“Euphoria,” Lily King’s fourth novel, is a departure for the author — up to that point in her writing career, she had written domestic novels, set in the Western world, about families.
But after reading a short chapter in a biography of anthropologist Margaret Mead, set in the jungle along the Sepik River in what is now Papua New Guinea, King was hooked. She began researching the story, and then set out to write her own novel. It’s based on a short period of Mead’s life when she was working in the field with her second husband, and she met and fell in love with the man who would become her third husband.
“They were caught in a really intense love triangle that had malarial fevers, intellectual breakthroughs, threats of violence, and moments of great joy and moments of great despair,” said King, who spoke at the Feb. 13 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society.
King’s novel, published in 2014, tells the story of Nell Stone, loosely based on Mead, during a few months in the 1930s when she and the other two main characters, her husband and an anthropologist she falls in love with named Andrew Bankson, lived and worked together in what was then called the Territory of New Guinea.
The book follows the three scientists as they grapple with their job of chronicling and understanding the lives of tribal peoples along the river, and their own personal needs and desires. The story is rich with detail about the living conditions of the anthropologists and their subjects, including clothing, rituals, diet and language.
“Euphoria” has received a number of accolades, including the designation as one of the 10 best books of 2014 by The New York Times.
King met with a reporter and a group of creative writing students from Cathedral Catholic High School before her talk, discussing her writing process and inspirations.
While she invented the characters’ dialogue and much of the plot, she drew from extensive research, including Mead’s own writings, to set the scenes in the book.
She said she did not feel tethered to historical accuracy, even though her characters were based on real people.
“I gave myself free rein pretty early on,” she said.
Among her challenges was capturing the motivations that brought each of the three anthropologists to the jungles of the South Pacific, and their private passions. In one segment, Bankson, an Englishman, asks Nell Stone about her favorite part of anthropological field work.
“It’s that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It’s a delusion — you’ve only been there eight weeks — and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria,” Nell Stone said.
“Bloody hell,” (Bankson) laughed.
“You don’t get that?”
“Christ, no. A good day for me is when no little boy steals my underwear, pokes it through with sticks, and brings it back stuffed with rats.”
King said she prefers to write her first draft by hand in a spiral-bound notebook, then type chunks of the book into her computer. She brought her battered notebook with her to show the writing students.
In order to get to know her characters as well as possible, she said, she writes a bio of each one that can run as long as 20 single-spaced pages. All that information doesn’t end up in the book, but it helps her to know their voice and history, she said.
King lives in Maine with her husband, novelist and painter Tyler Clements, and the couple’s two daughters, ages 13 and 15.
She writes Monday through Friday, while her children are in school, and takes weekends off. Sometimes it can be difficult to wrest herself away from her work when it’s time to pick up the kids from school, she said.
“It is really hard at 2:30 or quarter to three, to transition to the real world,” she said.
“Euphoria” is available on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and most book stores.
For more information, visit www.lilykingbooks.com.