interview: Lily King
Lily King is a New England-based writer whose work explores travel, family, relationships, and loss. Her most recent novel, Euphoria (2014), is an elegant and psychologically complex interpretation of the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead. Euphoria was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the first-ever Kirkus Award for Fiction. King is also the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship and a Whiting Writer’s Award. This interview took place at the Community Bookstore in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
I enjoyed Euphoria very much. It is a departure from what you have done in the past, but at the same time the novel feels like a kind of culmination of many of your specific talents as a writer.
LK: Thank you.
Were you ever afraid of the critics coming after you, saying, for example, that your interpretation of history wasn’t accurate?
LK: Yes, absolutely. That’s why I wrote, in the back of the book, “This is my own story, I made it up.” I thought the critics would come after me for so many different things, so I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the way people—the great majority of reviews that I’ve seen—have really accepted the premise. That this is a work of fiction, that I did take from real life, but this isn’t Margaret Mead’s story. People have been really forgiving and understanding of that hybrid. I’ve been so grateful.
What is the meaning of the title, Euphoria?
LK: It originally appeared in a line of dialogue. Nell is telling Bankson that her favorite moment in anthropology happens about two months into her research, when she feels like she completely understands the tribe she’s studying. She knows it’s a delusion, but, she says, “It’s the briefest, purest euphoria,” or something like that. I wrote that line and I thought, hmmm. And I made it the title. I’m not sure I even noticed before then that I didn’t have a title. I wasn’t sure it would stick or resonate with the book as a whole, but when I finished the draft it felt right. It felt like the whole story was Bankson’s briefest, purest euphoria.
You have said before that a writer is a kind of anthropologist. Do you ever experience “euphoria”?
LK: Every now and then. Mostly delusional. Most of my days writing this book were full of doubt and self-mocking, but I did have a few days of bliss. Writing the very short Chapter 2 was one of them. It just spilled out in less than an hour and changed everything about the book—the point of view, the language, the plot—everything.
Was working on your fourth book different from your first?
LK: I would have said a few weeks ago that each book feels equally terrifying, and you have the exact same fears during the writing of each one: that you will never finish it, that it’s putrid, that you haven’t even come close to the vision you had for it. But I recently was reading over an old journal from the time when I had just finished a second draft of my first novel, and my fear and anxiety was unrecognizable to me. Because with the first one it’s not just a novel that’s at stake—it’s your whole life, all of the choices you made to get to this point, all of the sacrifices. Everything feels like it’s in the balance with that first novel. Now, if I write a bad a novel I’ve written a bad novel. I’ll put it in a drawer and hope no one ever sees it. There’s a good bit of comfort in that. All that said, I really was scared as I wrote Euphoria that I didn’t know what I was doing and that it was going to be a disaster. It really challenged me in terms of place and time period as well as the nationalities and professions of the characters. All of these things were new to me. The only thing that was familiar was the claustrophobia of the situation. That is what I like, a tight, pressure-cooker of a situation. So I hung on to that.
It’s funny. None of the three anthropologists in the book strike me as being particularly qualified, in terms of emotional objectivity, to be doing their research properly. Was it your intention to represent this kind of stickiness and subjectivity?
LK: Well, yes, I think that we can’t help it. I think the world that we see is the world that we own. We’re always projecting our own interests, fears, concerns, preoccupations, and fetishes onto everything around us. I think that we do it in our personal lives, and I think that we do it in our work. And certainly I would imagine that anthropologists—while they are trying to be as objective as they possibly can—are no exception. “Objectivity” is always relative to your own culture as well as your own particular personality.
Some of these themes have appeared in your earlier work, too. For example, the main character in Father of the Rain is also an anthropologist. Can you tell me more about that?
LK: Oh, that was a case of killing two birds with one stone. By the time I needed a profession for Daley in Father of the Rain, I was already captivated by this moment in the life of Margaret Mead, and reading all about anthropology. So it seemed convenient to make Daley an anthropologist, and it also made sense to me, given her character and her past (a careful observer of her father’s mercurial moods), that she would be drawn to that field.
That is fascinating, though. Especially when I think of how many of your young anthropologists are learning to cope with loss. In Father of the Rain, it is the death of a parent; in Euphoria, a miscarriage. Is this coping with loss somehow related to what drives an anthropologist?
LK: Coping with loss is a large element of the human condition, isn’t it? But yes, I think you are right, especially for the old school anthropologists who were trying to document these tribes before they disappeared, or, I should say, before these tribes were altered or destroyed by Western encroachment in the form of missionaries and corporations. I think many writers are drawn to the power of the past, the stranglehold it can have. Any look back is always a look at what’s been lost.
I must confess, your novel set in France, The Pleasing Hour, struck a particular chord with me because I also spent some years in Paris. The way you describe the people rings so true to me. Was it difficult to write so intimately about another culture?
LK: I don’t think it was difficult because, as you must have experienced, when you are a foreigner and trying hard to fit in, you are so hyper-aware of the cultural differences. You are noticing everything. You are so desperate to absorb anything you can in order to appear less American. At least that is how I behaved in my twenties. Now I am less observant probably, when I travel, because I’ve accepted my Americanness and my inability to shed my cultural orientation so quickly.
Does age have something to do with it?
LK: I think that when you’re younger you actually believe that you can morph into something else, and perhaps you can. Maybe you’re just a little more fluid as a person, and you have a little bit less of a sense of yourself, and you’re trying to figure that all out. You can have this dream that you would be standing on a street corner in Paris, and somebody will actually think you are French. You maybe can have a small exchange, and people will still continue to think that you’re French, you know, if it were just short little sentences! [laughing] And now, I would neither have that desire, the energy for it, or the confidence that I could do it. I guess because I have much more of a sense of myself. We lived in Italy very recently, with my husband and my two kids, and I never for a minute tried to become Italian. It was the furthest thing from my mind. I mean, I certainly wanted to learn Italian, and I tried to be as good at it as I possibly could get in the year that we had. But to sort of take on another culture wasn’t really my interest. I actually found myself much more critical of that other culture than certainly I was when I was in my twenties and thought that every other culture was just so spectacularly better than ours.
How has your work been influenced by your travels?
LK: After I wrote The Pleasing Hour, I worried that I could only write about France. But when I was living in France, I was completely writing about the United States. I was keeping a journal, not that I’ve ever really re-read that journal. But I was writing about France, just my day to day emotional life, you know—I’m not very good at the travel log journal. I was just writing about the emotions of things. I think some details about France would sort of slip in. When I got home, I didn’t think about it. I didn’t write about France for a really long time. Let’s see… I got back in ’87, and I started writing about it maybe in ’90. Back then, when I was young, it seemed like a long time, but I guess it wasn’t that long. And then, it was just a short story that I wrote in graduate school, and suddenly, I really… I don’t know! It caught my imagination in a way I never expected. I found some different part of me. I love to travel, I love to learn and speak and read other languages, and watch it all filter back slowly into my writing, often unrecognizably. I also love to write about the States while traveling or living outside of it. That is one of my very greatest pleasures. I know I am not the first writer to discover this feeling—the list is very long—but it is a powerful one.
Hemingway said something about it. He wasn’t able to write about Paris until he had some distance from it.
LK: I’ve heard a lot of writers say that in one way or another. It’s really true, about any place. I lived in California for several years, and I’ve never written about that. I think it takes a while for a place to seep in, to absorb into your system.
The rest of this interview can be found in issue 4.
Interview by Rachel Veroff.
Photography by Gilles Bonugli Kali.