidden in the closet, though not out of vanity.

“I’m sensitive about [my age] because I feel most people’s response to a writer who publishes a first novel at my age is, ‘What the hell was he doing?’”

Well, in a recent interview it became clear that he was embarking on a creative journey that eventually led him to his current career.

Born in Ohio, King moved to New York in the 1970s to attend NYU. It didn’t take him long to fall in love with the city.

“On my tenth day of college I betook myself to Christopher Street, whose reputation as the World Cup of street cruising had registered even in my Ohio suburb,” recalled King. “Twenty-five minutes later, a guy invited me back to his place, and for the first time in my life I spent the night with a man. In the morning, before my friend went to work and I went to class, we had breakfast in a coffee shop on Bleecker. We were at the counter, chatting with the owner of the place when Woody Allen walked in and took a stool not far away. My friend was a fan and he struck up a conversation. As I walked back across Washington Square I thought to myself, ‘I’m in New York, I just got laid, and I had breakfast with a celebrity; I do not need college.’ I walked into the registrar’s office and dropped out.”

Originally, King thought he wanted to be a painter and worked for ten years as an artist in the East Village. The first practicing artist he met, Franklin Tartaglione, became his life partner. The couple will celebrate 30 years together in December.

“A romantic notion of ‘the artist’ certainly fueled my initial enchantment with Frank,” said King. “As I grew more sophisticated, I realized that this was not just some hack bohemian I was hanging out with, but a remarkable and unusual painter. I could say plenty about how Frank’s basic talent for living has made my life beautiful, comfortable and easy, but I’ll simply note that he’s one of the most generous people I know, and I’ve grown enormously from his example.”

In the 1980s, King turned from fine art to launching an interior decorating company. While he enjoyed the new field, King found that in his creative life he was turning from painting to writing. “Once I’d made that commitment, it was clear I had to make a further choice, or my writing career might be always a sideline, as my painting career had become.”

The author considers his time as a painter instrumental to his artistic development.

“I learned a tremendous amount during my years as a painter, and many of those lessons have transferred to the writing life. Don’t get precious; trust your instincts; take plenty of chances; court the unknown; resolve problems internally, that is, by honoring the work’s existing structure; love yourself; be prepared to throw every word of it away.”

King decided to apply to school, to Columbia University’s program in creative writing. He began focusing on a memoir, then turned to writing the novel that eventually became “The Ha-Ha.”

The story of a wounded Vietnam veteran named Howard who cannot speak, read or write and lives a highly ordered life until he begins taking care of a former girlfriend’s nine-year old son forms the heart of the novel. As man and boy form a bond, Howard breaks through internal barriers that have cut him off from the world.

Although “The Ha-Ha” isn’t gay in content, King believes that being gay has affected his work. “Doubt was the first and best lesson of my homosexuality. During my adolescence, the promptings of the body suggested that the things I was being taught to strive for might be viewed with skepticism. ‘The Ha-Ha’ is a sincere book, and I’m a pretty sincere writer, but I think it’s possible that the truest sincerity springs from the heart of the skeptic. Questioning my sexuality also forced me to discover what I do believe in. ‘The Ha-Ha’ could never have been written without those discoveries, since what I believe in—kindness, loyalty and love, among other things—forms the heart of the book.”

At least for now, there’s little doubt about the direction of King’s career. Little, Brown has signed him to a two-book deal and he’s already at work on his second novel. If the success of “The Ha-Ha” is any indication, it looks as if King’s life’s journey is leading some fulfilling directions.

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