A couple nights a week, the King family gets together to read. On this evening, it was The Hobbit, with (from left) Grace; Hazel; Nora; Dean; his wife, Jessica; Willa; and a friend, Catherine. Mike Shield photos
To say that Dean King savors a good hike is an understatement.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the mid-'80s, he and a buddy spent a week and a half walking all the way across England. For his last book, Skeletons of the Zahara , he traveled more than 100 miles across the Western Sahara Desert on foot and by camel. And during the research for his new book, Unbound: A True Story of War, Love, and Survival , the native Richmonder spent July 2009 in China's Sichuan province, trekking eight days through treacherous highland bogs and hiking up the snowy Dagushan Mountain on the Tibetan border to retrace some of the most dangerous stretches of the Communists' Long March.
"We hiked up to 14,700 feet," King says. "It was the highest pass on the Long March." He and his party, which included some friends from Richmond, traveled through areas devastated by the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Sichuan province in 2008. (A second quake, magnitude 7.1, rocked neighboring Quinghai province this past April.)
Boyishly handsome, with a wiry, athletic build, the 47-year-old King favors button-down shirts and khakis. His skin is slightly weathered from battle with the elements, the corners of his eyes crinkling just a bit in concentration behind his eyeglasses. Discussing Unbound , he resembles the romantic notion of the English explorer returned to civilization between expeditions.
The best-selling author's ninth book recounts the story of the 30 women who traveled with 86,000 Communist soldiers as they retreated from the Chinese Nationalists, traveling some 4,000 miles on foot in a little more than year, beginning in late 1934.
More than the story of the women, though, King says, Unbound lays out the tale of the whole Long March, the great story in the history of China's decades-long revolutionary war. Just six weeks into the march, roughly half of the 86,000 men were killed in a bloody two-day battle against nationalists at the Xiang River. This crucial defeat led to Mao Zedong becoming the leader of Communist China's Central Committee, laying the groundwork for his eventual rise to power over the entire nation.
King doesn't speak any Chinese and had to hire an interpreter for his trips to China. But he found that a greater challenge than the language barrier was China's laissez-faire approach to its own history.
"They turned this story into the national myth," King says. "The Long March is their national myth." And as with all myths, accounts of the Long March tend to liberally mix fiction with fact. For example, China likes to say that the march was 12,000 miles, but it was more like 4,000. That doesn't really matter to Chinese historians, though, who favor the bigger number as more dramatic. "They'll paint a big picture and tell the story they want to tell, and they don't really care," King says. In fact, he adds, the best histories of the period have come from Americans.
Local Chinese tutor Sharon Meng helped translate Chinese materials about the Long March for King, who quickly found that the nation's written accounts of its own history were hardly trustworthy: "[It] made it really hard to tell the story because the women all want to tell you that they were starving and that Mao gave them the last piece of bread he had. You'll hear the same story 20 times, and you'll want to rip your hair out. Nobody believes that, and nobody wants to hear it. Half the time, I'd find a good story and I'd [think] this rings of truth, and then I'd read the same story about somebody else."
King interviewed some 90-plus-year-old survivors of the Long March and found that even firsthand accounts could be problematic due to years of party indoctrination. "I was pushing them to give me more details and different details, and that was difficult," he says, because the women had practiced telling the same party-approved tales for a lifetime.
When he's not trekking through exotic locales, King lives in a spacious stucco home near the University of Richmond, the same house where his late parents raised him and his four sisters. Now it's home to King; his wife of 20 years, Jessica; their four daughters: Hazel, 15; Grace, 14; Willa, 12; and Nora, 10; and Rosie, a lovable yellow Labrador/chow mix rescued from Hurricane Katrina.
Of his long tenure as the only male in a female-dominated house, King laughs and says, "Well, sisters are wild. I guess it gave me a lot of advantages in some ways, understanding women. And now I have four daughters in the same house."
King was born in Alexandria; his parents, who hailed from West Virginia, moved to Richmond when he was 2. His mother published a local magazine of real-estate listings; his father was a licensing attorney for pharmaceutical manufacturer A.H. Robins Co.
"He and my dad were real close. I think my dad took a lot of time with him to break him away from all of that female stuff going on in the house," says one of King's older sisters, Liz Perkins, a commercial interior designer here in Richmond. "They did fun things together. They used to do what they called ‘sneak-outs,' and they would go get breakfast together on Saturday mornings at a truck stop."
King not only kept his parents' house and renovated it after they died; he even kept their phone number. "He didn't want to change the phone number … because he was so sentimental about it," his sister says.
As a boy, King "loved army men and dressing up in army clothes," his sister recalls. "He had a little tri-cornered hat, and he was always reading military books and … complex books about the Civil War and books about pirates and treasures."
"I've just been a lifelong reader, and I love to escape into books," King says. "For me, the reason I write is to create a place for readers to escape to."
He wasn't just a bookworm, though. King played lacrosse at St. Christopher's School and at UNC, where as a sophomore he played on the 1982 Atlantic Coast Conference champion team. (These days, King plays tennis and squash. He has been a big advocate for professional squash, helping with the annual North American Open international competition at the UR.)
While at UNC, King met his wife, Jessica. From the mid-1980s to 1997, the two lived in New York City, where King worked as a freelance magazine writer and editor, at publications such as Men's Journal. He and his wife also worked as editors for American Express Publishing. Jessica King edits all of her husband's work.
"I think a lot of people are amazed that we can work together as husband and wife and have me criticize what he does, but he takes it so well," Jessica says. "He just wants to make his book better, so he doesn't get touchy at all about any suggestions I make."
As his editor, she says that her husband is a "really good writer," but "he's not the best speller in the world," she confides. "Sometimes I get to laugh at certain spellings. When he was in kindergarten, they had some sort of experimental program in his school where they taught the kids to spell phonetically, so it's not even his fault, but with some things, I'm like, ‘Oh, my goodness. I'm so glad I'm seeing this first!' "
In the early 1990s, King put together the short-lived Bubba magazine, spoofing the Clintonian zeitgeist. The publication gathered super-sized national press — every media outlet from The New York Times to Entertainment Tonight did interviews with King about it.
"Dean is an amazing idea person," says one of King's closest friends, Connecticut-based author Charlie Slack, a former Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter who wrote for Bubba. "Lots of people have great ideas, but Dean is one of those people who not only has great ideas, he has this innate sense of how to begin organizing things and people to make that idea a reality."
Bubba was an early example of King's desire to build a community of writers. In the early 2000s, he and a group of Richmond writer friends, including best-selling novelist David L. Robbins, founded the nonprofit James River Writers, which promotes and encourages local authors and hosts an annual writing conference.
"He's an amazing friend to writers," says Slack. "Dean's one of those people who feels like things only get better with more people involved. The more people who do well, the better it is for everybody."
King "is a tireless volunteer for all things literary," says Mary Beth McIntire, executive director of the Library of Virginia Foundation. As a foundation board member, he "has mountains of enthusiasm towards accomplishing whatever he or we set out to do." King and his wife, Jessica, were instrumental in revitalizing the Library of Virginia's annual Virginia Literary Awards ceremonies, McIntire says.
"When I saw the event, I had a vision for it," King says. "Here was kind of the equivalent for the Academy Awards in literature in Virginia, but it wasn't embraced in Richmond. It was a really neat event, but no one really supported it."
With the Kings' help, the awards ceremony became a sold-out, black-tie affair. They improved everything from the catering to the size of the cash prize for winning authors. They started the "Page Turner Society," a patrons' group that supports the event. Lifetime-achievement awards started getting handed out to big-name authors with Virginia roots such as Tom Wolfe, and a People's Choice Award was added so that the winning tomes would not be limited to books with academic appeal. "The whole ante has been raised," King says proudly. "The whole thing across the board has gained in stature."
In addition to his contribution to that signature event, King frequently suggests authors to promote during the library's monthly Book Talk series, McIntire says. And he recently contributed his only work of published fiction to the Richmond Noir anthology co-edited by local author Tom De Haven, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
"He's a very loyal friend in that he promotes not only his own work, but the work of fellow writers in the state and probably other states," says Page Bond, owner of Page Bond Gallery. A close family friend, Bond has exhibited the work of King's sister-in-law, New York City photographer Rachel Cobb.
King is also an in-demand public speaker who frequently gives talks to schools and community groups. On May 4, he will be one of the featured speakers at the Junior League of Richmond's 65th annual Book and Author Dinner. King calls this one of the greatest honors he's ever been given. "It's one of the best events in the country of its kind. They don't often pick local writers, so it particularly pleases me to be a part of that."
Unlike many writers, Slack says, King is an extrovert. "The Kings' house astonishes me. I've gone to stay there, and they'll have six other guests, and we're all leaving, and then a week later, there's another crew coming in to stay."
King's friends describe him as a devoted family man, hardworking and brilliant, social, and generous to a fault.
"I would say his only flaw is he doesn't like to lose at Scrabble," Slack says, "and it doesn't happen very often."
As an author, King has experienced a pair of life-changing moments.
The first came in the early 1990s, around the same time that he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a treatable cancer. (Following a course of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, he was declared cancer-free. Almost 20 years later, he's considered cured.)
King read a New York Times review that called the seafaring books of Patrick O'Brian "the best historical novels ever written." (O'Brian is perhaps best known for the novel Master and Commander , which was adapted into a 2003 film starring Russell Crowe.)
For King, who had grown up reading Joseph Conrad and Tolkien's Middle Earth books, O'Brian's books were a literary narcotic. "I was working for a publisher who went belly-up, and I was out of work for a little while, and I read all 16 books and I just loved them. I had to have two or three waiting so I was never without one."
Reading O'Brian's detailed novels, with their historically accurate 19th-century sailing terminology, King realized that the books needed a companion reference volume, as O'Brian didn't provide explanations or footnotes. Having earned his master's degree in English with an emphasis on creative writing from New York University in 1988, King says, "I knew I wanted to write books, but I hadn't cracked that yet." Here was his opportunity. In 1995, King's unauthorized O'Brian companion volume A Sea of Words was released; it was such a success that his publisher immediately commissioned another, Harbors and High Seas , which covered the geography of O'Brian's seafaring books.
The unauthorized books caused friction with the prickly O'Brian, who had chosen an English author to write companion books. That author, however, spent seven years on the project and died without finishing it.
King's next book was to be a biography of O'Brian, and he attacked it with a surprising reportorial verve, given that he had no real instruction as a journalist. What at first had seemed a fairly straightforward record of the life of the reclusive O'Brian ended up a case worthy of the best detectives.
King had traveled to Ireland, where O'Brian said he was born in 1913, but King could only find a record of a Patrick O'Brien born in 1914. As it turns out, that O'Brien had recently died, but King knew that the writer O'Brian was alive and well in France. Puzzled, he called a genealogist, who told him, "No, you're onto something. He's not who he says he is."
That ended up being an understatement.
King determined that O'Brian had been born Richard Patrick Russ, changing his name in his early 30s after a stint working for British intelligence during World War II. "He'd written books under the other name, so I went onto the Internet and bought these books that nobody knew he'd written," King says. "He was a prodigy. He'd written a book when he was 14, a really good book, and he wrote three by the time he was 20-something. No one knew they were by the same person!"
As it turns out, before he became the darling of Ivy League literary professors, O'Brian had written other critically acclaimed but largely forgotten works under his adopted name. He penned a lauded biography of Pablo Picasso and translated Papillon , the award-winning memoir of French prisoner Henri Charrière, into English.
King has first editions of O'Brian's early books scattered among the volumes that cram the floor-to-ceiling built-in bookshelves that surround his sunroom home office.
Late in his work on the biography, King was invited to attend a literary dinner on a tall ship as part of a BBC documentary. His fellow diners and O'Brian fans included Walter Cronkite and William F. Buckley. While speaking with a BBC producer, King let slip that O'Brian was an Englishman, not Irish as had always been believed, not realizing what a bombshell it would be. The documentary alluded to it, and The Daily Telegraph pounced on the discovery, beating King to publication. To lay his claim to the scoop, King wrote his version for New York magazine.
After O'Brian's stepson put in a good word, O'Brian finally consented to speak with King for the biography, leaving a message on King's home answering machine while King was in London doing research on the book.
However, after reading the New York magazine piece, the mercurial O'Brian changed his mind, angrily refusing King's calls. That phone message was the only contact King ever had with O'Brian, who died shortly afterward in 2000.
"Ships passing in the night," King says.
King's second major literary epiphany occurred in 1995 in the New York Yacht Club library as he was researching one of his O'Brian books. "I saw the words Sufferings in Africa on the spine of a book … and I couldn't put it down," King says.
What he found in the musty leather volume became the basis of his own best-selling book Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival .
In 1815, shipwrecked sea captain James Riley of Connecticut and his 11-man crew were taken into captivity in Africa by nomadic Islamic Bedouins and pressed into slavery on a brutal forced march across the Sahara Desert, drinking camel urine to survive. By the end of the three-month ordeal, Riley went from 240 pounds to 90 pounds. He published his memoir, Sufferings in Africa , in 1817.
In researching Riley's tale, King learned that no less a personage than Abraham Lincoln had listed Sufferings in Africa as one of the six most influential books in his life, along with works such as the Bible, Aesop's Fables and Pilgrim's Progress .
"It was about slavery, but from a different perspective," King says, that of the white man as slave. "It was a really important piece of history, a really compelling story."
And it had been totally forgotten.
As it turns out, there was even another published account of the ill-fated expedition, that of seaman Archibald Robbins, another survivor of the wreck of Riley's American merchant ship Commerce.
Almost unbelievably, there also existed the story of one of Riley's captors, Arab trader Sidi Hamet. During Riley's two-month, 800-mile trek through the desert, King says, "the captain of the seas and the captain of the sands" became friends. After Riley gained his freedom, he invited Hamet to visit the home of the British trader who had provided the ransom that freed Riley. While Hamet visited, Riley had a translator transcribe Hamet's biography, as well as Hamet's account of the desert trek.
"For me as a writer, here is a dream come true," King says. "Here is the back story. So I didn't have a cardboard character, I had two full characters, and that's why I begin the book not from the main character's point of view, but from the Arab point of view. In a way, what you learn is that while we come from different religions and we have different cultural perspectives, it's that human reaction that matters — sharing humor, sharing pain, showing strength, showing courage. You develop a real basic respect for each other, and that's how people overcome their differences: getting to know each other. It's lots more effective, I think, than sitting over a negotiating table."
In autumn 2001, King traveled to Africa, retracing Riley's 800-mile journey by camelback, foot and Land Rover, trekking through the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara desert just weeks after the horrors of the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks, led by an all-Arab escort party.
"The question of 9/11 came up — they brought it up — and all these guys honestly thought it was a CIA plot to discredit Islam, and right then I knew there was no way for us to have a conversation about that," King says.
Instead, much as Riley had done, King bonded with his desert guides through the hardships they shared on the long journey. Riding 30 miles or more a day on camelback "is really brutal and uncomfortable," King says, not to mention the fierce desert winds that whip stinging sand into every unprotected opening — mouth, eyes, nostrils, pores. "Every morning we got up, and we were sore and in pain, and we found the strength to get up."
To King's surprise, after his literary agent sent out his proposal for Skeletons , a bidding war erupted almost overnight between 18 competing publishing houses. King recalls arriving home from the funeral of a family friend who had been killed in a diving accident and discovering dozens of lucrative offers waiting on his fax machine. "I just erupted into tears," he recalls. "I was being pulled in both directions, coming from this awful tragedy and then seeing joy."
Skeletons on the Zahara has sold about 125,000 copies worldwide to date, it spawned a two-hour documentary on the History Channel, and it's been translated into 10 foreign languages, including Portugese, German and Chinese (but strangely not Arabic). "It's not Stephen King," King jokes of the literary giant with whom he shares a surname, "but for a literary nonfiction book, it's not bad."
DreamWorks Pictures bought the movie rights, and for a time, it was a pet project of Steven Spielberg, who was touting it as the next Lawrence of Arabia . (Though King met with DreamWorks execs, he never met Spielberg.) DreamWorks produced a draft screenplay based on King's proposal before he had even completed his book. Four scripts later, "it got more and more Hollywood, and they started introducing crazy stuff, stuff that wasn't in the book," King recalls.
DreamWorks finally let their option expire, and now Skeletons on the Zahara 's film rights are in the hands of the London-based Independent Film Company.
The movie is being produced by Luc Roeg, who as a child starred in his father Nicolas Roeg's 1971 film Walkabout , a tale of stranded children who have to trek on foot across the Australian outback. (An interesting side note: The senior Roeg worked as an assistant cinematographer on Lawrence of Arabia .) "He clearly has a deep emotional connection to this sort of material," King says of the younger Roeg. "My book is very similar to [ Walkabout ], and I like the fact that he feels drawn to the material for a deeper reason than he thinks it could be a hit movie."
King's next project isn't likely to lead him to exotic locales: He's working on a history of the Hatfield-McCoy feud, which took place in the late 1800s in West Virginia.
"Everybody knows the names Hatfield and McCoy … but nobody really knows the story. It's a really colorful piece of history," King says, but most Americans don't have any frame of reference for it beyond old Bugs Bunny cartoons. "Few people know they weren't just toothless hillbillies making moonshine and taking potshots at each other. They were old families, intermarried, landowners. The leader of the Hatfield clan became governor. They went to war with each other, and their feud went to the Supreme Court of the United States."
While King acknowledges this is unlike his previous projects, it does have one thing in common with his other works: It's examining a little-known period of history in between great events, in this case the decades between the Civil War and World War I. "While they weren't red-letter times in history, a lot of interesting stuff is going on in these transitional periods," he says.
One thing's for certain, though, even if the Hatfield-McCoy book doesn't take King globetrotting, count on him finding a way to work in at least one really long hike through the West Virginia mountains.