When I got my hands on an Advance Reader Copy of Lily King’s new novel, Writers & Lovers (Grove Press, 2020), I paused – about a nanosecond – before opening it. Our Novel Incubator class had lovingly dissected King’s last novel, Euphoria, in our effort to learn the craft of long-form fiction. I’ve returned time and again to King’s novels to see how she makes us care about her characters. My expectations were so high, I was almost afraid to crack open Writers & Lovers.
I needn’t have feared. King’s fifth novel is a masterful story of Casey Peabody, a young woman in crisis: she’s lost her mother, her student loans are defaulting, and she suffers a love-hate relationship with the novel she’s been writing for six years. Writers & Lovers immerses you in the particulars of Casey’s life as it explores themes of risk, love, and loss. You can’t put it down, and you’ll feel larger and more connected once you finish it. Plus, it’s funny as hell. As BookPage wrote, “King is one of those rare writers who can entwine sadness, hilarity and burning fury in the briefest of moments.” It’s no surprise that Writers & Lovers is on so many ‘Most Anticipated Books’ lists (Entertainment Weekly, Vulture, Lit Hub, to name a few). It was a real privilege to talk with this New York Times award-winning, bestselling author about her new novel, due out today.
JANET RICH EDWARDS: The voice of Casey grabs you from the first sentence: “I have a pact with myself not to think about money in the morning.” She’s wry, she’s smart, and she’s vulnerable. I’d follow her anywhere. Did Casey’s voice just appear in your head, fully formed?
LILY KING: I love that. That’s what I was aiming for. I felt like, with every one of my books, the voice of the novel is established in the first paragraph. I’m very much a writer who has to have the first paragraph first. It sets the tone. Once I have the first sentences, I’m off and running. It was like a drumbeat. I just felt it and I knew her. I suppose I did refine her voice — and of course my editor says, ‘Would Casey do this? Would Casey do that?’ The word consistent is very tricky. People aren’t consistent. I’m not aiming for consistency throughout a novel, because people have weird little jets and flares of unexpectedness that’s unlike them, but is still them.
I imagine you at your desk, facing the first blank page for Writers & Lovers, needing to banish the voices of Bankson and Nell before you can hear Casey. I’m curious about your transition between stories.
It’s a long process I basically finished Euphoria in 2013 and I didn’t start writing this book until late 2016. I had tried two other novels before that. I’d done tons of research, and bagged both of them, and felt this one coming on. That often happens to me. It’s a real readjustment going from one book to another, and I don’t do it quickly or fluidly. You miss your characters and writing about them so much, and it’s ironic because you hated them at first. They were so hard to get into and you were just missing the one from before and you have to start again, and its just a terrible ache, really. It’s like starting a new relationship, and you just want to be in the old comfy relationship.
Most novels contain at least a wisp of memoir. But Writers & Lovers, with all its intimate detail – about Harvard Square, about waiting tables, about writing, about grief – feels so true, it almost reads as memoir. You must have worked at Upstairs at the Pudding. How much is autobiographical?
It definitely drew on so many emotions I had at the time. I did live in Brookline in a tiny little room, and I worked at Upstairs at the Pudding and I rode my bike across the bridge. I had the same confusion, panic, terrible fear, self doubt, self loathing, wondering where the hell my life was going, because I’d closed so many doors and I didn’t know how I was ever, ever going to support myself or have a stable relationship or children. It just all felt like everyone had become older and I was just stuck in the same place. I really tried to capture all of that. I think that’s the reason it’s so intimate.
I’d been writing things that were non-intimate, completely apart from me. I loved inventing Euphoria, going on tour and not having to talk about myself. So, this is the last thing I wanted to write. But my mother died. It made me so raw and vulnerable, and I couldn’t write anything for a really long time. When I started again, this book just poured out of me. Because I was in an equally vulnerable state, that early time in my life came to the surface really quickly. I do think you have these times in life that reverberate with each other, when you get older – you’re circling around, and it’s very powerful. That really propelled something out of me. I look back so fondly at that poor doubting young woman, and I have so much care for her. I really wanted to write about that, but I felt I couldn’t capture it, not before the feelings that surfaced with my mother’s death.
Writers & Lovers is at once a coming-of-age story, a romantic adventure, a tribute to the creative life, and threaded through it all – from the first paragraph to the last – is Casey’s grief at losing her mother. Was there an initial theme that formed the backbone of the story, or did you always know you wanted the whole catastrophe?
It’s really good question. Because that first paragraph, it’s all there. I remember at one point I wrote notes on all the narrative arcs, and I was surprised how many there are. There’s the financial trajectory she’s on. That’s in the first paragraph. The love relationships, the grieving, the writing, the anxiety. If I had told myself, oh, you’ll have six or seven narrative arcs, I would take to my bed. But fortunately, you’re ignorant when you start out.
You managed to make us feel Casey’s grief for her mother, without showing us many – if any – scenes of them together.
I hate backstory. In fact, I think there was no backstory when I handed this in. My editor wanted more. I was quite resistant.
Why do you hate backstory?
Oh, I hate to read it. Backstory to me is very rarely written as well as the rest. I really wanted to stay in the present and the thing that was important is that Casey aches for her mother. It doesn’t really matter who her mother was. It just didn’t feel important to all the other arcs, even the arc of grief. I was grieving my own mother and I was very reluctant to make her a character. I felt very protective of my own memories of my mother that I treasure. I didn’t want to put that in.
You didn’t want to write another mother either.
Exactly. That’s probably why.
There’s a way in which not having much backstory makes it more universal.
Yeah. Although I do think in general, the universal is in the particulars.
Casey’s struggles with her writing are familiar to most of us. So, it feels like a gift from Lily King when Casey stands up and says her novel is “The place where I am most myself. Maybe some of you … have found this place already. Maybe some of you will find it years from now. My hope is that some of you will find it for the first time today by writing.” Were you writing for your younger self, or for us strivers?
Totally. Both, really. I had my younger self in mind. Anytime I do a workshop, the biggest obstacle is the self doubt, the should I even be considering this? That was a big impulse for this book, to try to explain to people that this doubt is so real and so pervasive, and you have to ignore it, you just have to push through it.
And you’re not alone.
You need a Muriel.
Last question: Why the ampersand?
I love them.
Lily King is the author of five award-winning novels. Her 2014 book Euphoria won the Kirkus Award, The New England Book Award, The Maine Fiction Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Award. Euphoria was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2014 by The New York Times Book Review. It was included in TIME’s Top 10 Fiction Books of 2014, as well as on Amazon, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, Publishers Weekly, and Salon’s Best Books of 2014. King lives in Portland, Maine, with her husband, two daughters, and two dogs.