The Apparent Enemy Is Not the Actual Enemy: An Interview with Helen Phillips




HELEN PHILLIP’S LATEST NOVEL, The Need, opens with a terrifying tableau: a mother home alone with her two children faces an intruder wearing a deer mask made of papier-mâché. The scene is depicted in bursts, interspersed with scenes unraveling from earlier in the day, and is so intense I ran around my own house and turned on all the lights before I could finish reading. I should have known that wouldn’t help, because in Phillips’s hands, the real fear is never one that can be illuminated so easily. Just as quickly as she sent me to turn on the lights, she jerked me back into the pages and showed me this was no typical Hollywood-style fearmongering. The real horror in The Need lies in the fact that reality isn’t clear, the narrator is unreliable, and the heart of this story is tied to motherhood. Just when you think you know what you’re reading, you realize that you don’t.

Phillips inverts this novel on page 69 (could that be an accident?) with a single sentence: The key’s the key. This powerful symbol, a key, haunts the characters and pushes the reader to question everything they’ve read and thought they understood. Of course, since this is Helen Phillips, the themes and questions run far beyond questioning what is real. By dropping an archaeological dig into the mix, and the discovery of a mysterious old Bible in which every single mention of God is feminized — And God called the light Day, and the darkness she called Night — Phillips gets to the meat of the book, questioning marriage, parenting, feminism, the nature of stories, and the larger assumptions that govern our understanding of the world. The themes in The Need will twist under your skin, and this is what will keep you reading. I was thrilled when Helen agreed to this interview, so let’s get to the good stuff.

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RACHEL BARENBAUM: Helen, this book seems personal. You clearly put your heart out there, and it is tremendous.

HELEN PHILLIPS: Thank you. Yes. Of all the books I’ve written, it is the most scary to have this one published because I made myself vulnerable in a way I haven’t before.

That’s why it’s so good.

Well, what gives me courage is that in any book I really love, the writer has put themselves out there in a fearless way. And those books have made such a difference to me. In the moments when I feel a little nervous, I try to think about how much those books meant to me and helped me.

When I started reading The Need, I thought you were taking me through a Hollywood-style horror story, but then I was jerked in another direction that was far more terrifying. I’d call it the reality of motherhood, not the dream a parent concocts before actually having children. Can you talk about this twist?

The beginning of the book was one of the first things that came to me. And while it is a Hollywood setup, it didn’t arise out of that. One particular night, my husband was out. My daughter was a newborn. I was nursing her and I was naked. I heard a sound in the other room and I froze. It was the wind. It was nothing. But I had this moment of — what if someone did come in right now? What would I do if someone came in while I was naked and nursing? How would I protect my daughter? The book begins with that threat, but eventually the reader will come to understand that the intruder is not the real threat. The apparent enemy is not the actual enemy. Which is, in life, so often the case.

The Need is masquerading as a thriller of sorts, but as it progresses, you realize that what you thought you needed to be scared of is not at all what you needed to be scared of; in fact, you need to be scared of something far less conquerable than a specific nemesis.

But back to the beginning, while I agree that it might seem like a Hollywood setup, I am interested in the momentum that page-turners have. It can be a criticism, “Oh, it’s just a page-turner,” but I’m really interested in what gets you to turn a page. What is the source of that momentum? In the early parts of the book, every chapter ends on a cliff-hanger — on the work front and the home front — it makes it much more dynamic.

I think you’re right: often what’s called “high fiction” looks down on page-turners, but I love them because that’s what keeps me in the book.

Yes, but it is subjective — what will make you turn the page. Not everyone would find Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts a page-turner, but it was for me. The writer is doing something when they get their reader to engage that way, and I am very intrigued by that.

Let’s talk about the main character, Molly. She’s married and she and her husband like to tell each other: I love you even though I hate you. This can be understood on so many levels. Tell me about this phrase. Why did you include it? 

Having a child is such a weird time in a marriage. It is generative and beautiful, and a child brings you together. It is the biggest commitment you’ve ever made in your life. And it is the most exhausting and draining thing you’ll ever do. It will also take you away from your other interests, your hobby, your career.

This is not autobiographical at all. I don’t say this to my husband. But I wanted to capture the idea that when you have young children, your store of patience and tenderness is primarily reserved for them, or so I’ve found. This does not always leave a lot in the bank for your partner. So you love your partner. And you hate them. And for Molly and David, saying it outright, turning it into a joke, makes it easier to bear.

Okay. Still on David, Molly’s husband. He is like a dream throughout the book — never really present. He’s a disembodied voice on the cell phone and a flash of memory almost always in relation to sex — the lack of sex, great sex of the past and some desire in the present. My favorite line that exemplifies this: “‘By the way, Ben [their baby] is not wearing any pajamas,’ he said, though his penis was already in her mouth.” Why is David largely absent, except for sex scenes?

Molly has to confront the void on her own. As we all do, ultimately. My intention was to evoke a good marriage (which I crave more of in fiction overall), a marriage with a solid physical and emotional connection, and a real sense of partnership. But even in the context of a strong marriage, having young children is a strain. And even in the context of a loving partner, we still each must face basic existential questions alone. 

One more on this theme of the love/hate new parents may harbor toward one another and their children. Toward the end, Molly has the chance to watch her family from a bird’s-eye perspective. She says she “[hung] back like a guest at a funeral.” You used a lot of dark language like this, referring to funerals, and the feeling of being removed from the present, from the family. Why?

At that particular moment, Molly is spying on her nemesis taking her children for a walk. It is a sort of death for her, to give the care of her children over to this other person. Throughout the book, Molly is displaced from her quotidian reality — a reality that she has, until very recently, taken for granted. 

This is the first novel I’ve read that openly and frankly showcased nursing and breast milk. Thank you! There’s a lot of it — I thought, brilliantly so. In particular, you showed the reality, that it is a hard job. I loved that Molly experienced the pain of needing to express milk, the embarrassment of wet shirts from leaking nipples, and the constant reminder of her duty when her milk comes down — almost always at an inopportune time. Tell me, why all the breast milk?

Thank you for this question. I’ve always turned to fiction to help guide me and I haven’t found enough fictional representations of breast feeding, breast pumps, marriage, and life with young children as I would be interested in reading at this point in my life. I have an appetite for this. That’s why it’s there.

I do, too. That’s why I’m so appreciative that you’ve done this.

Yeah, but some editors rejected this book because they said, “There’s too much breast milk.”

What? That’s awful.

Yes, and I thought, “Do you know how much breast milk is in your life when you’re lactating?” That is why it needs to be in the book. But I was not too concerned about that critique because I know there are readers out there who will want this in the book.

And I had another experience where a guy told me this book really helped him understand more of his wife’s experience and what it felt like to be in the female body experiencing this, and that meant a lot to me.

When lactation suddenly became an enormous part of my life, I was shocked that I knew so little about this extremely common and intense human experience. In writing the book, I did want to share some of the many things I didn’t know about lactation before they happened to me: yes, breast pumps make weird sounds; yes, you can express your milk by hand if necessary; yes, your milk can suddenly come down in the middle of a meeting.

But that said, nursing my children and watching their bodies grow from my milk alone remains one of the most joyous and satisfying experiences of my life (thanks primarily, I’m sure, to oxytocin). Though Molly is burdened by the responsibility of nursing Ben, the privilege of nursing is also a primary point of contention between her and her nemesis. When Molly’s nemesis begs to nurse Ben, Molly tells her to let her milk dry up, the harshest thing she could have possibly said at that moment. When Molly later witnesses her nemesis nursing her son, she is pained to the point of tears by her jealousy. Lactation — like many other aspects of motherhood — is at once a burden and a treasure.

Still on the topic of breasts. I have to tell you, I loved this passage: “[I]t felt like her breasts were currently the common property of the family (sucked by the baby in hunger; sucked by the child in jest, in imitation of the baby; sucked by the husband in desire; sucked, too, by the breast pump.” Please, talk about this!

It is such an odd experience because you don’t have full ownership over your body — for a good and positive reason. This is miraculous and also rather odd, and can potentially cause some shakiness in one’s identity.

As I said, it is a treasure and a burden and you are profoundly connected to your child. At the same time, you can’t just go away for eight hours or do whatever you want. You have to plan, to know your every move. You have to know where you are and who needs you.

That passage is an example of how deeply Molly is needed by her family. And she, in turn, deeply needs them. There’s a profound vulnerability that comes with that need. Now we’re inching closer to the significance of the title …

Let’s talk about a different view on feminism in this book. You added one of my favorite sci-fi tropes, the idea of an alternate universe connecting with Molly’s. You got there through the archaeological dig and gave us a stunning artifact — a Bible in which every single mention of God is feminine. Why?

I, too, have always enjoyed imagining alternate versions of reality.

When I started writing, I knew there was going to be some object that Molly found that would be a connection to other realities, but I didn’t know what it would be. And I knew I wanted it to be something that would attract negative attention from some corners. The Bible was a late arrival, and I wanted it to be a straightforward difference. And what an interesting change it would be if the only alteration was every single instance of “he” was changed to “she.” How might one modification to the course of history alter everything? How might our world be different? The Need doesn’t really explore this, but it gestures toward it.

One of my favorite passages came toward the end: “She sat in the parked car in the uncomfortable heat, immobilized by the what-ifs, the swiftness with which anything can change, the ever-present split second that is the difference between blood spilling or not, the difference between one future and another.” This theme of being trapped between two worlds, two possibilities is a constant throughout the book. Why? What does it mean to you?

Yes, that moment is in a sense the climax of the book. It is Molly’s clearest articulation of the multiple possible realities hovering within each instant. It is her recognition that only a hair’s breadth separates her fate from the fate of her nemesis. This recognition is the starting point for empathy.

And the penny, the Coke bottle. E Pluribus Unum. Why?

I’ve always been fascinated by the mundane, everyday objects that surround us. We take them for granted. But if, say, only one Coca-Cola bottle or one penny existed on Earth, it would start to seem quite sacred and beautiful. I’m interested in cherishing the useful little objects that we take for granted, just as we so often take our daily lives for granted — just as Molly does before she meets her nemesis. While I was writing the book, I kept a Coca-Cola bottle and a pair of pennies on my desk.

Okay, switching gears, I’d love to hear a little bit about the craft of writing this gorgeous novel. Helen, how did The Need come together? Did you work with an outline?

It began, as all my novels do, with a 100-page list of random ideas, images, dreams, overheard dialogue, newspaper clippings, et cetera. And a vague sense of a plot. Slowly I wove all of the above together into a very surreal and sprawling outline, and wrote from that. I had certain scenes and plot moments in mind, but it is always a lot of work to figure exactly where each aspect fits in. My husband, Adam, is a visual artist, and a very smart and patient human. He spent hours talking through the plot with me.

This is my favorite question to ask authors: what was the biggest editorial change you made?

In the initial draft of the book, Molly had discovered the Bible over a year ago. In this draft, she discovered it only a few weeks before the book opens. This was the brilliant suggestion of my editor, Marysue Rucci. That simple temporal change added so much more urgency to the plot.

Finally, let’s get personal. What are you reading now? What books do you recommend?

I’m currently reading, and riveted by, Good Talk by Mira Jacob. I also recently read Etgar Keret’s forthcoming collection Fly Already, which I loved. My favorite book in recent years, and a book that has shaped me as a writer, is Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin. And my eagerly awaited summer to-read pile includes The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang and Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli.

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Rachel Barenbaum is the author of A Bend in the Stars.


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