Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2014.
Hilary Wallis, on behalf of the The School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Lily King about her book Euphoria (Grove Atlantic), which is among the final five selections, in the category of Fiction, for the 2014 NBCC awards.
Hilary Wallis: Euphoria is a departure from your previous work. What drew you to this story?
Lily King: It's funny how departures are often just accidents. I was just starting my third novel, Father of the Rain, when I stumbled on a biography of Margaret Mead. I got to this part when she was way up the Sepik River of Papua New Guinea doing field work with her second husband and fell in love with the only other anthropologist in the region, Gregory Bateson. It was a really short section of her biography, but it sort of lit me on fire. After that I had to find out everything I could about that five-month period in her life. I kept telling myself I wasn't actually going to write a novel about it, that I wasn't capable of writing that novel, but I couldn't stop researching it.
HW: Euphoria bends genres a bit. While you took inspiration from an actual account of Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson’s fieldwork in New Guinea, the story diverges from history in many ways. As a fiction writer, how did you choose when to be faithful to history and when to depart from the facts?
It seemed fairly similar to writing any kind of fiction. Consciously or not, you are always stealing what you need from life (yours and other people's) and making up the rest. The ratio of one to other is different each time, but it's always a mixture of some kind. Initially I thought I would just invent what there was no record of, and stick to historical record as much as I possibly could, but once I started writing dialogue and scene and getting a sense of the characters, they quickly became different people, my own fictional people who were going to do their own fictional things. I struggled with that for a while. Was I allowed to do that? What were the rules? But for a long time the novel seemed like such a disaster that I gave myself permission to do anything that felt right, suspecting that it would never be read by anyone but me.
HW: Was there anything in particular that you came across in your research that unlocked Mead as a character to you?
LK: I think it was really Gregory Bateson, the English anthropologist she falls in love with, who unlocked the whole story for me. Once he showed up in her biography I was intrigued. He has a fascinating, tragic backstory, and, by all accounts, was that intense combination of brilliant, funny, sexy, and vulnerable that was irresistible to me.
HW: I thought a major theme of the book was loneliness. There are a lot of cases of isolation and people unable or unwilling to communicate with each other throughout the novel. Was that something that came through in the research you did?
LK: That's interesting. I wanted to establish early on Nell's isolation from her husband, Fen, and Bankson's isolation from everyone. Mead wrote in her memoir that when she met Bateson, they talked for thirty-six hours straight. I think perhaps that was the first fact that drew me in—their instant communion after desperate, unwanted disconnection.
HW: Something that really impressed me about Euphoria was that while it felt very thoroughly researched, none of the details felt artificially inserted or unnecessary to the narrative. Can you talk a bit about your planning process and how you made decisions about what made it into the story?
LK: I'm so happy to read this. If there was anything intentional about this book it was to avoid that researchy feel. I wanted every sentence to push the narrative forward and never block the story with an unnecessary, researched detail, no matter how interesting to me. I had to let go off so much, so many things that wouldn't fit into the story, would only have clogged it up. I often say I did my research at a squint — I wanted to know enough but not too much.
HW: In the book, Nell Stone describes her favorite part of her work as, “that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place… It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.” Do you have episodes of euphoria in your own writing process? What’s it like for you?
LK: I will say that this book was a scary one to write. I didn't know what I was doing, had no models for it, felt 99% of the time that it was a huge failure. In fact, I felt a lot like Bateson at the start of the novel. I feared I was incapable of rising to the challenge of my own ideas.
I did, however, have two moments of euphoria while writing the first draft. The first was the unexpectedness of Chapter 2. I knew I wanted to find out a bit about Bankson. I wasn't sure the scene was going to be part of the novel, but I needed to know what sort of state he was in before he met Nell. I'd read that Gregory Bateson had been depressed, possibly suicidal in the field before he met Mead, so I decided to see what that suicide attempt might look like. I wrote it with the idea that perhaps I would use some of the details in a dialogue with Nell at some later point. But as soon as I started writing the scene, I felt so close to him. I could feel and hear his thoughts in a way I couldn't hear Nell's. The chapter flew out of me in one sitting—in a restaurant in Portland, Maine just before I went to pick up my kids at school. It felt really good, to be so connected to a new character of a new novel. I didn't realize for a while how much it would change everything, how Bankson would take over the story and make it his in the end.
The other euphoric moment came toward the end of the first draft. There is a dead body in a dugout canoe. I'd never had a dead body in my fiction before. It was exhilarating. It was so easy to write because something was actually happening that wasn't purely psychological. I barely had to do anything to write it. It was like tapping on a helium balloon. Heaven. For a couple of hours.
HW: I love the last scene of the book. It’s an incredible ending. Without giving anything specific away, can you talk about how you approach endings? Do you typically have an ending in mind at the beginning of a project or do you find it along the way?
LK: Thanks so much. For a long time I had no idea how it was going to end. I knew it wasn't going to end the way Mead's trip ended—my characters had moved in a very different direction by then — and I knew it wasn't going to be pretty. When I handed the book into my agent, it didn't have that last scene. I got that idea later, on a highway, when I was late to meet a friend for lunch. I was turning onto the exit ramp and that whole last chapter, which is a huge leap in time, came to me. I had to grab a notebook and pencil and get it all down as I was making the long turn off the highway. It wrote it up that night and read it to my husband right away, which I never do, but for once I really liked what I'd written.