DECEMBER 9, 2018
HOW DO PEOPLE find meaning — in their history, in their community, in the landscape around them? Brian Phillips has traveled untold distances in search of an answer to this question, but he never quite figures it out. He knows he can’t, and that’s part of the fun. Instead, the essays documenting his journeys embrace the messiness and complexity of this world, and he operates with an enthusiastic resignation to the unknowable.
Phillips is eager to cut into the unknown, not in order to understand it, but rather to arrive at even greater questions and deeper mysteries — the good stuff. The essays in his first collection, Impossible Owls, take him to oddities at the edges of our understanding, as far as Russia and India, and back in time into the archives of his hometown of Ponca City, Oklahoma. Unbeholden to any sort of tidy knowing, Phillips follows the most absurd, tragic, and compelling elements of his subjects wherever they lead. His essays dig their way down determinedly and wind their way unpredictably, like a cross-examination at the hands of a relentlessly curious, self-aware, and hilarious interrogator.
The collection contains eight essays, four of which are previously published but freshly revised. Collections are often called “wide ranging,” but almost never do they span such topics as, among other things, the Iditarod, sumo wrestling, the great Russian animator Yuri Norstein, and the British royal family. Taken together, this energetic and imaginative collection highlights the strange and nonsensical corners of our world that sit beyond our line of sight.
ISAAC LEVY-RUBINETT: The subjects of these essays are all over the place. How do you find topics? At what point does something go from an interesting topic to the focus of an essay?
BRIAN PHILLIPS: That’s probably the hardest part of the whole job for me: knowing what to write about next. Because I do jump all over the place a lot. I find that I have a sort of restless imagination, in the sense that I can get obsessed with a story for a good while but when it’s finished, I don’t want to do more on the same topic. I want to find something entirely different, which is also a virtue I like in essay writing generally. I like essays that go places you aren’t expecting and with spontaneous turns that you didn’t see coming in advance. I really dislike stories that telegraph everything that’s going to happen at the beginning of the piece. So it’s a really unfocused process, of just trying to be open to what comes across my screen.
I got interested in Yuri Norstein, the Russian animator who I wrote about in “The Little Gray Wolf Will Come,” when a friend of mine, who ended up traveling with me to Russia as my translator, sent me a YouTube clip of one of his short films, Hedgehog in the Fog. And I watched it and thought, “That’s cute,” and then didn’t think about him again for two years. And much later, I was on some Wikipedia page about lost movies, movies that had either vanished or never been finished, or might have had canonical importance but that we didn’t have anymore. I was reading through this list and came across Norstein’s “The Overcoat” adaptation, which he’d been working on for 37 years and never managed to finish. And I kind of remembered having seen Hedgehog in the Fog when Alyssa sent it to me a couple of years earlier. And then I just started poking around and reading about him, and it became clear fairly quickly that this was something I wanted to write about. But if I had just clicked three different links that morning, I never would have done the story. I could have gone on to do something completely different. So it’s tenuous. I was speaking to a college class last week, and they asked that question: “How do we find topics?” And I felt really unprepared to advise them on that. I wish I knew, honestly. This is the longest “I don’t know” in the history of interviews.
Most of your essays involve traveling to faraway places and trying to make sense of them. In the final essay, “But Not Like Your Typical Love Story,” you focus your attention on your hometown of Ponca City, Oklahoma. What was it like training your focus on a place to which you have a personal connection?
It was a big change after having done a lot of pieces that involved far-flung travel and immersing myself in worlds that I didn’t know well at all. Like, before I went to Japan, I didn’t really know much about sumo wrestling. So it was definitely a change of mental frame to go into a story where I was partly writing about my own experience and also telling this story of this place that I had known and heard in many iterations since I was a little kid, involving, in some cases, people I had known or seen when I was a child. The main difference was just that I had known about these people for a lot longer and they hit home in a slightly different way for me.
That felt important to me, because the book was about borders and thresholds and places you come to the end of one or another kind of known world. It’s about gaps on the map and boundaries of experience where you don’t know what lies on the other side. So it seems to me that it was necessary to confront my own version of that, which is … instead of going outward, going inward to home and figuring out how history functions in that way.
The Ponca City essay was really important to me for clarifying certain things about the perspective that I brought to other essays in the book. I tend to come at things sideways or from a slightly oblique angle, and a lot of that comes from having grown up in a place that I liked, in many ways, but felt like I didn’t quite fit in. You know, when you grow up in a small town and you feel like you have a different sensibility from the people around you, you are always in a slightly ironic position in your childhood universe. You leave your small town and go to the city, or go somewhere else, trying to find a place where you feel you belong, but then you find that that sideways relationship to things goes with you, and you’re always slightly defining yourself against your surroundings rather than with your surroundings, if that makes sense. This is a common and age-old story, but one that I’ve thought about a lot with respect to my own life. So I felt that going through that Ponca City story was a way to explore that kind of obliquity in a slightly more intimate and personal way than I was able to do when I was in Alaska, or watching The X-Files.
The essays in this collection span six years and two presidencies. What was it like engaging with your older work during our current historical moment?
I certainly wanted the book to speak to the world it was being released in. I wrote my book overlapping the two most recent presidencies, and of course did all of the revising under Trump. I felt, as I went through some of the older essays — this may be sort of writerly thinking, partly because I was writing about small-town Oklahoma and American conspiracy theories, which I’d actually written about under Obama — that they seemed kind of anticipatory. They seemed to fall into the chain of events that ultimately led to Trump. You know, how our dads listened to conspiracy radio in Oklahoma and they played the Rodney King riots on a loop at the pizza place. That was stuff that I’d written about in 2012, but when I was reading it under Trump, it stood out.
When I started revising, I had two options: I could think of these essays as finished works that represented the historical moments when they were published on the internet, or I could think of them as open to revision, and try to shape them for this moment.
From my perspective, it was about trying to make the essays as good as I could, and in some cases that had to do with drawing out some of those trends and parallels. I mostly chose the second course, partly because it’s hard for me not to tinker with my own work if I read something that seems bad. So in some ways I was making this large-scale choice to try to represent the world in 2018 more sagely, but then a lot of it was me being annoyed by stuff I wrote five years ago and wanting to bonk myself in the head because it should sound better.
You often stop short of offering a neat conclusion. Why?
I like things that don’t end in too clean a way. I like essays that leave things a little bit provisional, a little bit more nuanced than they seemed in the beginning. If I write an essay that clearly presents to the reader a situation of incomprehensible complexity, or a situation where knowledge kind of expires in the encounter with complexity, then I feel like that is, for me, often the more valuable kind of writing than essays that explain things, tie things off, and tell you what things mean. I like uncertainty and ambiguity and surprise, as aesthetic features.
I was thinking recently about Montaigne, the French writer who wrote some of the most important early essays. What’s so wonderful about Montaigne’s essays is how spontaneous they are. He’ll be going off on one historical tangent and then pivot halfway through and start talking about something else that seems only distantly connected, and then at the end you get this poetic juxtaposition that is just stunning. And he’ll do that in three pages — very, very briefly. I realized that this arc, in the tendencies of the essay over the last several hundred years, had a lot in common with what I also liked about blogging, when blogging was really a thing, where you felt like you could discover someone’s blog and get these vignettes. Maybe you didn’t know exactly where they were going to go, and they were really free to experiment, and sometimes they worked and sometimes they didn’t. There was a lot of spontaneity, and I found that moment kind of exhilarating. I think if I’ve tried to do anything as a writer of longer essays, it’s to convey those virtues in a longer form.
As a result, your essays often take a kind of winding and unpredictable path. How do you decide which twists and turns to take?
That’s something else that really depends on the story. I mean, the Japan story wasn’t easy to write in a lot of ways, but it was easy to plan because as I was experiencing it, I just knew what the essay was. I didn’t see the end of it until I got to the end of it, but when I got to the end of it in real life, I knew that was the end of the essay, so it was just a matter of coming home and translating that experience into words. In other stories, where the experience is not so conclusive, it can take a lot of feeling and finding my way in. That was the case with “Lost Highway,” where I got back from Area 51 and then couldn’t find my way into the piece, and I moved to Paris for a while. I went to extreme lengths to try and figure out what I was doing, and it really took a lot of additional thinking and feeling and I had to come back and go see the Trinity Site. That piece felt like putting together a jigsaw puzzle blindfolded.
I think I am uncomfortable with the idea of knowing anything. But I am really intrigued by the idea of productive unknowns, or resonant unknowns. If I can get to a place where the unknowns I’m confronting feel irreducible in some way, or feels like I can’t think my way through it or around it, then I feel like I’m in the right place. As I’m writing, I think the in-between process is often the process of trying to outwit the analytical tendency of my own brain to arrive at a conclusion. I want to continue finding my way through the mysteries and ambiguities of everything until I can’t keep going. To me, that’s the story.
Did you have to look hard for the owl references? It’s uncanny.
I added a couple of them, but some of them were always there. And strangely, some of them had been there in cuts and then I just restored the cut. Like, before I knew that owls were one of the key images of the book, I had written the Alaska essay and had ended up cutting from it a section about how people in Nome had seen this image of this snowy owl in their dreams before they reported alien abductions. And then as I was driving to the Trinity Site in New Mexico, I just happened upon this place called the Owl Cafe, which just happened to be where all the guys who were guarding the bomb before the first test and some of the nuclear scientists had lunch. It slowly dawned on me that owls were showing up a lot in some of these stories. So there were a couple places where I had to insert them, but it was never hard to find an owl. I don’t want to sell it as some sort of paranormal or magical event, but it was a little bit uncanny, at least.
They’ll follow you forever now.
And that’s really true. It turns out that when you write a book with owls in a title, people buy owls for you. Like, I’m a little overrun with owls right now. My mom keeps texting me when she finds an owl, and I’m like, “Don’t get it, mom.”