Elena Bowes

New York-London design & culture writer of a certain vintage looking for meaning and wholeness in life

Writers & Lovers – my Q&A with the Fabulous Lily King

February 27th, 2021
Q&A with Lily King - Writers & Lovers
Calling All Authors

I loved this book, loved with a capital L. And I was thrilled to get to interview the self-deprecating, humorous, hugely talented Lily King. If you haven’t read Writers & Lovers yet, may I suggest you buy the just released paperback – which has a thought-provoking essay called  “Worms, Eggs, Sperm and Other Thoughts on Writing”.  I know I always think about sperm when I begin to write.

In the spare six-line opening of King’s captivating novel we learn that Casey’s mother has recently died, Casey is broke, there is someone named Luke in her life that she’d rather not think about, and that she is a writer. And as sad as this book may be, it’s also very funny, touching, sexy and wise. And hopeful. Here’s my Q&A:

Can you tell us about Casey and the two men who enter her life – Oscar and Silas? 

 I was really interested in taking a woman who has these huge burning ambitions, a desire to write and become a writer. A lot of things are working against that. She’s $70,000 in debt from credit card and student loan debt. Her mom has died. Her heart has been broken. And she has a pretty challenging job as a waitress, living in this crappy place.

I just thought – what could make things even worse? A choice between two decent men. It boils down to figuring out who has the biggest heart, who is the guy who has the possibility of caring about her as much as himself. And I think that question when you have two charming guys is a tricky one. She has to go on a lot of dates with these guys to figure out who they really, really are.

I understand that you waited tables from college until you were about 33- you really nailed those restaurant scenes. I loved the contrast between Casey’s two lives – the solitary writing life and the social hustle and bustle waitressing one. Can you expand on how those two careers complement one another?

Writing is a desk job. Sedentary, bad for your back. Isolating and Anti-social, though at times you feel you are communing with all of humanity. It’s wild and trippy and cerebrally imaginative. It’s full of surprises. The salary is crap for a long time, sometimes forever. It’s an unpredictable, unstable career in every way.

Waiting tables at a busy restaurant is athletic. You never sit. You have no chair. The time flies by. It’s wholly interpersonal and you meet great people, and you laugh and cry on a regular basis. You use your mind but in an entirely different way than you use it while writing. Restaurant hours work well for morning writers like me and, unlike with teaching, you do not bring your work home with you. You leave it all there, every last dupe and credit card slip.

Your five books are so varied. Where do your ideas come from?

My big original ideas come from one of three different places. They either come while I’m reading. Actively reading with a cup of tea, not in bed about to fall asleep. Also, in the shower, right when I’m waking up in the morning can be a very fertile time for me.  And also, in the car.

Are you writing for the reader?

I have to banish the idea of an audience when I write. Initially, I am just writing for myself, to see what I as a reader would like to read. When I get into my revisions, I can sometimes let myself think of my cross-the-street neighbour reading my work- her name is Lisa and she’s trained as a lawyer and is just a phenomenal reader. And then I start to have real readers- I get my husband to read it, my writers’ group to read it, my agent and then more revisions.

I listened to your heartfelt talk with author Judy Blume who inspired you years ago, your favourite of her books being– It’s Not the End of the World – Can you tell us about that?

My mother was about to leave my dad so she gave me the book about someone who was about to leave her husband. It was very strategic on her part. I loved that book so much. I was so grateful to have that book. I read it in 1974. I didn’t know anybody whose parents were divorced. I probably read it 6 or 7 times. I loved the realism. I had read a lot of talking animals, a lot of spaceships, a lot of fantasy, orphans discovering a secret garden. But her books were realism- adult literary fiction with slightly easier words. In discovering her books, instead of thinking I want to read, which I had always done, I thought, I want to do what she’s doing.

Do you think Writers & Lovers could similarly comfort aspiring writers?

I hope (my novel) will help aspiring writers. I think that a lot of people can relate to this notion of wanting something and not knowing how to get it. And wanting to live a more creative life, and a more stable life without giving up some long-held dreams.

When Lily interviews for the high school teaching job, she loses herself talking about literature, talking about how plot and symbol aren’t as important as reverberation. Can you elaborate?

I was a high school English teacher for a number of years. It pains me when my books get interpreted with a high school English rubric, ‘let’s talk about the symbols’, ‘let’s talk about the themes’, ‘let’s talk about character change’, ‘lets’ talk about loss of innocence’, all that stuff. I feel like what would be so great is to give high school kids books and have them respond emotionally to them. How did this make you feel, make it a more personal experience for them. It would cultivate more a love of books, than a dread of books, which I think people come out of high school with.

Which writers do you read when you want to get inspired?

I always keep on my desk- Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse  and  The Evening of the Holiday.

Those are my bibles. I pick them up whenever I need to remember why I write, and what I want to give people (when I write).

I love Elizabeth Strout and my favourite is My Name is Lucy Barton. I love Toni Morrison, I love Beloved, I love this book that not many people have read called Old Filth by Jane Gardam (Failed in London, try Hong Kong). I also love Tessa Hadley, another English writer, her most recent Late in the Day is just a great novel. She has a collection of short stories called Sun Stroke which are excellent- those are some of my go-to’s.

You can read the rest of my interview with King in 26 here. And don’t despair if you’ve read all of her books, she has a collection of short stories Five Tuesdays in Winter coming out in November.

February, 2021