Zibby Owens: I loved my conversation with Lily King which I did via Instagram Live on my Z IGTV channel, @ZibbyOwens. I did this in conjunction with the Montclair Literary Festival. Lily was supposed to be a speaker there. I was supposed to participate. It got canceled per everything these days. Lily King’s book, Writers & Lovers, was so good. I could not put it down. It kept me up late two nights in a row, which is very rare for me. Lily is the author of five award-winning novels. Her most recent novel is Writers & Lovers, which I just mentioned. Her 2014 novel, Euphoria, won the Kirkus Award, the New England Book Award, the Maine Fiction Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Award, and more like top ten books in New York Times. I can’t even keep reading, it’s so many things. Her latest book, Writers & Lovers, has been the Read with Jenna book pick, a New York Times best seller, and on everybody’s list of what book you need to be reading. It was also a Belletrist Book Club pick, and mine. Listen to our episode. I had the best time talking to her. I’m sure you’ll love listening to her.

Lily King: Hi.

Zibby: How are you?

Lily: I’m good. How are you?

Zibby: I am so in love with your book. I read every word. I hung on every word. I loved it. It kept me up two nights in a row. It was so good. I just had to put that out there.

Lily: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me. This is so fun.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. I’m sorry that the Montclair Literary Festival was canceled along with everything else, but hopefully you’ll be able to make an appearance when it resumes.

Lily: I hope so. I really hope so. How are you?

Zibby: I’m great. Thank you.

Lily: Good, good.

Zibby: I mistakenly probably feel like I know you because I’m thinking that you’re putting some of yourself into the character in your book, which you may or may not be doing. I need to know what is you and what is not. But first, for people listening, would you mind letting everybody know what your book is about? What inspired you to write it?

Lily: The book is about thirty-one-year-old Casey. It is 1997. She’s arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She’s gotten a job at a restaurant. She’s gotten a terrible place to live, a little room at the side of a garage. She’s seventy thousand dollars in debt. She’s trying to write her first novel. She’s just had her heart badly broken. A few months earlier, her mother died. She’s a bit of a mess. She’s, at age thirty one, trying to figure out how to find the rest of her life, how to put a life together that looks like a grown-up life, but that doesn’t mean that she has to lose her dream of becoming a writer.

Zibby: This is not your first book. Euphoria already came out. Every book has had critical acclaim and everything.

Lily: This is my fifth.

Zibby: .

Lily: My fifth, yeah.

Zibby: I think so. I was going to say fifth, but I am always afraid of being wrong. Better safe than sorry. If you can’t remember, then I don’t feel as bad.

Lily: I ran around for the first couple of months when I was doing pre-pub stuff saying it was my sixth book. Then I realized, no, it was my fifth. They seem long. They take a long time to write.

Zibby: How long did this book take to write? How did it compare to the process for your other books?

Lily: I’m somewhere between four and six years between books. I blame it on my children. The fact is my first one took nine years, probably, from start to finish to pub date. This one actually was fast to write. It’s just that I started researching and then writing two other books before I started this one. That’s why this one took six years between books, because two of them were a failure.

Zibby: I loved in this book how when you were dropping — not you — when your character was dropping the manuscript off at the post office and she was trying to tell the postal worker, “I’ve worked for six years on this.” She said, “I hope your next six years are a little more exciting.” That was hilarious.

Lily: I feel like that’s kind of a feeling that I have gotten in my life, along with all the other feelings in the book. Everybody has a different response to somebody who’s writing their first novel. There are so many different ways you can see it. A lot of them are not — when you’re doing it yourself, they don’t feel very positive.

Zibby: When you said to the gynecologist, when he said, “So you’re going to write –” not you, your character — when she said, “So are you going to write the great American novel?” your character was like, “Oh, are you going to cure ovarian cancer?” He was like, “Touché.” There were so many little gems in there about the pressure of just because you’re an author, it doesn’t have to be the great American novel. Any other job, as pointed out in this book, doesn’t come with so much baggage.

Lily: Exactly. It’s so true. That line, the great American novel, is really something that you hear a lot when you say you’re a writer. It’s definitely a way for people to say without actually saying it, who the hell do you think you are? What do you think you’re going to do? Why would you waste your time on that? Obviously, you’re not Fitzgerald. You’re not Hemmingway. You can’t help but hear that. I just remember the cynicism that came back at me a good bit as a young woman in the nineties trying to write a novel. I was more cynical than anyone. Nobody could ever tell me anything. I was the most cynical of all. I never thought that I would actually publish the novel I was writing, so I shared it.

Zibby: Did anyone actually say to you the way that Adam in the book did, “I can’t believe you even have anything to say”? What makes you think that? Someone said that to you?

Lily: Yep, I think verbatim. I never forgot it.

Zibby: Don’t you want to just take your book and slam it in their face right now?

Lily: No, no.

Zibby: No, I’m kidding. We wouldn’t do that. I’m kidding. I’m just saying, you worked so hard.

Lily: The reason I wouldn’t is just because that person, I think, was a very frustrated writer and would have liked to have written a novel but had that critical voice in his head that he was delivering to me that day saying, “You’re not good enough. You don’t have anything to say,” sort of thing. I didn’t really understand that then, but I definitely understand that now.

Zibby: Most insults, they come from the other person’s place of insecurity. It’s not really usually about you. It doesn’t make it feel any better at the time.

Lily: No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t at all, especially when you feel like crap yourself.

Zibby: How did you push past all of that negativity? When you were starting out — let’s go back, not to this great book, but all the way back when you were writing your first novel. How did you fortify yourself to keep going and not succumb to those negative messages?

Lily: I definitely succumbed. I think you get to a certain point in a novel where you can’t give up. You have to finish no matter how you feel about it, no matter what you feel about your bank account or anything. It’s like, this is my only way to get to the other side here. I definitely remember that. I remember years of feeling really discouraged and, like Casey, full of anxiety and fear and incredible doubt. Really, I wasn’t good at anything else. I didn’t even really think I was good at writing, but it was the only thing that I’d ever gotten any positive feedback for. All my eggs were in this basket. That was it. It wasn’t like I could do anything else. I had to keep going.

Zibby: Wow. Tell me the story of when you published your first book. Was it similar to Casey’s experience in this book?

Lily: It was a little similar in that I also sent it out to a ton of agents and got a ton of rejections and then finally got an agent in New York who I really liked. I went down to New York to meet her. I was really worried that she was going to say — because she’d already had me do a revision. I was worried that she was going to say, do another revision. She got out this notepad at lunch. She said, “So where do you want to send it?” That was really one of the most exciting moments of my career, just seeing that little yellow notepad come out. I had no idea where to send it. I didn’t know any editors. I knew one editor, actually. I knew two. I had known one of them when I was fifteen on an island that my stepfather had a house on. I just didn’t think that she would be interested in my work. Then I had another editor friend who I had waited tables with in college. She had become an editor. That was it. Fortunately, my agent had a lot of other ideas. We went down the whole list.

Then within a week or maybe even four days of her sending it out I had my first offer, my first interest. I remember having lunch with my boyfriend then, who is now my husband, going out to lunch and realizing I had one person who was interested and realizing that this actually could get published. Then there were four other editors who were interested. There was an auction. It was all blissful after that, so kind of in a similar way. In fact, I was also working in a high school at the time. Actually, my contract was under negotiation for the next year. The head of school was kind of holding out and not letting me know whether it was going to be renewed or not because he was trying to figure out a bunch of things. We were in faculty meetings at the end of the year. I kept having to leave to take these phone calls. It was the only thing that got me through because I loved that job. I really wanted my contract renewed. They were not telling me. This was the only thing that was like, well, I’ve got something else going here, so it’s okay if you don’t hire me again. They did hire me again, so that was good.

Zibby: Oh, good. You kept your position even after the book deal?

Lily: I did. I loved that job. Then I got pregnant. The next year, I got pregnant. Then it was too much to handle all three, so I gave up the teaching job that I loved so much.

Zibby: There’s always time. You could always go back.

Lily: Exactly.

Zibby: Earlier in our conversation a few minutes ago you mentioned that you blame your kids for your, what you call slow which I don’t think is so slow, your output time for your books now. Tell me about how you manage family and writing and when you do the writing and how you just do your whole life, basically.

Lily: First of all, I do have to take that back because I feel like in a lot of ways my kids have made me much more focused. If I had a lot more time, I would fritter it away. They helped me early on to just take the time that I had and write faster. I think I would be even a slower — who’s to say I would even have written another novel if I hadn’t had kids? I’m not sure. Now they’re nineteen and twenty-one. I would say I was an empty-nester, but no one with kids my age is an empty-nester anymore, which I love, I have to say. I feel terrible for them, but I love having them home now. I’m getting much less work done, let me tell you, much less. I just love seeing them at breakfast. I love seeing them at lunch. It’s terrible. When they were really little, I remember when my oldest one was six months, I got my first babysitter. I think I had her for three hours a week. I felt so guilty about it. Then slowly, I grew to maybe three hours three times a week sort of thing. It was really those first years when they weren’t in school. Once they go to school, you’re home free. When they’re not in school, that was really hard.

I had a lot of neglect by my parents when I was a child. I really wanted to be there for my kids. I was really, really conflicted about how to be there and also write books. In the margins of many of my notebooks that I write by hand, there’s all this math. How many hours are they awake during one week? How many hours do I have a babysitter? It would be like seventy-two hours awake per week and fifteen hours of babysitter. Is that okay? Is that an okay balance? I’d have to give myself permission every week to go ahead and try to keep writing. It was tough. Let me just tell you, here I am complaining about that, and I did not have a job outside the house. I was so lucky that I was only writing novels. I was teaching a little bit, but here and there, small gigs, nothing huge. I really can’t complain. I’m not even somebody who can talk about that kind of thing.

Zibby: A lot of new parents think that being a good parent is the amount of time they’re spending with kids, if you have the luxury of doing that or if you can work from home or whatever else. Then I think as everybody gets older you realize that’s completely not true. The pressure that many parents put on themselves is really astounding, as if there’s some correlation between good parenting and the minutes you spend on the floor with them or something.

Lily: It’s so true. I think a lot of that was just weird thoughts that I had about my own childhood. You’re always trying to correct for your own childhood. You overcorrect in crazy ways that my kids are still paying for.

Zibby: Are you comfortable talking more about your childhood and what type of neglect or what the biggest issues were?

Lily: Oh, sure. I’m the third of three kids. My brother and sister are much older than me, eight years and six years older than me. My mother was getting ready to leave my father. I know that they had sort of separated within the house. I think that there was a big physical attraction between them even though they really, really didn’t like each other, and I arrived. Right when my mother wanted to leave my father, she got pregnant with me. She stayed for another eleven years. She was extremely unhappy. First, she found the church in our town. She spent a lot of time volunteering. Then she found politics. The minister at the church was extremely liberal and political. Then she was gone. She fell in love with left-wing politics and volunteered all the time. She was basically learning how to — she didn’t even have a college degree. She had married my father when she was nineteen. She was really trying to get work experience. She just wasn’t home a lot. I had a babysitter. My father was a very, very, very bad alcoholic by that time. He was kind of checked out. Even when he wasn’t drunk, he was just in that alcoholic phase of his life where he was sort of emotionally unreachable and volatile. It wasn’t a great combination. My mother did finally leave. Then I felt like I kind of got her back. We got an apartment together. Then I had these years with her that were really, really special. She was extremely happy. It was really great for me to see.

Zibby: What about your older brother and sister during that time? What kind of role did they play with you?

Lily: They had gone to boarding school. When I was in kindergarten and first grade, they were gone. I guess my brother was there for first grade. By second grade, they were out of the house. They knew it was an unhappy household. It was the late sixties, early seventies. They were real hippies, and they were gone. They had sort of flipped the bird to the older generation. I just didn’t see them a whole lot.

Zibby: How about now? Are you in touch with them? Are you close?

Lily: Yeah, we became very close when I became an adult.

Zibby: I think I’m asking out of selfishness because I have kids who have that same age gap with younger ones and then a six and eight-year gap. Now I’m like, will they ever be friends when they’re older? I’m always interested in those dynamics between siblings and everything. Having grown up in that type of environment, did you turn to writing early? Is that a coping mechanism you developed? Did that come later? How did you cope? Did you read a lot? Or neither?

Lily: I read a lot. I do think it was a coping mechanism. Although, of course it didn’t feel like it at the time. I just did love writing. I don’t know if it was the same for you, but we didn’t have, in grammar school, creative writing assignments or anything like that. I only did book reports. I read books. I wrote book reports. We didn’t ever do anything creative ever, not a poem. Then when I got to high school, I had a teacher who had us write a short story, and that was it. He actually handed the short story back to me. He’s like, “I teach a creative writing class to juniors and seniors. You should take that when you’re a junior.” I just waited for that. Those classes, we had to write a three-and-a-half-page short story every single Monday morning, have it on his desk. That was really, really, really good training really early on for me. I think it was a coping mechanism. I did end up pouring a lot of my teenage angst into my stories and stuff.

Zibby: In Writers & Lovers, you talk about — when Casey is trying to get through some tough scenes, she talks about how she has to just go to that place that you almost can’t bear to think about and then put that on the page. Do you feel like you went through that same exercise?

Lily: Yeah, I do. It’s never really hard to want to put those hard things on the page. It’s always been sort of an instinct for me to not hold back. I think a lot of people have things that they want to write about, but they’re too scared because they don’t want to hurt people. All they can think about is how other people are going to read it, for whatever reasons. I don’t really have that. I’m not really trying to protect other people. I’m not trying to protect myself. For me, the most important thing is getting it down and being as crystal clear as I can about it.

Zibby: You also wrote so beautifully about loss in the book and how it feels, especially the loss of a parent in the early days, and wanting to pick up the phone and call them and forgetting and then remembering and just that whole whirlwind of emotion that accompanies grief. Can you talk a little about that and where that came from?

Lily: I basically wrote this book so I had a place to put my feelings about my mom when she died. She died four years ago, like Casey’s mother, completely out of the blue on vacation. My mother was in the South Pacific. She left in full health. I got a call saying she was going to a clinic, that she was fine but her blood pressure was low, which is strange. Then two hours she had died, and I don’t even know what happened. The loss of her, because we were so close, and then the shock and the not saying goodbye and her being so far away, all of that — I was writing something at the time. I had to stop. I stopped for a really long time, like probably eight months or something. Then when I started writing again, this book just came out of me. That first paragraph, I knew that her mother had died in this book. It was just something, I had to find a place to put these feelings. I’d been writing in my journal, but it wasn’t enough. I needed scene and dialogue and the whole thing to get those deeper sensations and emotions out into some form and probably out of me and onto the page.

Zibby: It’s almost therapeutic writing, really. When you’re doing it, are you able to take your own experience and think more analytically and structurally about the story? Or are you sitting there sobbing as you’re writing?

Lily: Oh, no, I’m totally mercenary, dry-eyed, just seeing how it will work in the scene. It’s very funny how that is. Then there might be a moment, just a moment or a line that really catches me, and I switch over to the grieving daughter instead of the writer. Most of the time, I’m pretty cold in that way. I’m just trying to figure out how to make it work within these parameters. I’m just pulling what I need from my life, but it’s a very thin thread that I’m adding to a very fictional tapestry. I just pull a little something from my life that seems like the right thread to pull. Then when you pull the thread and you write it, then I can feel kind of moved, and only if I get it right. If I get it wrong, I’m not moved at all.

Zibby: I would argue that you moved a lot of people with this book. It was emotional and thought-provoking. I could not put this book down. I just couldn’t. Another question about process just to round it out, when you’re doing this mercenary writing and everything, what is your process like? Where do you like to write? Do you write in this environment behind you? I know we’re on Instagram Live. Is this where you write?

Lily: Yep. We’re in my study right now. The thing is on my desk leaning against my computer. I actually have my notebook right here, one of my notebooks from Writers & Lovers. I always write by hand.

Zibby: The whole thing?

Lily: Yeah. I usually take breaks and put it onto the computer. That’s a little bit of a revision process for me. Sometimes I can write a whole notebook without stopping to put it on the computer. I like this process because that first draft with pencil in the notebook, I really try not to bring the critic in. I try to just let my creative self go and not be too judgy, as my children would say. I know that I have that revision process of getting it onto the computer, and so I can pick and choose. I like that because I have trouble with the critic being too harsh. If I just tell myself, this is where you can put anything, anything, anything and later you can figure out what’s good and what’s bad — I often find that when you’re writing you don’t know what’s good and what’s bad. Your critic is skewed. It’s off. You need that creative self to take over and just blurt it all out. Then you can shape it later. That’s what I like about this process. Anyway, we’re in this space. I like to write in the morning. I like to write with a cup of tea. I have all my little rituals. I have to write with a certain kind of BIC plastic pen which I’m very embarrassed about. It shouldn’t be plastic, but it’s what I really like. I don’t use many of them per year. I think rituals are really important. I think it’s really important to write at the same time-ish. I know that whenever I drink a cup of tea wherever I am, I will want to write because I’m so trained like a Pavlov dog. When I drink black tea, my fiction brain just starts working.

Zibby: Wow. This is the secret ingredient many people are missing. If only they made tea, they’d be able to do it.

Lily: Also, about tea — I just have to make another plug for tea. I read about those ADHD drugs. The main ingredient that makes them work, it’s the same ingredient that’s in black tea. I feel like it laser focuses me, that tea, for some reason.

Zibby: All this money we’re wasting at pharmacies, it’s ridiculous.

Lily: I know.

Zibby: What are you working on now?

Lily: I am contracted for a collection of short stories. I have about maybe eight of them, possibly ten. I have more in rough form. Then there are some that I haven’t written at all that I really want to write. That’s what I’m working on right now, is a collection of short stories. I have to say, I have not written a word since we’ve been isolated. My book came out, and so I have a lot of these kinds of things. I find it really hard to be extroverted, even though I’m in my house in my sweats. I find it hard to be extroverted and really introverted, the kind of introversion that it takes to write a novel. I’m just kind of on book tour for right now. I know it’s not what my editor wants to hear. I hope she’s not listening. I am going to get back to it soon, I swear.

Zibby: You will get there. I am not worried. I think this time is really hard for a lot of people to write, is what I’m hearing.

Lily: Do you write? You write, right?

Zibby: I do, not like you, but yes. I love to write.

Lily: Have you been writing during this time, or have you found it hard?

Zibby: I’ve been writing a lot of really short things like essays. I do have this novel that I’ve been working on for two years. I have these great edits that came back from people I really respect and admire. I just cannot get myself to open the document. I just can’t. I just can’t go there right now. It’ll come.

Lily: I totally get that. I’m like that even without a pandemic. When I get that feedback, it just sits over there. I have this writer’s group, so I get it in manuscript form. They’re in a big pile. They just sit there for a long time.

Zibby: I know. I have these notes that I wrote that are just — . I should just get them off my desk, but they’re sitting there reminding me and taunting me that I should be more productive in this front. You know, you’ve got to pick and choose. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have time to interview amazing people like you. This is really fun for me. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors, as a final question?

Lily: I think it really is persistence. I do think that there is no magic apart from just doing it, doing the work. I think it’s really easy — I just have made a lot of excuses for why I’m not working. We all do it. We do it all the time. If you actually want to write something, you have to stop with the excuses. Everybody has excuses. Everyone has a gazillion reasons why they cannot write. I think you have to do it anyway. That’s the real trick.

Zibby: It’s true. Caroline Waxler in the comments is saying, just open the document.

Lily: Yes, exactly.

Zibby: Sometimes you have to open the notebook or open the document and tackle it.

Lily: Although, I have to say, in that situation, it is good to get a little breathing room between finishing a draft and going back into it. If you have a full novel and you’re just needing to take a little break, I do think those breaks really help to have a clear eye on things. I also think that it is important to replenish when you’re feeling really depleted creatively. I have had to do that in many books. I just get to a point where I can’t go anymore because I feel so drained and depleted. Then I just read. I am good to myself for a week. Then I go back to it the next week. You don’t have to write every day.

Zibby: Lily, thank you so much. I’m such a big fan of yours. I am so happy to have gotten to talk to you about your book and your life. Thank you for sharing with me and everybody. Thank you.

Lily: Thank you. Thank you, Zibby, so much. This was really, really fun. Take really good care. Good luck with your document.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you to the Montclair Literary Festival for putting us together.

Lily: Yes, thank you. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Lily: Bye.