Lily King: Interview

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Lily King’s new novel, Euphoria, is a departure from the domestic focus of her first three books (The Pleasing Hour, The English Teacher, Father of the Rain) and was inspired by a biography of Margaret Mead that King picked up by chance at a used bookstore. Euphoria (excerpted in Issue 146 of TQ) is a highly fictionalized account of Mead’s time studying tribes in the Territory of New Guinea – but at its core it’s a story about love. Euphoria won the New England Book Award for Fiction 2014 and is being translated into several languages.  Plans for a feature film are underway.

TQ sat down with King in Portland, Maine to discuss the book, the aspects of human experience that inspire her to write, and her writing process.

TQ: This is your fourth novel, and it’s very different from your three earlier novels, which were more domestic in nature, dealing with family dynamics. How did you get the idea for Euphoria?

Lily King: I actually got the idea from a biography of Margaret Mead that I inadvertently bought a few years ago. I wasn’t looking to buy it, but a friend of mine brought me to a little bookstore that she was crazy about, and when we got there a lot of the inventory was picked through. I felt like I had to buy something, though, and found this biography of Margaret Mead, thinking I would never read it. But I started reading and was captivated by her.

TQ: Well, she was such a trailblazer at the time, in the Thirties, going to the jungles of New Guinea to study tribes.

LK: She was, but biographies start at the childhood, and she was interesting from a very early age. Even before she had any training in anthropology, she was a rebel and she was a thinker and she felt that there were things wrong with our society, and I think that is really what motivated her. So when she went into anthropology, it was really an anthropology of social change and not just a static study of cultures. She had an agenda, and that was interesting to me. It never occurred to me as I was reading that I would ever write about her, but I got to this part where she was thirty-four years old and she was with her second husband, Reo Fortune, and they were in the middle of the Territory of New Guinea and really having a rough time. Their marriage was difficult, it was difficult to be married to him in the field, and they met this other anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, and I think within ten hours she had fallen in love with him. And it was a crazy chemistry for all three of them, they all really needed each other, and they just exploded with conversation. Bateson found them another tribe to study very close by to where he was, and they stayed there for about five months together. I think they (Mead and Bateson) really tried to control their feelings toward each other, but they were very powerful feelings. It was an emotional, intellectual, and physical connection they had, it wasn’t just one or two of these aspects, it was all three, and it was really strong. I got to the end of that little section, which was probably only twelve pages or so, and I thought it would just make an amazing novel.

TQ: I wanted to ask you about that, about how you thought about writing that sort of love obsession, because you have it a bit in The Pleasing Hour as well. Who have you read who has that in their books, that strong, obsessive love connection?

LK: One of the first things that comes to mind is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I think that connection between Lizzie and Mr. Darcy is so compelling. Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient probably is another. I love all love stories, but I’ve never written one before. I’ve been so preoccupied with families and fucked-up families that I think it took some courage to try a love story because I love reading them so much and I think they’re really, really hard to do.

TQ: Hard to make it feel authentic, you mean?

LK: Yes, it’s a minefield. Everywhere you step, you could be going the wrong place, and I was a little daunted by this love story as well because it’s the only type of love story I like. It’s the intellectual, emotional, physical attraction love story, where everything is clicking on all levels. That’s what I love about Pride and Prejudice. That’s the apex for me. I certainly didn’t have the goal of writing something as good as that book, but it was an inspiration.

TQ: Another question along those lines is the sexuality aspect and how Margaret Mead had a relationship with another woman. You have this female attraction in The Pleasing Hour as well, where you have the teenage daughter who is thinking about a girl as she is having sex with her boyfriend for the first time. And in Euphoria there is also what goes on in the rituals between the women of the Tam tribe. What has caused you to be drawn to that as an aspect of human experience and sexuality?

LK: Such a good question. I guess I’m interested in the boundary areas or the less stereotypical types of loves. I often say that when I write sex scenes, I often write sex scenes with bad sex or there’s always something a little bit off or something unexpected, not the clichéd sex scenes, so I think that’s probably part of it. I also think cultural taboos are interesting, and homosexuality has been a taboo for so, so long.

TQ: In the novel Nell asks questions about wanting too much. She wanted both Helen and Fen, but they made her choose between them even though she didn’t want to be anyone’s one and only, she says, “I want too much, I always have, why are we so blinded by the urge to conform?” So I wanted to ask you about that in terms of women: do you think we are expected, more than men, to do things a certain way? Or do you think all humans feel this need to conform, and not women more than men?

LK: I guess in general I do think things can be harder for women—many, many things—but I was really interested in this notion of possession in this novel and the way people try to possess each other, the way people try to possess lands, information, tribes, the way Nell and Fen perceived Bankson as wanting to possess this part of the Sepik River, and yet he had no interest. He was so grateful for company. I do think that this impulse to possess is probably one of our greatest weaknesses, and yet it’s also an incredible survival instinct. It is interesting when it spills over into relationships, and it’s very much a part of relationships. I think it’s very interesting when people have different relationships with possession and different impulses around it. It interests me a lot. And it’s also something that Margaret Mead wrote about and thought about. She very much felt, from what I can tell, that people wanted to possess her in ways that she did not want to possess them, and this confused her.

TQ: I want to move on to writing in general and how you decide what sort of narration you’re going to use. You’ve used multiple points of view in your novels, with first-person and some third-person, varying third-person, and all first-person. In Euphoria we have Bankson in first person, but then Nell’s journals as well. How does that decision happen? Do you know as you set out, or do you start with one character and then experiment with others, and then it switches and you go with that? I’m sure it’s different every time.

LK: Sometimes I just know, and I go with it and never veer away from that. And I thought with this one that I knew. I thought that I would tell the story from Nell’s point of view, and I varied at the beginning between first- and third-person narration, and I couldn’t quite decide about that. But I realized quickly that I thought I needed all three, and I think I started writing it in Nell’s perspective from the third person. And then I bounced around, even in a given chapter, like an omniscient narrator. And I got through half the book that way before I realized that it was Bankson’s story. His was the voice that really spoke to me. I could get under his skin in a way that I couldn’t with the other two, and I was really interested in telling his story.

TQ: Was there a moment that made you realize that, a moment within the story?

LK: I think I thought it when I wrote the second chapter from his point of view. But I didn’t want to accept that because that wasn’t the type of novel I wanted to write, and I was very much writing thinking I was going to be historically accurate. But pretty soon I changed their names and started writing dialogue, and I didn’t have any dialogue from my research. So they became fictional characters, and I could not be beholden to their facts. Although I used a great deal of their facts, by the end it’s a very different story. But again, once I wrote that second chapter, I was most attracted to Bankson’s point of view, which is funny because I thought I was going to be able to tell it mostly from Nell’s point of view. But I was so crazy about Gregory Bateson—I was half in love with him from all my research. I had this whole plan for the novel, and then once it was his story, I had to change the whole plot.

TQ: So that brings me to your writing versus revision process. You said you wrote half the novel and then realized it was Bankson’s story. Did you keep writing from his point of view and then later went back, or how did that work?

LK: No, I went all the way back. I kept going all the way back and starting again. I have Euphoria draft number one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven, and finally I stuck with that. And another huge shift was that those journal entries were originally letters to Helen, but I felt I could say more if I made them part of a journal.

TQ: You have such a sense of place in this novel and some amazing descriptions of them in the boat going up the river and how it feels and all of Nell’s sores and the bodily feeling of being there in such heat. It’s so visceral. Did you go there to have that experience or is it a matter of research and imagination?

LK: My husband and I, when we first were a couple, our first big trip was to Peru, and we went up this tributary of the Amazon for four days or so. And this trip was—it’s amazing we stayed together after this trip. It was a hard trip. We went to four different parts of Peru; we were there for maybe three weeks. But the Amazon was the nadir of our experience, and it was so hot, so oppressive. Just getting along was really hard because of that. And there was the fear factor. There were piranhas in the water and these terrifying snakes in the jungle, but I didn’t have any writing specifically about the river experience. The writing I had was two pages in a little notebook, which were notes to my sister about how miserable I was with Tyler and how he was driving me crazy, nothing about the Amazon itself.

TQ: But do you think going back to those thoughts and evoking that feeling you had about how you felt being there helped you remember the scene, the place?

LK: Yes, it definitely did. It made a huge impression on me. But other than that I just did a ton of reading and research. Because of my children, and also financially, I couldn’t go halfway around the world to see it. Also there are parts of New Guinea that are extremely dangerous, and I’m not one to put my life at risk like that.

TQ: There’s also this issue of language in the novel, and the anthropologists have to learn the languages of the tribes they study. You have the issue of language in The Pleasing Hour as well, where your main character is an American in Paris, living with a French family. In Euphoria, Nell says, “You have to pay attention to everything else when you don’t know the words, once language comes you can rely on their words and words aren’t always the most reliable thing.” Have you ever lived overseas, have you had that feeling of being an outsider watching people and trying to engage with them on a basis other than language?

LK: That’s a great question. I have lived abroad; I’ve lived in France, Spain, and Italy. I’m kind of a language-aholic—I love learning a new language, I love moving to a new country where I have to produce the language in a short amount of time.

A parallel experience is that my parents divorced when I was eleven, and my father remarried almost immediately. My mother married a few years later, to a man with seven children, then my father divorced again a few years after that and married a woman with four children, so ultimately I have sixteen brothers, sisters, stepbrothers, and stepsisters. I feel like I’ve had to be in four different family systems. You have to learn the language and all the mores and taboos of the different families or tribes, and they’re often very different and you have to switch your behavior to adapt.

TQ: What writers or books do you go back to over and over?

LK: For this novel in particular, Jane Gardam’s novel Old Filth was the guiding light. I fell in love with it before I started writing this book. I didn’t know how much it would influence me, but it’s about an Englishman who is at the end of his life and is looking back, and it’s really poignant. It’s about a man who had so much emotion inside him and was never able to show it. And it’s such a beautiful study of a man. I’ve read it many times. So when I realized this was Bankson’s story, I was like, oh, right, now I can write my “Old Filth book.”

I always go back to Virginia Woolf, she’s one of my huge polestars, and then Shirley Hazzard. She’s another huge influence on me. I love her. I also really have a thing for British women, so Tessa Hadley is a big one, and Rachel Cusk. But my tastes really go all over the place. I love Philip Roth, too.

TQ: You have two girls. Do you have a routine in terms of writing with the kids?

LK: It was so much harder when they weren’t in school full time, but the minute they went to school from eight to two, it was so much easier. And I don’t need any more time than that.

TQ: And do you write that whole time or is that reading, writing, thinking?

LK: I mostly write. Sometimes I exercise, sometimes I read the New York Times over breakfast, actually most days. But I mostly write with that time. I don’t write very fast. So I’m lucky if I get a few pages a day. As long as I’m feeling good about the pages, I don’t care how many there are.

TQ: When you are writing, do you begin at the beginning and go straight through or do you write different parts?

LK: I very much write what I think at the time is chronological, and it usually ends up being that way. I write by hand. I buy notebooks at Staples and I plunge right in. I keep a section of notes at the back of each notebook so that when I get ideas, I have a place to put them. And then later I do a timeline. And often that changes, but at least I have it.

TQ: What are you working on now?

LK: I have an idea. I have a page and quarter written. I’m consumed right now with the book launch for Euphoria. But the new idea is contemporary and will require a ton of research once I get the time to work on it!