The time between the completion of a manuscript and a book’s publication can be the calm before the storm, a bit of quiet respite for any writer. But for Jayne Anne Phillips, autumn 2008 marked not only the anticipation of a new novel coming out, but also the beginning of a school year at the Rutgers-Newark Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing program, which she launched two years ago and directs. Phillips has been busy bringing writers from all over the country to read at the program, recently named one of the top five up-and-coming graduate writing programs in the country, and Phillips is extending the department’s reach into Newark’s high schools and public libraries. She commutes home weekly to Boston, where her husband is a Harvard-affiliated physician, and spends time with her two sons, one an actor and the other a college student, both in New York City. And somewhere, between the commutes, her family, her teaching, her students, and the readers and writers of Newark, New Jersey, she found time to complete her fourth remarkable novel.
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.
Her work has been called fierce and magical for its depiction of uprooted characters haunted by small-town upbringings, dreaming of ways to escape. Her displaced characters seek shelter, a theme that threads through her work, in unlikely physical settings and in the fragile refuge of human emotion. Her experiments with voice, point of view, and narrative structure evoke Faulkner. She hasn’t lived in West Virginia in years and rarely visits, but it remains home to her imagination, and it provides the setting for her new novel.
I caught up with Phillips first at her Chelsea studio apartment, and later one afternoon in her cramped sixth-floor office in Hill Hall on the Rutgers campus. Poster-size photographs of Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf hang on her office walls. She was dressed smartly, as usual. Dark glasses rested on her head, and her waist-long brown hair fell over her shoulders. Her desk had a stack of students’ short stories, on which she’d begun to make extensive line edits with her red pen. She took down a Hallmark-like birthday card from her bookshelf and handed it to me. “Isn’t this funny?” she asked. I read the card: on the front one woman asks another, “Where’s your birthday party at?” and the second woman replies, “Don’t end a line with a prepositional phrase.” I opened the card. The first woman replies: “Where’s your birthday party at, bitch?”
Phillips’s tic, as her students know well, are sentences that begin and end with prepositional phrases. “Line editing isn’t all I do,” she laughs. Her workshops analyze each story’s characters, authorial intent, theme, and plot, but she takes considerable time to line edit each story because she believes that a story succeeds or fails with the line-by-line layering of the text. She concerns herself with the timing of a phrase and the stress in a syllable. She reads her student’s fiction with a poet’s ear. Phillips is passionately committed to teaching, and her hope is that by line editing her students’ work, she is instructing the students to internalize the process of editing. In this she is like her teacher at Iowa, Frank Conroy, who was famous for his attention to line editing.
Phillips dedicated three years to the creation of the Rutgers-Newark MFA program, time that took away from her own writing. She does not begrudge the sacrifice and indeed takes motherly pride in the program—its community outreach, its reading series, and its first graduating class, whose workshopped stories have appeared in prestigious literary journals.
Jayne Anne Phillips
I work on my books for a very long time, in the sense that I have them in mind. In Shelter, for instance, I wrote the short italicized paragraph in the beginning of the book—which begins, “Concede the heat of noon in summer camps”—in graduate school. I kept it for many years, as a beginning, or prose poem, with the sense that there was a novel inside it. There was, but the passage of time, the layering of what Porter calls “the accumulated thousands of impressions,” seems to be an element for me, an unconscious working-out of material.
I’ve been thinking about the next book I’m going to do for twenty years, and I have research material going back that far, though I had no conscious intention to write a novel imagined around those stories and images. The process of writing is continual. Whether or not I’m working on the book, the book is working on me.
I initially planned for him to be a focal point, never heard from, but for the book to revolve around him. As I moved deeper into the material, I had Lark’s voice and had set the book in the physical world of this small town, Winfield, a neighboring town to Belington, a world mentioned in my other books. I knew Termite was fascinated by big sounds and that he loved to hear trains go through a double railroad tunnel where the kids played. I wanted the book set in the ’50s partially so that he would occupy a world in which no one can really name what is “wrong” with him, in a time when family, a family like his, who are very specific, would care for him. I knew that Termite’s father had been killed in Korea and that they had never gotten his body back. I had that whole first section done when the story of No Gun Ri broke.
The boy is a counterpart to Termite, who Leavitt knows is about to be born in West Virginia. After I completed the first few sections of the book, I was compelled to try to represent Termite’s point of view. Termite is a kind of living secret, but he can’t communicate that secret to anyone. He doesn’t even know what the secret is. The book, in the end, allows the reader inside.