Lily King has been publishing fiction for more than 20 years, but in the last decade, she has earned a new level of acclaim and success with the two ravishing, highly praised novels Euphoria and Writers & Lovers. The latter landed on shelves two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down bookstores (and just about everything else in the world), so she was unable to do much in the way of promotion. She has greater hopes—and a scheduled book tour—for her collection of 10 startling short stories, Five Tuesdays in Winter.
King’s new book takes the long view. The stories span the entirety of the 58-year-old writer’s career, and about half of them are new material, not previously published in magazines. In a call to her home in Maine, she explains that she fell in love with short stories in high school. She’s been keeping journals since fifth grade (and still has them all, lined up on three shelves in her office), but she didn’t dream of becoming a published writer until her discovery of the short story form.
“Short stories are much harder [to write] than novels,” she says. “They can be more satisfying because you get to the end faster and don’t have to carry the despair for years and years. If you don’t like them, you can walk away from them. But you can’t make the mistakes that you can make in a novel. You can’t have those weird little spasms that a novel allows.”
The stories here are layered, incisive, sometimes dark and often funny. The opening tale, “Creature,” is about 14-year-old Carol, a nascent writer who is hired by a wealthy woman who lives in a mansion on a rocky New England coastal promontory. For two or three weeks in summer, Carol is to be the live-in babysitter for the woman’s very young grandchildren. Carol’s services are meant to free up the children’s mother, Kay, to spend more time with her own mother. Even before the arrival of Kay’s ne’er-do-well brother, Hugh, Carol observes the silences between mother and daughter.
“Creature” exposes the divisions within families, the flinty coldness and deliberate, doting blindness of a certain kind of parent. In its surprising conclusion we understand the hard shift in awareness that will inform Carol’s future as a writer. But is it autobiographical?
Not quite, explains King, though it is set in the town where she grew up: Manchester, Massachusetts, renamed Manchester-by-the-Sea in 1989. “I feel I was straddling a lot of different worlds,” she says of those days. “My parents got divorced. My mother and I were in an apartment downtown without a lot of money. My father was up in the house on the point. Then my father remarried and remarried again. My mother remarried and we moved to a different part of town in a big house. I was both a babysitter trying to make money and then a person who sometimes lived in a big house.”
King’s experiences with this class dichotomy burn through this story collection, as do strong impulses instilled by years of babysitting, which she began at age 11 and continued until she was 32. “You step into somebody else’s family, and you have to intuit their whole ethos,” she says. “I’m interested in fitting in and not fitting in. How a situation in a house becomes very fraught. About the power, about everybody’s dysfunction.”
For the past few years, King and her family have lived in Portland, Maine, but the pandemic hit shortly after their move, so she still doesn’t feel completely settled. They previously lived in the smaller town of Yarmouth, but when her older daughter went off to college, her younger daughter lobbied for the family to move to Portland, “the big city.”
Now their house is on a hill, and King’s top-floor office gives her an expansive view of city rooftops and the Atlantic Ocean. Her husband, a writer and fine arts painter, has a studio on the top floor as well. His mother, also an artist, painted the vivid work that constitutes the cover art of Five Tuesdays in Winter. The full painting graces King’s living room.
Even after 20-plus years in Maine, King still expresses surprise to be living in New England. “When I left Massachusetts at the age of 18, I thought I would never, ever live in New England again,” she says. “And I didn’t for a long time. But I just kept kind of circling back and then leaving again and coming back.”
King’s life has taken her all over the U.S. and even to Valencia, Spain, but starting a family with her husband helped her make the decision to return. “It just seemed that I had to raise my kids with seasons,” she says. “With winter, with snow. I didn’t think it could happen because I hadn’t had a happy childhood, I hadn’t loved the cold. But here I am.”