Where It’s Going to Go: Jayne Anne Phillips on the Writing Process

April 26, 2014   •   By Rumaan Alam

THE WORK OF JAYNE ANNE PHILLIPS has been marked by an exceptionally playful linguistic complexity that pushes against the confines of form, whether it be short story or novel. She made her debut with the story collection Black Tickets in 1979, and in 1984 she published her first novel, Machine Dreams, a multi-generational family saga about society, war, and domestic life. She returned to the short story in the late 1980s, publishing a second collection called Fast Lanes. Since then, Phillips has taken the novel as her primary pursuit. Shelter, which came out in 1994, is an intense, almost gothic story of a youth summer camp in the 1960s, while Motherkind follows the tale of a woman’s experience of pregnancy and childbirth and the simultaneous decline of her own mother’s health. Her 2009 novel Lark and Termite was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her latest book, Quiet Dell, recounts the story of a highly publicized, Depression-era murder committed by the infamous serial killer Harry Powers, and draws heavily on real life. We spoke in New York City in September of 2013, on the eve of Quiet Dell’s publication.


RUMAAN ALAM: You were 26 — what we would call a prodigy — when you published Black Tickets. When you think about the writer you were then, what’s your relationship to that self?

JAYNE ANNE PHILLIPS: I didn’t really feel that way, but I was talked about that way I suppose. When I have the experience of reading my own work from an earlier time, I almost feel as though I’m approaching it as a stranger.

What made the novel a more compelling pursuit than the short story?

Well, I see my work as a continuum. I see it as one long arc in a sense. I don’t think I could’ve written X book if I hadn’t written the book just before it.

I started writing as a poet, which is why I’m still a language-oriented writer. I write very slowly. I sort of compose line-by-line, as a poet does. I never know what the final arc of a novel is. I’m really inside the material, descending deeper and deeper into it, and leaving room for a kind of organic process to take place. I feel as though if I do reams of research, and decide beforehand — What are the ideas I’m exploring? Where’s the book going to go? — I’m going to be limiting it, because I really want subconscious or unconscious understanding of the work to affect the book.

So you don’t begin with a roadmap or an outline?

No. I begin with a line. Every one of my books and stories, I can tell you the line I started with. It may not end up being the first line, but I always feel as though everything about the material is inside the language, and it’s a question of getting deep enough into the language to understand it and sustain it. And sustaining the voice is what makes the work come into itself. That’s the real difficulty, and yet I’ve almost never had the experience of it not working. You’re always out there without a net, you know? Or at least I am. And I’m extremely persistent. On the days I’m not inspired, I’m just persistent.

And what does that persistence mean, outside of making yourself sit at the computer?

I feel as though I have a book in mind all the time, from the moment I start it, even if there are periods of time I’m unable to write. When I am writing, I feel intense pressure to write as much as possible, get as deep into the project as possible. And it’s a terrifying way to work, but in a strange way the book itself, the work I’ve already written, has to be very compelling to me, and pull me back into it. Even if I’ve been away from it for three months.

You’ve said you’d been interested in the Quiet Dell story for a long time before you got down to making it work in a book.

Exactly. And that’s true of almost all my books. The first two paragraphs of Quiet Dell are actually a prose poem I wrote maybe 20 years ago, and always had in mind. I loved that piece of language, and I had no idea at the time that it would be the beginning of something.

Quiet Dell begins in the voice of Annabel, a child based on one of the real victims of Harry Powers, a 1930s serial killer who found his victims through the lonely hearts correspondence clubs popular at the time.

When I started thinking about this book, she was the character who pulled me into it — my imagining who she might’ve been. The compelling piece of it for me was to save her from vanishing.

Also, as with the children in Lark and Termite [Phillip's 2009 novel] there was this sense that a life, which to us may seem a life of suffering, can have its own integrity and even ecstasy.

Victims of whatever it may be, famine or pestilence, predatory monsters — what we owe them is to remember them.

Are there challenges specific to writing in a child’s voice?

It can certainly seem inauthentic. Some of my early influences were James Agee’s A Death in the Family and To Kill a Mockingbird. I find children to be the ultimate outlaw characters. They see everything without context, though of course the reader brings his or her own sense-memory of childhood to the character.

You’ve covered the spectrum of childhood. The baby in Motherkind feels present in a way that’s so different from baby characters in most books. And Shelter revolves around a group of adolescents.

I find it amazing to try and empathize my way into those kinds of heads, those kinds of minds. Sometimes the children are just average children; sometimes they are children with sort of extra-sensory perceptions who don’t understand that those perceptions are in any way out of the normal. The spectrum runs from children completely unable to live in the world and express themselves, to children who seem like sort of unrecognized prodigies of one sort or another. Buddy, in Shelter, is this sort of feral child who can’t tie his shoelaces and is not going to be an academic success, but he has other passions and talents.

There’s also an element of the extra-sensory, the supernatural in your work.

It’s not supernatural.

But it’s more than simply spiritual. In Quiet Dell, after Annabel’s death, the book is concerned with a world that is not exactly real.

I don’t know if I can say it’s not real. That’s like saying thought, dream, and fantasy aren’t real. When you’re driving down the road and you’re just thinking about something completely unrelated to the fact that you’re in a car driving, it’s almost as if time goes away. Or when you’re engaged in something that erases your consciousness of other things, and time seems to either leap forward, or stop for a moment. I think it’s just a question of dimensions, adjacent dimensions of reality.

[In Quiet Dell,] I’m not suggesting an actual heaven. I don’t think of the state in which we see Annabel as heaven; it’s more an arrested state. This idea of imagining something beyond the body is just — it’s a human story. And I think being a writer, or being an artist of any kind, it’s as if there’s the workmanlike part of it where you’re just sitting in the chair or standing in front of the canvas or whatever, waiting for something to happen, looking for something to happen. But then there are these moments when, because you’re prepared, you gain access to something beyond the self — something you did not think of but something that came to you.

I’ve experienced so many strange coincidences in the process of writing that to me writing is or can be a spiritual exercise. And I hope that comes through to the reader, because I think we experience these moments in our lives in which we glimpse something beyond the limitations of the self. And certainly language, which is an endless combination of letters and words that can evoke amazing responses, it’s not simply a two-dimensional thing. It’s like music.

Is the state that you’re talking about, that ability to access the world beyond the body ...

Beyond the limits of the personality, beyond the limits of the physical self.

… Do you think that’s related to childhood?

I suppose every child is more open to it, and yet some childhoods are so difficult that maybe people lose that elasticity. But everyone dreams, whether they remember it or not, and dreaming is a connection that we have to adjacent spiritual dimensions.

Were you raised with a formal spirituality?

The thing I liked about church was the velvet curtains. And one time, in a Christmas play, I was the little lame boy, and I got to dress as a boy and I got to drag my foot all the way down the red carpet, up to the altar.

I had a lot of intense experiences in church, but none of them were about the responsive readings. All of that always seemed very unexciting.

Is there a relationship between your own autobiography and the work you do as an artist?

I would hope there’s a relationship. It’s sort of like method acting: okay, your father hasn’t died, but your dog died, so if you’re asked to do a scene about a father’s death, you think about the very real emotions of a death you have experienced. I used to say that writing is practicing for death, and I don’t mean that to be grisly. I mean that, because in writing you have experienced a sort of transformative energy, you might be more receptive to even something about which you know nothing, that’s going to completely change your identity. A writer experiences different identities.

My work is very sensory, very physical in the real world, because that’s how I think you connect with a reader. It sets up all kinds of associations that I will never know about, associations the reader brings to the work, associations kicked off by things that are unconscious.

Some readers start to build a relationship with a writer. We feel as if we know who she is, or that we understand something about her life.

Well, you probably do.

You’ve written a lot about West Virginia, which is where you’re from. At the end of MotherKind, the protagonist is trying to convince her father to come live in Boston. She sees Boston as her new home, whereas his idea of home and family is still very rooted in West Virginia. How does this relate to your relationship with where you grew up?

I’ve said before that we all experience a kind of primal loss as we form our identities, because no matter what the relationship of origin was or the sort of conditions we’re in age zero to 10, we lose that world. If we ever had it, we lose that sense of unconditional and trust. We lose that version of our parents, whether they were very sheltering or maybe sometimes very frightening. They were immense creatures who were just all-powerful, and that goes away, which is natural. So even if we live in our own hometown all our lives, we lose that primal world that we came into.

You’re talking about a world that’s a moment in time that is not bound by physical geography. But you also come from a specific place and time.

It’s amazing that people don’t realize West Virginia seceded during the Civil War because it was an anti-slavery state. A lot of people don’t know that. They don’t know that was the genesis of the place.

When I write about small-town life, I think I’m writing about it in such a way that it applies to small towns in Oklahoma and Ohio and Florida and kind of everywhere, although the air might smell different in those places. We weren’t a family that had a home place, that is, a piece of land. Three generations ago, we’d had that, but it wasn’t something I experienced. Still, having that sense of being in one place for hundreds of years … I mean, my family was in Western Virginia before it was a state, when it was a territory.

From the beginning, I had a sense of my family’s history, which is a fantastic place to start as a writer, because you’ve got to fight so hard to get out from under it. Not physically, but emotionally. To get far enough out that you can see it and value it. The writer’s always a bit of an outsider. The writer’s always living the life, and yet thinking about the life. It’s a kind of divided state of consciousness. But that’s what gives you the ability to see.

Does the short story as a form continue to interest you?

Even though I started as a poet, and then I wrote stories, I think as a writer I probably was always moving toward the novel. It suits my need to really descend into the material as deeply as I can.

Machine Dreams, your first novel, is structured in sections that add up to a portrait of a family across generations. Did that form grow out of writing short stories?

It wasn’t at all conscious. I think material dictates form, or at least that’s the way I relate to it. It’s about letting the material almost tell you how to write the book. If something isn’t working it may be that you haven’t found the form the material needs to take.

I think of plot as this kind of spiral construction with an incredible amount of energy inside it. It comes from the center and moves out. And that’s the form I think that my books take, although I also impose some sort of consecutive arc in them.

War has a presence in Machine Dreams, Lark and Termite, and many of the short stories. Why is war such a force in the work?

World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars. But since World War II, it’s been all one war, a continuing war. And, drone warfare or not, it always seems that the reality of the war is on the ground, which we haven’t experienced in this country since the Civil War. Wherever that ground is, on the ground war is just chaos, uncontrolled chaos and devastation. And that’s what I’m trying to kind of tap into.

I consider Machine Dreams and Lark and Termite to be books full of warning. They’re addressed to the typical person, the person whose life may be affected. And of course now we’re in this very strange world in which even the soldiers are hired, which sort of divorces us from what’s really happening.

I think there’s a misconception that a writer who’s interested in language is not a writer who’s interested in real circumstance.

I think the defining characteristic of what I’m trying to do is explore perception itself, how perception works. How we exist in time, thought, fantasy, dream, waking life. How do we perceive the past? How does the future perceive us? What are the connections between one thing and another? Is it a random universe?

I think writers, or at least to speak for myself, take the stance that the universe is not a random universe. That the connections between language and the world, the connections between our lives and the lives of others, the connections in our own perceptions, defy the idea of a meaningless, random world ruled by coincidence.

I’ve always been more interested in perception and the way people think. All the rest of it — war, historical events, childhood domestic situations — is really about how perception works and what that means. I mean, what are the ramifications of that?

But also you are clearly really interested in a story. I’m thinking of the first part of Quiet Dell, in which the story is so horrifyingly gripping.

Narrative, the arc of a narrative, is central to human consciousness. We have to have a sense of narrative or we can’t locate ourselves, get through the day. But I would say that, for me, the story, the narrative, is inside the language. It flows out of language and language is character because language is — it’s a voice, a very, very specific voice, and the character is in the sound of that voice, and the story builds from there.

I think one thing that’s so jarring about the way we live now is that our sense of narrative is so often eroded.

How do you mean?

I think that our sense of narrative, and of thinking itself, is becoming more and more interrupted. And of course so few people read. I think readers have a real advantage because they’ve practiced being inside of various narratives, and many times readers experience situations before they actually live them.

Your books tend to be interested in the past, either taking place at some remove from the era in which we live, or grappling with history. Is the past a richer subject than the present?

That’s a good question. I think I find something so exciting about looking at [the past]. When you look at a photograph of strangers, all of the time that has passed since the moment in which the photograph was taken is inside the photograph. And I’ve always studied photographs as part of research for whatever I write.

In Quiet Dell, you put those photos in the book.

Yes, they had to be in that book. I guess I would say that I just find history fascinating. The fact that something has passed opens it up.

Opens it up — meaning you’re allowed to fiddle with it?

No, it opens it up in terms of the meaning inside it. I certainly could write about the day I’m having today, or write a novel in text messages that would make a statement about what’s happening right now. But it wouldn’t have, for me at least, the same impact and depth of pressure.

When you’re writing about a past historical era, you see connections between your characters and the present world. If those characters could step right into the world we’re in right now, they’d be a little surprised about a few things, but they’d adapt very quickly. They’re really the same people. I mean human beings haven’t changed that much in 80 years. But because of the world they do exist in, they have a completely different kind of perception of themselves. It’s fascinating to think about.

The 1950s were fascinating in one way, and the 1930s in another. In rural areas, people were just beginning to have indoor bathrooms, and many poor people didn’t have phones. Newspapers were what connected everyone. People wrote letters, like really wrote letters. It was also in a way a more desperate time.

And you know, we live in a world now where media is a constant presence, whether it’s the weather station or tabloids or text messages. What’s the next story? And it’s never the real story; it’s just the sort of superficial headline of the story. This story in Quiet Dell was one of the first sensationalized cases meant to distract people from the fact they were in the midst of a Depression and some people were starving.

And what happened to the family [in Quiet Dell] had something to do with the Depression. But that kind of thing can happen now. It happens now all the time. Children are still preyed upon; they always were, from the beginning of time. But in working out the novel, I considered the children spiritual superiors, spiritually superior to the predator, you know?

The predator in Quiet Dell feels very unexplained.

The book’s idea of him is someone who simply can’t be understood. Today we talk about the missing chromosome, someone who is damaged in some way, the Ted Bundy type, the sociopath who seems completely charming yet has this dark inner world. We believe that anyone who does that kind of damage must’ve been damaged themself, but yet maybe not. And with this person, we don’t have any idea. He was interested in his own fame but never told any of his secrets. No one ever knew who he really was.

Do you feel a certain responsibility when writing about something that actually happened?

I was very careful to stay with the real story in terms of the way it evolved and the way it was discovered. But clearly I invented the personalities; I invented their relationships to each other; I invented their perceptions; I made characters of them. And this may not be who they really were at all, but I bet my characterization bears a sort of relation.

I use their real names, their real ages. It was fascinating to me that everyone involved in this case, the killer and the killed, the murderer and the murdered, were all immigrants, all from different countries. It was a time in our history as a nation when so many were coming as young adults from different countries. So they brought with them a very different sensibility.

As I say in a note in the beginning of the book, the lines I use from the killer’s letters, from the trial, from newspaper articles are all real. It was amazing inside their world, and once I was there, I wanted to save the children. And, in my estimation, I did save the children.

Do you spend time thinking about the larger literary conversation — about say, whether a woman novelist is treated in the same manner as her male peers?

Well of course I wish society wasn’t sexist. But I don’t think about it a lot. When I write, I don’t think about the reader; I don’t think about the critic; I don’t think about anybody. I’m just trying to descend into the material, and the material, if I’m really inside, blocks everything else out, and that’s the way it should be.

The most important thing of course is simply the work. And I think it’s an incredible privilege to be an artist, to be a writer, to be able to do it. To be inside it, you know? Follow it through. Being a writer is like being led by a whisper. You’ve heard about auditory hallucinations? Certain people have different kind of auditory hallucinations, like you’re stepping off a curb and you hear someone calling your name except their voice is very close to your ear. You can’t make out what the whisper is; you just know it’s a human voice. That is writing.


Rumaan Alam's stories have appeared in Crazyhorse, the Gettysburg Review, StoryQuarterly, and elsewhere.