Euphoria, the engrossing fourth book from King, is based on a chance encounter between the anthropologists Margaret Mead, Ron Fortune, and Gregory Bateson in 1930s Papua New Guinea.
You have stated that the book was inspired by a chapter in Jane Howard’s 1984 biography of Margaret Mead. How did you come across that book?
When I moved to Maine, one of my first friends was a woman named Cornelia who brought me to Casco Bay Books. It was closing so there was hardly anything left. The only thing I found was a biography of Margaret Mead. I started reading it and got to this part when Mead was 31. She was with her second husband [Reo Fortune], an anthropologist from New Zealand, and they were doing fieldwork in the Territory of New Guinea. Then she met Gregory Bateson and there was this immediate intellectual, emotional, and physical attraction. The chapter in [Howard’s] book is probably only 11 or 12 pages long, but I just stopped and thought, “This would make such a great novel!”
How did you decide which facts to keep and which to embellish?
When I started the novel, I thought that I was going to write the Margaret Mead story. But then my fiction writer self took over very quickly. Once I started writing the characters’ dialogue, they became different people. I had to make a choice between sticking to facts or writing what I thought would make a better novel. I was terrified the whole time because I’m used to writing characters who have sisters and fathers—people who live in houses with real walls. This was a departure in terms of the period, the geography, the science, the historical nature of it. But I kept telling myself, “If I can finish this, I can write anything.”
Were there other changes?
I originally tried to write the book from the perspective of Nell [the character based on Mead]. First it was going to be in third person. Then it was going to be first person. Then I was going to write it from all three points of view within a chapter. Then I wrote it with one perspective for each chapter. Finally I came to terms with the fact that it was Bankson’s [Bateson’s] story, and I wanted to tell it from his perspective.
Is there a message that can be drawn from Euphoria?
When [Mead et al.] arrived in the Territory of New Guinea, mining was already underway, plantations were underway; it was the beginning of the real rape of the land across the globe. I am definitely drawing a parallel between the way industry came in and the way the anthropologists came in and claimed their territories. They thought of those tribes as “my tribe, my people, my study.” They behaved like colonists. I am interested in what happens when you think of people like that—the consequences of that kind of possession.
I read that you wrote the first draft of the novel in pencil—is that true?
Yes! It’s the way I’ve been writing fiction since I was in ninth grade. Then I go and type up the whole thing, literally. It’s not a revision process; I have to choose the words, one by one, again. It’s a really important step for me.