Did you know that Houghton Library is also the publisher of Harvard Review, a major American literary journal? In this episode of Houghton75, editor Christina Thompson talks to two contributors to the most recent issue: renowned essayist Phillip Lopate and award-winning novelist Lily King. The conversation, part of the Houghton 75th celebrations, marks the publication of Harvard Review’s 50th issue and the inauguration of our new Harvard Review Salon Series. It was held May 11, 2017, in the Edison and Newman Room at Houghton Library.
[Title sequence background music: Fireworks, Igor Stravinsky, performed by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra]
Alex Csiszar: Houghton is just this amazing place.
Deidre Lynch: It’s fascinating.
Stephen Greenblatt: It’s yours for the asking, and that is incredible!
Stephanie Sandler: Plus it’s cool.
Christina Thompson (CT): Welcome to Houghton75. I’m Christina Thompson, the editor of Harvard Review.
CT: This May, in celebration of Harvard Review’s fiftieth issue, we invited two of our contributors, the well-known essayist Phillip Lopate and the award-winning novelist Lily King, to talk with us about their work. Held in Houghton Library’s beautiful Edison and Newman Room, this was the inaugural event in a new salon series sponsored by Houghton Library and Harvard Review. I began the conversation by talking about some of our aspirations here at the Review.
[switch to pre-recorded event at Houghton Library, 11 May 2017]
CT: We have this idea periodically at Harvard Review, which is I have this idea periodically, so we’re going to get – we’re going to do this feature called “Getting Poets to Talk About Their Poetry” in which they will explain to us what it is they think they’re doing.
CT: The idea is not that this will enable us to understand the work, although it might, but it’s really so that we can peer inside the writer’s head, which is something that we love to do. Those of us who read a lot and love writing, we like to peer inside the writer’s brain and what we want to do tonight is we want you to tell us what you think you’re doing. That’s what I’m hoping for.
Now, I thought we should start with your most recent books for this reason: they are both departures from what you have done before. And as I thought about it, I realized that in Phillip’s case A Mother’s Tale is a departure not in subject matter, but in form. And in Lily’s case, Euphoria is a departure, not in form, but in subject matter. So, with that elegant (laughs) structure, I think we should start by having each of you tell us about this most recent book. And, I think, Phillip, you can start.
Phillip Lopate (PL): Well, I’ve written a lot of personal essays, and I’ve even written about my mother in the past. The first time I wrote about my mother was in a piece called “Willy,” and she said – she was very touched by it and she said “now I realize that you love me.”
[audience “aw’s” in response]
PL: I wouldn’t say “aw” because to me it was like, “what? You didn’t know I love you?”
PL: Typical of my mother to doubt it. And then wrote about her again and she said “no, you can’t write about me anymore.” She said, “it’s all lies.” And I said, “what do you mean, it’s lies? Tell me what I got wrong.” And she says, “well, it happened, but why must you write about that period all the time?” Meaning my childhood.
PL: “I’m not like that anymore! I’m so much wiser now!” You know. So then I said, “I’m not going to promise anything like that. I’m going to continue to write about you because you spring alive on the page when I write about you, so, tough!” So she said, “alright, I’ll go to your book party, but I’ll tell everybody you’re my nephew, not my son.”
PL: So this idea lodged in my head, and lodges in many memoirs, autobiographical writings – that they’re not exactly pleasing the person they’re writing about and the person they’re writing about may see himself or herself in a very different light. So about 30 years ago, I actually tape recorded my mother. I said, “okay, I’m going to give her the chance to tell her story.” She wanted to correct these misapprehensions that I had of her, which basically came down to the fact that I judged her in a different way than she judged herself. So we met and she talked, and she was a great talker and a great storyteller. And basically, I taped over 20 hours of her telling her life story over maybe five different sessions. So, I got down the story of her life and then I put it in a shoebox, all of the cassettes, and that shoebox sat in my closet for 30 years. And I’m often asked now why I didn’t listen to them, and I really don’t have a good answer. I just put them away and was kind of spooked by them you could say.
She died around the year 2000, so she died around 17 years ago. Then about a year and a half ago, maybe two years ago, I said “well, time to take them out and listen to them.” Probably I felt some sense of inner tranquility that I could now deal with it, because my mother was a very overwhelming person and so I had felt shy of listening to them for so long. But then I said, “okay, well let’s listen to them.” And I started listening to them and I thought, “this is good material, you know?” That has nothing to do with anything particularly personal, that’s just the fact that I’d written about 15 books and I felt I knew what good material was and that this was too good to pass up. So I started transcribing them. In any case, I was fascinated by the flavor of her language, and 30-year-old me was trying to get her to understand some things that I’d felt she didn’t because she was an amazing grudge keeper. She could keep grudges forever, you know? And so I was trying to explain, maybe this person had another point of view, maybe she could let it go, and underneath it all I was hoping that she would forgive me because the main complaint seemed to be that I was too clinical – I didn’t love her enough, I didn’t love her the way she wanted to be loved as a mother. And I thought I loved her fine, but she had a different view. So in part I was trying to nudge her, in the days when I was tape recording her, toward a sort of more compassionate way of seeing things.
Lily King (LK): Like you were going to change her after all those years? (laughs)
PL: With lots of luck, you know?
So we fought to a standstill. And in the book there’s actually a half hour argument in which I tried to convince her that I loved her using logic. You know, Cartesian logic – well if x then y, you know? (laughs) So, it ended up a kind of standstill, but I really felt that that was much truer to life than the kind of On Golden Pond redemptive moment where the child and the parent fall into each other’s arms and say “now I understand” and everything like that. To me, it was filled with the nitty-gritty of family life and how much continues to be irreconcilable between the people who ostensibly love each other.
CT: Alright, we’re going to come back to you and your mother (laughs).
PL: Oh, good. She’d be pleased, anyway.
PL: She liked attention.
CT: Definitely doesn’t seem like a subject that you’re going to ever let go of. Although, who would?
PL: I don’t think we do let go of our parents, really.
CT: No, I’m with you on that one.
Okay, Lily. So one of the things that, in thinking about how it’s a departure for you from other work, it seemed to be the thing that many people noticed about Euphoria. The first thing everybody said was “oh look! It’s a historical novel.”
CT: I know it’s not the terminology that you would use, and so maybe you could explain that.
LK: Well, the whole thing was a huge accident. I didn’t mean to write that. A friend of mine came over to my house and took me to a bookstore, this is back in 2005, and she loved this bookstore. We’d just moved to Maine, she was a new friend, this bookstore was going out of business, and I felt like I should buy something, you know, because she’d taken me there. I couldn’t find anything, and finally I saw this old biography from the ‘80s of Margaret Mead and I picked it up thinking I would never read it. And I did end up reading it, and I got to this part fairly early on in the book where she was 31, and she was already on her second husband, and they were in Papua New Guinea doing field work. And they were trying to avoid this other anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, and then they decided to leave because they wanted to be where he was but he kept being there, and then finally they just decided “let’s go meet him and then we’ll go to Australia.” And Mead said in her memoir that her husband got drunk very quickly. Like, they met, he seemed to get very drunk and either asleep or just sort of incoherent, and she ended up talking to Gregory Bateson for 36 hours straight.
PL: And many years after that.
LK: Yeah, exactly. And he begged them to stay. So anyway, this chapter in this biography is about 12 pages. And when I got to that part where I realized they were there in Papua New Guinea for 5 months in this very intense love triangle and her second husband, Reo Fortune, had a gun, a pistol, and she was convinced – she said in a letter later to her ex-lover, mentor, and dear friend Ruth Benedict that she was convinced that he was going to shoot her, shoot Gregory, and then shoot himself. And there was just a lot, there was kind of a threat of violence the whole time, and yet they were also having these very intense conversations about their work, and about anthropology, and about human nature, and about gender, race, class, everything that we’re still talking about today. Anthropology was just at the beginning of its growth really, at the beginning stages, and they were really on the cusp of changing it, and these conversations were happening. And I just read this and was like (gasp!). And then she was falling madly in love with him, and he was falling madly in love with her, and Reo was getting jealous. And it just seemed, they were, you know – She just had these suppurating sores all over her body, she had so many things wrong with her, she had broken her ankle, and he would never admit that she had broken her ankle, and she was limping around for like a year and a half just in a lot of pain as well.
CT: And you were deeply attracted to this story?
LK: (laughs) This is exactly the kind of story I like! Except that it wasn’t a family story. You know, I was really a family writer, and whenever I wrote a character they always, you know, a mother, a father, a brother, a sister always walked in the room. I could never separate, just have a character without the rest of their family. So that was the first thing that was like, “no, I’m not touching this. This is a love triangle about adults,” you know? (laughs) And then, you know, it takes place in Papua New Guinea in 1931, and these people don’t have running water. I don’t do this kind of thing. I didn’t know anything about trying to do that kind of research, and I was like, “that is a great story and someone should write it…”
CT: …but not me!
LK: (laughs) But then what happened was, I was writing Father of the Rain and that was a really intensely emotional book to write, and I kept on having to take these long breaks. And when I took the breaks, I just kept on going back to the Margaret Mead story. And I had to read the books she wrote about that time and read her memoir, read the biography of Gregory Bateson, which was just fascinating. And then I started taking notes, and then I started imagining scenes, but the whole time I was telling myself, “I am not writing this novel. I do not write historical fiction. I don’t read historical fiction. I don’t like historical fiction.” You know…But then I finished Father of the Rain and didn’t have anything better to do, so I wrote the story.
LK: And I just kept on thinking, you know, that I would never show it to anybody. I just had to write it, you know? That was my thought about that novel. The whole time I was writing it I thought I was failing, you know? It wasn’t – I had a vision, and I had the reality, you know, a sort of T.S. Eliot thing, and I couldn’t – I just couldn’t connect them for a long time.
CT: So, the thing that – one of the things that interests me a lot is how you pull different things together to make a book. So you – I think of it as, like, drawing from the different wells. There’s the well of memory, and there’s research, and then there’s the imagination. And they’re all kind of different, and they come together in different ways in different projects. So that’s sort of what I want to think about just for the moment.
I was reading your To Show and to Tell. This is a craft book. It’s a book about how to write non-fiction, and I really recommend this for anybody who is interested in writing in any way, shape, form, whatever, because it’s just a – I think what I like about it is that when you hear the voice of someone who has been writing for many, many, many, many years, the things they say about writing just sound really, you know, they’re wise. They come from a place of great knowledge. And that’s the way I felt about reading that and I enjoyed it a lot.
PL: Thank you.
CT: There’s a place, I think it might be in that book, where you talk about the difference between fiction and non-fiction, and one of the things that you say about fiction that’s so interesting is that it creates in the reader a kind of hypnotic state.
CT: That it’s a sort of trance state that you get into, and that you lose track of the fact that you’re reading.
CT: And that, you know, in non-fiction there’s this idea of following the mind at work, which is a more self-aware, self-conscious or something, or sort of active or something, or – I don’t even know what I mean.
PL: It’s hard to forget that somebody is talking to you. You don’t go into a dream state…
CT. Right, right.
PL: …usually when you’re reading most essayists, you know?
CT: Right, right.
PL:And I found myself, having written both, and I don’t know how you feel about this, Lily, but you know, I’ve written a few novels and novellas, and when I write fiction I feel like I’m in a kind of feverish state, you know?
LK: Mhmm, mhmm.
PL: And sometimes it lasts for years, you know? And it’s very hard on the people around me, on my wife and daughter, you know, because, like, “earth to Phillip,” you know? I’m in this state, I’m in an alternate state at the same time as I’m going through my daily life. And when I write essays, I simply feel calmer.
PL: I don’t feel as feverish. And, coward that I am, I’ve come to prefer that state.
LK: I would like that. I need to take some advice from you.
CT: This would be interesting to hear from you on this, because I find your books very immersive, you know? I find them very – they do give me – I don’t – I’m a non-fiction writer, too, and I sort of enjoy the same kind of analytic, self-conscious sort of state of reading, and so I don’t read as much fiction. But when I read your fiction, I kind of disappear into it. I lose track. And that, you know, I think is really – what’s it like to write it? Do you lose track? No? It’s like hard work?
LK: This is maybe a bad time to ask me. I’ve been working on the same book for a couple of years, and it’s been really hard going, you know, where I feel like that I can’t point to very may days where I feel like I lost myself, you know? But just in the past week, I’m going to totally destroy it now, but just in the past week, knock on wood, I’ve kind of gotten somewhere with the book finally where it is – time passes in a different way and I feel, well – Okay, the full truth is that my parents both died last year. And it did a number on my imagination. It seemed to, like…
PL: It’s tough.
LK: …I don’t know, I couldn’t access it! I did a lot of writing in my journal. The thing was, I was in a novel. I had done all the research for another historical novel and I’d started in on it. I had, like, pages and pages of, sort of, ideas and everything. I had started in, and she, my mother, died very, very suddenly. Out of the blue. And I just, I couldn’t go near it. I couldn’t go near it. I’ve only looked at it just once and then put it away. And I don’t know why! It didn’t have anything to do with her or anything, but when – after I started – I just wrote in my journal. It’s all I did during my writing time. And then, finally, I started another novel and it, it’s sort of, I’m trying to remember a lot for this novel. It’s fairly autobiographical. And I wasn’t able to get to that…
PL: Present. Moving into the present.
LK: …that wonderful state where you combine memory and imagination in this beautiful way that seems to just expand everything and it feels so right. And it doesn’t – you don’t even know what you’re remembering and what you’re sort of imagining slash dreaming. And that has happened to me a lot in certain things that I’ve written, and it wouldn’t happen. I couldn’t get off the ground. I couldn’t – I could just…
PL: But don’t you think sometimes something so big happens like the death of parents that, you know, that just takes center stage? That’s what’s happening?
CT: It’s grief.
PL: And, you know, I keep having this problem with Trump where, you know,
LK: It’s the same thing!
CT: I knew going to come up.! It was only just a matter of time.
LK: It’s true!
PL: I try not to think about it.
LK: No, it’s very true.
PL: So, sometimes something big happens and then, you know, you either have to give it a to-do or else you have to put yourself on a diet, like, I’ll only think about this one hour a day or something.
LK: Yeah, yeah. I didn’t really feel that, after a certain point, that thoughts were coming in and intervening. It just – it felt like a quality, a part of my personality was gone. I couldn’t access it, and it was very scary. And it, you , again, it kind of feels like it’s come back a little bit and I can now play in a way that I haven’t been able to play in my mind for a long time. And it’s funny that you mentioned the Trump thing, because it’s strange. I feel like I’m almost insulting my parents in some way, but I feel like I’ve had three deaths! A lot of the feelings that I have about Trump, and the way I wake up and it’s already in my head and I’m already, you know, wrestling with it, it feels very much like I felt when they first died.
PL: No, I do feel that – one thing that I like about writing essays and non-fiction is that, you know, I can approach them and say, “what do I think about this?” instead of being, you know, laid low by some powerful feeling, you know?
PL: I know that feelings have to come into it, you know?
PL: But I can still start at a place that’s a little more reflective, and that feels like, “okay, let me just work out these thoughts on the page.”
LK: That’s interesting.
CT: One of the things that I wanted to ask you about, and I’m sure other people ask you all the time, is that you have these, as you said, you have these kind of hothouse family scenes, stories, these early novels. The earlier novels are about – one’s about an American girl who is sort of embedded in a French family as an au pair, and one is about a mother and son, and one is about a sort of father and daughter and the rest of this rather dysfunctional family (laughs).
LK: Were you about to say crazy? (laughs)
CT: Yeah, I started to, but I kind of, (laughs), I shut that off. But, you know, there must be – because the portraits are so vivid, it’s almost impossible not to ask oneself as one is reading them, “Is this – how close is this to the author’s life?” (laughs) “Was her father like that?” I mean, people shouldn’t do it. They shouldn’t think that way, but I think it’s sort of inevitable. Do you just fend that off? Or do you – what do you do?
LK: Yeah, you know, it’s a funny thing because I hate it when people do that…
CT: I know. I’m sorry.
LK: …and yet, I’m the first to do it when I’m reading someone else’s book. I mean, it’s running through my head the entire time. But I do remember when I wrote The Pleasing Hour, the first novel, it is about a young American and very fictional. Very made up. I mean, I can pick a few, a handful, I mean, I did live in Paris, but with an entirely different family and entirely different circumstances, you know? I never gave a baby to my sister.
CT: (laughs) Right.
LK: For example. And yet I remember, it was the early days of Amazon and kind of the early days of the Internet, it was 1999, and I remember one of the first reviews it got was from a German in Germany saying, “this is so clearly thinly disguised autobiography.”
LK: And I just – the authority with which this person, you know, said these lies, you know? I was taken aback that people could do that, and I tried to take it as a compliment but no, it really, really irritates me. Of course, I feel like it’s none of their business.
PL: But in a way everything does come from one’s self. I mean, you know, you can’t get around it. Even if you’re writing science fiction, you’re starting from something you know and you’re bridging to something that is made up. But there has to be – the root has to be started in you.
LK: Yes. Yeah, that is true, and I think, you know, human experience is limited.
LK: And you substitute.
LK: Like with Euphoria, it was very easy to substitute a lot of things in that book for things that were familiar. Even though they were completely unfamiliar in that book, you know, you just bring it to your…
LK: …to what you know.
[switch to podcast studio]
[Closing music: Fireworks, Igor Stravinsky, performed by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra]
CT: We’d like to thank Phillip Lopate and Lily King for joining us here at Harvard for the first Harvard Review Salon Series event. This series, featuring poets, essayists, and short story writers in conversation with the editor of Harvard Review, will be held annually at Houghton Library in the spring semester. We hope you’ll join us here next year. For more information about Harvard Review, visit us at harvardreview.org.