Two interviews with Lily King about her life and works, and in particular her 2014 novel Euphoria, and Father of the Rain (2010)
A Conversation with Lily King about Euphoria, loosely inspired by the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead
Euphoria is loosely inspired by events in the life of Margaret Meadwhat first struck you about this revolutionary anthropologist?
I loved that her personal life was even more radical than her anthropology, and that the two were completely entwined. She had many lovers, men and women, often at the same time, whether she was married or not. And she believed that our culture's lack of sexual freedom was the root of some of our most serious problems. She was always working out theories of anthropology through her relationships and theories about her relationships through anthropology. "The world is my field," she said. "It's all anthropology."
Why did you decide for the first time to deal with a historical premise for Euphoria?
I didn't mean to. In fact, I tried not to write it for a long time, because it was so far out of the realm of what I'd written beforeor even what I like to read. But I started reading this biography of Margaret Mead, and I got to this part where she's working in Papua New Guinea with her second husband, and they meet another anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, and she falls madly in love with him. And for four months the three of them are way up the Sepik River, studying these headhunting tribes in the jungle, spiking malarial fevers, and struggling to cope with this wild, intense love triangle. It was impossible not to imagine writing a novel with some of those elements in it. But it took a great deal of research to work up the courage to try it.
Tell us about that research. Was there anything you intentionally chose not to research?
I read anything I could find about Mead, her husband Reo Fortune, and her next husband Gregory Bateson; about field work, Papua New Guinea, World War I in England, and World War II in the Pacific; about tropical animals, plants, and diseases; about anthropology, the 1920s and '30s, and British and Australian and American culture and language use of that era. But if you flip through my notebooks, you will see, beside all the facts, long starred notes about what could happen in a novel. Those were the notes that were most important in the end, the fictional ideas that the factual details triggered. I hate books that feel heavily researched, that rely on the reader finding the factsand not the plot and characters and sentencesas fascinating as the writer obviously did. I throw those books across the room in a rage. So in the end, if I had to make a statistical analysis, I probably used .037 percent of my research. For a long time, for as long as my curiosity could bear it, I tried not to read much about what happened to them after they left the Sepik in the late spring of 1933.
Where was the line between fact and fiction for you? Was there a certain point when your imagination took over and these characters began to act and speak for themselves?
Yes. Page one. I really did believe, the whole time I was researching the book, that I would stay within the boundaries of what I knew happened between these three anthropologists during that four-month period. But the moment I had to enter their thoughts, create their dialogue, describe the boat they were on, they individuated themselves from their historical inspirations, and we were off on a very different journey. The one scene in the book that came specifically from Mead's memoir was cut by my editor. In her margin note she said they never would have behaved that way.
What did you learn as a writer from working on this book? Was there anything in your process that was especially surprising or enlightening for you?
I came across a quote by Jennifer Egan early in this process in which she says she needs to write what she thinks she cannot write, that she needs that challenge. That made me feel less alone. This was really the first book I've written that I didn't believe I was capable of writing. I mean, you always worry that you're not capable of finishing it or making it readable or interesting, but there was nothing in this book1933, the jungle of Papua New Guinea, anthropology, male British narratorthat was familiar ground. I felt it had to be writtenthe story was so interesting to mebut I feared I did not have the right arrows in my quiver for it.
Euphoria is set in 1930s New Guinea, but the themes you deal with and the emotional struggles your characters face still deeply resonate today. What aspects of this story do you feel make it so universal?
I think humans will always struggle with the enormous question of how to be in the world. Anthropologists at the beginning of the twentieth century introduced the idea of scientifically comparing our cultureour social organization, our behavior, our most basic assumptions about right and wrong and masculinity and femininityto those of other cultures. Margaret Mead was the first to write up a study like that for the general public, not other scientists, and those sorts of comparisons still make the headlines daily: THE HAPPIEST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD. TEN COUNTRIES WHERE PEOPLE LIVE THE LONGEST. THE MOST SEXUALLY SATISFIED COUNTRIES. Mead and my character Nell Stone, for example, studied the question of raising children, another issue that seems a perpetually hot topic in the media now, particularly in comparison to other cultures: Should you be a Tiger Mother or French maman?
Euphoria also deals with the age-old question of possession in all its forms. The book is set when Western corporations were just beginning their modern, full-scale depredation of the land and resources from undeveloped places like the island of New Guinea, which is obviously still going on today. The anthropologists of the time were aware of this and were frantically trying to observe and record the details of these societies before they were wiped out by Western need and greed. But they also mimicked a sort of colonization of their own, as they became highly possessive of their regions of study. An even smaller microcosm of this need for ownership is played out between the three anthropologists in my novel. And possession in love is a theme I don't believe will ever die.
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A Conversation with Lily King about Father of the Rain Interviewed by Joshua Bodwell
What was the first book you remember reading as an adolescent that made a lasting impression on you?
In ninth or tenth grade I was assigned Winesburg, Ohio in English class and I fell deeply in love with the language and just the utter bizarreness of the characters' behaviors, all their secrets and thwarted passions. I remember having to write a paper on the "grotesque" in Winesburg, Ohio. And at the heart was George Willard, a writer struggling to break free from all these people in pain. I wouldn't have been able to identify with him at the time, but now I understand why I was so drawn to it. I read it over and over in high school.
When did you first start writing and what do you remember of that time?
One of my best friends in fifth grade, Amy Mix, told me one day that she was writing a novel. We had never had one creative writing assignment, ever, so the idea was a shock to me. I started my own novel that night. I only wrote twenty pages, and it had perhaps too many parallels to the Partridge Family (five kids, a painted bus), but it definitely lit the fuse for me. The funny thing is, years later, after college, I talked to Amy Mix on the phone, the first time I'd talked to her since eighth grade, and the first thing I asked her was if she was still writing. "Writing?" she asked, completely bewildered. I'd always assumed she'd become a writer, too.
When you began your new novel, Father of the Rain, what was the initial idea or image that got the story rolling?
I think it started with the puppy, a father buying his daughter a puppy that she wouldn't be able to keep because she knew, though he didn't, that she would be moving out of the house with her mother in a week. And her choice of the ugliest puppy, so that it wouldn't be even harder to leave. Once I got the puppy in the car, the rest of the first chapter came quickly: the mother with the group of city kids in the pool, the father scheming to sabotage the moment in some way, and the daughter trying to please them both at the same time, all the while carrying around this tremendous secret that her mother was about to leave the marriage.
Are you an extensive plotter or did this novel evolve organically as you wrote?
I plot a little ahead. I write with a pencil in a lined notebook and in the back of every notebook I leave twenty blank pages for notes. So while I'm writing chapter one, I'll get ideas for chapter three and I'll take a few notes. And then when I have too many notes to see at once, I'll make a little time line. And sometimes I'll follow the timeline, and sometimes I'll toss it out and go in a different direction. I don't like to be too confined to and restricted by an outline. It can deaden the writing. But I do like a little hint of direction, something to be moving toward.
This makes me think of great E.L. Doctorow line: "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."
I can't believe you quoted that of all quotes. It has been my mantra for years and years. Actually, I misquoted it for years and years. Until recently I thought it was "driving cross-country at night." Not sure where I got that, but writing a novel to me does feel like driving from Boston to L.A. in the pitch black.
It's so common for readers to believe that novelists pull material from their own lives. You've published three novels that feature three complex female characters (two of them written in the first-person). Can you talk about how much material you harvested from personal experience for Father of the Rain and how much is pure fiction?
My mother recently quoted Padgett Powell as saying: "I take everything I know, then lie about it." I have searched the Internet and can't find this line anywhere, but I think it sums up the process pretty well. For me writing is like dreaming, elements from life come in but they are jumbled and distorted. It's the fictional possibilities that light everything on fire for me. When I try to write straight memoir, it feels dead. The only thing that's still alive is the emotion. So all my novels have a lot of emotional truth, emotions, but not necessarily situations, I have experienced, and in entirely different contexts. Though Father of the Rain begins in autobiographical territory for mesummer of 1974, small town Massachusetts, parents divorcingit departs from my actual experiences pretty quickly, and by the end of the novel the trajectory that the narrator Daley's life has taken is very different from mine.
If one were forced to name a common thread between your three very different novels, they might point out your exploration of family. Why do you think that is?
I have a hard time staying away from the family drama. Whenever I write anything, even a short story that is not intended to be about family, a sibling or a parent always walks through the door.
Daley, the narrator of Father of the Rain, is not an only child even though at times it seems she is, and is usually much more emotionally mature than her older brother, Garvey. Why did you decide to not make Daley an only child?
It wasn't a decision, exactly. Garvey came in during the first chapter, but very faintly, very much in the background, but his presence became increasingly important to Daley and the book. I was really surprised myself by how vital he becomes by the end.
As you follow Daley's life, you make three significant time leaps in this novel in order to move her from adolescence to middle age. Can you talk about the way you crafted those sections, and also how you maintained Daley's voice and personality.
I love big leaps in time in novels. But I also know they can be disastrous to its cohesion. I really tried hard not think of how badly it could go wrong and just tried to write from instinct without any sort of intellectualization of it. I didn't think about trying to maintain anything. I just wrote it the way I feltnot thoughtDaley would be thinking in those different circumstances and stages of her life.
The father in Father of the Rain, Gardiner, does many despicable things in the course of this novelbe it reading letters aloud from Penthouse magazine to his children, or the mix of mental and physical violence he commits on those around himyet he never devolves into a caricature. How did you go about forming this character? Did you have to find a way to empathize with him in order to write him?
He was just there for me. I wasn't at all aware that I had empathized with him until my husband, my first reader, read it and found him endearing. It really shocked me. Endearing? I knew I was trying to depict as thoroughly as possible Daley's complicated feelings for her father, but I didn't realize that the reader would end up with those complicated feelings for him, too.
Do you think this reaction has anything to do with the complexity of alcoholism as an illness, not a choice?
Well, one of the things I've learned about alcoholism is that an active drinker who wants to keep his life as together as he can needs to be awfully charming and lovable in order for the people around him to tolerate the drinking.
In The English Teacher you explored a complex mother/son relationship. With Father of the Rain, you have turned your attention to a father/daughter relationship. What caused you to turn your attention to father/daughter?
I guess I wasn't quite done with all the bad parenting possibilities! I am very interested in father/daughter relationships, and I don't think they get equal play in fiction. There are certainly a great many mother/daughter and father/son novels out there, and a good many mother/son ones, too. But not many father/daughter ones come to mind. Several years ago, I read a parenting book that claimed, with all sorts of studies to back up this claim, that women get their self-esteem almost solely through their relationship with their father. Given that our society, and our world, is still quite patriarchal, it makes sense that a man's opinion of you is what is going to matter more. Just a few days ago I found one of the first notes to myself that I ever wrote about this novel. There were possible scene ideas, and then at the bottom it said: "The way we were treated by our father is the way we expect the world to treat us." Father of the Rain is one woman's efforts to escape that fate.
You once told me that this novel came in fits and starts, but when it came, "it came in a torrent." Can you talk about that?
My first two novels came out at a fairly steady trickle, but this one was really erratic. I remember one month in particular, January of 2008. I wrote between 3 and 6 pages every day, which is a lot for me. It felt like it was pouring out of me. Then I woke up on the first of February and nothing. I had a sudden visceral aversion to my own novel. I couldn't go near it. I wrote short stories instead. I didn't write another word until May. There were a number of times like that. I think I got very sad writing parts of the book, and I'd have to stop so that I wouldn't be swallowed up by that sadness.
Your novels have involved no shortage of difficult subject matters: giving up the child of an unplanned teenage pregnancy, rape, and alcoholism. When asked about the difficult subject matter of his writing, the short story writer Andre Dubus once said, "I think honest writers write about what bothers them." Do you agree?
What a great quote. I think it's very true. And so often what bothers you is stuff you really don't want to write about. But it comes in. It walks into your novel and you scream No! and tell those ideas to get out, but they don't listen.
Father of the Rain is set in a seaside New England town. Your previous novels have been set in France and on an island off the East Coast. How important is place in your fiction?
I love writing about a place, small towns in particular, and I had a really good time in this novel creating a town in Massachusetts quite similar to the one I grew up in, with the three-aisled grocery store and the carnival that came every summer, and then creating the characters' relationships to it. I think of the setting as another character. Some novels don't need that character, but I love reading books that do it well.
Who are some of the writers who have influenced you?
It begins with Judy Blume, then Anderson and Updike and Bellow, then Faulkner and Carver, then Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison, then Marilyn Robinson, Alice Munro, Shirley Hazzard, Alice McDermott, and Rachel Cusk.
Can you take one of those writers and talk specifically about how their work has impacted you, and therefore your work?
I suppose Virginia Woolf has had the greatest impact on me. I discovered her late, in graduate school, and because of her and because of the work of my best friends there at school, Laura McNeal, who is a stunning writer, my writing took a dramatic turn. I had come to grad school writing sort of pithy, dialogue-driven short stories with very little attention to imagery or the beauty of sentences, but by the end of my two years there, I found I was much more interested in creating mood and texture, a sort of sensual experience. My first novel very much reflects that shift. While I was writing Father of the Rain I was aware of moving away from the lyrical sentence and found my writing was much more driven by dialogue again. I felt like I was leaving Woolf's influence and it made me feel sort of panicky, like where was I going if not in her direction anymore? I'd like to believe I am coming more into my own voice, though I am at a loss for how to describe it or exactly who has influenced it. I think the truth is that it's the material itself that has the most influence on how I tell a story, not whom I have read or what I admire. The voice is organic to the story itself.
How does your reading life affect your writing life?
Reading is essential to my writing. It feeds it. I often take notes while I read, not notes on what I'm reading but on what the reading has sparked in my imagination, which is often entirely unrelated to the words on the page. I got the idea for my second novel while reading an essay by James Wood on Virginia Woolf. I think the note I took was: "novel set during hostage crisis '79-81?" When I am completely depleted, I often take a day or week off of writing and just read to replenish.
Some authors have claimed that they only read nonfictionor don't read at all while they are in the thick of writing a novel because they fear that another writer's voice will creep into theirs. Do you ever worry about that?
I hear that a lot. But I have to read fiction for inspiration, for a reason to go on. Nonfiction rarely gives me the thrill of fiction. And I don't feel like my voice is so fixed that it wouldn't be aided by a dose of great writing every day.
You once told me that given the option between writing and your daughters, you will "choose my children over my writing every time." Can you talk a little bit about navigating motherhood and authorhood?
Before my children were in school full-time it was a chronic struggle and confused me to no end. I had part-time childcare and was constantly reconfiguring the hours. I never felt like I had enough time to write, and yet I missed my children terribly in the hours that I did have. Then they went to school and the balance was righted.
Do you think stories are created or discovered?
I just read my eleven-year-old daughter this one, and she said, "That's an amazing question." I think they are created, but the good ones feel discovered.
Finally, if you could be any fictional character, who would you be?
Elizabeth Bennett. I admire her to no end.
Joshua Bodwell is a journalist and writer in Maine. His newspaper journalism has garnered awards from the Maine and New England press associations. He is a regular contributor to Poets & Writers Magazine, as well as the online journal Fiction Writers Review. Joshua is a recipient of the Maine Community Foundation's Martin Dibner Fellowship for fiction. His short stories have appeared in many journals, including: The Threepenny Review, Ambit (London, England), Northern New England Review, Frank (Paris, France), and Tears in the Fence (Dorset, England).
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Grove Atlantic
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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