Lily’s King’s latest novel, Euphoria, was published by Atlantic Monthly Press earlier this summer. Inspired by the life of Margaret Mead, Euphoria tells the story of three anthropologists caught in a love triangle in 1930s New Guinea. We here at LARB had four questions for her.
1. MICHELLE HUNEVEN: At a certain point in many novelists’ writing lives, they turn to historical novels, often when they have reached a limit (even temporarily) with more personal subject matter. I’m thinking of Penelope Fitzgerald, Lily Tuck, and Alice Munro. Why did you decide to write a historical novel? What was your “method”? Did you always know you were going to write about fictional counterparts, or did you once think you were going to write about Mead, Bates, and Fortune themselves the way, say, Doctorow wrote about the Rosenbergs? How and when along the way did you make these decisions?
LILY KING: These things never feel like decisions. They are strange unexpected impulses that don’t fade away as you think they will. I certainly never decided to write a historical novel. The whole time I was writing it I never thought of it as “historical.” All the labels come later, after it’s out of your hands. What happened to me is that just as I was starting to write my last novel, Father of the Rain, I read a biography of Margaret Mead and got to this five-month period in her life when she was doing fieldwork in Papua New Guinea with her second husband, Reo Fortune, and they meet up with the English anthropologist Gregory Bateson and have this intense intellectual and emotional love triangle while trying to piece together the lives of the tribes they were studying along the Sepik River. Their work and their feelings got all intertwined, and at one point they had this huge “breakthrough” that was all based around a rationalization of Mead’s and Bateson’s feelings for each other. That was all so fascinating to me, and of course when anything is fascinating to me I want to write about it, but that was an idea that seemed so outside my abilities — anthropology? 1933? PNG? crocodiles and cannibalism? — that I expected it to float off. But it didn’t. It dug in and soon I was reading about Bateson, reading Mead’s memoir, reading her letters and her work based on that time and his work and his biography. (There was no book by or about Reo Fortune.) I did all this while I was writing Father of the Rain, which was a novel that required long breaks because it could really take me down emotionally. I started taking notes and getting ideas and writing those down, and by the time I was done with FOTR, I had a full notebook of ideas for the next book. It seemed a bit too late to turn back, but I was daunted. I had about 60 pages of another novel, too, an easier, more reasonable novel, and I spent a summer trying to decide what to do. At the end of the summer, I went with the anthropologists in 1933. Initially I thought I would stay within the confines of the biographical details I could find about Mead and Bateson and Fortune. I seemed to have forgotten I was a novelist, and once they started talking and moving around on the page they became my characters and belonged to no one but my imagination. That was just the way it had to be. I think I’d changed their names by page three, and by the second chapter I understood that it wasn’t even the female anthropologist’s story in the end. She wasn’t the one telling it. That changed everything. Now I had an Englishman for a narrator, and everything about the book had to be reimagined.
2. The euphoria of the title is a brief state of blissful involvement in one’s work. Your character Nell says it comes around two months into an anthropological field study when the work is completely absorbing — it’s perhaps the first jolt of joy that all is working out. This idea reminds me of a couple of things: a runner who said it took her three months and three miles to get to her first endorphin rush, and of the idea of “flow,” when one is so absorbed that the clock hands twirl and work seems rich and intense, yet almost effortless.
Do novelists experience a similar euphoria? Did you experience any when writing this novel? If so, at what point? Was it brief? Did it ever come back?
Yes, I think there is a sort of delusional euphoria — Nell does say it’s a delusion, this conviction eight weeks in that you understand the tribe you’re studying — when you’re just starting a novel and you like the beginning and the rest is all glorious potential. I always think of T. S. Eliot, his “Between the idea / And the reality […] Falls the Shadow.” When you’re at the beginning you don’t have to see the Shadow. You can almost pretend that it will never fall. With this novel, though, apart from that one afternoon when I wrote the second chapter and felt how close I got to my new character Bankson, and how quickly, I can remember no euphoria. I was just so far out of my comfort zone the entire time. Okay, maybe one other day was sort of euphoric — close to the end when I wrote a scene in which a dead body and a lot of blood appear. I had never written a dead body or even a bleeding body before and was thrilled by the power of it. I understood why people like to do that. It wrote itself, and for once I didn’t have to worry that it might feel to the reader that nothing was happening.
3A. I love how this is a novel about love and work, and how they can conflate. I especially loved how Nell, in particular, finds the sharing of work inextricable from the erotic. (It made me think of the film My Architect, about Louis Kahn and his mistresses who worked with him.) How necessary was an erotic component to Nell’s work? What do you think about eroticizing one’s work? Is it something to aspire to? Do you think it’s possible for novelists, whose work is so interior and solitary, to share that kind of erotic/work connection? Do you know of any novelists who do?
Okay this is a question I have not gotten before. Wow. First, I clearly need to see My Architect immediately. No question that the way to Nell’s desire was via her brain. Fen disgusted her simply because he was turning away from the intellectualization of the work. He was becoming more and more attracted to the life of the men he studied, the hunting and canoe-making, the physicality of that life, and less interested in the cerebral analysis of it. Then along comes Bankson and she can play with him in that way. She can banter and argue and parry and it drives her sexually crazy. I’m not sure it’s so much the work itself that is eroticized but the intellectual process, and finding a mind compatible with your own that feels like utter freedom. She had all these ideas, unconventional, ahead-of-her-time ideas, and he did not dismiss them. He let them flourish. She could become more herself, discover herself, with him. What is more erotic than that? I imagine for many writers words are a strong erotic trigger, but I’m not naming names.
3B. On the other hand, the dark side of conflating the erotic and the professional occurs when one partner (especially, and I hate to say it, the woman) is more successful than the other. This shift of balance (or power) in a relationship can inflame competitiveness and jealously. The collaboration-turned-rivalry between Nell and Fen has turned violent — this is intimated on the very first page, “He had broken her glasses by then […]” — and forms the main conflict in your novel. Nell’s way of talking about work and working is clearly very seductive; she seduces her former colleague Helen, Fen, and Bankson through work. What is your opinion of her behavior? Is it reckless? Or is Fen’s violent jealousy mainly characterological?
It all gets tricky when this notion of success and failure comes into the equation, when other people weigh in and place their judgments on the work. It is a mystery why some relationships work and others don’t, and another mystery if what people see from the outside is really an accurate reflection of what is happening between two people. And even each person in a couple is going to have a completely different definition of what is happening. That’s part of the reason we love novels, isn’t it, because we can tunnel in through all the layers and feel like we understand a relationship? I’ve never really evaluated it before but I suppose Nell is sort of reckless. But she is young and doesn’t quite understand her own power, or at least the effects of her power. And she is exerting it because it feels good and natural and it’s hard to fault her for that. Also at the core, Nell doesn’t want to possess or be possessed by anyone and cannot understand why others have this impulse. So her behavior is only reckless if you believe Fen or Helen or Bankson should be allowed to possess her.
4. I was struck by the scene where Nell keeps questioning an old man about a ritual he saw when he was very young; he is reluctant to divulge certain details, and yet Nell keeps at him until he reveals what he found most embarrassing and traumatizing. At that point, Nell calmly says that, oh, yes, another tribe did the same [peculiar] thing. Wonderfully, this response completely normalizes what the older man found most painful, and he laughs, with tremendous relief. Persistence is the tool that Bankson takes away from the scene. But this also seems like a scene from psychotherapy — getting to the primal scene, the primal material, and shifting one’s perspective. Of course, I also couldn’t help but see this kind of persistent probing — probing past the point where decorum would have us stop — as the novelist’s task. Would you agree? Does that relate at all with your methods while working on this book?
I completely agree. I often find myself in conversations out in the world in which I want to push things further, either find out more information or analyze the situation, or, if I’m telling a story, provide details that might make some people uncomfortable, and I can sense a wall that I should not try to smash down. But oh how I want to! It’s always funny to be around people who do not have that instinct, who do not want to stare at the tiny pieces of human behavior until they go blind. As for my methods while working on this book, I had none. I had no road map, no process. I was blind from the start on this one, in a pitch-black closet all by myself. Mead wrote in her memoir that she and Bateson talked for 36 hours straight about their work when they met, but does not go into detail about what they said to each other. I wanted to write a scene like that for my characters, so I had to do a ton of research, then make it all up.