Lily King grew up in Massachusetts and received her B.A. in English Literature from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her M.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. She has taught English and Creative Writing at several universities and high schools in this country and abroad. Lily's latest novel, Euphoria, was released in June 2014. It won the Kirkus Award for Fiction 2014, the New England Book Award for Fiction 2014 and was a finalist in the National Book Critics Circle Awards.
“Bend to Your Desire to Write,” An Interview with Lily King
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Niki Johnson. Of the process, she said, “Lily King is a master of the literary craft. I was still completely absorbed in her novel, Euphoria, long after I had finished. I am truly honored to be dazzled by her captivating words all over again.” In this interview, Lily talks about transforming research notes into a novel, warding off inner-criticism, and writing as a social act.
Superstition Review: The early 20th century anthropologist, Margaret Mead, is your muse for Euphoria’s Nell Stone. I’m curious, what drew you to write historical fiction? I imagine you put in a great number of hours researching! Were you met with any new challenges that you hadn’t experienced writing your other novels?
Lily King: It was an accident. I found myself in a bookstore that was going out of business and felt obligated to buy a book because a friend had brought me there and I grabbed a copy of Margaret Mead: A Life by Jane Howard. I didn't think I'd ever read it, but I did. I was just starting my third novel, Father of the Rain, and was not at all looking for an idea, but when I got to the part about Mead in PNG with her second husband and falling in love with another man, an anthropologist they'd been trying to avoid, and having this very intense five months of intellectual breakthroughs, illness, and sexual tension—I couldn't help but feel it was a pretty good story. I researched Mead, Bateson, anthropology, and PNG the whole time I was writing Father of the Rain. So after that novel was done and I was ready to write the anthropology book, I had no idea what to do with all those research notes. How was I going transform a notebook of details into a novel? It took me a while to find my way.
SR: In an interview with author Paula McLain, you discussed being able to imagine the Middle Sepik River in the 30s this way: “Sometimes the power a word or two can have on the imagination is incalculable.” This is such an inspiring thought and I get the sense that Nell would agree. What role does revision play in finding the perfect word?
LK: Not the perfect word—a word that has power for you for some reason. I don't believe in perfect words. But you can find a word—and in this case I was probably talking about words I learned from the research like pinnace or kiap or something, some word particular to that place and time that gives the whole thing, for you the writer anyway, a sense of authenticity. You bring in the word and suddenly you bring yourself there.
SR: Speaking of being inspired by words, could you talk about any authors who have influenced your writing, especially in the early years?
LK: In order, I would say my first influences were Julie Edwards, Judy Blume, Sherwood Anderson, John Updike, William Faulkner, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf.
SR: Right away, I was intrigued by Fen’s character. I was most interested in being exposed to two extreme sides of Fen. First he breaks Nell’s glasses and seems to mock her, but then he shows a compassionate side when he hums “a dirge for the [dying] turtle.” Can you discuss what inspired these details? What made you decide to present Fen with such opposing behaviors?
LK: People are complex and unpredictable and no one behaves consistently. Nell fell in love with Fen when he was hopeful, when his first field trip was over and he felt he was going to write a great book about the people he'd just studied. But now, a few years later, in as remote a place as you can go on this earth, his wife is the one who has become famous, and she is better at this work than he is, and she has fallen in love with another man whose mind intrigues her. All of his behaviors subsequently are informed by these threats to his future. His is bitter and violent, and his most possessive, greedy and vile self has emerged, a self we all have within us, though we hope that in a similar situation we would not give in to it as fully as he does.
SR: During a recent interview with chapter16, you mention struggling with the fact that readers “were only going to see the indigenous people from the Westerners’ points of view” and your desire to “convey their full humanity.” I really admire that decision. Can you explain your methods for making space in your novel to achieve this goal?
LK: It's like having an unreliable narrator and hoping that the reader can see beyond that perspective. All I could do is imagine all my characters as vividly and fully as I could, and hope that reader would feel that. Of course, that said, there is that fact that I am a Westerner just like them, and while I think I have a more enlightened perspective here in 2015, I am limited in my understanding as well.
SR: Personally, Euphoria has resonated with me for months. It is your fourth novel and has been received with high praise. Congratulations on achieving the level of success that other writers dream of. What is some specific advice you give to new and aspiring writers?
LK: Write. A lot. Make room for it at least 5 days a week. Make your life bend to your desire to write. Write what you want to write, not what you feel you should write. Creating and editing are two different steps. Don't confuse them. I think a lot of aspiring writers stop themselves at the gate, judging their words as soon as they've put them on the page or even before they get to the page. If you truly want to write whole books, you have to get that hypercritical voice out of the room long enough to write a first draft.
SR: Readers get multiple perspectives through Bankson’s narration and Nell’s journal and letters. This was such a fascinating way to follow their relationship. How did you decide to write the novel this way? What was your process in capturing a male and female voice?
LK: I went through draft after draft trying to figure how to tell this story. Nell first person, Nell third person, Nell and Bankson and Fen all at the same time, N and B and F alternating chapters, etc. Experimental draft #1, #2, #3... What felt best is the way it is now. Even when it seems to be in Nell's 3rd person, we know it's Bankson retelling it from what he's learned from her journals. I have written many things from a male perspective. In this case I didn't find it as challenging as the fact that he was an Englishman, a scientist, and was born in the early 1900's. Those were the things about Bankson that were daunting to me.
SR: One of your epigraphs for the novel quotes anthropologist Ruth Benedict: “Experience, contrary to common belief, is mostly imagination.” Can you talk about how this statement informs your story?
LK: So this novel is Bankson's long look back at five months of his life when he was young man. It is, perhaps, the only euphoria he has had in his life. We can tell that he looks back a lot, that he is perpetually telling himself this story, trying to piece it together, trying to make it come out differently. You can feel that hope just before the end, that this time it might be different. Also that quote very much applies to the work they are trying to do, and the fact that three people looking at the same thing will see three different things. Nell and Fen are constantly at odds in terms of what they witness. Their interpretations of the behavior of the Tam are radically opposed. One of the questions pumping through the novel is can this work actually be done empirically or is the anthropologist's subjectivity too distorting and if so, does that matter?
SR: I've read that you are a part of a woman’s writers’ group. Could you discuss the role your group plays in your writing process? What are your views on writing as a social act?
LK: I love my writers' group. We try to meet every month and share a little of our work and write and talk about writing and what we've been reading. If someone has a finished manuscript, she gives it to us and six weeks later we discuss it. These conversations are invaluable, so much more valuable to me than notes or a letter about the book individually. Something happens in that conversation that I'm sort of eavesdropping in on; things are illuminated. The whole concept of the book is examined, debated, dissected. I take notes. It is wildly informative. These women are all really sharp readers and I can really get a real sense of what I have on my hands when they discuss it. At the end of the discussion, they hand me their marked copies of my book and I take a few weeks off, then open them up and dig in again. As isolated and lonely an act as writing seems, it is an act of sustained communication. When I read a novel I love, I feel that I am in conversation with that writer, a meaningful conversation. I love that feeling. I live for it, actually.
SR: Nell, Fen, and Bankson are all anthropologists living in the same region, who have very different approaches to their work. Each character’s personality and idiosyncrasies light up through dialogue and action. Your writing convinces me they are just as real as Mead, Fortune, and Bateson. Could you talk about your process of creating indirect characterization? What was your method in organizing their distinct voices?
LK: I did read what I could find about Mead, Bateson, and Fortune between December of 1932 and May of 1933, but I was not trying in this novel to capture their personalities, or to tell their story. It is clear by the end that this is most definitely not the story of those real-life anthropologists. But I was interested in their situation, in telling a story with three characters in a similar configuration. About six months into writing the first draft, I felt I didn't know these three characters well enough, so I wrote, entirely separate from the novel, each of their autobiographies. Each one begins "I was born..." and tells the story of their life from birth up to the day the novel begins. They're each about 20 pages long. It was a way for me to find their voices. Part of Bankson's is included in the book, the part where we learn about his family back in England. I often do that when I need to know more about a character. It inevitably loosens me up and changes the direction of the book.
SR: I was deeply captivated by the way the second chapter intertwines Bankson’s reality and memory. The transcendent connection he feels with his departed brothers as he prepares for suicide is heartbreaking, yet beautiful. Could you describe the process of developing Bankson’s history within the story? How did you see that early life as being influential to his personality as he worked among the tribes?
LK: That chapter, or I should say the way that chapter is told, really came out of the blue. It was my first attempt at Bankson's voice. It came before the autobiographies. But it was also an experiment. I wasn't sure I was going to include Bankson's point of view in the novel, but once I wrote that chapter—all at once, in a restaurant at lunchtime—the novel began to feel like his story more that anyone else's. I was so surprised by how close I felt to him, how well I could hear his thoughts, know his past. It was odd. And it was so unexpected. I hadn't felt that I had all that much to say about him before I started writing that day. But he took over the novel.
SR: You handwrite the first drafts of your work, including novels, using pencil and spiral notebooks. I have to bring this up because it inspires, maybe even shocks, people in our digital age. To me, handwriting a novel seems like a very intimate process. Can you describe your relationship to your first drafts? Has this method evolved over time?
LK: I write exactly the way I wrote in high school: spiral notebook, lined paper, pencil. I think it has something to do with what I mentioned before about the creator and the critic/judge. When I'm writing by hand I know it's the creative time, the place where I can put anything down to try it out it. I like to think that the judge just goes to sleep when the notebook comes out. She can come back when I'm typing it onto the computer. Then she's useful. I can work with her. I love that step of transcription because I am rewriting every word, choosing what stays and what goes. I do that over and over, go from handwriting to typed, print out the typed and handwrite it again, type it up again—rewriting every word over and over, much like writers use to do when they had to work by typewriter.
SR: In your interview published in Guernica, you said, “I’m always interested in a claustrophobic situation where people might be powerless to do things.” Can you explain this idea further? What draws you to writing these situations?
LK: I think my main interest is in human relationships, and when people are boxed in in some way—in a house, in a family, in a jungle—the tension increases and people do and say things that maybe they could hold in if they were given more space and more time. I suppose it bring the moment to a crisis. The tensions in my work often come from within the characters, not from external forces. So I suppose I need a combustible situation to force the drama to happen.
SR: Discuss your feelings on being selected as the winner of the 2014 Kirkus Prize for fiction. This is such a monumental accomplishment!
LK: It was really such a shock. It was a brand new prize so it's not like I'd been hoping to be nominated beforehand. All the finalists went to Austin and gathered at a ceremony and found out all together. The judges were being really nice to me at the party beforehand so I thought for sure I had lost. It felt to me too nice, like pity-nice. It turned out that they were just really kind people. It was so fun to hang out with other writers—on book tour you never see other writers so I relish any event that has more than one writer. The prize took an edge off the financial absurdity of being a writer all these years, too. It just felt like a huge honor to be listed with those other authors whom I admire so much: Bill Roorbach, Dinaw Mengestu, Sarah Waters, Brian Morton, and Siri Hustvedt.
SR: I hope this doesn’t sound too off topic, but I love the cover of Euphoria. How much influence did you have in its design? Could you talk a little bit about how the artwork interacts with the content of the novel?
LK: This was the first image shown to me and I loved it the minute I saw it. It's the bark of a rainbow gum tree, the kind of tree that grows up through Bankson's house. But it's abstract enough that people miss that and it just looks colorful, perhaps a painting. There was some pressure to choose a photograph that signaled exotic location and the '30s, but fortunately my editor and I fought against that and got to keep this one.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
LK: I write on a desk my stepfather, who died in 1999, made for me, in a tiny, dusty room on the third floor of our house that gets really hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. I have a sort of chaise longue that I got at a second hand furniture store, olive green velvet, that I read on sometimes when I need to get inspired. When I'm not on it, my dog Theo is, sprawled out there like Marie Antoinette.