Lily King
Photo by Winky Lewis

Lily King: “You don’t know until you start writing”

Short Profile

Name: Lily King
DOB: 1963
Place of birth: Massachusetts, United States
Occupation: Author

Lily King's latest book, Writers & Lovers, is out now via Grove Atlantic.

Ms. King, why is it important to see ourselves and our experiences represented in literature?

I remember when I was trying to become a writer, in my twenties and my thirties, I read so many books by men about male writers, about men yearning and slowly becoming writers, like Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I read those books over and over! And I guess I identified in some ways, but looking back, I realized that there just weren’t many narratives that I ever found about women having that same struggle, that was so overt; their ambition right on the page. I think I could have benefitted from a book like that, so I think it’s extremely important in that sense.

How did you experience that lack of representation?

I had a lot of shame and a lot of doubt when I was trying to be a writer! A number of people kind of belittled the endeavour and there was a sense that I probably shouldn’t have this ambition. And I mean, I think that men and women handle their literary desires and ambitions differently. I think I needed a book that would sort of confess the doubt and the shame and the panic, whereas I feel like the narrative that men write about — it’s more like this driving thing, and they believe in themselves! (Laughs) And they’re not really revealing all the psychological levels that go into a creative pursuit.

“Every book I write is a reaction to the book I wrote before in some way. Every book gets me to the next one.”

Author Sheila Heti says that her life only changes when a book is done, because she feels that the writing of each book solves something. Does that resonate with you as a writer?

I don’t think so. I don’t feel like there’s a radical change in my personal life or my sense of self, it’s more the arc of my interest. I know that every book I write is a reaction to the book I wrote before in some way, and I know that every book gets me to the next one, in strange ways that I don’t understand. But I can’t say that I personally feel changed. I do feel an incredible sense of relief, like, “Oh, I got all of those feelings out! I was able to put that all that down.” You know, you have all these different weird observations and feelings, and then to get them out and then put in some sort of narrative and have them go out into the world — there’s a sense of relief and a sense of satisfaction.

And surely that sense of satisfaction gives you confidence in the process of writing your next book.

Well, you do one thing successfully and then you want to do it again, but who knows where you’ll go next? For example, it was thrilling but also scary to create, the Papua New Guinea world of the 1930s in Euphoria, because I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t find a lot of detail about what I needed to write about, so I really had to make up a lot of it! I had no idea what the huts looked like, or the landscape, everything, I mean just everything had to be made up. And at the time I thought I was doing it very badly, and that no one would believe it and that it was absurd that I was writing this book. Looking back, writing it seemed very fun to me and I really wanted to do it again. I even tried to write another very researched book, but it didn’t work.

Why not?

I researched for months, but I just didn’t feel it, you know? You don’t know until you start writing it! So then I started researching something else, and that was actually going quite well, I didn’t have any doubts about that at that moment, and I got again to about page 21, I think, and that was when my mother died. I stopped writing altogether, and I never could go back to that book.

At what point do you know that you need to stop and move on to writing something else?

I mean, it’s tricky, because for me, I always want to quit two thirds of the way through! (Laughs) Always, always, always! I am convinced it is a total failure and I can’t get to the end. My husband has to remind me that I always feel this way. And it’s true! Having said that, once you’ve gotten two thirds of the way through, it would be really stupid to stop, because there’s something that got you there and you can get to the end.

“There is always this sense that I don’t know if anybody else will understand it. And it’s just always such a relief when they do.”

I think for a lot of young writers, that lesson can be really difficult to learn.

Well, I think that if for days and weeks and months, you can’t see your way past page 20, then that’s probably telling you something. And personally, I know that in between novels, I usually have a practice novel or two before the real novel comes to me. For whatever reason that’s kind of what has to happen, so it’s okay if I just surrender. But after a hundred pages, I don’t think I could surrender… But I think most of the time you have to stick with it! And I do actually think that if you set your mind to it, you can stick with anything and make it work in some way or another.

What still surprises you in that arduous process of writing?

I guess that you can take a raw emotion that you have, something you have felt really deeply, and you’re able to somehow connect it with the fictional themes and characters that you’re inventing. Certain scenes in Writers & Lovers for example, when I start writing them, came out very quickly, and it really surprised me how all the elements that I needed were already there! But I think, when writing about something familiar to me, there is always this sense that I don’t know if anybody else will understand it, I don’t know if anybody will feel it... That’s the big thing: that I don’t know if anybody will click into it in the way that you want a reader to click in. And it’s just always such a relief when they do.