Helen Phillips

Maybe it was the mouse carnival that did me in. Or was it the factory where virgins are made, or grocery shopping with Bob Dylan, or could it have been the moment when a man turned into a rainstorm? Helen Phillips’s debut collection of one-page fabulist stories, And Yet They Were Happy, is thronged by wonders. It is the work, as Amy Hempel has said, of a “deeply interesting mind.”

Helen is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, the Italo Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction, the Meridian Editors’ Prize, and a Ucross Foundation residency. Her work has appeared in the Mississippi Review, PEN America, and Salt Hill, among others. She lives in Brooklyn. Helen and I went to college and graduated school together, and this interview took place over the past month.

—Reese Okyong Kwon



INTERVIEWER

Do I remember correctly that the stories in this collection came out of a time when you were writing a page-long story a day? If so, what was that like?

 

HELEN PHILLIPS

Yes, that’s right. I’d been grappling with a novel and felt too far removed from what I love about writing—that initial burst of an idea, the permission to be crazy and mess around and let unlike things collide. So I set the novel aside and gave myself the challenge of writing a one-page story every day (a challenge inspired by my husband, artist Adam Thompson, who around the same time took a break from painting to devote himself to making pencil line drawings on 8 ½ x 11 paper). I’d never been as happy creatively as I was when I started working on the one-pagers. Finally I had an outlet for all my weird ideas.

 

INTERVIEWER

Did you have this collection in mind from the start?

 

HELEN PHILLIPS

I didn’t have a future in mind for the project. I just wanted to write a bunch of them and see what emerged. I knew it wasn’t a very marketable product, and that liberated me; I wrote exactly what I wanted to write without worrying about publication. It was interesting to see a book starting to take shape as I kept returning to the same central themes and obsessions—marriage, apocalypse, natural disasters, etc.

 

INTERVIEWER

It’s true that, despite there being a wide variety of characters and situations, the collection felt very unified. In particular, there seems to be a sort of lightly drawn ur-couple at the core of the collection, two people who work together to get through a range of disasters and delights. Is that how you read the collection, or am I now linking too much together?

 

HELEN PHILLIPS

I’m glad to hear you felt that sense of unity in the book. I wrote this book when I was engaged and during the first year of marriage, which was a very intense and transformational time for me. I kept finding myself returning to different manifestations of the couple—the angry couple, the blissful couple, the frightened couple, the forgiving couple—in an attempt to make sense of this milestone experience. I had an almost desperate need to explore the question of what you give up and what you gain when you join your life with another life.

 

INTERVIEWER

Did writing the book end up helping you answer those questions?

 

 

HELEN PHILLIPS

Well, I’m definitely far more at peace as a wife than I was as a bride! I do think writing And Yet They Were Happy was essential for me in terms of making that transition. It was a way for me to deal with certain doubts and anxieties and paranoias—am I making the right choice? Will I be good at this? What does it mean to be a wife? By transforming my fears into concrete metaphors—into woolly mammoths and strange monsters and unicorn hunters—I was able to confront them. Once you give your fears room to roam, they tend to dissipate, or so I found. I love being married, and I’m lucky enough to be married to someone who doesn’t mind if I express rather dark feelings at times.

 

INTERVIEWER

I love that not thinking about the future of what you were writing helped free you. Does that realization continue to help you with your current projects?

 

HELEN PHILLIPS

About six months before I started writing the pieces that would become And Yet They Were Happy, I’d had a demoralizing experience: a major publisher expressed interest in my first novel, suggested some major revisions, and then (after I’d frenetically revised the book, making edits that didn’t really resonate with me) decided not to buy the book after all. At this point I’m extremely grateful that that first attempt of mine never saw the light of day, but at the time it was quite discouraging. Fueled by my frustration, I became more rebellious as a writer, a feeling that has definitely stuck with me. Even if you cater, you still may not get anywhere, so why cater?

 

INTERVIEWER

Do you mind talking about your path toward publishing And Yet They Were Happy?

 

HELEN PHILLIPS

When my agent sent And Yet They Were Happy out to the major New York publishing houses, they were concerned about how to market this somewhat inter-genre book. I started sending the book out to independent publishers, including Leapfrog Press, and couldn’t be happier with the loving home it found with Lisa Graziano at Leapfrog.

 

INTERVIEWER

If what you love about writing is the initial burst of an idea, does that mean you find less joy in revising? Or do you find equal enjoyment in the various stages of writing?

 

HELEN PHILLIPS

It seems to me that many of the writers I know have strong feelings about whether they’re more of a first-draft lover or more of a revision lover. I’d definitely put myself in the first camp, but increasingly I find that revision is just as creative, if not more so, than that first stage. I finally started to enjoy revision when I started to see it as a Dionysian endeavor rather than an Apollonian endeavor. Writing And Yet They Were Happy taught me to love revision, because in fact the vast majority of the time spent on this book consisted of revision rather than creation; to get to 340 words, I’d write 800 or 1000 fairly swiftly, and then would spend hours crystallizing all that down to one page. Most of the artistry lay in the cutting.

 

INTERVIEWER

Do you find yourself missing the constraint of the 340-word limit; do you ever find yourself returning to that form?

 

 

HELEN PHILLIPS

After I had around 250 of the 340-word stories (just over half made it into the final book), I decided that was enough. I didn’t want the project that had been so invigorating to ever become stale or formulaic; I didn’t want it to be my crutch. But, as you’ve surmised, it was rather painful to pull away from the form! For a while I thought, Hmm, maybe I’m destined to write 340-word stories till the day I die. But the very fact that I’d become a bit reliant on it revealed to me that I had to move on and find a new challenge. Like an addict who occasionally falls off the wagon, once in a while I’ll sit down and write a 340-word story. In general, though, it’s been very good to move on to other projects, using the lessons of brevity and crystallization I learned from writing this book.

 

INTERVIEWER

We went to college and to an MFA program together, and we both took writing classes throughout. What impact, if any, do you think the years of workshops had on your writing?

 

HELEN PHILLIPS

I think workshops are most helpful in terms of training you to hear your own voice. By challenging the choices you’ve made in your work, workshops make you aware of those choices. At first, I’d rush home after every workshop and try to make all the changes suggested in class; the product would be lifeless, drained of its animating force. Now, after my writers’ group discusses something I’ve written, I go home and think for a couple of months about everything they said. When I finally feel that the dust has settled, I’ll go back to the story with a calm, cool eye; I’ll know which comments resonated with me, which I’ll choose to disregard, and, most importantly, why. Being challenged is very healthy; it enables you to stand more solidly in your own work because you’ve considered all of the possible failings and have chosen to either resolve or accept them.

 

INTERVIEWER

I love this part from “bride #3”: “But not a single store in New York City has a straw hat as huge as the straw hat in my imagination. Why, why, why, does this always happen? Reality lags so very far behind everything else.” What with the mermaids, the manifestation of Bob Dylan, apocalyptic floods, the Virgin Mary, the mouse carnival—I could go on listing surrealist elements of the stories, but that desire to exceed reality underlies, for me, part of the collection’s power. What do you think draws you to this kind of surrealist and fabulist storytelling?

 

HELEN PHILLIPS

For me, the use of surreality serves as a way of making a metaphor literal and thus more potent. The magic is always in the service of illuminating reality. It feels more visceral to me if a dissatisfied wife literally takes the form of a raging fire; I prefer the immediacy of that to longwinded descriptions of her inner rage. The situation may seem surreal, but the hope is that the emotion feels hyper-real. Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude was my first encounter with the use of surreal elements to get at emotional truths; I was a teenager and had never read anything that exciting.

 

INTERVIEWER

Have you always been interested in the apocalypse?

 

HELEN PHILLIPS

My interest in (obsession with) the idea of apocalypse increases as I age, as perhaps it does for everyone. On the macro scale, increasing anxiety about political and environmental devastation. On the micro scale, increasing awareness of one’s own mortality. The theme of apocalypse kept rearing its head as I was writing this book; my imagination kept running toward the worst possible scenario, wanting to look it in the eye.

 

INTERVIEWER

What are you working on now?

 

HELEN PHILLIPS

I’m a pendulum—I always like to do a project that’s in some sense the opposite of what I did before. I recently finished a young adult novel, Miss Perfect and Mister Beautiful, about a missing father, an active volcano, a magical jungle, and an extinct bird. It was an interesting challenge to focus on storyline and mystery after writing And Yet They Were Happy, where the challenges were more of the language and metaphor variety. Now I’m working on what I like to call a “poetic thriller,” The Beautiful Bureaucrat, about a young woman who begins to notice eerie patterns in the database she maintains.

 

INTERVIEWER

Could you say more about the poetic thriller? In what ways is that different from, say, a literary thriller?

 

HELEN PHILLIPS

I want it to have the strange rhythm of a poem paired with the page-turning quality of a mystery novel. We shall see.

 

INTERVIEWER

Have you found inspirations for the poetic thriller in any existing books?

 

 

HELEN PHILLIPS

Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. And Kurt Vonnegut.

 

INTERVIEWER

What are you reading these days?

 

HELEN PHILLIPS

Right now I’m fascinated by Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields. His ideas about the blurring of genre boundaries feel very relevant to me; in my work I find myself increasingly incorporating myth, history, fantasy, memoir, etc., in one breath. I’ve also recently fallen in love with a few thrilling books of short-form prose: Mary Ruefle’s The Most of It, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand.

 

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any routines for yourself when you write?

 

HELEN PHILLIPS

I’m definitely one of those obsessive-compulsive writer types with too many routines to list here without boring everyone to tears. Suffice it to say that I have three cups of tea over the course of my writing mornings, and each cup is poured at the exact same minute every day.

 

 

 

 

 

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