Zibby is joined by award-winning author Lily King to discuss her first collection of short stories, Five Tuesdays in Winter. Although this is Lily’s first collection, she has been infatuated with the form since her teenage years and even studied short story fiction writing in college. Lily talks with Zibby about what inspired each of her stories, how writing on a typewriter impacted her creativity, and her essay in Zibby’s new anthology, Moms Don’t Have Time to Have Kids.


Zibby Owens: Hi, Lily. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Lily King: Hi, Zibby. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: It’s so nice to have you back on. As you know, Writers & Lovers is one of my all-time favorites. I talk about it all the time whenever given the choice. I could not wait for this collection of short stories. I’m delighted that you wrote another book and that we can talk again.

Lily: Thanks so much.

Zibby: Would you mind telling listeners, what was the impetus — I know a lot of these stories or some of the stories had been written. Some of them are new. Tell me, why a short story collection? Why these stories? Just tell me about the whole thing.

Lily: I think the why is that they just started piling up. I started having enough to really think about collecting them together and putting them out. I’d been writing them. They probably span twenty years. There’s not the early, early stuff. The first one was written maybe even as early as, the first draft was ’98 or ’99, something like that, right around when my first novel came out. I really had been writing short stories since I was a junior in high school because I was lucky enough to have a creative writing class where we had to do that. We had to write a three-and-a-half-page story every single Monday morning, on his desk at eight AM. I took that class one semester in junior year and one semester senior year. I got a lot of practice with short stories even before I got to college. Then I took short story fiction writing straight through in college and then wrote them in grad school. They are the most natural element for me to swim in, I feel like. It’s funny that people don’t really know that and that I haven’t published any before this except for a few in journals. It was really interesting to try to come up with a structure for the collection. I would say that there are kind of three pillars in this book. One is the first one, “Creature,” and then “Timeline” and then “Man at the Door” because those three have narrators who become writers. I think they’re kind of talking to each other. I feel like they’re, in some ways, holding up the book, in a way. I thought about making them just a triptych and having them separate from the rest of the stories. Then I realized they’re quite integral to all the other themes in the book, so we kept them kind of spaced out.

Zibby: Interesting. I loved, in “Creature” — “Creature” is the one with the babysitter, right?

Lily: Yes.

Zibby: I loved when she’s up in her turret and laying on the window seat and starting to write. Then you can see that it’s coming. This is what’s coming down the pike for her. She’s observing everything. The craziness in the family and all of that, I just loved that. I also love when, in books, that the character references she wants to be a writer as she’s becoming a writer and you’re reading it.

Lily: That was a real surprise to me. It’s so interesting that you say you can see it coming because I did not see it coming. I didn’t see it coming until I wrote that sentence that ends something like, which is what I eventually became. A writer is what I eventually became. That surprised me so much. I remember writing that sentence. I remember exactly where I was. I was across town from here. I wrote that, and then I stopped. I was like, oh, did I just do that, leap in time and make that? I didn’t expect it even though she was in this turret. She was reading Jane Eyre. She was writing her these letters. That was a delightful surprise to me. Those moments are really what I love about writing fiction most. I couldn’t have planned for that. There it was. Then it just made me like the story so much more and care about her and understand her. Then we went on from there.

Zibby: Especially because her friend starts making fun of her for some of the tone that she takes on later. I loved that too because it’s so the self-deprecating writer already.

Lily: Right. Then her writing gets her in trouble. There are all kinds of consequences to writing down your feelings.

Zibby: Yes, for sure. That’s how, actually, I had my first article published. I was about her age. I wrote down all these feelings I had. My mom found my musings and was like, “You have to send this into a magazine.” That’s how I sold my first article to Seventeen.

Lily: Wow, that is cool. Good for your mom.

Zibby: I know. I look back and I’m like, that’s so cool. I don’t think I would do that for my kids. I mean, magazines aren’t now what they were. It was cool of her.

Lily: I know. That’s really impressive.

Zibby: Anyway, so tell me about, which ones are the most recent? Which ones of these came more recently versus the ones that are — which is the most recent one that you wrote?

Lily: I think it’s either “Creature” or “Timeline.” I wrote them right around the same time. I think I went back and forth with them. “Timeline” is probably the very most recent.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, Ethan Frome, I remember that.

Lily: I wrote “Timeline” on that typewriter right there.

Zibby: No way.

Lily: I had just gotten it. I had done a book deal. I was like, I’m going to buy a typewriter. I just really wanted an adorable little manual typewriter because I’d never had one except maybe in my family when I was nine years old or something. I started that story. I felt like it was something different. I felt like that machine pulled out something different from me. I usually write by hand. I sometimes write on the computer. I eventually put everything on the computer. That manual typewriter pulls out of me, a different part of my brain. It accesses some different little node in there that’s really exciting to me. I don’t use it a lot, but I love what comes out when I do.

Zibby: Wow. How crazy to think that different ways of writing bring out different characters. It’s like sorcery.

Lily: I know, and different choices.

Zibby: It’s like the witches’ chants bring out different .

Lily: Yes, it’s very true. It’s very true. I sometimes feel like it’s in the machine. It’s in that little black machine. Then it just comes out.

Zibby: I have my grandmother’s typewriter right there on the shelf. Now I’m wondering if I were to start using it —

Lily: — I know, give it a try. Just humor me. Just give it a try sometime and see .

Zibby: I’m going to have to get new ink or whatever. I don’t even know if they sell that anywhere. Do they still sell typewriter ink?

Lily: They do. There’s a place in North Carolina. If you google “old typewriters, North Carolina,” you just tell them.

Zibby: I will do that right after we stop.

Lily: That’s a really great place to do your business, your typewriter business.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that’s awesome. So what is it about the short story? I know you said that’s your favorite form. What is it? Is that you have to tell the whole — I should leave it open-ended and not guess.

Lily: For me, it’s all about concision. It’s an incredible challenge because you really can’t make a mistake in short stories. Novels are much more forgiving. Novels, you can put all kinds of crap in there. People don’t mind. A short story, it’s going to be like an arrow. It’s got to move like an arrow, but you don’t know what the target is really any more than you do in the novel. You just go. You have to dump everything that doesn’t move it forward. I like that challenge. I also like, if it doesn’t work, it’s okay. You have not wasted three years of your life researching, writing this book that doesn’t work. In that way, it’s more like an affair than a marriage. It’s a lighter feeling, in some ways, to just play. Then if you feel like you got something, it’s just a bonus and a surprise.

Zibby: Did any of your novels come from short stories?

Lily: My first one came from two short stories that I mushed together. I didn’t want to come out with a collection of short stories first. I was really, really broke. I had heard that you get paid more if you sell a novel. I liked novels. I wanted to try it. I had this one short story that had the plot of a girl, a nineteen-year-old, having a baby for her sister. I liked the plot. Then I had this other story that was set in France, and I really loved the language. I loved the voice and the tone. Weirdly, I just mushed together and started writing this novel. It took me like nine years, but that’s what I did. Of course, it reads like short stories. It’s completely called a novel, but you can tell those chapters are short stories. They are. It’s not a novel. I thought, I don’t know if I’ll ever really write a real novel where you leave something hanging and then pick it up. Now I feel like I’m more comfortable in the novel, and so it was really fun to go back to this early form and just be there with that.

Zibby: While you worked on this, are you also working on another novel? Was this in tandem with another project, or did this take center stage?

Lily: My short stories are always — usually now, I write them when I’m taking a break from a novel, when a novel is becoming too sticky and too difficult and too frustrating and I just want to have fun. That’s how most of these were written. Some were in between. Some were warming up. Certainly, “Timeline,” I didn’t know it at the time, but I was gearing up to write Writers & Lovers. I didn’t think about it, but obviously, there are similarities in there. She’s a waitress. She wants to be a writer. It’s a little earlier than Writers & Lovers begins, but there are definitely similarities. It surprised me that I wrote about that, but I wasn’t ready to write a full-length novel about it. I think “Timeline” kind of got me there.

Zibby: What about “When in the Dordogne”? Tell me about this one.

Lily: That, I wrote when I was writing Father of the Rain. That novel, Father of the Rain, was really, really emotional for me to write. I had to take big breaks, long breaks where I thought, I’m never ever going to write that book anymore ever again. I wrote a couple. I wrote “When in the Dordogne.” I wrote “Hotel Seattle.” That came from one sentence that a guy said to me in a pizza restaurant years before when my kids were really little. We went out to pizza, my husband and our two kids. We ran into this guy that I had known when I was fifteen, sixteen years old. I really barely knew him. He was kind of in the same social circle in this summer place where I had gone when my mother married a man who had a house there. I had hardly had any conversations. I really didn’t know him well at all, but I ran into him. We started talking. Somehow, he said that when he was a teenager, his parents had gone away for the summer. They’d hired two college kids to take care of the house. He said, “Because I came with the house, they had to take care of me too.” Then we were like, okay, bye. I won’t see him again for another twenty years or something.

I just remember that sticking in my head, just that one little image. Then somehow, probably five years after that, I sat down to write a short story, and that came out, that little thing. It’s nothing based on him or his life because I know zero about his life, but I just went from there. A lot of these stories are a little bit like that. They’re just tiny, tiny moments. “North Sea” is a story about a German mother and a daughter. The husband/father has just died. They go on a vacation together. When I was in Germany on this little German book tour that I was lucky enough to take for Father of the Rain, I met a bookseller. She had a daughter. They had a bookstore together. She said that every year, they go to this island. I think she said the North Sea, but I actually don’t even know. They started going after her husband died. They had a horrible time. They go back every year. I loved that. There always has to be a little twist. We had a terrible, terrible, terrible time. The daughter was like, “Oh, god, did we have a terrible time. We go back every year.” I never was able to work that into the “North Sea,” but it’s in there in my head. I couldn’t work that detail in there. I never jumped ahead to say that they go back every year. I just wanted to work out, okay, what was that like? What were their struggles at that moment on that island grieving but unable to help each other?

Zibby: Wow. Just the act of having a short story collection out, I feel like there’s this unspoken, I am a real literary author if I have a short story collection out. I feel like there’s this whole hierarchy. I’m just peeling back the onion to find out. A collection of essays is totally different than a collection of stories. There’s this, almost, not snobbery, and certainly not from you, but just in the literary-ish world.

Lily: That’s really interesting. I haven’t really thought about that. I don’t know. We’ll see. Will I get a little bit more clout for having written a collection?

Zibby: Yeah, I think so. You get automatic extra clout.

Lily: I like that. Bring it on.

Zibby: Not that you need it, but I think it’s true. To bring your clout down, you also have an essay in my collection, Moms Don’t Have Time to Have Kids.

Lily: That does not bring my clout down. My daughter just read that yesterday. I was like, “I showed that to you, right? I know I showed it to you. I got permission from you.”

Zibby: Oh, to your daughter?

Lily: Yeah. She had no real recollection of reading it before. I was like, god, really? Anyway, it was very fun.

Zibby: Is she okay with it?

Lily: Yes, she’s all good with it.

Zibby: When I got that essay from you and your document was “For Zibby” or something, I was like, this is so cool that you would write this essay for me, for this collection. It just blew my mind. It’s so cool to have somebody you so admire and then have them create something. It’s just the coolest.

Lily: Aw, that is so kind. God, I was honored to be included in that incredible anthology that I can’t wait for everybody to read.

Zibby: Me too. I know. You have so much going on. It’s really exciting. Publicity is now probably eating into some other project. What else do you have cooking over there?

Lily: I am writing another novel. It’s been very stop and start and fragmented. Now I have this book coming out. As many vows as I make that I will write through my book tour, I just cannot. I cannot. It’s just right here in a little notebook. I will get back to it as soon as I can. I’m trying not to feel terrible about not pushing it forward right now. The problem with stopping is that I keep on getting ideas. I’ve gotten three new ideas for new novels. I’m trying so hard not to be tempted. You’re always kind of thinking, well, that would be easier. That would be easier. That would solve all my problems because then I wouldn’t have to solve those problems. I could solve other problems. I’m really going to try to stick with this one.

Zibby: I won’t hold you to it if you change your mind. It’s okay. You can cheat on that book by starting another book and not even tell a soul. That’s fine too. Are you doing in-person events, or no?

Lily: Yeah, I am. It’s weird. I probably have six, or something, in-person events. I haven’t had one yet, but they’re coming. I’m excited. To have an audience again is just incredible. To meet readers, talk to them, incredible.

Zibby: I hear lots of people are out there. I know I asked you this before, but maybe you have a different answer. Probably, neither of us remember what you said last time. I probably should’ve gone and looked it up, but I didn’t have time to do that. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Lily: That’s always a good question. Stop making excuses, and write. Maybe there’s someone out there who does not make excuses and really does write and is committed. For every one of those, I think there are so many hundreds of others. I was one of them for years and years and years. It’s really hard to do the work. It’s hard to do the work whether you’ve never written a novel, whether you’ve written ten novels. It’s hard. Discipline really, really is the biggest thing. You have to let go of the critic in your head that stops you from writing. You can say that it’s your full-time job. You can say that it’s your kids. You can say that it’s a gazillion different things. Really, what’s stopping you from writing is that critic in your head. If you can just ignore that voice and just get the words on the page, it’s your only hope.

Zibby: It’s your only hope.

Lily: It is. You got to get the words on the page. There’s no other way around it.

Zibby: The best thing I feel like you said is that, for you, short stories are just a way to have fun. That’s a true writer. You have to enjoy it. If it’s not fun, there are a million other jobs.

Lily: I know. That is a question that I’ve started to ask other writers when I interview them because I find it really confusing. A lot of days, writing a novel is not fun. It’s just not fun, but it’s satisfying. Even a bad day is satisfying because I was there and I tried. That really is what’s satisfying. Fun is another thing. I actually have a note on my wall right behind me that says “Have fun.” That is a big commitment that I am trying to make both to short stories and to novels, is just to really, really try to enjoy it. Of course, it’s a great lesson for every day on this Earth, to try and have fun, to try to appreciate what you can. I’m working on all those things.

Zibby: That’s a great message. I could say the same for parenting. It’s not always fun, but it is very satisfying. Some days are terrible, but you’re still working on something collectively that will take on a life of its own. You just have to keep showing up.

Lily: It’s so true.

Zibby: Lily, thank you. Congratulations on Five Tuesdays in Winter. Are you doing something on five consecutive Tuesdays in winter to celebrate this book in some way? Did you pick the Tuesdays yet?

Lily: No. That’s a great idea, though. No, I haven’t gotten there at all. I like that.

Zibby: You have to be like, Tuesday number one, Tuesday number two.

Lily: Okay, I’m doing that. That is a fantastic idea. Thank you.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Thanks again.

Lily: Thank you, Zibby, so, so much. Take care.

Zibby: Bye, Lily.

Lily: Bye.


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