Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The great Lily King talks about Euphoria, Margaret Mead, Nerts, and how writing can be impossible and terrifying

Lily King is the kind of writer other writers rhapsodize over. Fiercely smart, and deeply emotional, she's a keen observer of how people struggle to live their lives--and, of course, there is her glorious prose.  Lily’s first novel, The Pleasing Hour (1999) won the Barnes and Noble Discover Award and was a New York Times Notable Book and an alternate for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her second, The English Teacher, was a Publishers Weekly Top Ten Book of the Year, a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year, and the winner of the Maine Fiction Award. Her third novel, Father of the Rain (2010), was a New York Times Editors Choice, a Publishers Weekly Best Novel of the Year and winner of both the New England Book Award for Fiction and the Maine Fiction Award.  Lily's new novel, Euphoria,  is an Amazon Book of the Month, on the Indie Next List, and hitting numerous summer reading lists from The Boston Globe to O Magazine and USA Today. Reviewed on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, Emily Eakin called Euphoria, “a taut, witty, fiercely intelligent tale of competing egos and desires in a landscape of exotic menace.” The novel is being translated into numerous different languages and a feature film is underway.

Lily, thank you, thank you so much for being here.

I’m fascinated that your novel was inspired by Margaret Mead (A video on her in the Natural History Museum actually transfixed my son when he was a baby, so I have a special fondness foe for her.)  What is about anthropologists that caught you? And about Mead’s life in particular? And how and why did you change the facts of her life to craft your novel?

I stumbled on this biography of Mead about nine years ago. I wasn't looking to write anything about her or anthropology. In fact I was just starting my third novel, Father of the Rain, so I wasn't even looking for an idea. But I started reading this biography and I got to the part when she was 31 and doing field work in what was the called the Territory of New Guinea with her second husband in 1933 and they meet this other English anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, and have this crazy five month love triangle in the jungle and I thought that would make a good novel. It was sort of an idle thought, not a real thought. I didn't think I'd actually write that novel. I thought the idea would go away. But it didn't. So I started reading more about and by Mead and Bateson and more ideas started coming, though I didn't actually commit to writing the novel for five years, after I'd finished Father of the Rain. I thought I was going to stay true to the facts of her life as best I could, but the minute I started writing scenes and dialogue my characters separated from their real-life inspirations and I couldn't really control them anymore.

What was the research like for this novel? What startled you about it?  Was there anything you learned that turned what you thought you were going to write into something else entirely

The research took years, though I did it intermittently as I wrote the third novel. It was hard to know when to stop, hard to make that transition from research to writing. I think the most startling thing was when I did start to write and I quickly realized it wasn't my character Nell's story. I thought she would narrate it, and she did for a while, until I shifted the point-of-view for one short chapter to Bankson's, and just felt him in a different way, so much more intimately, and I understood that it all had to be told in his voice. And that changed everything.

So much of this astonishing novel is about obsessions--for work and for love. Do you think obsessions can save us as well as destroy us? Which leads me to my next question--what’s obsessing you now?

The word obsession has unhealthiness built in, doesn't it? Everything else falls away, and perspective and relativity are lost. That very much happens to the characters in Euphoria. I'm sure there have been situations where obsessions save people, but I do think the real kind of obsession tends to destroy more often than not. Right now I am slightly, but not yet destructively, obsessed with a particular kind of potato doughnut in Portland, Maine called the "old fashioned" which you get at the Holy Donut on Exchange Street. Also this summer my husband, kids, neighbors and I have been playing way way too much of card game called Nerts.

There is also an equally fascinating thread about how we should (or shouldn’t) study other cultures, and if it is possible without disturbing those cultures in some way. Can you talk about this, please?

In 1933 Anthropology as a discipline taught at universities was still a young science, only a few decades old. Modern Western Anthropology grew out of colonialism and the contact the dominant powers made with indigenous populations. These populations were then studied, occasionally out of curiosity, but more frequently out of desire to subjugate. The way anthropologists in the early part of the twentieth century spoke of their "people"  and their "village" using possessive pronouns and picking out a shoot boy and cook boy and house boy, was inherently colonialistic. My characters are still very much a part of this tradition, and yet Bankson of three is more aware of it, less comfortable with it, and much more cognizant that his presence is altering what he is observing. He is aware that his whiteness changes the way the people in the tribe he is studying behave.

What’s your writing life like? Do you plan things out or just see what happens

 I write only when my kids are at school. I don't work weekends or evenings, except when I'm about to hand in a draft to my agent or editor. Then I go up to the attic and don't come out, or I rent a cabin somewhere and work straight for several days.

 When I start a book I have a few characters in my head, an initial situation they're in, and a sense of the emotional journey I want to take them on. I often know where I want the characters to end up emotionally, but I never know until I get there what exactly will happen to get them there. I take notes along the way, in the back of the spiral notebooks I write in, and then when they notes get unruly, I make a little timeline of moments I write towards. Not chapters or even full scenes, just little moments that help me know where to go next. I love the part when I type into the computer the chapters in my notebook. That's when I do my best editing. That's when I can hear it in a different way. It's a complete rewrite because I am re-writing every single word, not cutting or pasting or tinkering but fully re-writing. 

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

When I had my first reading of the tour in New York in June, my agent Julie Barer asked, "What was a high point and a low point of writing the book?" I think I said then, because the whole process of writing it was still so close to me, that there were no highs. I couldn't think of one! But the truth is that day when I wrote that short chapter in Bankson's point of view and was so stunned by the way it came out and how it changed everything about the book, that was a high. And then the rest of the time I felt the whole thing was impossible and terrifying. 

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