July 2010

Lily King

Family ties make for compelling fiction
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Author Lily King is known for her sensitive exploration of family ties. In her third book, Father of the Rain, she follows the tumultuous relationship of a father and a daughter. She answered a few questions for BookPage about her work, the place and ideas that inspire it, and the dangers of falling in love with your characters.

You published your first book just a little over 10 years ago. In that time, how would you say you have evolved as a writer?
Great question. So hard to answer. Each novel seems to demand a different voice, a different structure, a whole different ethos, really. It doesn’t feel so much like evolution as just responding to the different circumstances in each book.  When I finished this new novel, Father of the Rain, I was surprised to notice how much dialogue there is, and how little exposition. I hadn’t really been conscious of that. But I don’t feel like I’m evolving into a writer who uses more dialogue at the expense of the kind of description I used in The Pleasing Hour, for example. It’s just that these particular characters had a lot to say to each other, and they needed so little narration to tell their story.

I would like to think that I’m getting better at getting the words on the page with less angst. I used to revise everything I wrote previously before I went on. But I’ve learned that it’s better to just keep moving, and put on your editor’s hat much later in the process. When I’m writing a first draft, I have to imagine a white canvas, how a painter does not go from left to right filling in every little detail, but makes a rough outline in blue and then begins putting on the colors, sharpening the shapes, layer upon layer. I’ve taught myself to trust that this is how a book is made, too.

In your last novel, The English Teacher, you focused on the relationship between a mother and a son. In Father of the Rain you focus on the relationship between a father and a daughter. In what way do you think the dynamics are different between these two types of fundamental parental relationships?
I am no psychologist, and I have no support for this statement, but I do think that a person’s relationship with his or her mother tends to shape the way that person feels about him or herself, and the relationship with the father has more of an effect on the way that person feels the world is responding to that self. Peter, in The English Teacher, really struggles internally, with his own personality, whereas Daley, in Father of the Rain, doesn’t wrestle with who she is but has to overcome the assumption that people don’t want her around, the she is not valuable in this world.

One of the problems Daley struggles with in this novel is finding a compromise between her romantic life, professional ambitions and family obligations. Do you think this conflict is still one that affects women more than men?
I do, though I think that is changing, and more men are making career decisions with partner and family in mind. But Daley’s own dysfunctional role in her family is what really stagnates her in this situation. She is really unable to pursue her goals because she feels her father’s life is far more important than her own.

Are you an author who draws from experience when you write, or do you see a very clear line between yourself and the characters you write?
I think that line is always changing, from book to book, and from scene to scene. There are entirely fictional elements in all my novels, and a few autobiographical elements that drop in, usually unexpectedly. The narrators and other characters are very distinct from me and my experiences. With Daley, the narrator of Father of the Rain, the line blurred slightly. She is probably the closest of all my characters to who I am, especially in the first and third parts—the impulses she has in Part II are not part of my personality.

One popular and vibrant niche in American fiction is Southern fiction, but some might argue that another salient pocket is East Coast fiction. What do you think are hallmarks of this type of novel (beside the obvious geographical element!)?
The first thing that comes to mind is claustrophobia. The characters tend to spend more time indoors, in small rooms, sort of gnawing on each other. Money is a character, and the alcohol flows freely. The talk is often cerebral and the characters entirely self-conscious, and most of the conflict is roiling far below the surface.

Father of the Rain is an intensely powerful and emotional read. As an author, do you ever find yourself overcome by the feelings and experiences of your characters, or do you keep yourself tightly reined?
This one was very emotional for me to write. Writing that first part, and I suppose the second part, too, could really bring me low for weeks at a time. I had to take many breaks.  I’m sure I could find a few notebook pages of the first draft that are buckled from tears. It was hard to be in that world. And pretty much every time I’ve read over the last section I’ve cried, too, at different moments for more joyful reasons.  Not to mention I think I was as in love with Jonathan as Daley was. I’d get into bed at night and sigh, “I just love Jonathan.” My husband was worried. But he knows the things I love about Jonathan are the qualities I love in him.

As an author, do you write the kind of books you like to read, or do you find yourself indulging in reading material that is quite different from the books you write?
My reading is all over the map. I read for beautiful sentences, for rich characters, for a great story, for an original voice, for an unfamiliar setting, for new ideas. It’s hard to find all that in one book, so I spread myself thin.

I’m not sure I know what kind of books I write. People always say my children look alike. But I can’t see that, just as I can’t see the similarities between my books or their styles. What kind of books do I write? I honestly don’t know. I think there is still a great gap between what I’m aiming for and what I reach. But that’s what keeps it exciting.

What are you working on next?
I’m working on a collection of short stories. Something that sells even less than a literary novel—just what my publisher wants to hear!

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