Jayne Anne Phillips Finds Ineffable Secrets In Her Own Material

April 28, 2009
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Jane Phillips cover
Lark and Termite
by Jayne Anne Phillips
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An exclusive Authorlink interview with Jayne Anne Phillips
author of Lark and Termite
by Ellen Birkett Morris

May 2009

 

If you read the table of contents of Jayne Anne Phillips’ novel “Lark and Termite” you might be intimidated. Sections are separated by date (July 26, July 27, July 28 and July 31) and each chapter’s narration alternates between Cpl. Robert Leavitt in North Chungchong Province, South Korea, in 1950 and his children, step-daughter Lark and son Termite, and sister-in-law Nonie in Winfield, West Virginia circa 1959.

The alternating viewpoints result in a wonderfully rich layering of story that reveals unconscious connections between the characters and the depth of their impact on one another.

Phillips achieved that by allowing the story to evolve.

“The story is inside that first line that I hear. I begin with the first line of the story and follow it to the next line,” said Phillips.

“I found that there were ineffable secrets, arcs and connections in the material .”
—PHILLIPS

Working as a poet works, line by line, the material revealed itself to her. In the case of “Lark and Termite,” the first line that came to Phillips was Lark carrying Termite’s chair onto the lawn.

“This was my first glimpse of her deep understanding of Termite, of time and place, what Lark knows and what she doesn’t know,” said Phillips.

The character Termite, who Lark describes as “in himself like a termite is in the wall,” emerged from something Phillips saw when visiting a friend years ago. “He was first suggested by a glimpse of a child who sat alone in a yard facing an alley, blowing repeatedly on a strip of a blue plastic dry cleaner bag that he held to his forehead. He seemed fixated on that vision of blue,” said Phillips.

Termite can’t speak or walk. Living in 1959, he is unburdened by the labels bestowed on children today. His chapters, like the chapters narrated by his father Robert Leavitt, are told in third person.

The story includes repeated images, including a train tunnel in both South Korea and West Virginia, and vivid sensory descriptions that allow the reader entrée into the world of each character.

Phillips said the main challenge of the book was to work in two time frames and connect them in subtle ways. “I found that there were ineffable secrets, arcs and connections in the material that I couldn’t have planned. They lay in the material.”

". . . artifacts then I try to forget the research and let the sensory details become real to me . . .”
—PHILLIPS

Research included exploring the story of the massacre of hundreds of Korean civilians at No Gun Ri in 1950, reported by Charles J. Hanley of the Associated Press in 1999.

“When I do the research I take notes and find artifacts then I try to forget the research and let the sensory details become real to me,” said Phillips.

She believes that the tension of balancing multiple roles, writer, mother, director and teacher in the MFA program for writers that she designed at Rutgers University in New Jersey, feeds work.

“Everyday you force yourself through the resistance you are working with and you get deeper into the material. This way you get to stuff you wouldn’t have access to otherwise,” said Phillips.

“My work has to be so deeply compelling that I can put it down and return to it, renter it, at another time. I don’t have the kind of life where I can set a (per day) page count or a word count. The tension of needing to do the work affects the intensity of the kind of prose I write,” she explained.

 

Phillips designed the MFA program to be a “hefty literature-enriched academic program.” She believes that program stands out on the basis of its diversity, students range in age from 21 to 60 and half of them are students of color.

“There are no guarantees in the life of an artist. People do MFA programs to commit to writing and to join a community of writers who support them and offer criticism to enrich their work,” said Phillips.

Phillips, who published her first collection of stories, "Black Tickets," in 1979, said she was an “addicted reader” as a child and cut her writing teeth on poetry and on one-page fictions.

Her early short fiction, “Black Tickets” and “Sweethearts” (1976), drew high praise from reviewers and fellow writers including Raymond Carver, John Irving, Annie Dillard, and Tim O'Brien. Nadine Gordimer called Phillips “the best short story writer since Eudora Welty.”

Her other work includes “Machine Dreams” (1984), “Fast Lanes” (1987), “Shelter” (1994), “MotherKind” (2000).

She sees her work as a continuum. “All of my books are connected. One couldn’t be written without the other.”

Of her early success, Phillips noted, “It is wonderful to be encouraged, but I don’t think a writer can take reviews too seriously. They don’t have much to do with the work itself. Sometimes one is understood and sometimes one isn’t, and that is part of the world of a writer.”

She advises writers to have a firm grounding in the nuts and bolts of writing, including grammar, before attempting to break the rules. She also suggests they read good writing.

“Habitual readers internalize the way a sentence should sound,” said Phillips.

 

“Writers should read writers who take chances and write a response,” advised Phillips. “If you write a one-page fiction when you are trying a new voice, you are forced to think about the form of the story and keep the language compressed.”

She encourages her students to work hard and publish stories in good commercial and literary magazines, such as Granta and Narrative.

Phillips met her first publisher at a writer’s conference but said good work can draw attention on its own.

“The best way to meet an agent is to have them contact you because they like your work,” said Phillips.

About Jayne Anne Phillips

Jayne Anne Phillips was born and raised in West Virginia. Her first book of stories, Black Tickets, published in 1979 when she was twenty-six, won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction. Machine Dreams, Phillips’s first novel, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and chosen by the New York Times Book Review as one of the twelve best books of 1984. It was followed three years later by a story collection, Fast Lanes, her 1994 novel, Shelter, and her most recent book, MotherKind, published in 2000 and nominated for the UK’s prestigious Orange Prize. Phillips is the recipient of several fellowships and taught at Harvard University, Williams College, Boston University, and Brandeis University before taking her current position as professor of English and director of the Rutgers-Newark MFA program.

 

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists. 

 

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This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris