A conversation with Writers & Lovers author Lily King ahead of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures appearance | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A conversation with Writers & Lovers author Lily King ahead of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures appearance

click to enlarge Lily King - PHOTO: WINKY LEWIS
Photo: Winky Lewis
Lily King
There’s a line in Lily King’s latest novel, Writers & Lovers (Grove Atlantic), that sums up for many what it means to be a writer:

“I don’t write because I think I have something to say,” the protagonist, Casey Peabody, says. “I write because if I don’t, everything feels even worse.”

But King does not necessarily agree with her character. “I can go a long time without writing and not feel particularly bad about it,” says King, who will be a virtual guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures' Ten Evenings series on Mon., Nov. 16. “When I was younger, I didn’t feel as good as when I wrote. But you’re always kind of wondering, 'Why am I doing this, what is the purpose, how am I helping the world?'”

Set in 1997, Writers & Lovers is King’s first novel in six years. It received rave reviews and reinforced her standing as one of the most accomplished literary novelists working today. It also was published in March 2020, coinciding with the COVID-19 outbreak when King, who lives in Maine, was in a creative lull.

But a few days before an interview in early November with Pittsburgh City Paper, King started to write again.

“But what I don’t understand right now is how to tell this story,” says King. “How to tell the story of where we are right now because I usually write things that are set somewhat, a little bit, at least, in the past. And I think a lot of us are feeling this is our responsibility to write about this moment. This moment is big. … I know I want to write something set in this time. But I don’t know how, I’m not trained, I feel like I need to go back to school for an MFA in writing about [messed] up political moments.”

Here are more highlights from King’s interview with City Paper:

CP: Do you think writers will need time to figure out how to write about the COVID-19 pandemic?

King: I usually need 10 or 20 years to figure out things in my own life. And yet, I just feel like it’s my job to capture something about this and put it into words. Because it needs words. It’s like what Orwell was doing in the `30s and `40s. We needed him then, and we need writers right now, desperately. I don’t know if I’m one of the ones, but you feel like you have to try.

CP: Despite her problems — a staggering amount of student debt, the fresh grief of losing her mother, being stuck in a waitressing job she doesn’t like — Casey Peabody is fearless. But she shows up for work every day and tries to write. Even though Writers & Lovers was finished long before the pandemic, can it be read as a way to deal with our current situation: to put one’s head down and try to do the right thing?

King: I think that’s really true. I think I’d be having a better pandemic if I were doing that (laughs). But Casey is fearless with a ton of fear. If you would just look at her choices of action, you’d think she’s fearless. Here she is, $70,000 in debt and making these choices not for security or stability or security or anything that’s going to make her feel safe. And yet, you get inside her body and you see she’s quaking, just barely holding it together. … It shows you the pressures on a person, on our society, trying to live a creative life.”

CP: Working in restaurants, bars, and bookstores seems to be great training for writers. Have your similar work experiences been helpful to you?

King: I feel like my waitressing experiences brought me out of my shell. I feel like it has less of an effect on my writing — although maybe it has — but more on my ability to go to readings and speak in front of audiences. I was really shy and I blushed heavily. … I couldn’t say anything. If anybody looked at me, my face turned into a blazing red flame. So when I took my first waitressing job, there was an all-you-can-eat night at this sports bar. There were big tables full of guys, and I’d have to explain the special to 12 of them at a time. It just forced me to be good at public speaking. It exposes you to a ton of different types of people, from managers to customers to dishwashers to the people bringing in food in the morning.”
Ten Evenings with Lily King
7:30 p.m. Mon., Nov. 16 (Virtual event, available online for one week.) $15. $10 for students. pittsburghlectures.org

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