An Interview with Author Lily King and Editor Elisabeth Schmitz, by Heidi Sistare
April 21, 2015
Lily King’s most recent novel, Euphoria, is inspired by the life of Margaret Mead. The novel made many of the top book lists of 2014, including the New York Times Book Review, 10 Best Books of 2014, and NPR, Best Books of 2014. I interviewed Ms. King and her editor, Elisabeth Schmitz. They spoke about the writer and editor relationship, a childhood friendship, and the spark of inspiration.
E: Oh, we always laugh together over the second part of this question. Lily and I started working together in 1998 with her debut novel The Pleasing Hour, but we had been introduced by our mothers when we were 13 years old. They wanted us to be friends! And we quickly were. We pursued our separate literary passions in different states and countries, losing touch for many years until one day Lily called and asked if I had any advice about finding a literary agent. She made her choice and I quickly found myself in a five-way auction for her first book. It’s just the way I wanted it to happen for Lily!
L: It’s true. Our mothers met and made us meet each other one summer when they’d both remarried and ended up on vacation on the same island in Maine. We were friends in the summer for a few years then lost touch. I don’t remember ever talking to her about books back then, so when I’d finished my first novel and my mother told me Elisabeth worked in publishing, I was surprised. I never thought we’d have the same taste or that she’d like my work. Then when I found myself having to choose among several editors, I still didn’t think I’d end up working with someone who in my mind was still a teenager. But when I talked to her about the book, she had such clear and excellent ideas for how to make it better that it was obvious I needed to work with her.
Lily, what inspired you to write about Margaret Mead?
L: It was all because of a biography I happened to pick up in a used book store that was going out of business. I thought I should know a little more about Mead than I did. Then I got to this chapter when she is in Papua New Guinea with her husband in 1933 and falls madly in love with another anthropologist and gets caught in this intellectual and emotional triangle that was brief and intense and made them all slightly mad. I couldn’t resist learning more about her work and the region and the two men she was with. I wasn’t sure I would or could write a novel about it all, but I couldn’t stop my curiosity from pursuing it.
Elisabeth, what were your thoughts when you first read Euphoria?
E: I can hear Lily laughing over this one too. Lily rarely talks about what she’s working on next so a new manuscript from her is always a surprise. Euphoria was particularly so as it was her first historical setting, her first researched novel. I was instantly captured: “As they were leaving the Mumbanyo, someone threw something at them…He had broken her glasses by then, so she didn’t know if he was joking.” I was so excited and so deeply admiring of Lily’s ambition to write about Margaret Mead that I went to work immediately. I knew it could be life-changing for Lily. And big for us. For better or worse, my instincts are to dive straight into the editing—having already penciled up pages on a first read of something I love. I may be especially guilty of zipping straight to edits with Lily because we’ve worked together for a long time and she knows me so well as an editor/publisher that we can almost speak and write in code. So, as I go to work championing the book in house, I also go straight to work with her on the text itself.
Lily, can you describe your research process for Euphoria?
L: I did most of the research while I was writing another novel, Father of the Rain. That novel required me to take long breaks from it to sort of refuel emotionally, and I spent those breaks writing short stories and reading about those three anthropologists, their work, the country, the tribes they were living with, the history and development of Anthropology in general. But the notebook I wrote things down in wasn’t just for factual details, because those details would trigger ideas for scenes, for dialogue, for themes I was interested in capturing. I find research a wonderful time to let the imagination wander.
Elisabeth, can you describe what it was like to work with Lily on this manuscript?
E: Joyful! And similar to how we always work with each other. Long telephone talks, pencil scrawl edits in the margins and later in the lines. Always hard copy edits. We don’t work electronically until the final stages when we might zap questions and paragraphs, then even sentences back and forth to each other. And we work closely together far beyond the text edit too. The interior design, the jacket (that’s a story in itself), the copy, the galleys, the events, tour and marketing. Lily is an integral player in our publishing process. She has her own decades long relationships at Grove Atlantic with the publicity, art, production and marketing departments and with Morgan, our publisher. Once the book is out in the world, Lily and I may hit the road together for a couple of joint events. She drives.
Lily, how would you describe the editor’s role?
L: I’m happiest when it’s finally at that stage, when all those years alone in a room are over for a while and I have a teammate, someone who, like me, wants this book to be as good as it can be. When I hand in a book to Elisabeth, I’m out of ideas of how to make it better, I’ve gone over it so many times and fixed everything I thought wasn’t working. And when she gets it she is fresh and full of energy for it. I get to replenish my energies while she’s reading it, then we dive in. We know each other’s styles by now. She knows I will withhold too much; I know she will ask me to draw out the climactic scenes. “Too fast!” it will say in the margin. She has such a keen eye, both for the big picture and the small detail. We have a long conversation about the book from every angle over the course of many months, and it is one of the great pleasures of my life. But Elisabeth’s work is hardly done once the edits are over. She has to be an integral part of the packaging and promoting of the book to the media and booksellers. A writer is blessed a hundred times over if she has a passionate and indefatigable editor and partner like Elisabeth.
Elisabeth, do you have anything to add about the author and editor relationship?
E: The answer to that question could fill a book! Mine with Lily has been formed over four books and seventeen years at Grove Atlantic. It’s been one of the great partnerships of my life and career.
Lily, what are you working on now?
L: I am working on a novel that seems as impossible as Euphoria seemed to me when I started it. I can’t tell you what it’s about because I told one person and she said “How are you going to write that? You haven’t experienced that.” But this last novel has given me confidence to try things I wouldn’t have dared to do before. It might not work, but I’m excited to try.
Author photo by Winky Lewis.
Lily King is the author of four novels, most recently the New York Times Bestseller, Euphoria, which was named one of the New York Times’ Ten Best Books of 2014, won the New England Book Award, the Kirkus Prize, and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Rights have been sold in 11 countries.
Elisabeth Schmitz is Vice President and Editorial Director of Grove/Atlantic. Since joining the company in 1995, she has edited over 150 books for Grove, includingCold Mountain by Charles Frazier, Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, War Dances by Sherman Alexie, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson, An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine and H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald. She was a Jerusalem Book Fair Fellow in 1999, a VIP at theSydney Writer’s Festival in 2006 and a VP at the Toronto Harbourfront Literary Festival in 2011. She is an annual speaker at the Sewanee Writers Program in Tennessee.
Heidi Sistare writes from her home in Portland, Maine, where she attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. You can view her published work on her website: www.heidisistare.com.