Lily King's 'Writers & Lovers' Explores Finding Your Way Through Grief To Adulthood
The 'Euphoria' author is back six years later with a modern-day coming-of-age tale that challenges the creative quest narratives for women.By Tricia Ford
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TF: Hello, everyone. This is Audible editor Tricia and I'm here with writer Lily King to talk about her new novel Writers & Lovers. Welcome, Lily.
LK: Thank you.
TF: I'm very excited to get a chance to talk to you. And I was so excited to finally get a hold of a new book from you. It's been what? Close to five years.
LK: I think it's been six.
TF: Six since we had Euphoria, which I adore, but this one's very different. Writers & Lovers is a coming-of-age type of novel about a young woman named Casey Peabody, who is 31 and working on her first novel and has been doing so for six years.
LK: Yeah, a long time for her at her age.
TF: Now, this is a much more modern-day book than the last. Euphoria, if you haven't read it, it's beautifully written historical fiction that took place in 1930s New Guinea, the central characters are British and Australian anthropologists, and it has a very steamy little love triangle going on so, it shares that with a Writers and Lovers. But now we're in late 90s Boston.
LK: That's right. I do love a love triangle. So I can't stay away from that.
TF: There's something very universal about it. So Casey Peabody is struggling a little bit — or maybe a lot — at the beginning of this book. She is a waitress. She is living in a potting shed.
LK: I know and she's $70,000 dollars in debt, doesn't have health insurance, and is really questioning where her life is going.
TF: Right, right. So one thing I have to ask, because this is a modern day setting, could it be you? How much of your life do you share with Casey?
LK: I drew from my own life quite a bit for this novel in terms of the emotions. The characters and her lovers and her friends are different than my life. But definitely the anxiety and the panic and the confusion and the sense of there being this huge abyss that she had to get over somehow to kind of realize herself and continue with the rest of her life. That was very much my experience and it was a particularly vulnerable and terrifying time for me.
TF: I could relate with that. And I think listeners just looking back at that time, whether or not you're a writer, there's something about that period of life that is just hard. It's just hard. And I do like one description of the book that I read was that it's a portrait of an artist as a young woman. And it very much is, and I love your definition of what a young woman is. This 31-year-old woman is a young woman. And that to me was interesting because I think maybe that is when you become a grownup.
LK: I know. I think she's definitely delayed in a way, not in terms of maturity, but in terms of the arc of her life.
LK: And I really wanted to explore that gender switch because I had read James Joyce's Portrait Of An Artist As A Young Man many, many times in my 20s and early 30s, as well as other so many other books by men about becoming a writer. Hemingway's A Movable Feast. Knut Hamson's Hunger, Bright Lights, Big City, Richard Ford's The Sportswriter.
I felt like those were books that I returned to again and again to try and find my way. And at the same time they were all men about men, and so, I was really interested in exploring it from a female perspective because it is a totally different thing to pursue a career as an artist, as a young woman. Because in my experience, and I tried to convey it in the book, people don't admire it more and more, your perseverance and your tenacity. They start to pity you. And by the time you get to your early 30s and you have nothing to show for yourself and you're a waitress and you're in debt, they... There was definitely less and less respect I felt and not more
TF: Really interesting. And I think that definitely caught me in that sense of when you read it about this very likable woman Casey, you kind of want to just tell her it's okay. Don't feel guilty about this. It'll happen.
LK: You feel the same way [I did] about my younger self as well as Casey. And I had this strange moment a few months ago in my house when I was unpacking some journals from that time because we had just moved and I read some paragraphs that I had written right at the height of my panic and misery and sense that nothing was ever going to work out for me. And I had this strange… I mean I don't have supernatural time traveling experiences ever. And I had this moment where I felt like I was reaching back to my younger self and telling myself that it was okay. And I honestly felt myself, my younger self, responding and kind of feeling the power of that.
And it was very freaky. And I do not say this lightly because I don't have experiences like that.
TF: I think that's the power of writing and it definitely came through. And it's more than just for you. I think it's something listeners and readers will take from it as well.
LK: I really hope so.
TF: I think they will. Now, with this audio, one thing I have to mention is if anyone is interested in knowing what it's like to waitress, it's like a master course.
LK: Thank you. I was so worried that I wouldn't be able to remember what it was really like because it's been a while. I worked in many restaurants, but it's been a long time.
TF: I mean, I could tell you I have limited waitressing experience. I was not good at it and it didn't last very long. But you know, just the descriptions of the high tops and you wrapping silverware and napkins and having to finish that before you can leave at 2:00 AM. And I was like, you were living there. I could tell that you had some experience.
LK: Well, I'm glad.
TF: What about the potting shed? Where she lives ? Is that autobiographical?
LK: Okay. Yes. I lived actually with my sister and her boyfriend in their carriage house for a while and in a tiny room, a room as big as this studio. No joke. There was a room for a futon and a desk and that was it. And it had been an old potting shed but they took really good care of me and they were so sweet and kind and I wasn't sort of on my own as much as Casey was.
TF: Okay. And lastly, what about the golf? Are you a golfer?
LK: No, no. In fact, I really, really, really don't like golf. And I just, I did it because it was kind of the epitome of the world she was trying to run away from.
TF: Okay. Yes, and I fully support her in that. Not that there's anything wrong with golf.
The other thing that struck me is again, Euphoria’s historical setting was a big part of the story. That's true here somewhat to a lesser degree in [Writers And Lovers] or maybe it's just because it's more modern and more of my own time, but it's distinctly Gen X things happening here. And I thought it was really interesting to see this woman made me wonder about this experience of an artist as a young woman in the late 90s. Is it the same for young female artists today? For the Millennials? I don't know if that's something that you thought about. Do you think it's universally shared struggle of getting to that next level in life?
LK: I think there has been a lot of progress made in the literary world for female voices to be heard and to be valued. And in the late nineties that was not the case. It was a very, very male dominated career. And I just remember for years opening the New York Times Book Review every Sunday and saying to my boyfriend, who became my husband, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man! He's like, why don't you write them? And of course, I didn't. But I felt like everywhere I looked it was always men writing about men and I do feel like that's changed. We have a lot more progress to make in terms of whose voices get heard in our literary world.
In other ways. I feel like all those internal struggles are very, very similar. And I've been meeting with a lot of people who have read the book.
LK: I've met with a lot of young people who've read the book and they really seem to identify with a lot of Casey’s issues and fears. And that's been really gratifying. I also have two daughters who are in their late teens, early 20s, and both are artists and about to embark on this journey as well. And that's been so interesting because they were in high school when I got this idea and started writing the first draft and they've both worked in restaurants since I started writing the book and I feel more and more like the book is for them in a way that it wasn't when I started.
TF: It's really interesting. And they're not even Millennials.
LK: No, I know. Gen Z. Is that what they are?
TF: Yeah, I think so. So that's interesting. And even how you had mentioned reading all these male authors previous to you like A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. There's still some universal truth there, but it's just that subtle difference as a woman, getting kind of a fresher and more honest take of a woman's experience. I thought it was really beautifully done and just telling. And there is that aspect that not everyone who's going to enjoy this book is necessarily a writer, but just everyone has creative purpose in life kind of in a struggle getting from point A to point B.
LK: I mean everybody has dreams and it really is about, how long do you hold onto that dream?
TF: And another huge part of the book that struck me personally is that grief of losing her mother. I went through a very similar experience. I was about the same age when I lost my mother.
LK: I'm so sorry.
TF: So just that visceral feeling, her bike riding, just rang so true to life for me. That place where you can kind of have tunnel vision and just be sad and be upset and have some sense of release.
TF: Catharsis. Just beautifully done. And I wanted to ask you about that. Why, why grief? Why was that such a central issue here?
LK: It's interesting because the death of my mother was really the catalyst for this book. I was working on something entirely different, more historical 1901, and my mother died very suddenly. And I could not write fiction for months. And when I felt like I could, I couldn't go near that 1901 book and I have no idea why. Couldn't even open the cover of the notebook. And this book just poured out of me. I needed a place to put all of my feelings. And I think what happened was I felt so vulnerable and so kind of laid bare by my mother's death that it was almost like it made a tunnel back to those years when I felt so vulnerable and so scared and so laid bare. It's funny.
TF: Yeah. Well, it comes through and there is something really beautiful about how honest it is and how authentic it felt. So we talk about being laid open and feeling raw while you were writing it. What is that like? Is that a hard place to get to?
LK: It wasn't a hard place to get to. I mean, I had moments of thinking is this too much for the reader? Will they feel it without feeling like it's sentimental or maudlin? I felt like there was both the person I was who was experiencing grief as I was writing this book, but there was also the critic who was there trying to shape it and was very impersonal and clinical: this is how we're going to do this chapter. And so it was kind of nice in that way because I was in deep and then I was outside it and I was back in and outside it and it felt so good to get it right.
You know when I felt like I had gotten it right? There's a scene in the book where she's waiting on two doctors and she sees from their tags that they're from Mass General and she very inappropriately at the end of the meal asks them how her mother died and she gives them the situation. Because she has no idea why her mother died. And she gives them all the facts she knows and they are so blindsided and have two different responses to it. But they get out of the restaurant very quickly and I feel like that was a moment when I had a sense of satisfaction. Like that is how I felt. And I did accost someone at a dinner party who was a doctor and made him super uncomfortable and I really wanted to get that down.
TF: That's fascinating. And I think just so human. How dare you have this knowledge and not be able to tell me this information.
LK: Exactly, so true.
TF: And that kind of goes along with the grief as her mental health and her well-being and how she deals with anxiety and stress. I don't know, I think she actually does it quite well. I know that she's struggling and there's unhealthy behaviors, but I felt like this was a look at this woman, Casey in a very accepting way. So do you feel that her anxiety helped her move on in life or held her back and life?
LK: No, that's a great question. I think, I suppose in some way it does propel her. It's the result of everything kind of coming crashing down on her at the same time. But I do think when you get over a time like that you're stronger. And I think in some ways, maybe that's an area in which the book is different from right now in 2020 because she doesn't go the pharmaceutical route. Nobody tells her, Well, just take an Ativan. And so she kind of has to claw her way out of it her own way. And I do think when you go through something like that and you get through it, it makes you feel like you can handle more when life throws things at you.
TF: And I think in many ways Casey's very strong because she's, she knows that there's people around her making other choices and she had other options and choosing this life of creativity of being an artist takes bravery.
LK: Definitely risk.
TF: And risk. So I think, no, I think it's something to admire about her.
And it did make me think this kind of personal choice where she's privileged enough in a way to choose to be uncomfortable in order to be able to create at the same time. Do you think the discomfort is a necessary part of creating? If we had universal healthcare, let’s say, or that not being able to afford a doctor was not a concern. And she didn't have $70,000 in dollars debt. Would that somehow have make it harder for her, or easier?
LK: I think it would make it easier just in a day-to-day living wage sort of way. But I do think that we are sheep and lemmings in a little bit of a way. And I think when you deviate from the norm that can just make you feel uncomfortable in a way, as much as you admire yourself for being different and taking a risk. I think there's great comfort in solidifying a salary and a future. And I remember being that age and not being able to afford my own apartment, even a studio apartment was beyond my grasp. And I did start to understand the importance of security in a way that I had scoffed at just kind of getting by on my various bizarre life choices before that.
TF: Right. And then just so interesting how something does click and happen later and don't want to give anything away for Casey. And what happens with her and by the end of the book, there's more life to live, but I do think something clicks for her. I'll leave it at that.
LK: I will too.
TF: In a good way. Now, one thing I want to mention, we're talking now before prepublication, but I was able to get an early listen on the audio, not the full audio, but most of it. And Stacey Glemboski is your narrator and I have to say she knows that she's a perfect Casey and I think if you haven't gotten a chance to hear, you'll be really happy. I think she tells a story with the ideal voice for your writing.
LK: Oh, I'm so glad. I cannot wait to hear it.
TF: What do you think is the most important habit that Casey has that all writers could benefit from?
LK: She's disciplined. It really is. The fact that she, no matter what her mood, no matter how much anxiety, she sits at that desk every morning. No matter how late her shift has gone at the restaurant, she's just there and she's doing it. And you hear it from so many different writers and so many different words, but that is what it's all about.
TF: Okay. And another thing that we can't leave without discussing is the lovers part of Writers and Lovers. There's a fair amount of steam, an appropriate amount of steam, but very good. And there are two distinct male companions and lessons learned through both of them. You kind of alluded to the fact there's a little auto biographical thing happening. Now, the guy that she meets at the writing retreat, is he positive influence on her or a negative influence on her?
LK: Oh, interesting question. I think heartbreak always has its place and I don't know about positive influence, but definitely propels her in a different direction. Looking for a different kind of a person. I think he was probably the last in a long line of people who weren't capable of loving her the way she wanted to be loved. And she finally had the insight and the maturity to start being attracted to something else. And I think these two men in this book are something else. They're just different in their own ways and, so she has to choose.
So I know after listening to Stacey's narration, just a sample of it, I'm already looking through to see what else she's done cause she's really good. So I think we will be happy with her and with her performance of your book. And I know that you're an avid listener.
LK: I am.
TF: So as a listener, what are some of your favorites in audio?
LK: I think most recently,Daisy Jones and The Six was just such a delicious experience. I honestly cannot express to you, I told so many people. I turned both my daughters onto it. A lot of my dear friends and everybody had the same experience I did. And then we just all started listening to Fleetwood Mac for the next three months. I also loved listening to Asymmetry. That was a great, great experience.
TF: That's great to hear. That's one I'm seeing on so many lists and I haven't tried yet, so I'm going to download that right after this interview. Now we've talked a lot about Casey and her struggles, her decision to live that creative life and to try to be a successful writer. Now you are a successful writer. Does it ever feel that you've made it? In that way that Casey is struggling to get to.
LK: Wow. I don't think any writer really ever feels like they've “made it” just because you're always setting higher goals for yourself and there's always the next carrot to get to. I definitely think that Casey just wants her novel to be published. She just the beginnings of a writing career. And so I do think she would be happy to be in my position but I'm kind of a stopping point on the way and I have so many more things I want to write and so many more ways I want to grow as a writer. So I don't feel like I've gotten there yet.
TF: Okay, fair enough. Fair enough. Well you have made it and it's wonderful getting a chance to talk to you. And while I honestly respect the six-year break, I would welcome something sooner, so feel free but obviously go with the flow. Whatever life brings, we'll eat it up and I can't wait to read and listen to what's next. So feel free but obviously go with the flow and whatever life brings we'll eat it up and I can't wait to read it and to listen to it.
LK: Thank you. Thank you so much.
TF: Thank you, Lily, for talking to me today. It's a pleasure. Always nice to see someone face to face and at least you get to hear our voices.
LK: Thank you.
TF: And Writers and Lovers is available on Audible, so be sure to check it out.