If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
On the individuality of grief, demystifying the creative process, and the right time to tell a story.
Sometimes, a book finds you precisely when you need it. Such was the case for me and Lily King’s first novel, The Pleasing Hour (Grove Atlantic), a lush portrait of a young woman living abroad, conflicted by ambition and desire. It’s the kind of story that impresses me more each time I read it—deceptively simple, told with a light, masterful touch. I devour King’s impeccably constructed narrative, her fluid, delicate sentences. She has an eye for women who are seeking—the particular ache of yearning for something more. I turn to her writing whenever I need a master class in subtlety, a reminder of how to set a scene or let a detail linger.
King’s new novel, Writers & Lovers (Grove Atlantic), is imbued with her hallmark elegance and sensuality. Casey, our heroine, is struggling to finish the novel she’s been writing for six years while waiting tables, drowning in debt, and reeling from her mother’s sudden, inexplicable death. This loss colors everything, and King writes about grief incisively, not shying away from the pain and clarity it can give.
Casey’s story unfolds on the edge of creative fulfillment, financial independence, and love. Success and connection seem possible, while also fragile and elusive. In exploring the creative process, King depicts a writer’s difficulties and doubts alongside precious moments of inspiration, and turns them universal. King and I spoke by phone, pausing between questions and answers to muse on writing’s highs and lows.
Francesca GiaccoI’ve seen this book described as the kind of novel you sought as a young woman, as you were coming of age as a writer. Did you feel like you were writing to your younger self? How did that affect your process?
Lily KingI felt like my younger self and I were writing it together, that I was channeling her emotionally. Most of what happens in the book is fictional, but I definitely needed all the experience and emotions of my younger self to write it. Sometimes you’re able to tap into certain parts of your life and other times you can’t. I’ve wanted to write this book for a long time, but this was the right moment, triggered in some ways, I think, by my mother’s death. I was more open to it and able to access it because it was a very painful time.
FG As if, with that pain, everything could come to the surface.
LKExactly. In the process of writing, things rise from your imagination and experience. Those details and memories intertwine and become stronger, to the point that you can’t ignore them anymore.
FG It reminds me of something Hemingway said in an interview, that the best writing is done when we’re in love. Do you think that could extend to other strong emotions, like grief?
LKAfter my mother’s death, I couldn’t write anything for four months. When I was able to write again it had to be something very different than what I was working on before. I can’t explain it otherwise. I think the grief must have forced me open in some way.
FGOne of the elements of your book I found particularly beautiful was the specificity of Casey’s grief, the way an old folk song or group of geese remind her so viscerally of her mother. Everyone grieves differently, of course, but I’m wondering how your own experience influenced the writing of those moments. And how you chose to convey Casey’s grief in this way.
LKThere’s that William Carlos Williams quote: “No ideas but in things.” And I do think you have to ground everything in things, in the world. That’s how we navigate through something so painful. In writing those moments, I didn’t even have to think about it. Those geese were just there. Not from any kind of conscious decision, but out of knowing that grief changes us and how we see ourselves in the world.
FGAs Casey is grieving for her mother, two men come into her life, each deeply affected by loss—Oscar is a widower and Silas is mourning the death of his sister. Do you think that shared experience simplifies or complicates relationships?
LK The way I thought about it was, when you’re going through something like that, you absolutely need and gravitate towards people who have survived something similar. You can hardly even be around people who have no idea what you’re feeling, and it’s incredibly comforting to be around those who do. I leaned hard on those people, the ones who truly understood, after my mother died. Casey doesn’t know it, and never acknowledges it, but those losses attract her. She’s interested in them and all their specificities, like getting to know Oscar’s kids, who have lost their mother, and fostering a connection with them. I don’t think it complicates things. I think it’s much more a source of comfort and connection.
FGAs an established writer, Oscar enters the novel playing the part of the great literary man with all the success and recognition Casey dreams of. Though we ultimately see what’s behind that façade. What did you find interesting about him crossing paths with her?
LKOscar’s character evolved. I was most fascinated by the kind of guy who comes on really strong and is really charming. A man who falls hard, is so invested, and seems to love completely, until you realize it’s all about him. That’s what I was really trying to get at—Casey is looking for something solid at a time when there’s nothing in her life that she can really lean on. She’s desperately seeking what he appears to be, but ultimately it’s a mirage.
FGOscar’s two sons are a draw for Casey, too. She’s longing for family, especially because her own has failed her in so many ways.
LKIn the wake of her mother dying, Casey is really delving into the child part of herself: needy, abandoned. In some ways, she really connects with his kids, on their level. Playing card games, making grilled cheese sandwiches, telling stories. That’s all really attractive to her—trying to make the leap into adulthood while still holding on to this experience of childhood. This bond with the children makes it hard for her to then see Oscar as a viable partner. It’s too far, too fast. She’s straddling those two worlds, adult and child, between him and his sons.
FG The way you write about both money and health struck me. How lucky and tenuous it can be to have both, and how their absence looms so large for Casey.
LK It was so much my experience, I couldn’t write it any other way. For most people, writing is an incredible financial sacrifice, and I really needed to convey that. I remember that stress and sacrifice so vividly. Especially once I was in my thirties—I had so much shame about still being a waitress, not moving on, not letting go of this dream. It’s funny to see the novel described as a coming of age story, given that Casey is thirty-one, but I do think part of being an adult is taking responsibility of your own health.
I don’t in any way plan these things out ahead of time, this idea of a health scare contributing to her growth as a character, but I do think about this a lot. There’s something about women that age who seem young and invincible. And it’s quite natural to feel that way when you have that kind of youth, but at the same time it’s an illusion. And writing is so mental—your body has to be well taken care of. There’s such a desire to be in our heads all the time, but the body demands attention, always.
FG In this novel, as well as in Euphoria and The Pleasing Hour, you’ve written a woman who’s hungry for experience while also having a strong instinct for who she is. What is it about that dynamic that’s been so fruitful?
LK They’re all women who want so much more than they’ve got. And I do think they’re always navigating a man’s world, in one way or another. There’s this desire to have things that perhaps women are not supposed to have. They’re constantly fighting against that, but not always acknowledging or even conscious of the struggle.
FG To me, desire plays a huge part. How fraught it can be to navigate.
LKEspecially different kinds of desire, because it’s not always the desire for men. The desires that are strongest in these women can be seen as very unattractive in a patriarchy.
FG There’s a rule, often repeated in workshops and graduate writing programs: to never write about writers or writing. How did you decide that Casey would be a writer?
LK I knew it from the very start. It was part of the initial idea for this novel, not even a decision. And I never really got the memo that you shouldn’t write about writing, though I was never really attracted to the idea or even thought about it in relation to my work. But funnily enough, even before I started writing this novel, I wrote several short stories in which the main character becomes a writer. The thought just seemed to want to come out, perhaps because writing has been part of my identity now for the majority of my life. It feels more natural now than it used to.
FGYou write about a creative experience that’s difficult to capture: moments of magic and inspiration, those rare instances in writing when everything just works. How do you convey that, especially for a reader who’s not a writer?
LK Writing is obviously an interesting process to me, but it’s not a very interesting one to read about. I felt that it was a huge challenge to describe, and what appears in the novel is only a sketch of something multifaceted and complex. I tried to describe a few things that happen to me the most, like the realization that your mind is working on a scene or solving a problem when you’re focused on something completely separate. I find that exhilarating … and you can’t bring it on. It just happens. I sought out what was most familiar, like the feeling of being close to finished with a draft, coupled with the fear that it’s falling apart. I really have to talk myself through those moments. I compare it to painting, the way Casey does in the novel. Painters don’t go from left to right on a canvas. These layers are really important, as is the faith you have to have in the process.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.