When Lily arrives at Mattie’s bed and breakfast in “Lily Red,” moths circle the lights, a great white owl swoops by like an angel, a cricket lands on her arm like a tiny benediction, the sprinklers comes on yet the path remains dry, but when she leaves for the final time, she just walks down the stairs, gets into her car and drives away. Why are the arrival and departure so different?
Lily is the protagonist in a fairy tale when she arrives. She has a problem—her own dissatisfaction with her life—and so she goes on a journey, a sort of quest. She arrives at a magical place and meets the people who are to help her along the way.
But by the time she returns home, she doesn’t believe in her own story anymore; it’s my version of Alice’s “you are nothing but a pack of cards.” Lily has rejected the fairy tale version of her own life and is returning to the mundane one.
What role does the color red play in this story?
The name is a take on the words “lily white.” Lily is not innocent so she’s not Lily White. She goes out and cheats on her husband and she’s not even too conflicted about that part. She’s not a snow-white maiden; she’s a grown woman. So she’s Lily Red—red representing, as usual, maturity and sexuality and, in this case, her own complicity in her own problems. And it should echo “Rose Red,” which hopefully puts the reader in a fairy tale space as they start to read.
“Lily Red” is a “fairy tale about the fairy tales we tell ourselves to make it through our lives.” What tales does Lily tell herself and are those tales changed by the end of the story?
I guess Lily’s fairy tale is that her dissatisfactions can be fixed by leaving them behind—that she can be someone else simply by going somewhere else. She wants a grander adventure than the life she has. When she returns home, she could tell herself, as other women in the story do, that she has had that grand adventure, that she has been chosen for something magical. But she refuses to believe that in the end, and returns thinking that she has merely had an affair and possibly kind of a tawdry one. Certainly she’s not lived the plot of the transformational, problem-solving love.
At the end of the story, Lily returns home, and says to her husband, “I lost my head. I’m half-hearted now. In fact, I’m not at all the woman I was.” Has her adventure in Two Trees cured her of wanting to be someone else, “someone with a past”?
Lily is someone else, someone with a past, when she comes home, so that part of the quest has been achieved. But perhaps not in the way she wanted. Who is responsible for the problems in Lily’s marriage? I’ve deliberately provided very little information about her husband so as to leave this question open. When Lily returns home, is it to a tolerant and understanding husband or to an uninterested and uncaring one?
I would not describe Lily as cured. But she has been disenchanted. A lot of fairy tales deal with the breaking of the spell. This is usually within the tale considered to be a very good thing. I guess my own experiments in fairy tales almost always focus on a sense of irrevocable loss over the spell being broken. “Lily Red” is no exception.
The genesis for “Lily Red” was a piece of research left over from your book, Sarah Canary—a very powerful story about P.T. Barnum and Native Americans in his show. The final version of “Lily Red,” however, retains just a small piece of the original spark, just the painting on the rock—do you feel like there’s another story still waiting to be written or has the inspiration served its purpose?
I find that I never end up writing the story I intend to write—the story arises from the pyre of the failed intended story. I’m okay with that, I expect it by now, and I like the process of finding the story as I write it. The story I found in the Sarah Canary research was a profoundly disturbing one and I have had it in my head for years. I’ve been thinking of writing something about Buffalo Bill and it might perhaps fit into that. It’s not part of the plan, but maybe when I’m sifting through the ashes of the plan, I’ll realize that it’s just the piece I need. Stranger things have happened.
Watch for Karen Joy Fowler’s next novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, on May 31, 2013!
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