Despair and Ecstasy: Lily King on Euphoria

A chance discovery in a used bookstore led the novelist Lily King to a biography of Margaret Mead, the anthropologist whose controversial 1928 work Coming of Age in Samoa would help prepare the way for the sexual revolution decades later.  In its pages, she says, she found the outlines of a love triangle in the jungles of New Guinea, one that drew Mead and two fellow anthropologists into a dynamic so compelling that, through the composition of her own award-winning novel Father of the Rain, it tugged at King’s imagination as if begging to be transmuted into fiction.

Now that episode of literary obsession has yielded Euphoria, a re-imagining of the weeks spent by Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson circling one another in an ever-tighter orbit, even as they lived among and studied the tribespeople of an isolated tropical jungle.  It’s an appropriately feverish story in which three scientists quickly discover that their ability to apply an intellectual framework to their experience is soon overwhelmed by the intensity and unpredictability of their own needs.  And despite their reliance on mastery of the languages of their subjects, as one writes, “words aren’t always the most reliable thing.”

Lily King spoke with me just before the publication of Euphoria about the genesis of the novel, and how its gripping inventions relate to the lives of the woman and men who inspired the book.  The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.  – Bill Tipper 



The Barnes & Noble Review: This book is a real departure for you in terms of subject matter.

Lily King: It sure is.

BNR: What was that experience like, approaching a book that has a specific historical setting and is  connected to the real lives of rather famous people?

LK: Well, it wasn’t just a departure of subject matter. It was a departure of place. It was a departure of time. It was a departure of narrator. And then the whole historical research piece of it was an additional, unfamiliar challenge. Sometimes you get these ideas for books or for stories, and you think, “Mmm, I can do that.” This one, I was like, “Oh, no. No-no-no. I can’t do that. That’s a great idea. Can’t do it.”

BNR: So what was it that changed that from, “I can’t do this” to “I’m doing this”?

LK: It was completely my own curiosity. I wasn’t looking for a novel — I already was writing Father of the Rain. But I inadvertently got a biography of Margaret Mead, and I read this one chapter when she was in New Guinea with her second husband, and they were doing fieldwork, and I saw how she met Gregory Bateson…

BNR: Who became her third husband after.

LK: Yes, and she fell madly in love with him, and they worked together up the Sepik River for five months, the three of them, and just had this really wild romantic triangle. I was so interested in her… I couldn’t believe I didn’t know that, even though I hardly knew anything really about Margaret Mead, except for a few books that she wrote, and that she was quite outspoken, and one of the first feminists really to get a lot of attention in America. But I had no idea about her love life and particularly about that crazy moment. I just thought=; that would be an amazing idea for a novel.

So then I put it aside, but I kept on going back to it. I got a biography of Bateson — I wanted to see what that person’s version of that moment was. Then I read Coming of Age in Samoa. I would just get these books and kind of paw through them. Then I started taking notes. I got a green notebook, I remember, and I just started taking it more seriously. Then the minute I started taking notes, I started getting ideas for what a novel could look like and what might happen.

It was very much all working to inspire me, and giving me fictional ideas. Although I was thinking, “OK, I’m just going to tell the story. I’m going to call her ‘Margaret’ and he’s going to be called ‘Gregory’ and he’s going to be called ‘Reo.’ “

BNR: But that’s not what you wound up doing.

LK: That’s not what happened. So I started writing it, years later, and immediately realized that I had a completely different story on my hands, and they would have to be very much their own people. I wasn’t necessarily true to all the tribes. I wanted to make my own sort of amalgams. I wanted to take the interesting parts of the tribes I read about, and put them into one tribe or a couple of tribes. I just wanted more freedom. I couldn’t color within the lines.

BNR: You build your story on the love triangle that hinges on Nell Stone, who is based on Margaret Mead… She is already famous in a kind of almost overnight-sensation way for writing what in the real world was Mead’s book on Samoa.

LK: Yes, Coming of Age in Samoa.

BNR: Coming of Age in Samoa. Nell has written a very similar book in this novel. She’s married to another anthropologist. He’s Australian, I believe.

LK: Yes, he’s Australian. In real life, Mead’s husband was from New Zealand.

BNR: He and she are in the Sepik River in New Guinea. Can you talk a little bit about why New Guinea and why the Sepik River?

LK: I definitely wanted to stay true to that area, because they had already done the research on it, so I could use that — I didn’t have to go find my own area. That was part of the reason I was so attracted to the idea of it initially. Anthropologists at that time were desperate for places that had not been transformed by missionaries and had not been destroyed by Western corporations coming in and extracting whatever they could extract from the land. So New Guinea was really uncharted territory. They went in ’33. There were huge, huge parts of that country that had never, ever been seen by a white man or a woman, and the missionaries I think stayed more on the coast, they didn’t penetrate all the way up those rivers that far — it was pristine. They could see those tribes for exactly how they’d been for thousands of years.

BNR: So they were really the pioneers.

LK: Truly. Everybody in Margaret Mead’s life told her, especially when she went to Samoa in 1924, not to go. Even Boas, her mentor, would have preferred her to go to the Native Americans instead of going that far. They were very, very concerned, and they made her stay in the governor’s house. It just hadn’t been done. A female anthropologist hadn’t gone to the South Pacific before.

BNR: And yet she was extraordinarily successful in gaining understanding and really putting herself in the midst of these communities.

LK: Yes, she really was. There’s this great quote from her, where she said about her husband Reo: “He knows the grammar better, but I always know whose pig has died.” I love that.

BNR: So let’s talk about your character Nell, based on Margaret Mead. From the very first moment that both you meet her through her own journals and you see her through the eyes of Bankson, she exerts a fascination and charisma over almost everyone that she meets. Did you have a feeling of her power over others as you were writing?

LK: That was definitely my intention. But I feel like in fiction you have to be so careful — I’m always so scared of overdoing     anything, so I am always pulling back, pulling back. Then when a reader like you says something like that, think, “Oh, good. That did come through. I did mean that.” But it’s not like I was necessarily saying it out loud to myself. You just want them to be their own people and you don’t want to force anything on them.

But that’s certainly what I read about Margaret Mead. It’s funny, because I tried to write it from her perspective. I tried to have a first-person narrator who was a Margaret Mead–like character. That kind of personality is very different than mine. I’m not Type A. I’m not very bossy, although maybe my kids and my husband would disagree. I kind of had a hard time really navigating how she would be. I found it so much easier to be him responding to her.

BNR: “Him” being Andrew Bankson.

LK: Exactly.

BNR: At the beginning of the novel he’s come to a kind of a personal crisis — you introduce him just on the other side of a suicide attempt. Why does he come back from the brink? What opened him up to this experience with Nell?

LK: You know, I have to go back to Gregory Bateson, because I read this biography of him. I completely fell in love with him. As Margaret Mead said in her very first letter to Ruth Benedict, he was so vulnerable. The way I portray Bankson and the loss of his brothers is what happened. Bateson did lose two brothers in the way that I have Bankson lose them in the novel. He was in an absolute crisis. In terms of his work, he really had no idea what he was doing. He was so lost. He had no training. The British school was so different from the American school, which was sort of more hands-on and more aggressive.

I drew all that from the biography I read about him. And it did seem that he’d come to this crisis, and then realized, “OK…” I don’t even know why it didn’t work, or if he’d backed out of it at the last minute, or what happened. But I just had to imagine all that. And then, when I have him go to Angoram, where he meets Nell and Fen, he couldn’t be more open. He could not be more ready for people to step into his life and help him, amuse him, educate him — everything. I had to bring him to a place of absolute despair and need for them to suck him up so quickly.

BNR: He is clearly transfixed by both them, by Nell and by Fen — the character based on Margaret Mead’s first husband, Reo. How did that characterization come about? He really is a fascinating and complex personality in this book.

LK: I couldn’t draw him very much from the original texts. Mead writes about him, particularly to Ruth Benedict, a lot. But he never wrote a book. There’s not a biography about him. He was, I think, by some accounts, quite destroyed by the breakup with Mead. I had to imagine Fen and fit him into the book wholesale. I guess I worried about him being too one-dimensional — my big concern about him was that he was just going to be sort of pure evil, and certainly that’s not what I meant to do. I think that they were in a pressure cooker, and the very worst — and perhaps best, in Bankson’s case — sides of them were coming out. I really feel like they are just being squished-squished-squished, and you just don’t know what’s going to come out of them.

BNR: One of the things that comes out is Fen’s jealousy, and a complex kind of jealousy, in a way. You get the sense that Bankson is, of course, very jealous of the relationship between Nell and Fen, but that Fen sees an incipient bond between his wife and Bankson. And it’s hard to know who he desires more, since he you portray him as having feelings about both of them, essentially.

LK: You can’t decide who Fen wants more?

BNR: Exactly.

LK: I very much wanted to convey that confusion. I have only alluded to it, but he has had such a complicated childhood, and has a rash of desires that confuse him.  Yet he also has sort of a childlike, undeveloped desire with a capital D for everything — sort of a want, and maybe a hole in him… I would have called this novel Possession had not A. S. Byatt already beat me to it, because I do think that really what motivates Fen is this desire for possession of all kinds.

BNR: And that ultimately plays out as a fantasy of his possession of a sacred tribal object he decides that he’s going to take it. Which seems, in some ways, the greatest violation that you play out here

LK: Yes. It’s really a violation of his work as a scientist, and his sort of responsibility as a scientist. So it’s a professional breach as well as a personal breach.

BNR: There’s a fourth element in this sort of triangle between Nell and Fen and Banks, and that’s the Tam, the people that they’re among. One of the figures that emerges out of that community… We only get to know the Tam obliquely — it’s really Nell who gets to know them.

LK: Right.

BNR: But a few figures begin to emerge. One of them is Xambun. How would you pronounce his name, by the way?

LK: Exactly the way you pronounced it. [Zam-bune.] Of course, I made it up, so we can pronounce it any way you want.

BNR:  He’s a very interesting character –  can you say a little bit about how he entered the story for you?  At what point did you say “I want to include this person’s story” or have him enter the drama.

LK:  Somewhere along the line, I read about a tribe where half the men had been taken away by these “blackbirders.” Just the fact of this word, “blackbirders,” where these white recruiters come and take away men from their villages is so awful and revealing.

BNR: What were they taking them to do?

LK: They were taking them to work in the mines and on plantations there. There was copper mining, silver mining, gold mining all in operation. Today, it’s terrifying, the kind of mining that’s happening in Papua New Guinea, and it’s still destroying tribes, their land and their drinking water and way of life, left and right. But it had definitely already begun.

BNR: So “blackbirding” is essentially abducting people into a kind of slavery?

LK: I would say lured away. I don’t know about abducting. I don’t think it was anything like slave traders in Africa — but certainly they were lured away. As I understand it, mining company people would arrive and they would have knives and salt and matches and all these sort of magical things, and they would say, “Come with us and spend a year, and we will bring you home, and you and your people will have all of these things…” Quite honestly, it’s mostly out of my imagination, because I just read a little bit about this idea.

BNR: But in the story, Xambun has been taken, has been lured away.

LK: Yes. I imagined him as sort of their best and their brightest. He was their sort of symbol of young, strong, talented male, and then he left.

BNR: This company says, “Come see the world.”

LK: My idea is that the tribe was promised it would just be a short amount of time, and now they feel like they’ve been waiting for years and years. Then he does come back; he’s been beaten, and he looks like he’s been whipped on his back. Badly abused. Badly fed. And he ran away. He escaped. Then he gets back to his village, and he can’t fit in any more, and he suffers a terrible, terrible existential crisis.

BNR: And winds up embroiled in what leads to one of the tragic climaxes of the novel. At what point when you were writing this, or was there a point, when you thought, “This is a suspense story; a story where you’re waiting for the sword to fall”? There’s a sense of moving forward toward some real dark possibilities, not all of which come to pass. But there’s a great deal of suspense in this book, and I’m wondering how much of that was intention and how much of that just emerged from your telling the story.

LK: I don’t know. I love suspense. But usually how I handle suspense in my novels is emotional tension, and you kind of feel things roiling, and you’re not really sure where they’re going to go. In this novel, the tension is more physical. It’s more physically threatening.

BNR: It’s emotional as well. But there is a threat of violence that permeates all of these experiences, and it comes from multiple sources.

LK: Yes. Just going from the Western world to this area, already their lives are more in peril. Nell’s really suffering from wounds that won’t heal, and they all have malaria, and they spike these fevers — and certainly people died from these fevers.

I knew that it was going to have some drama toward the end. But it was mostly organic from my notes. I just got these ideas. I didn’t set out in any way to write a novel with a violent ending. But I did get these ideas. I don’t want to give anything away. But I do remember the moment when I actually had a dead body on my hands. It was my first dead body. I’ve never done that — Someone does die at the end of Father of the Rain, but it’s way offstage. I had to deal with several dead bodies in this book. That one in particular I remember writing that and feeling a particular sort of thrilling sensation I had never had before.

BNR: One of the things that really gives one a jolt, early in the book, is the first time that you see Nell and Fen have sex. It’s a very raw and real moment between them, and it’s one that exposes the dynamic between them, and Fen’s mix of tenderness and brutality.

LK: Yeah.

BNR: It’s only when Bankson is there, who has such a very different personality, that you see her change her understanding, and I think she stops being able to ignore this kind of violence that Fen sort of can’t shake, that seems to be part of him. Was that a difficult scene to write, or did that come really naturally in that early part of the book?

LK: It came right out. I have to say that. That first chapter is the first thing I wrote. I didn’t really anticipate it. It just kind of happened. I think my agent and my editor had me tone it down a little bit, because they didn’t want Fen to come across as…I don’t know, too…

BNR: A monster.

LK: Exactly. A monster, right at the beginning. But I do think that hopefully the reader learns that she had to be very passive in that situation, because to fight Fen was to initiate a tremendous battle, and she was too exhausted.

BNR: Fen is not unlike, in many ways, Gardner Amory in Father of the Rain. They both have this capacity for violence.

LK: There are similarities there, I think, as well as many differences. But there is an unpredictability and a rage, really, at the core. And a fear, matched by anger.

BNR: As Fen and Bankson and Nell are all working together, in one of the “euphoric” moments of the book, they work through their very different and often kind of competing approaches to understanding the people that they are among, and they come upon this method of charting the different cultures that they have been embedding themselves with. They call it the “grid.”

LK: Yes.

BNR: It seems to emerge almost organically from the gestalt of the three of them. It’s the three of them at their most productive and kind of synched up. It’s a sort of scientific ecstasy that they find themselves in, in being alive at this moment. Did that have a real-life analog for Mead, and was anything like that produced from this experience?

LK: Yes, I completely stole it. They did come up with something they called the Squares. It was very much the same sort of thing with East and West. They put people in different categories, and they were really excited about it. They cabled back to Boas, “Had breakthrough; Coming home now.” Then, in the letters to Ruth and to Bateson when she gets back to New York, she so often refers to people by their direction. “Oh, he’s so Southern.” “Because he’s Northern, blah-blah-blah.” “Because she’s so Western.” She does that for years and years.

But then they all go their separate ways for a little while, and then she divorces Reo and she marries Bateson. They never get back together to sort of make anything of it. Also, the cultural climate is really starting to intensify with Social Darwinism and Nazism on the rise, and this sense of sort of biological determinism that they don’t believe in and they are trying to fight in their anthropology, and so Mead felt that it was going to get misinterpreted.

BNR: That it would wind up being used as a tool to kind of classify people. Here are the Northern people, and they should be running everything, and the Southern people…

LK: Right. She worried about how political it could become. That’s what she said, anyway, that held her back. That’s why I have Bankson take it and what happens to it, because I wanted to play out that idea. Well, what if it had? Would that have happened?

BNR: Can we talk about Helen — based on the real-life anthropologist Ruth Benedict — to whom Nell writes throughout?  She and Nell are colleagues.

LK: Yes. Colleagues, lovers…

BNR: Former lovers. And it’s a very important relationship for Nell throughout this book.

LK: In my first draft,  Nell’s journals were not journals — they were letters to Helen. So really, it was kind of a love rectangle. Helen wasn’t writing back, but she was writing out.  Nell was working out feelings for her, as well as feelings for her husband,  feelings for Bankson. I felt that it maybe complicated things too much, and I thought that I could get a better…fuller sense of Nell if she wasn’t writing these letters. So I changed it to journals.

Helen’s extremely important to Nell. Fen has prevented her from having a relationship with her any more, and so there’s this sense of her being someone Nell can’t fully have, but still wants. So there’s that desire thread that I think runs through the novel.

BNR: Am I wrong in remembering that in the real world, Mead and Benedict had a long-standing friendship and close relationship? Long after the time that Mead spent in New Guinea.

LK: Yes. Although it became more of a friendship, and they moved on to other people romantically. Benedict died quite early. Mead lived probably thirty more years after her death.

BNR: You preface the book with a couple of quotations. You sort of paired them up, and the people… It’s interesting. Rather than choosing Gregory Bateson, you choose Ruth Benedict to match against Margaret Mead, and you quote Margaret Mead — “Quarrels over women are the keynote of the New Guinea primitive world” — but then you have Benedict saying, “Experience, contrary to common belief, is mostly imagination.” That seems very central to this book — that so much of what happens in their lives, and in all of our lives, is, in our heads.

LK: I think that quote hopefully resonates with the whole novel, given that it’s told by Bankson, and he’s looking back on this time, and this is his take on it — and it’s only his take on it. His memory is imbued with a lot of nostalgia.

BNR:  This is a tragedy in its arc. But that sense of the euphoric manages to be one of the emotions that mingles in there.

LK: That’s so good. I’m glad.

BNR: I’m wondering how you did that.

LK: I know that I loved writing the ending so much that it was really the place that I felt like I had come home, in some way. When I got to the very last scene, I felt it so viscerally, and… It’s funny. I didn’t feel the tragic as much as I felt sort of just the poignancy of where he was, and his hand hits the glass, and just the longing he has. Any sort of intense feeling has a sort of euphoria to it, a heightened, distilled sense of things. And I’m pleased if that came through.

BNR:  Do you feel differently about Mead and about these people now than when you started? Or did Nell become a sufficiently different personality that you still feel the same about Mead and her life as when you began?

LK: That’s a really good question. I do feel that Mead and Nell are quite separate in my mind. I gave up trying to recreate Margaret Mead long ago. And yet, I have an incredible tenderness towards really them all, and I just hope that I haven’t violated them or hurt them –  that if they were able to read the book, that they would feel honored and not  sullied.