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Lily King Agrees With Doctorow: Writing Is Like Driving at Night in Fog

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Lily King Agrees With Doctorow:
Writing Is Like Driving at Night in Fog An exclusive Authorlink interview
with Lily King
author of Father of the Rain

By Ellen Birkett Morris
January 2011

Father of the Rain cover
Father of the Rain
by Lily King

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at Amazon.com

In her third novel, Father of the Rain, author Lily King tells the story of the intense and complicated relationship between Daley Armory and her father Gardiner, an alcoholic.

This realistic, well drawnportrait of how families interact harkens back to one of King’s early inspirations.

“I realized that I wanted to write novels when I was in the fifth grade . . .”
—
KING

“I realized that I wanted to write novels when I was in the fifth grade reading Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. The family was described so carefully and interestingly,” said King.

King received her B.A. in English Literature from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her M.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. She has taught English and Creative Writing at universities and high schools in the U.S. and abroad.

The book explores how family dysfunction can come to seem normal, the strong pull of family loyalties and the limits of what we can do to heal those we love.

King has seen her work as a novelist grow from her first effort, The Pleasing Hour, which she said read like a collection of linked short stories with each chapter having its own narrative arc.

She finished her second novel, The English Teacher, when her children were four and six.

“It was a hard fought book because I was trying to find a balance between writing and mothering. It was also when I became more aware of my development as a novelist because the story had a longer arc,” said King.

“. . . a novel is really just a long short story with something wrong with it.”
—KING

 

 

“There is a great quote, though I don't know who was the first to say it, that a novel is really just a long short story with something wrong with it. Short stories that work are like little jewels, almost perfect. Novels are rarely perfect and often ungainly. Novels focus more on plot and less on every sentence being perfect. I like tightly constructed novels,” she noted.

In Father of the Rain, King set out to explore how a family evolves over time while dealing with alcohol addiction. It began with her visualizing a scene of underprivileged kids swimming in a rich family’s pool. The pool belonged to Daley’s family and the children were invited there by her mother as part of her work in the community. Daley knows her mother is going to leave her father in a matter of days and thus begins her delicate dance of family loyalty.

The story begins in the 1970 and deals with issues of gender equality, racism and class that were endemic to that time. “The idea that becomes a novel has to be like a magnet, where one idea attracts another idea. It has to have some power,” said King.

Father of the Rain, looks in on Daley’s life in three sections: when she is eleven; when she is 29 and about to move to California with her boyfriend for her first teaching job; and as a married mother of two. In each section, the daughter struggles to help her father while not losing herself in the process.

“Doing the story in sections felt like a huge risk but those were the times I wanted to write about,” said King.

The book came in “fits and starts” and King would take months off and work on short stories until she felt ready to return to the story. She completed the book in four and a half years.

“With every book, around two-thirds of the way through the first draft, absolute panic sets in.”
—KING

 

 

“With every book, around two-thirds of the way through the first draft, absolute panic sets in. I think I’m not going to make it. It really feels like I am driving in the dark in the middle of Nebraska in a car with no headlights,” said King.

The car is a reference to one of her favorite lines, the E.L. Doctorow statement “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

“You have to overcome the voices in your head that say the story won’t work. Once you have a first draft this is so much easier,” said King.

King keeps a regular schedule, writing while her children are in school from 8:00 a.m. until 3 p.m. She writes her first drafts by hand in notebooks from Staples. She usually types her work into the computer after each chapter, but with Father of the Rain she just kept writing until she had around 200 pages.

“There isn’t too much editing when I am writing in the notebook. I really try to keep moving,’ said King.

“Separate the editor and the creator in your head. The editor is useful when you have something on the page and useless before then. Don’t get too caught up in getting every word perfect,” advised King.

She rewrites as she is typing the manuscript into the computer and then prints out a draft and makes corrections, a process that she repeats three or four times. Then King shares the manuscript with her husband, her writer’s group and finally her agent, Wendy Weil.

Weil was one of three agents to respond when King sent her first novel out cold to fifteen different agents.

King worked with Atlantic Monthly Press editor Elisabeth Schmitz to shape the final draft of Father of the Rain. “We haggled over titles I had for each section and she won. We haggled over descriptions and humorous moments in the book,” said King.

When she visits creative writing classes to discuss her work she is asked most often about writer’s block.

“That is all about fear of not being able to get words on the page. The way to get over it is to sit it out.”
—KING

 

 

“That is all about fear of not being able to get words on the page. The way to get over it is to sit it out. People who really need to write will find their way,” said King.

With her third novel on the bookshelves, King is busy doing research for her fourth, which will involve a love triangle.

About Lily King

King’s first novel, The Pleasing Hour (1999) won the Barnes and Noble Discover Award and was a New York Times Notable Book and an alternate for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her second, The English Teacher, was a Publishers Weekly Top Ten Book of the Year, a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year, and the winner of the Maine Fiction Award. Father of the Rain, her third novel, was published in July 2010 and recently won the New England Book Award. She is the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship and a Whiting Award. Her short fiction has appeared in literary magazines including Ploughshares and Glimmer Train, as well as in several anthologies.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.