It’s Good to Be King
PROFILE – SEPTEMBER 2008
By Joshua Bodwell
Photography Irvin Serrano
Maine author Lily King navigates the streams of family and fiction
Family lore says that 6-year-old Lily King once marched into the dressmaking shop of her mother’s friend and proclaimed, writing tablet in one hand and pencil in the other, “I am going to be a writer!”
“The funny thing is, I don’t even remember it,” says the 45-year-old novelist with a laugh. “Memory is so strange,” King admits, her smile turning to an expression of fascination—she smiles often and laughs with conviction.
King is sunk into a cozy couch in the living room of her circa-1848 house. The old, hand-blown-glass window panes ripple, obscuring the balmy day beyond. Glasses of freshly brewed iced tea sweat on the coffee table—King had squeezed in a generous amount of juice from a few wedges of lemon, and then dashed out to the garden for two sprigs of fresh mint. King seems both at ease and wildly grateful for her quiet and artistically satisfying life in Yarmouth.
Seven-year-old Eloise appears, willowy like her mother and practically twitching with the excitement of summer. “Can we please go get some candy at Handy Andy’s!” she pleads with her mother. Nine-year-old Calla hangs back in the kitchen, waiting for the answer but letting her little sister do the work. King acquiesces and the girls dash out the door with their babysitter.
It’s an average summer afternoon for the award-winning author, mother, and wife. King and her husband, the fiction writer Tyler Clements, arrived in Maine from Massachusetts, where King was raised, in 2002. “Now this is home,” says King emphatically.
On her couch, King is flanked by bookcases rising to the ceiling. “Bookcases can be so revealing about people, can’t they?” she observes. A few short-story collections leap out: Andre Dubus’s Dancing After Hours, Tessa Hadley’s Sunstroke, and Shirley Hazzard’s Cliffs of Fall. King’s own stories have appeared in acclaimed literary quarterlies such as Ploughshares and Glimmer Train, as well as the anthology Contemporary Maine Fiction.
On a high shelf sit a few copies of King’s first novel, The Pleasing Hour (Atlantic Monthly Press). Released in 1999, the book tells the story of young Rosie, who flees to France after giving up her newborn child to her infertile older sister. The book became a New York Times Notable Book and garnered the author a Barnes & Noble Discover Award. The following year, King received a prestigious Whiting Writers’ Award.
King spent a year and a half in Paris herself working as an au pair after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “But my time there was nothing like The Pleasing Hour!” she says laughing. After returning stateside, King earned her master’s of arts degree at Syracuse University, where she studied with the American short-story master Tobias Wolff and won the Raymond Carver Prize for fiction.
When her second novel, The English Teacher (Grove Press), arrived in 2006, it was named one of the best novels of the year by both the Chicago Tribune and Publishers Weekly; in her adopted state, King received the Maine Literary Award from the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. The novel passionately and empathetically tells the story of single mother and private-school teacher Vida Avery, her son, Peter, and their search for happiness and the meaning of home.
King says she has been thinking about the idea of home since she and her family returned a few months ago from living in Italy for a year. “We realized in Italy how rooted we’d become here. I had an ache that never went away the whole year. It’s magical to be back,” she says.
“But this summer, I’m really committed to typing,” says King with a shimmer in her already bright eyes. She already has 170 handwritten pages of her next novel. Just as The English Teacher was the story of a mother and son, King says this new book is “intensely father/daughter.”
“This book came in fits and starts,” says King, “but when it came, it came in a torrent. And now, the typing is reconnecting me to the story.”
The house fills with the heavenly smell of freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies. Eloise and her babysitter giggle in the kitchen. The sun has broken free of the clouds, but the afternoon is hurtling toward evening. The iced-tea glasses are empty.
In the driveway, King’s neighbor calls over from across the street. “Hey, did you write a new book or something, Lily?” he asks, a bicycle frame slung over his tattooed shoulder. He has noticed cars coming and going, photography equipment, and people with notepads.
King doesn’t suffer compliments easily. But she still remembers the high school teacher who wrote on one of her earliest stories: Lily, you are the master of the family tale. As King recounts the story, even today, she clutches her chest as though such a compliment is unimaginable.
“No,” King tells her neighbor finally, “I haven’t done anything to deserve this attention.”
But, of course, she has done something. With apparent ease and an unquestionable combination of skill and compassionate insight, King has lovingly rendered families in all their foibles and small victories. Her stories and novels open the heart in unexpected but welcome ways.
As the end of summer nears each day, King says she is continually torn between her writer self and her mother self. September, King admits, when her kids return to school and her writing schedule opens up, is likely to be a mix of excitement and sadness. But her priorities are clear, and that is likely why her fiction resonates so powerfully: “I will choose my children over my writing every time,” she says.