Open Book with Lily King
On the second page of the novel "Writers & Lovers," aspiring writer and protagonist Casey Peabody says, "I write because if I don't, everything feels even worse."
This is a feeling Lily King, an award-winning novelist and Casey's creator, knows all too well.
"I really wasn't sure I'd ever write fiction again," said King in a phone interview. "It just seemed to not be an impulse anymore. But when I did write again, so much of this book was already in my head."
After the success of her 2014 novel "Euphoria," which won the Kirkus Prize for Fiction, King was 20 pages into a new work about a British writer in the early 20th century when her mother passed away, suddenly. King worked through her immediate grief in the privacy of her journal, but as a novelist, knew she wanted to write more candidly about grief.
"I needed a vehicle in which to put some of those feelings in a more coherent way than just in my journal," King said.
The tender novel that emerged is "Writers & Lovers," which follows 31-year-old former golf prodigy Casey Peabody as she navigates the loss of her own mother, balancing her writing with her waitressing job in Harvard Square, and two concurrent relationships with writerly men — Oscar, an acclaimed novelist and widower, and Silas, Oscar's student. The novel, King's fifth, lyrically explores grief and aspiration as Casey moves through her grief alongside these two new men and works at putting pen to paper. But while "Writers & Lovers" is, like "Euphoria," an unconventional love story ("Euphoria" explored an explosively passionate love triangle between three field anthropologists) fans of "Euphoria" might find the frank intimacy of "Writers & Lovers" slightly less steamy.
"When my younger daughter, Eloise, read a draft of this novel before it was published, she said to me, 'There needs to be more kissing!'" said King with a laugh.
The title "Writers & Lovers" might mislead some to think that these categories are separate in the book — in King's novel, however, both of Casey's lovers are also writers, meaning the pairs engage in plenty of intellectual conversations alongside their romantic connections. This is the first novel King has written about a novelist, though the idea had been in the works.
"Just before starting this book, I had written a couple of short stories where the character becomes a writer, so clearly I was gearing up to write about a writer," said King. "So when I got this idea, I thought it was the first time I was writing about writers, but when I looked back at my short stories, it was obvious I must have been headed that way."
King's husband, Tyler Clements (whom she wed in 1998), is also a writer, though he writes less about romance in his own work.
"I feel like I write in fiction and nonfiction more about love relationships. In my nonfiction, it's stuff that happened, and he doesn't at all do that," said King. "I've been marveling lately at how nice he's been about that. I couldn't bear it if he wrote about old girlfriends." King paused to laugh. "He's just a better human being than I am with that stuff."
With a traditional book tour canceled due to the pandemic (King's book came out March 3, just weeks before the country began to shut down), King has spent time at home in Maine with her daughters, husband and dogs hosting virtual events and joining Zoom discussions. King will be joining The Mount's new virtual summer offerings Sunday, July 19, from 4 to 5 p.m. with a free Zoom conversation about her book and her writing process.
"The whole landscape of publishing a book just changed in a couple of days — I was supposed to go on a three-month book tour," said King. "In some ways, I've really enjoyed doing Zoom book clubs. I have a lot of people now writing me and asking me to join their book club, and everyone is virtual now so it's not like you're the only person beamed into a room of real live humans. We're all in our little boxes. I've really enjoyed that, and I've really needed human connection, even if it's just a screen of faces."
Human connection, after all, is what good literature strives toward, and King has enjoyed watching others connect with her characters.
"You can't always anticipate people's responses to the book, and then you sort of start developing relationships to the characters you didn't have before when they were being created," said King. "Whether you're drawing on emotions you've had or emotions you're imagining, it all comes from the imagination. When I try and write the facts, it comes out really flat. I need to be able to make it up to come alive."
Q What are some of your favorite love stories?
A I love "Pride and Prejudice" more than anything, it never ever ever gets old for me. And of course, "Sense and Sensibility." I did in high school love "Jane Eyre," but I recently re-read it and found it so disturbing! What a horribly imbalanced relationship.
Q In "Writers & Lovers," Casey is a former golf prodigy. What made you pick golf?
A I needed that relationship with her father to be dependent on something. I'm interested in parents who use their parents to fulfill their own dreams, and being a golf champion was definitely her father's dream. There was supposed to be more golf. I had this huge stack of golf books and I could not go near it, I didn't want to do that research, so I reduced the amount of golf.
Q Do you normally go down research rabbit holes as a writer?
A With this book, it wasn't so much research rabbit holes, but there were two significant paths I went down and had to completely cut off. Casey meets this guy George, and in the book as it is now, it's a very short little scene, but I wrote about sixty pages of her having a relationship with him and cut all that out. I had a whole thing with the landlord and his kids too, there was probably another fifty pages there.
Q In "Writers & Lovers," Casey works in a restaurant. Have you ever had a crazy waitressing job?
A I had so many waitressing jobs, and they were all with their odd people. Some of my best friends are still people I worked with years ago in restaurants. It's a real bonding experience, like being in the army or something.
Q What is some of your favorite writing about writing?
A Most recently I discovered Robert Olen Butler's "From Where You Dream." That is the one book that really captures the way I feel about writing. He describes where writing comes from, and it really rings true for me. I also just read a really great essay by Zadie Smith about craft, and I felt really connected to that. When I was writing my first book, [Anne Lamott's] "Bird by Bird" was a huge godsend for me.
Q What's a word you love to use in your writing?
A One of my favorite words was "Euphoria." But then I titled a book that, and now it feels weird using that word. I always feel like people are thinking "Oh, god, she's promoting herself," so now I feel like I can't even use it, even in conversation [laughs]. I love foreign languages, so a lot of my favorite words are in other languages.
Q What's a word you can't stand?
A More of a phrase, really, but I cannot stand — and my whole family knows I have a pet peeve about this — when people use the metaphor of a "phantom limb." Oh, I just cannot bear it.
Q What books are currently on your to-read list?
A I'm reading "Four By Four" by Sara Mesa, translated by a friend of a friend, and I'm really liking that. I just finished a book on Winston Churchill ["The Splendid and the Vile" by Erik Larson] and next up I really want to read "These Truths" [by Jill Lepore]. "The Vanishing Half" [by Brit Bennett] is next too. I gave it to my daughter but now I have to steal it back.
Q Do you share books with your daughter a lot?
A Lots! I have two girls and we share books all the time.
Q Are there any books you and your daughters have disagreed on?
A We read both of the Sally Rooney books ["Normal People" and "Conversations With Friends"] and disagreed on which we liked better. I found "Normal People" more compelling. And you have to keep going with the Hulu show. I hated Connell, and thought he was really poorly cast, and then he got really good. I haven't seen acting that good since Heath Ledger.
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