If you haven’t yet read Maine author Lily King’s new book, Euphoria, you may have heard about it — perhaps through The Hippo’s book recommendations issue in early July, perhaps through its positive reviews and mentions in The New York Times, National Geographic, the Boston Globe, People magazine, Elle, The Oprah Magazine and USA Today. Just published in June, there’s already talk of a film.
It’s been talked about particularly among those fascinated with the life of cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, who’s long been linked with the 1960s sexual revolution.
It was Mead’s life that inspired Euphoria. The journey for King started in 2005 when she was at a used bookstore in Portland that was getting ready to close. King had felt obligated to buy something, and after a frantic search, she bought a Margaret Mead biography.
It was a 10-page chapter in particular that caught King’s attention. It told of when Mead and her then-husband, New Zealander Reo Fortune, were conducting anthropological studies in New Guinea. It was a trying time; research wasn’t going well, and neither was their marriage, so they moved to a different tribe, one closer to British anthropologist Gregory Bateson.
“He [Bateson] was extremely depressed, really struggling with his work, and so he was extremely happy to see them,” King said in the book trailer film. “They met, and it was kind of like love at first sight for all three of them. Bateson found them a tribe nearby, and they had this five-month period of extreme passion, intellectual fire, real deep friendship, and some violence and aggression and malarial fevers. Later, Bateson would say they were basically half mad the whole time.”
What a fabulous idea for a novel, King thought when she read this bit, though at first she tossed it aside. She’d never written a historical novel, and she’d only read them sparingly. She also knew very little about anthropology, she said in a phone interview, so the whole idea seemed daunting.
But very soon, perhaps within six months of reading the book, she began jotting notes in a little green notebook.
“What I really liked about it, in hindsight, is that it felt absolutely impossible. It felt like something I didn’t think I could do, or at least, something I didn’t think I could do well,” King said.
At the time she began compiling notes, she was working on another piece, Father of the Rain, which would be published in 2010. But she found herself reading more and more about Mead, Bateson, New Guinea and the period as a whole.
Most influential was Gregory Bateson: The Legacy of a Scientist by David Lipset.
“It was a really good biography. And it was very personal. I really got a sense of Bateson in that biography, and I got a sense of his backstory. It seemed really well-researched, and was also written with an incredible amount of love,” King said. (Lipset had been a student of Bateson’s.) “I felt the love and half fell in love with Bateson just reading it. It made it an easy character to write a love story about.”
King’s book is pure fiction. Her married couple are named Nell Stone and Schuyler Fenwick, and her British anthropologist is Andrew Bankson.
“The situational facts are true. But it’s very hard to get a sense of real personality through reading, especially with someone like Margaret Mead, especially with so many people weighing in,” King said. “[In a biography], you’ll read ‘They talked for 36 hours.’ Boom. I had to make all of that up! … I’m not trying to recreate a life that was lived. I really am writing a novel, while borrowing facts from these three people.”
At the same time, King felt she was in uncharted territory every day — though arguably, that’s what made Euphoria exciting. Her character Nell describes a similar feeling in the novel:
“It’s that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It’s a delusion — you’ve only been there eight weeks — and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.”
As seen in the July 31, 2014 issue of the Hippo.