By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Senior Contributor
Casey Peabody is a writer who is drowning under student loan debt and living in a potting shed converted into living space, even though it still smells as fecund and loamy as a gardening shed would, and she cooks in a toaster oven because there isn’t a proper kitchen. She is also trying to get over her painful breakup with a poet who had an overly inflated estimation of himself.
In this way, Lily King’s novel, ‘Writers & Lovers’ (Grove Press, 2020) is a tale about writing and writers, but don’t let that scare you off. This isn’t a self-involved ego piece where the hero toils in her parlor. Much of this book takes place at the restaurant where Casey waitresses and it is a breath of fresh air to have a book that centers so much around work and everyday financial worries.
King told the Current that she learned to love writing about work when she was writing ‘Euphoria,’ her 2014 tour-de-force about anthropologist Margaret Mead which won the Kirkus Award, the New England Book Award, and the Maine Fiction Award and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Award.
Unlike Mead, Casey is not a famous anthropologist. She continues to shepherd all of her mental and emotional energy to focus on her first novel, when nearly all of her friends from her MFA program have walked away from their writing endeavors.
“I really wanted to explore what it felt like to be a woman in the 90’s, holding onto this ambition and feeling like there might not be a place for it — and that it came more easily to men,” King said of her protagonist.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of room for women to have that kind of an ambition. There wasn’t a lot of room in society to give her permission to pursue this. There’s a lot of push back. I wanted to capture that and how hard it is to hold onto a dream, when no one else is really rooting for you, everyone else is a little bit cynical about what you’re trying to do. It’s really hard not to slip into cynicism and doubt and fear.”
Literary fiction is rife with male writers writing about male heroes who are damaged and damaging. Their lives are often a mess because of the decisions they’ve made and because of their own bad behavior.
“And you root for him anyway,” King said. That common literary trope is turned on its head by King’s beating heart — Casey is quite serious, grinding through waitressing double shifts to stay one step ahead of the loan interest accrual machine and ignoring her physical health because she doesn’t have health insurance. She also exercises tremendous control and restraint in order to achieve her goals. King writes:
“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.”
The aforementioned death of Casey’s mother allows King to explore the grief specific to losing one’s mother, which she does with exquisite depth and compassion, capturing something essential about how hard it can be to keep your head above those waters. The grief is there, all the time, like a tide: sometimes she’s just bobbing and rocking in gentle swells and other times it knocks her sideways.
“I wanted to capture those waves. Grief is so different from depression or anxiety or anything like that,” she said. While the book is fiction, this feeling was King’s way of putting on the page what it felt like after her own mother died, also suddenly.
“You can feel fine and then you can just be thunderstruck. And then you’re fine again. And then you’re thunderstruck. There are these huge, huge waves and all you can hope for is that the waves start spacing out further and further away after a while.”
With this book, Lily King is doing twenty things at once and making it all seem effortless. But at the heart, it is a love letter to those who continue to create in the face of difficulties and the gritty pains unique to working towards a goal when the world isn’t loving you back. If nothing succeeds like success, she examines the fortitude and determination it takes to break through that wall.
“It’s hard for people to believe in any one unless they have already succeeded,” she said.
Lily King’s virtual event with Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures will be held on Monday, November 16th.