Author Q&A: Lily King

Elena Bowes caught up with bestselling and award-winning author Lily King whose latest book Writers & Lovers follows 31-year-old Casey Peabody who is struggling to write her first book following the recent and sudden death of her mother. It’s not all tears and tissues – there’s plenty of love, romance and humour in this quirky, detail-rich and heavenly novel.

Photo © Winky Lewis

Wow, I listened to your chat with writer Judy Blume tonight and loved it. You said so many wise things that I may ask you to repeat a few now – like how you really write for yourself, the book’s first reader. That you can’t be thinking of your audience when you write – as much as you love your readers – because that would pull you away from your vision, from how you see Casey. And this book is about 31-year-old Casey, who bears some similarity to you.

Can you tell us how you got the idea for this book? This book is sad, and funny and infuriating and romantic – from the first chapter where Casey’s landlord belittles her to the last chapter where she feeds her mother’s ashes to the Canadian geese – a happy moment for those who haven’t read this lovely, original, all-consuming novel.

I was working on something else, another novel after Euphoria when my mother died. Very suddenly. I stopped working on that novel, on fiction of all kinds, for many months. This book, that first scene with Casey in the driveway talking to the landlord, was the first idea I got after her death. And I knew Casey’s mother was dead, too, that she was thunderstruck and grieving, and the book became a place where I could put all my emotions, my grief, which I desperately needed.

In your talk with Judy Blume, you mentioned how her iconic book Are You There, God?  It’s Me, Margaret inspired you to become a writer, aged eight. You’d found your calling – realistic fiction. Tell us about that journey? Did you have mentors along the way that helped you believe in yourself?

I didn’t write any fiction until high school when I had a really great teacher who assigned us a poem one year and a short story the next. He told me that when I got into 11th grade I should take his Creative Writing class, which I did, and that was it. I never thought about any other kind of career. He was tough, but encouraging. He saw my weaknesses and pushed me. I feel like most of my creative writing teachers believed in me, believed in all of us, really. The people who become writers are the ones who can’t not do it. Encouragement alone doesn’t get you there. And I would say that the two teachers I’ve had who clearly did not believe in me only made me more determined to keep writing.

You wrote your first novel aged 36. What sort of writing were you doing before then? Did you experience a lot of the same struggles that Casey experienced? Living a creative life is not so easy.

Yes, I did have a lot of the feelings Casey had. I think in my twenties I didn’t have the discipline. Or I was trying to figure out so many things about life and how to live it and who to live it with and where that my writing was not always first and foremost. It took me a while to feel ambitious, though I never would have called it that back then. To really chase what I wanted. 

Casey is very matter-of-act when a struggling writer asks her out on a date: “I can’t go out with a guy who’s written 11 ½ pages in 3 years. That kind of thing is contagious.” What do you do to overcome writers’ block?

I do the things that give me inspiration. I replenish my creative energy. This usually means that during my writing hours I drink tea and read and take notes. Heaven. The ideas and the desire comes back that way for me.

Do you have any quirky rules to help you when you start writing? Like you only use a certain kind of notebook or pencil?

So funny. I read the first sentence and I thought, no, no I don’t, then I read the second and I thought, oh yeah, I do. Mechanical pencils only, ruled, spiral notebooks with no dividers, preferably with a hard cardboard back.

You lighten deep sadness with just the right amount of humour: “If someone saw inside and called an ambulance, I would go off willingly. It’s my biggest fantasy at these terrifying moments, two EMTs in the doorway with a stretcher for me to lie down.’ Humour is everywhere in your book – does that come easily to you?

The book has some heavy material—loss, grief, heartbreak, debt, health crises, to name a few—and I think for me to get through it I needed to make myself laugh. And humour does work best, and comes most naturally, when it’s in contrast to or playing off of serious themes.

You describe your characters with such spot-on precision. Take bit part Jean Hunt: “Her hair is shellacked in place, and she wears a grey suit, stockings and pumps, all on a Sunday morning.” The reader doesn’t see Jean again, nor does he need to. Ditto the woman at the post office, mailing Casey’s treasured six-years-in-the writing manuscript to agents “Let’s hope your next six years are a little more exciting, sweetie pie.”

Or when Casey is about to sleep with a much older Oscar for the first time: “His mouth is minty…I’m not used to a guy brushing his teeth before fooling around.” And the sex itself, well, those sharp fingernails don’t help. It’s this attention to detail in your novel, these surprise scenes that are both wholly original and wholly relatable. How do you do that? Any tips for aspiring novelists?

Just that: stay with the specific, burrow down into the specifics, avoid the general, the expected, the given. Don’t ever say what you’re pretty sure the reader already knows/can guess about the scene. Don’t be lazy. Don’t be boring. Surprise yourself. Cut cut cut when you edit.

How long did this book take you to write? Your words and imagination seem to flow effortlessly – but then I’m wondering if this was more of a six-year Casey Peabody experience?

I think it took 13 months to write the first draft. Another year to revise. And maybe three more drafts with my editor.  

You’ve had the same writing group since the early 2000’s. Can you tell us what makes a good writing group?

People who write, people who like the same genres you do, but not necessarily the same styles. Very good and smart and careful readers. People who want the truth, no matter how much extra work they will have to do because of it. 

Can you tell us your favourite part of the writing process?

Revising, particularly with my editor. I like having something to work with. The blank page can be exhilarating, but it is mostly terrifying.

Next up is a collection of short stories – Five Tuesdays in Winter – are they interconnected? And when is that coming out?

They are not interconnected and come out in November, 2021.

– Interview by Elena Bowes

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