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Ethnographic Invention


The novelist on the vivid life of Margaret Mead, a love triangle in the South Pacific, and the shared language of anthropology and fiction.

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Image by Laura Lewis.

In 1978, when the villagers of Pere, New Guinea, learned of anthropologist Margaret Mead’s death, they rested for seven days and planted a coconut tree in her memory. This was how they honored “big men.” Mead was indeed a “big man,” an anthropologist of Oceanic cultures who studied gender and family, living for months in the field and authoring the seminal Coming of Age in Samoa (1928). A professional of great rigor—she donated to the Library of Congress a full record of her methods in the field, including notes and letters, comprising half a million items—Mead strove in her work to strike down barriers between academy and public life. Her commitment to public service saw her serving on organizations from the National Council for Negro Women to the Committee on Food Habits during WWII.

It is perhaps no surprise that a woman so morally engaged in the world repeatedly came under criticism. Often, she was lambasted for her supposedly “unscientific” and “impressionistic” research methods. “Each time I write something about ‘how I really do it,’” she once complained, “they use it to show that I’m not to be trusted.” In the 1960s and 70s, Mead faced derision for her participation in the American feminist movement. Her personal life wasn’t any easier. Mead was married thrice, and admitted that she loved her third husband, Gregory Bateson, whom she met in the South Pacific, the most. (She called her first marriage a “student marriage.”) She was devastated when Bateson left her.

Mead’s life—in particular, her ethnographic and personal trials in the far-flung tropics—inspired author Lily King’s latest novel, Euphoria. Set in the interwar period, in a region of Papua New Guinea, Euphoria follows three anthropologists whose intellectual devotions and personal frailties grow increasingly intertwined. The narrator, Bankson (a subtly disguised Bateson) grows desperately attached to his married companions. He helps them find a research site, a village he cunningly chooses close to “his” village, and thinks of “how to keep them, how to keep them.” The married pair, though seemingly secure, struggle with failure and loneliness—sentiments that turn savage in the field. But while romantic strife certainly animates the novel, Euphoria is equally, and refreshingly, attentive to the passion of work and the joys of intellectual adventure.

Taking up the fundamental condition of being an anthropologist, the book evinces a fascination with the position of the outsider—and the observer. It is a role King is familiar with, having grown up in Massachusetts with stepparents and step-siblings, in families with varying operating principles. “Even though they were all in my hometown, they had different cultures, different ideas of what was acceptable behavior,” King recalls. “When you’re in a situation like that early on, you really become an observer.” Family and belonging have long preoccupied King’s work. Her first novel, The Pleasing Hour (1999), followed an American au pair’s fraught involvement with a French family. In The English Teacher (2005), she wrote of a boy seeking to comprehend his mother’s violent past, and in Father of the Rain (2010), of a daughter’s loyalty to her father.

The world of early twentieth-century anthropology is a departure for King, but by any measure, a superb success. In her New York Times review, Emily Eakin called the book “a taut, witty, fiercely intelligent tale” which is “as uncanny as it is transporting.” The book went on to earn a place on the New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2014. Elsewhere, too, Euphoria has garnered terrific acclaim, from the first Kirkus Prize for Fiction, to inclusion in NPR’s Best Books of 2014. A film production is underway.

The book stakes its roots in the borderland between academic and public culture, where there’s plenty of fertile territory. “Mead writes that when she first meets Bateson, they talked for thirty-six hours about their work, and she fell madly in love with him. I loved that,” says King. “In books, you know, people fall in love and you don’t always know why. I love this idea of trying to create that intellectual eroticism. That was what I was working toward all along.”

Megha Majumdar for Guernica

Guernica: What drew you to Margaret Mead and the period of anthropology she inhabits?

Lily King: I got the idea when I was working on Father of the Rain, my previous novel. I wasn’t looking for a new novel at all. My friend brought me to a bookstore that was going out of business. They really didn’t have anything, but since she’d brought me there, I picked up this biography of Mead. I didn’t think I would read it.

But I did read it, and I got to this part where Mead, her husband Reo Fortune, and the anthropologist Gregory Bateson were all together and I thought, Ah! That’s a great story—a love triangle in the middle of a jungle! It captured my imagination. I started reading a little bit more about her, and Gregory Bateson—who was a really interesting character—and the book really found me. It grabbed me, and I couldn’t get it off of me.

Guernica: While anthropology today might be a different beast, the image we often have of anthropologists seems to derive from Margaret Mead’s era: men and women traveling to faraway places and studying the cultures and customs of remote communities largely unknown to the West. Why do you think those early anthropological expeditions have such a hold on our minds?

Lily King: To be honest, I’m not sure that had a hold on my mind. I read a part of Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, but it’s the kind of book about which a lot of people would say, “I’m not sure if I’ve read it or not.” It was hugely popular, and it spread that image of anthropology in America. Mead herself did a really good job of cementing that image. There were others—Malinowski, though he is not a household name; Boas, maybe; Ruth Benedict; Levi Strauss.

That period was also such a time of innocence for anthropology. Certainly anthropologists were used in WWII for gathering information, and anthropology has since been used in war—this idea of understanding the hearts and minds of the enemy. More recently, I think of companies like Nokia having anthropologists who study how people use cell phones, who do that kind of commercial and marketing work, selling out to corporations. I wonder if that has something to do with the image of the more innocent anthropologist, now gone.

Guernica: Speaking of gathering information, can you tell me about the research process for Euphoria?

Lily King: I’d never done research for a novel like this before. It was overwhelming, and more so because I was doing this as a side project while I was working on Father of the Rain. I felt more like a dabbler at that time. From about November of 2005 to January of 2011, I’d read books and take notes. I’d come across little details that would interest me, and that would often lead to imagining a scene, or lines of dialogue.

In my notebooks, along with real-life details, I’d have a lot of flights of fancy where I was riffing, where I was imagining and discovering, and that was really, really fun. It was a very different way of creating a book than I’d done before. Usually, the creating of the book happens while I’m writing the book. I start with Chapter One, with a few ideas and a handful of characters, and the book grows from there. I take notes in the back of my notebook, as I write by hand. It grows organically. This was a different way of watching the book grow, playing off this real-life information, and yet, starting to build a fictional world with the real-life bricks.

I had one family that used a lot of yelling and screaming, and that was very normal. Another side of my family, nobody would raise their voice at all.

Guernica: I’ve had a teacher tell me that a great deal of living has to happen, outside one’s writing life, for one to be a worthy writer. Are there particular real-life events or experiences outside your life as a writer that informed Euphoria?

Lily King: I didn’t major in anthropology in college, but I do feel I had an education in different cultures very early on. My parents divorced when I was eleven, and my father immediately married a woman with three children and was with her for five years. When they got divorced, he immediately married a woman with four children. In the meantime, my mother married a man who had seven children. So I was going from one family to another between the ages of eleven and eighteen.

I had one family that used a lot of yelling and screaming, and that was very normal. Another side of my family, nobody would raise their voice at all. One family would eat all together, and in another family, you’re on your own. Even though they were all in my hometown, they had different cultures, different ideas of what was acceptable behavior. When you’re in a situation like that early on, you really become an observer. You watch and see how it’s done. When you have people who get angry quickly, you have to learn the rules to avoid being in that situation.

Maybe that has something to do with my interest in writing about anthropologists. That’s a life I would love to lead. There are very few things I would love to do other than a life of writing, and I think being a singer-songwriter and being an anthropologist are the two other things I can imagine doing.

Guernica: I enjoyed the book’s interest in the rules of everyday life, in ritual and taboo. A taboo on childless women witnessing a birth, for example. How much of that did you cull from research, and how much did you invent?

Lily King: I didn’t get a fraction of the interesting details I found into the book. I tried not to put in details that weren’t 100 percent necessary. I don’t like stories where I’m being given pages and pages of detail—I only wanted to include details that work organically with the narrative I’m trying to tell.

I drew a lot from facts that I researched, but when the researched fact didn’t work, I made it up. Or, I got a sense of a taboo, but I needed a different kind of taboo. So I’d say so much of it is taken from research I did on the tribes in the Sepik River, in Papua New Guinea, but not all of it.

I read so much about fieldwork. I tried to find people writing about the fieldwork experience, and sometimes it was happening in Africa, or in South America. That’s why I had to give the tribes fictional names, because I didn’t want to be beholden to one name. I needed a whole made-up world to work with.

Guernica: I’m curious about the freedoms that you wanted to exploit as a novelist, and the facts you wanted to be faithful to. How did you navigate between the two?

Lily King: It was a slow process of giving myself the freedom to fictionalize. I did conceive of the book originally as something as factual as I could make it. I knew I would have to make up scenes and dialogue, because the information about [Mead’s life during] those five months is pretty limited. So that’s how I began writing.

But literally the minute I started writing, the minute I started having [the characters] talk to each other, they took on fictional attributes, and I realized how strong my desire to write a novel was, and how weak my ability to write a nonfiction kind of biopic. I wasn’t interested in staying true. It was restrictive. Every fictional thing I wrote gave me strength to write another and another. By the end I wasn’t remaining true to anything but the story I wanted to tell.

Guernica: In writing about this society in Papua New Guinea, did you grapple with the question of authority? Was choosing to write about a world in which people have long been denied a voice, agency, and, to some degree, humanity, a fraught process?

Lily King: I thought about that a lot. I have these three white, Western characters, who were progressive for their time, and yet from our perspective, would treat these people as less than human. They would say “my people” and choose a people to study. I knew my own limitations, that I come from a world much more like my characters, and these tribes are very foreign to me.

I was extremely worried about it, but to write the book, I had to set those worries aside for the next draft. I had a writers’ group, six women, and we talked about that. My narrator is an Englishman, quite reserved, and he chooses to tell the story in a certain way. Of the three characters, he keeps the most distance between himself and the people he observes. It’s a limitation in the character—of not being able to really connect with the tribe.

I remember that time as a real Virginia Woolf time. More than any language it was her language that influenced me.

Guernica: One of my favorite scenes in the book—which I will not give away here fully—involves a terribly lonely person and a copy of The New Yorker. The sense of being far from home, in that scene, left an imprint on me. Were there personal experiences of distance that you were drawing on?

Lily King: That scene is so particularly quirky—no review or interview has ever mentioned it. To go back to my childhood, I experienced lots of different family cultures, all the while feeling like none of them were mine.

I always had this put-together family, and I always identified as the outsider. And that’s a position where I feel most comfortable, and yet I feel an incredible longing to belong. That is really a strong feeling from my childhood—a desire to be part of a group.

In my own nuclear family, my brother and sister are only a year apart, and I’m eight and a half years younger. By the time I was in first grade, they were gone to boarding school. So I can tap into that. I’ve also done things that put me in odd situations.

Guernica: Well, now you must tell us a story about one of those odd situations.

Lily King: When I finished graduate school, the first George Bush was president, and I really wanted to get out of the country. We’d just gone through the first Gulf War.

I had a graduate degree in creative writing. So I wrote a ton of letters to schools all over the world. Nobody responded except for one school in Spain. They called me up—it was around August 1st—and they offered me a job at a bilingual school in Valencia. They’d just fired their English teacher, who had also been the head of the department and chair of languages. I think within ten days I packed up my life in Syracuse, got on the plane, and arrived in Valencia. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t even know if it was a legitimate school.

Work started within three days. I was young, and the new chair of the department was a really serious 70-year-old Spanish teacher. I’d never studied one word of Spanish. I didn’t even know that hola was spelled with “h.”

But I loved languages, and loved learning languages. It was fantastic. But I was alone there. I remember that time as a real Virginia Woolf time. More than any language it was her language that influenced me.

A book that came out of that time, which I had started before and continued, was The Pleasing Hour, a book that takes place in France. I had lived in France before graduate school, but because of Spain, I had a lot of the characters go and spend a good bit of time in Spain.

Guernica: In Euphoria, you have a character of a pioneering, accomplished female anthropologist who is subject to her husband’s anger and violence at home. What led you to make that choice?

Lily King: This came out of reading about Mead and her time with her husband. I felt like in a lot of her public writing, she tried to hide what was going on. She’d told a friend that her husband had caused a miscarriage—he’d hit her and she’d lost her baby. After I’d written a draft or two, I read a letter that Mead had written to her husband after they had gone their separate ways: “If you hadn’t hit me where it showed, I wouldn’t have had to leave you.”

I’m always interested in a claustrophobic situation where people might be powerless to do things. My first three novels were all about families. Things that happen in a house within a family, because you’re a child or because you want to keep the family together, you suffer things you might not have had to suffer if you weren’t in that situation.

So it’s that situation transported to the jungle where she can’t leave—she is so passionate about her work that she can’t leave. She didn’t have a lot of recourse.

I go to book clubs sometimes, and people ask—[Mead] was so smart, why didn’t she just leave him? And I felt that she was going to leave him, but she couldn’t leave him just then. She couldn’t leave her work. All she could do was tamp everything down so they could continue to work together. And of course when a third person shows up it lets in oxygen, but it also creates a lot more tension.

I love this idea of trying to create that intellectual eroticism. That was what I was working toward all along.

Guernica: Part of the climax of the book has to do with an intellectual triumph. Tell me about putting that kind of moment into language.

Lily King: I love reading fiction about people who are connecting intellectually. I find that exhilarating. That’s what drew me, probably the most, to this project.

In Mead’s biography, there is a part where she, Fortune, and Bateson come up with this theory, and they’re really excited. They write to Mead’s mentor and friend Boas and they say, “We’re coming home, we’ve had a huge breakthrough.” Elsewhere, Mead writes that when she first meets Bateson, they talked for thirty-six hours about their work, and she fell madly in love with him. I loved that.

In books, you know, people fall in love and you don’t always know why. I love this idea of trying to create that intellectual eroticism. That was what I was working toward all along. I didn’t know what would happen at the end of this five month period, but I knew that I wanted to try to create this real-life thing. And then—this always happens to me—I have this big idea and then I get there and I’m like, oh shit, it’s just going to fizzle! I’ve built it up and I can’t do it! And that was a really scary part of the book to write.

Guernica: Euphoria was clearly a massive project. Can you name one part of the book that was particularly difficult?

Lily King: Oh gosh. I can name one part that was easy!

Toward the end, there’s a part where there’s a dead body. And that scene was really quite exhilarating to write. I’d never had a dead body before that I can think of, and with something like that, it becomes very spare. You write the facts as you see them, and there isn’t a lull with a lot of description. I remember smiling the whole time I was writing it. No wonder people like to write about murder mysteries and dead bodies!

Guernica: What were you reading while you were writing this book?

Lily King: My pole star for this book was Old Filth by Jane Gardam. I love the character of Old Filth, a 90-year-old Englishman who’s a coiled-up character you really get to the core of even though no one else in his life does. As a reader you’re privy to that. I might’ve read the book three times [laughs].

Guernica: There is terrific, engaging research being done by anthropologists and other scholars around the world. But those stories tend to remain within the academic community. How do you think the possibilities of fiction writing could serve anthropology and the humanities?

Lily King: Anthropologists are great at novelistic observations. I would be thrilled if this novel would encourage anthropologists to write what they see in fictional form.

There are some who do. There’s a Young Adult writer who’s an anthropologist, Laura Resau, and I read several of her books at bedtime to my kids when they were eight and nine. They were wonderful, often about an American girl who would travel to another country with her bohemian mother, being very resistant, and slowly start to understand the culture. Or a girl who would be sent to her Mexican grandmother, whom she never even knew, and be immersed in the grandmother’s town. Our favorite was What the Moon Saw.

Anthropological fieldwork is so much like writing a novel. You don’t know what the hell is going on.

Anthropology is separated from mass reading, and that is something that bothered Margaret Mead. It is why she chose a general publisher for Coming of Age in Samoa. She always said that she wrote everything for her grandmother, in a way that her grandmother could understand what she was saying.

You know, anthropological fieldwork is so much like writing a novel. Granted, you don’t have the physical disruption and disorientation, but writing a novel is like entering a new culture. You don’t know what the hell is going on. And every day you feel like you have nothing, you’re going nowhere. Or you feel that first it’s going somewhere, but then you get into that horrible middle part.

Guernica: What is something you loved learning but could not include in the book?

Lily King: There are certain tribes in the middle Sepik that eat raw bat. A certain kind of raw bat is a delicacy. I wanted to have a ceremony where they would eat raw bat.

And then there’s another one where these butterflies come flying over the river, and they catch them and eat them all up. Fried butterfly.

I read this scene in Mead’s memoir. She writes about how they [Mead, her husband, Reo Fortune, and Bateson] went swimming and how Bateson just stripped down, assuming they were going skinny dipping. Fortune was horrified. He got angry at Bateson for taking liberties in front of his wife.

I put that in the novel and my agent said, “There’s just one scene that doesn’t work for me. I don’t think the character would do this,” and it was that scene. But I kept it in because I thought, this really happened!

Then my editor read it and said this scene doesn’t work. And it’s funny because in graduate school you might say, “But that really happened!” and what you learn is that that is no defense, absolutely no defense.

Guernica: You mentioned earlier that you write by hand. What about that process is important to you?

Lily King: Ever since high school I’ve been writing in a spiral notebook, in pencil. Everything looks too polished on a computer when you start writing, and I can’t really see it. I feel like the words are much more naked in pencil, on a notebook.

I definitely feel that my brain works differently, and words come out differently, if I have a pencil in my hand, rather than if I have a keyboard. I don’t know why that is. But my sentences are longer. I tend to add more in the margins. I tend to elongate the sentences as I’m writing and editing, and there is just something about the feeling of writing longhand that I really love.

It also signals to me, when I pick up a pencil, that this is a rough draft. This is not going anywhere, and no one’s going to see it. You have permission to make all the mistakes you want. It signals freedom to me, and it signals mistakes.

Then when I put it on the computer, a different part of my brain kicks in and I really evaluate every single word and sentence and make decisions. I like that step of polishing while I’m rewriting the entire thing, not just cutting and pasting. Really putting in every word and making a decision: is this something I can stand by?

Guernica: I understand Euphoria is going to be made into a film. What are you most excited to see translated into visual form?

Lily King: The director, Michael Apted, is someone I have huge respect for. I think it’s in really, really good hands.

Two movies come to mind when I think of this movie, and they are The English Patient and Out of Africa. Those are two movies I love. They are visually intoxicating, and yet, the relationships between the people are enthralling too. I’m hoping we can capture both those things—the landscape and the raw emotions of these characters.

And, it’d be amazing to see life in a tribe like that. I don’t think I spent a lot of time on that in the book. I didn’t allow myself to indulge in that kind of detail, so that’d be great to see.

Guernica: What is your next project?

Lily King: It’s another research-driven book. It’s not historical. It’s contemporary, but about a world I know nothing about. It was lots of fun writing Euphoria, and I do feel that I have a tiny, tiny bit more confidence in the process. I really liked feeling like I couldn’t do it, the challenge of it. I think I liked that in the end. I remember reading a Jennifer Egan interview where she said that she only likes to write things that she does not believe that she can do.

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