When Lily King moved to Maine, one of her new neighbors wanted to show off a local bookstore in downtown Portland. They took the trip to the city only to find that the bookstore was in the process of closing. King, trying to be enthusiastic about the store her friend had loved, searched the picked over shelves looking to make a purchase. Unexpectedly, King chose Margaret Mead, A Life, the biography of the anthropologist.
The book was not necessarily one King expected to read. But then a funny thing happened, while she was working on her third novel, Father of the Rain, she picked up the Mead book. And then she was hooked.
Mead and her husband Reo Fortune had been studying indigenous people in Papua New Guinea. They were on their way to Australia when they decided to check in on Gregory Bateson, another anthropologist. Mead and Bateson found a love connection, and the three scholars ended up studying nearby tribes while caught in a sticky love triangle. This story provides the inspiration for King’s Euphoria, a novel with fictionalized anthropologists who meet under similar conditions. King read from the book, now in paperback, at Community Bookstore.
King continued writing Father of the Rain, but found she needed to give herself breaks from the book. Reading the Mead biography was a reprieve, but not one she saw as research for a novel. She says that she thought the Mead story would make a great novel, just not one she would write. Besides, the subject was outside the bounds of the types of things that King usually wrote. Nevertheless, she kept taking notes while she reading the book or whenever she thought about it. She filled a notebook.
The notebook of research was something new for King who says she rarely had much in the way of research before writing a novel. She had a lot of notes. Finally she considered writing a novel, but as she began writing, she still wasn’t sure how the book would come together. As an exercise, she sat down to write a chapter on Bateson. That chapter would eventually become the second in the book. After finishing that chapter, she realized that the story she wanted to write really belonged to Bateson. Realizing it and accepting it were two different things, and she describes fighting herself on the idea of focusing on Bateson,
King writes in a spiral notebook, just as she did in high school. She has brought one with her to show the audience. She unfolds a timeline she created to aid in her writing. The end of the timeline though has just one note: write a culminating scene. She didn’t know where the story would end up when she started.
While writing the book, she also discovered index cards. Since she wasn’t accustomed to having loads of research, she needed a way to organize it. She wrote out her notebooks onto the cards. She still found herself struggling and ended up trying out Scrivener Writing Software. The software helped, partly because she could search for scenes, but mostly because by then she had written most of the sentences our multiple times.
All the research though needed pruning. Her sentences are efficient and clean, and she had to struggle against the desire to include all the interesting details she found from her research. She wanted to eliminate the unnecessary words and descriptions, but preserve enough that readers knew what she was talking about.
“You have no idea how anyone is going to respond,” she says of her audience.
Ultimately she doesn’t like books that reveal too much of their research and she dislikes things they are wordy. She wants to minimize the extraneous. “My interest is always the characters,” she says.
Nevertheless, research is probably going to play a bigger role in her writing. Euphoria has changed the way she writes, King admits. While before she didn’t do much research, she has already immersed herself in the process for her next book.