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Lily King: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Lily King, author of the award-winning novels The Pleasing Hour and The English Teacher. Her third novel, Father of the Rain is out in paperback this month from Grove Press. King is also the recipient of a Whiting Award. She lives in Maine with her husband and children.

Father of the Rain has an interesting structure. Rather than tell the present story and use flashbacks, you separate the narrative into three distinct times in Daley Amory's life. What made you decide to do this and did you try other structures?

Originally I thought the story would be told in two parts, 1974 and then about fifteen or twenty years later. I planned it to end there, at what is now the end of Part 2. I didn't have any idea of Part 3 until I was close to the end of Part 2. And then it just hit me, that next leap in time, and how it would be. That third part came out pretty quickly compared to the rest of the book. I never did try any other structures. I always knew I wanted the reader to experience Daley's childhood as it was happening, and to meet her as a child first, not in flashbacks.

In the beachfront Massachusetts town where the novel takes place "there is nothing ridiculous or foppish about having little symbols of wealth, little ducks or martinis, sewn all over your pants." How much of this town, and your sense of humor about it, is drawn from your own experience?

I grew up in a small coastal town in Massachusetts so I do know the terrain well, though I left when I was eighteen and have not seen it evolve. The narrator, Daley, is exceptionally cynical about her hometown when she returns to it as an adult, and while she would like to think everyone there is narrow-minded, she is quite narrow-minded herself about them. So I tried to play a little with that tension.

The New York Times pointed out your talent for having characters act differently in different company, just as people do in real life. Was this something you were conscious of while writing?

Um, no. I'd like to take credit for that, but when I'm writing a scene it's more like taking dictation than active orchestration. I just sort of observe and record what i see and hear in my head. The editing process is more conscious and cerebral, and I might tweak the characters' responses to each other, but usually not all that dramatically.

The father in this novel can be both despicable and pathetic, yet you are able to believe Daley’s love for him. How hard was this to accomplish in your writing? How do you feel about Daley’s father?

I knew I wanted to portray a very complicated man who had and who could evoke in others a great many emotions. I had no idea if I would be successful at this, or if the readers would in any way understand the love Daley felt for him. I have much more guarded feelings for him than Daley does, of course, because I knew how badly and how consistently he would manage to hurt her over the years, though I also have a great deal of compassion for him, too, because life and relationships are so difficult for him.

How do you get your ideas for your novels and how do you proceed from idea to draft?

I get a lot of my ideas when my brain is able to wander a bit, so when I'm reading or driving or just waking up can be pretty fertile times. I try to keep a notepad or scrap paper around at all times, because you never know when your next novel is going to rise up out of the deep. Nearly everything I write began as a thought fragment on a piece of scrap paper. Some ideas come and go, but the ones that turn into novels seem to attract other ideas. They start building on themselves. Once I feel that happening, I might try out a sentence or two, and if that feels okay, I might write a paragraph or two in a notebook. I write all my novels in spiral notebooks first, in pencil, and I have a section for notes in the back for ideas for scenes in the future. And that's how a novel grows for me—I never have a big outline when I start, just some ideas for scenes and a general sense of the story I want to tell.

What does your typical writing day look like? When, where and how?

I write after my kids, ages 10 and 12, get on the school bus until they come home in the afternoon. I have a study in our house, very small and cosy, painted blue and white and lined with books. It is heaven on earth to me.

What are you reading now and what would we see if we browsed your bookshelves?

I'm reading Ian McEwan's Black Dogs right now. You would see by my bed the books I've recently finished: Philip Roth's Nemesis, Teju Cole's Open City and Tessa Hadley's London Train. All excellent. I'm on a great reading roll right now.

How do you balance being a writer with being a mother? Do these two jobs inform one another?

Oh, that balance was so hard for the first eight years, until my youngest went to school full-time. I wrestled so much with it, constantly quitting writing and then slinking back to it. But now they go to school and I write while they're there and I'm thrilled to see them when they come home. Having children has informed everything, but yes, certainly my writing. And writing, well, I like to think the fact that I stuck with writing has made me a happier, more fulfilled mother than I would have been to them if I had quit.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a writer?

Sit down and write and make no excuses to yourself about why you are not doing that. It pains me to meet people who seem to ache to write but have a million reasons why they are not doing it, why it's always just a little bit in the future, that perfect time to start writing. I've always loved that vignette from Annie Dillard's The Writing Life about the note Michelangelo wrote to his apprentice: "Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time." Or as Kingsley Amis put it when he was asked about the art of writing: "The art of writing is the art of putting the seat of one's trousers to the seat of one's chair."

—interview by Lisa Carey

Books by Lily King

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