While all Lily King’s novels have won prizes and attention, her fourth novel, Euphoria (2014), a historical about anthropologist Margaret Mead, was her breakout (although she hit my radar with 2010’s Father of the Rain). Now she’s back with a new stunner: Writers & Lovers, Grove’s lead spring title, publishing March 3.
Writers & Lovers centers on a young woman struggling to have a creative life. Casey Peabody is 31, in the sixth year of writing her novel, waitressing, living in a rented room, ignoring her health and debts, and, most sadly, mourning her mother’s sudden death. And there’s the love triangle: Casey’s conflicted involvement with two completely different men.
King says Writers & Lovers was her third attempt at a novel after Euphoria. “But when my mother died unexpectedly, I was unable to write for months except for journaling. Then this book came as though it were there all along. I had always wanted to write about trying to write—to write what it felt like. I wanted to write about my late 20s and early 30s. That period of my life was so intense. I was looking at a dead end, hanging on to a dream and wondering how to connect that dream to the other things I wanted. There are times in your life that are indelible, and this was a time that I could relive.”
Expanding on this idea, King refers to Faulkner, who said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The first paragraph of Writers & Lovers was a road map for the book, King says. She started with a situation and had to follow it with no clear idea of how it would end.
After talking with King, I went back to the book and saw that I had highlighted that first paragraph: “I have a pact with myself not to think about money in the morning. I’m like a teenager trying not to think about sex. But I’m also trying not to think about sex. Or Luke. Or death. Which means not thinking about my mother, who died on vacation last winter. There are so many things I can’t think about in order to write in the morning.”
King tells me that she only sends off complete manuscripts (after many drafts, she adds). Her agent, Julie Barer of the Book Group, says, “When I finished reading Writers & Lovers, I was glad I hadn’t seen it before. I was so overcome with emotion and awe. Lily writes about being a woman—the feelings of wanting, of rejection. Can you dare to dream? The surprise of it was wonderful.”
King feels most anxious when she sends in the manuscript. “I’m not very confident at this point—it’s scary” she says. “So when Julie called me up after reading it and was crying, it was one of the best moments of my life.”
King’s first agent, Wendy Weil, died in 2012 after the publication of her third book, Father of the Rain. Afterward, King says, she courted Barer: “She’d never heard of me. She had no idea who I was after three books. I told her my idea for Euphoria thinking she must be saying to herself, ‘Oh, no, Margaret Mead? Anthropologists?’ But I went to her office for a 10-minute meeting and stayed for hours.”
Barer laughs when I recount this story. “She said that? Of course I knew who she was. I loved all her books and said I would represent her without seeing a word. I didn’t care what she was writing. My mother used to say, ‘She’d look good in a paper bag.’ Well, Lily could write the copy on the back of a cereal box and it would be great. I took her on in October of 2012. She delivered Euphoria in April 2013. I knew that Lily could write about Margaret Mead, but the book wouldn’t be about Margaret Mead. Lily is fascinated by love, by that space within us that craves to be connected. ” For Barer, Euphoria and Writers & Lovers are both about women trying to carve out a path, making choices and sacrifices to reach a goal.
At Grove, Elisabeth Schmitz has been King’s editor for 20 years, starting with her debut, The Pleasing Hour, which she won at auction and published in 1999. King spoke to the final editors back then and settled on Grove. “Elisabeth had such good ideas— I’ve been with them ever since,” she says.
“Every book Lily writes has its own world,” Schmitz says. “In Writers & Lovers, she’s looking at that leap from youth to adulthood when you’re at the edge of a cliff. The book is about awakening, sex, professional choices and wanting everything at once: a creative life, health, love.”
Schmitz saw the manuscript for Writers & Lovers in November 2018. She and King worked on it, but with no major changes; it was finished in June 2019.
Early readers have been enthusiastic. King has been on three prepub tours, attended regional shows, and will do a 15-city tour when the book is out.
This is one of Grove’s biggest deals, according to Schmitz—in the high six figures. The publisher has world rights for Writers & Lovers and for King’s other books, and foreign rights have sold in Canada, England, and Germany. There was also a substantial audio deal.
At the end of our interview, King wants to emphasize that a big impetus in writing this book was to encourage young women writers. “There are so many books about men becoming writers, I wanted to write one about women becoming writers. I needed this when I was starting—the encouragement to stay with the dream.”