An Interview with Helen Phillips
Photo Andy Vernon-Jones Helen Phillips grew up in Colorado and moved east for college and graduate school. A writer and professor, she is also an avid walker and mother of two. Her writing blends elements of the literary, the fantastical, and the mundane into complex stories that challenge notions of what is usual and question what is to be trusted. Things are never as simple as they first appear in the simultaneously relatable and surreal worlds she creates. Her female characters are complicated, challenged, unique and empathetic survivors who solve problems. Their male companions are supportive but sometimes enigmatic or at a distance to these sometimes harried but always memorable women. I think of her as a sort of post-feminist writer: her females exist on their own terms as they balance, adopt, or fight traditional ideas of family, love, companionship in thoroughly modern ways. Currently a professor of creative writing at Brooklyn College, she is the author of two short story collections, And Yet They Were Happy (Leapfrog Press, 2011) and Some Possible Solutions (Henry Holt & Co, 2016), which came out on May 31, and a middle grade book, Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green (Delacorte Press, 2012). Phillips’ debut novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat (Henry Holt & Co, 2015) was recommended summer reading by several publications, including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. Ursula K. Le Guin called the novel, “funny, sad, scary, and beautiful.” Jenny Offill said it is, “A thrillingly original debut, formally inventive and emotionally complex.” She has received numerous prizes and awards for her writing, including a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and the Italo Calvino Prize. The Beautiful Bureaucrat was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was long-listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Most recently, she was a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award. Her work has been featured on Selected Shorts and has appeared in many publications, including Tin House, The New York Times, and The Atlantic Monthly.
The Beautiful Bureaucrat explores the loneliness of urban, cubicle life through its protagonist, Josephine, a recent arrival from the hinterlands looking to turn around her recent bad luck. Working in a windowless room inputting strings of seemingly meaningless numbers into a database all day long, Josephine goes home each night to a series of depressing sublets to which her husband Joseph sometimes fails to return. As the novel progresses, Josephine begins to understand what the Database is, and the stakes, in both her job and her personal life, grow tense as she grapples with an increased awareness of what is happening around and to her. The novel is dark, riveting, and creepy, and makes the reader desperate to know where Joseph is going, what the Database is really all about, and most importantly: what will happen to Josephine, an empathetic figure stuck in a strange, almost void world that will resonate with anyone who has ever worked in a corporate or cubicle job.
Some Possible Solutions is a collection of funny, dark, weird, creepy, fantastical stories about thoroughly modern dilemmas and situations in circumstances and settings that run the gamut from mundane to extraterrestrial. Phillips contrasts normal, even everyday conditions or spaces with eccentric, odd, fairytale characters, details, and occurrences. Lauren Groff called the stories “like a lightening bolt into everyday terrors — having a baby, caring for a sick relative, raising a child in a city suffocating for lack of green space — but in a way so wonderfully awry that ever singe story…has a freshness to it,” while Karen Russell remarked, “Helen Phillips sings like a Siren on the page (if a Siren also had a killer sense of humor).”
Helen talked to Necessary Fiction about her novel, her recent story collection, letting plot emerge from images, writing as a collaboration between her and the reader, and doppelgängers amongst other things.
While reading these highly creative and original two books, I was reminded of Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in the Fictional Woods and his assertion that the text “is a lazy machine asking the reader to do some of its work. What a problem it would be if a text were to say everything the receiver is to understand.” Your work is like a walk in a strange dark forest with unexpected characters and turns in the path and a sometimes murky destination so the reader has no choice but to use his or her imagination too. How do you decide what to leave in and what to leave out and how much is trimmed in the revision process to create this balance? You have such unexpected turns and endings in your stories, and I wonder do you know where the story will end up when you start writing it, or do you discover the tale in the writing, or both?
Well, writing the first three or so drafts of a book or story always feels to me like taking a walk in a strange, dark forest! It took me seven years to write The Beautiful Bureaucrat. At one point it was more than twice as long as the published manuscript, and the plot and subplots meandered everywhere without going anywhere. But what I did have, and what stayed consistent throughout the process, were a) a series of images that I knew were linked (the drab pinkish smudged walls of the office, the shattered green plate beside the bleeding pomegranate, a couple standing on a street corner in the rain with many suitcases and a broken umbrella, etc.), b) the central characters: Josephine, Joseph, Trishiffany, The Person With Bad Breath, and c) the Database and its existential implications. But it was only in year six that the plot coalesced. My writing typically begins with images and ends with plot; not the most efficient, but I know no other way. My hope is that allowing the plot to emerge from the images makes for an organic reading experience.
I do think of writing as a collaboration with the reader, just as I feel like I’m collaborating with the writer when I read my favorite books. For instance, though I do have my own theory about the significance of the room in which Joseph and Josephine find themselves at the end of The Beautiful Bureaucrat, I have found it fascinating to hear from readers about their own interpretations of the ending; that ending is very much intended to invite different understandings.
That said, I’m always trying to be as clear as I possibly can; I have no interest in ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake. But ‘as clear as I possibly can’ is not necessarily very clear at all, when we’re talking about the biggest questions of life and death and meaning.
The weight of knowledge is very much a theme in your story collection and in The Beautiful Bureaucrat. The first line of Some Possible Solutions is, “There are those who wish to know and there are those who don’t wish to know,” and later, a narrator of a story ruminates that as a child, her sister understood everything, but as an adult, her sister understands nothing. Do you view the act of writing stories as the expression of someone who wishes to know everything, or as someone who understands nothing, finds the world incomprehensible at times, and writes as a way to assuage that fact?
This question sends me straight to the garden of Eden, to the original Tree of Knowledge; in general, the word “knowledge” has positive associations, but in that foundational tale, Eve’s pursuit of knowledge is considered sinful—is, indeed, the root of all human suffering. I don’t think anyone should be punished for seeking knowledge, but I also think that seeking knowledge is an act that requires tremendous courage. Knowledge does in a sense increase suffering; it also increases our capacity to live a meaningful life. For me, writing is a quest toward knowledge, or at least self-knowledge—a quest toward greater understanding of one’s anxieties and confusions, actions and reactions.
As it turns out, the idea of a unique snowflake is a myth, and in Some Possible Solutions people find exact replicas of themselves in various places, including on other planets. Then again, a pair of twins turn out to have been given the same synthetic hair and told they are identical siblings, and it is a great loss to one of the girls to realize she does not have a twin. There is a pervasive loneliness and loss in these stories, a search for a bond, a search for a mirror image, and in another story, the characters end up as unrecognizable blobs in a steamy mirror, which is very dark except that they are unrecognizable blobs together. In the uncontrollable worlds these characters live in, how is this search to identify with someone who is also a copy something that creates hope and connection?
Yes, I’m obsessed with the idea of doppelgängers. Is your doppelgänger a) the ultimate threat to your identity or b) your ultimate collaborator? There is a profound desire in these stories for connection, for seeing one’s own struggles and joys reflected in another. We tend to think of it as a negative thing not to be dazzlingly unique, but it was a moment of liberation for me when I moved to New York City and started riding the crowded subways with my millions of fellow New Yorkers; what a relief not to be a special snowflake but instead to perceive my own journey of ups and downs as just one miniscule drop in the great bucket of life. And what a sense of companionship I feel with any mother I see struggling to get a stroller through a doorway or wrestling with a tantruming toddler. Any moment now I’ll be in her shoes, and there’s a certain solidarity in that, even if we don’t exchange a word.
In one story, you write, “So many bombs shattering across the globe, yet it was private grief that kept them up at night.” This idea feels like a theme for the whole collection: it is a big terrible world of terrible things, and yet the everyday is what plagues us because everyday life can also be a series of bombs: miscarriage, a child whose development suddenly stops, knowing you will die. Your stories often involve individuals, living small, seemingly normal lives (work, family, commuting, sex, dinner) in a terrible or complex or identity-nullifying world that overwhelms these individuals (your death date is suddenly knowable, your alien other self is reachable, etc.) What is it about the mundane that can be so terrifying and also so rich as writing material?
Relationships and work are the vehicles through which the biggest questions about existence get played out in our day-to-day lives. We all get caught up in our quotidian reality, with everyday interactions in the home and workplace overshadowing deeper concerns about life and death, but at the same time the most profound stuff of life is manifest in that daily grind. The particulars of one’s earthly, sometimes banal existence can be transmuted into an answer of sorts to the universal question about how to make sense of a life that is so brief on a planet whirling through one of billions of galaxies. The cosmic is implicit in the mundane.
The quotidian world of The Beautiful Bureaucrat is very dark. The weight of working in a dull job (that turns out to be not quite so simple) and living in a series of depressing sublets could defeat someone over time, but despite growing increasingly harried, Josephine gains more agency as the novel progresses. What motivates her besides survival?
Yes, thank you for this observation: Josephine’s agency does dramatically increase as the novel progresses. And this change is critical to the themes of the book. At the beginning, Josephine’s concerns are very personal and very basic: the need for a job, a home, money. As she comes to understand what exactly her job entails, she discovers that her own demands have butted up against the more cosmic demands represented by the Database. Suddenly there’s a conflict of interest between her need for a job and her desire not to be complicit. At the climax of the book, when the personal and the cosmic suddenly collapse together, Josephine realizes that her own life and love are threatened by a force she assumed was at an arm’s length. This is when she springs into action. There is the (cynical/realistic?) suggestion here that most people can only really act when they acknowledge that their own lives and families are in danger, when they realize that they are personally implicated in a system that seemed distant and impersonal.
Thinking about her husband, Josephine notes, “the name Joseph David Jones was not sufficient to represent him, his moods and kindness” (p. 3). Names are significant in this book; much of Josephine’s day involves processing numbers and names of people she will never know, so both names and numbers seem somewhat insignificant compared to the story of a person. In fact, to get through her day, Josephine makes up stories about these names and numbers. In this world, what is in a name, and why name the couple Joseph and Josephine? What are you saying about identity?
I’ve always been struck by the disjuncture between who we are versus how we are labeled, be it by a name or a social security number or any other term. If we were being accurate, shouldn’t everyone have a name that is as long as his or her life, a moment-by-moment articulation of every thought and action? Of course that’s absurd, Borgesian. And of course we need these constructs, these names and numbers, for a myriad of practical and logistical reasons. But the essence of any human being defies any single term. At the same time, perhaps there’s some beauty in the recognition that behind every piece of bureaucratic paperwork lies a human life being lived in all its complicated, inexpressible glory and grief: the momentous events represented by the birth certificate, the marriage certificate, the death certificate, the tax return, etc.
You write, “Her disgust morphed almost instantly into shame…the inconvenience of being an animal” (p. 17). How do you view these characters as both human and animal? There are visceral scenes where Josephine’s physical body seems almost out of control to her, either from her period, or pregnancy, or sexual desire. How does that contrast with the cold, efficient, controlled world of the bureaucracy? In some ways, the Database confirms that these people are no more than their bodies and a string of numbers. How do you view that?
I’m interested in the conflicting visions of humans as animals and humans as machines. Aren’t we all cyborgs now, with our phones on us at virtually all times, serving as an addendum to our brains? Yet still we are mammals, mammals that mate, that bear and nurse their young. In the workplace, where Josephine must obey numerous rules (both spoken and unspoken), she is a machine. At home, with Joseph, in the sweat and blood of her body, of menstruation and potential procreation, sexual desire and physical illness and instinct, she is an animal. She flip-flops between the two states of being, and that creates tension, in her and in the book. Ultimately, I think the animal state serves as an antidote to the machine state. But the animal state is also where the stakes are higher—the nexus of birth and death—and more terrifying.
I love that Hillary, the waitress, gives the same fortune to multiple people, yet until Josephine realizes this fact, she is haunted by her fortune. What weight does prophecy have over these characters and does anyone have any control over destiny in a bureaucracy like this one? Is there such a thing as fate?
The language of the fortune that Hillary gives to Josephine is excerpted directly from Bertram Forer’s 1949 study “The Fallacy of Personal Validation: A Classroom Demonstration of Gullibility.” Forer did an experiment in which he gave a group of students a personality test. Some days later, he returned to each an individualized personality description based on their responses to the test. Each subject was asked to rate how accurate they found their personality description. The students found the descriptions overwhelmingly accurate. But in fact each subject had been given an identical description (with language drawn from an astrology book). I find this study at once funny and moving. Is it a demonstration of the power of suggestion—or is it a testament to the idea that we are all more similar in our anxieties and strengths than we realize? Josephine is haunted by her fortune because she finds it resonates, which serves to both disturb and comfort her. In a sense, everyone does share the same fate, bureaucracy or no: we are all terminal patients.
Your stories can be bleak yet are also peppered with humor, and I wonder how you decompress after writing some of the more searing stories, or do you decompress by writing dark stories and getting those thoughts out and on paper? Some of the details feel so personal and moving in a way that great fiction does, which is to say you dig deep into your imagination and write things that feel scary to write, so I wonder how you shift back to day to day life after work? What do you do after you write to ease back into your real life with family and friends and colleagues?
Weirdly enough, yes, I decompress by writing dark stories and finding an outlet for the images that haunt me. It’s not exactly bon-bons and a foot massage (though if you want to send me a box of chocolates and a gift certificate to a spa, I won’t say no). Between my mothering and teaching responsibilities, I typically have one hour a day to write. Often I wrap up my writing hour six minutes before I start teaching a class, and once I finish teaching, I’m dashing home to my kids. So there’s not a lot of buffer time. It’s all about compartmentalization and embracing the intensity. And being grateful that there are so many things in my life that I love.