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Jayne Anne Phillips

Award-winning Author

Rachna Singh, Editor, The Wise Owl talks to Jayne Anne Phillips, the author of eight books of fiction, including Black Tickets (winner of Sue Kaufman prize), Machine Dreams (nominated for National Book Critic's Circle award), Shelter (winner of Academy Award in literature), Motherkind ( winner of the Massachusetts Award & shortlisted for the prestigious Orange Prize), Lark & Termite (finalist for both National Book award & National Book Critic's Circle award), Quiet Dell and Night Watch (Longlisted for for the National Book Award) 

The Interview : Jayne Anne Phillips

Rachna Singh, Editor, The Wise Owl in conversation with Jayne Anne Phillips, an award-winning author with 8 books under her belt. Jayne’s first book of stories, Black Tickets, published when she was 26, won the prestigious Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. She was praised by Nadine Gordimer as “the best short story writer since Eudora Welty” and Black Tickets has since become a classic of the short story genre. Machine Dreams, Phillips’ first novel became A New York Times best seller, and was nominated for the national Book Critics Circle Award and chosen by the New York Times Book review as one of twelve Best Books of the Year. Fast Lanes, her next book of stories, each told in extraordinary first person narratives that have been hailed by critics as virtuoso performances, was praised in the LA Times as 'stories that hover on the edge of poetry'. Shelter, her second novel, a haunting, suspenseful evocation of childhood rite-of-passage, was awarded an Academy Award in Literature by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and chosen one of the Best Books of the Year by Publishers Weekly.


Jayne Anne’s novel, MotherKind, the story of the first year in the life of a new-born infant and his mother Kate, and the last year of the life of Kate’s terminally ill mother who lives with them, examines timeless questions of birth and death. It became the winner of the Massachusetts Book Award and was short-listed for the prestigious Orange Prize (UK). Her next book, Lark And Termite, set in the 1950s in West Virginia and Korea, was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critic’s Circle Award, finalist for the Prix de Medici Etranger (France) and winner of the Heartland Prize. Phillips’ fifth novel, Quiet Dell, based on a true story, was chosen by Publisher’s Weekly and The Wall Street Journal as a Best Book of the Year. Night Watch, Longlisted for the National Book Award, is Phillips’ sixth novel, and the third book in a trilogy of war novels that includes Machine Dreams and Lark and Termite.


Thank you Jayne for taking time out to talk with The Wise Owl.


RS: You are an award-winning author of 8 books. For the benefit of our readers please tell us what attracted you to writing and what or who were the creative triggers in your creative journey as a novelist and short story writer


JAP: Hmmm, that’s going way back.  First, I was an addicted reader as a young kid.  We lived out a beautiful rural road, with the mailbox at the end of the driveway.  Flag up if you wanted to mail a letter, and the mailman, who drove this strange vehicle with a sliding driver’s seat in the middle, put up the flag when he delivered mail.  My mother was a reading teacher and subscribed to book clubs for all of us, but she gave up on my brothers.  I remember Nancy Drew books,  the Boxcar Children series, the Happy Hollisters (pablum).  But I also read, on the sly, my father’s racy paperback mysteries (hidden on the highest shelf of the bathroom cabinet), which happened to include a mass market edition of Updike’s Rabbit Run.



RS: Your first book, Black Tickets, was a collection of short stories. However, after this you transitioned to writing mostly novels (except another collection of stories called Fast Lanes). I am curious to know (as would be our readers) why you first wrote short stories and then switched to writing novels. We would also love to know what attracted you to these two genres?


JAP: Actually, I first wrote poems and even published a few.  Under the influence of W. S. Merwin’s, The Miner’s Pale Children, and Rilke’s, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, I began writing prose poems, and then the one-page fictions first published In my Truck Press collection, Sweethearts, in 1976 – a beautifully designed chapbook (400 copies) with my parent’s wedding picture on the cover.  I moved into longer and longer forms, and found in the novel the deepest, longest engagement with my material, a process that can last years and take on a life of its own – in that each novel is part of a psychic continuum – the equivalent of a self-administered psychoanalysis – except that an imagined reality can be so much more true than a real one.


RS: I am very intrigued by your book ‘Motherkind’ and the fact that it is about the first year in the life of a new-born infant and his mother Kate and the last year in the life of Kate’s terminally ill mother. The juxtaposition of a new life and near-death journey makes this book stand out for me. What inspired you to write this book?


JAP: I did care for my mother in my home, which was so far from her home, for the last year of her terminal illness; I was 7 months pregnant with my first child when she became too ill to live alone and came to live with my partner and I. Ten years later, I wrote MotherKind.  I’d forgotten enough that I could fictionalize the novel, but of course it began with the truth.  My first book, Black Tickets, begins with this message to the reader: “Characters and voices in these stories began in what is real, but became, in fact, dreams. They bear no relation to living persons except that love or loss lends a reality to what is imagined.”


RS: Night Watch is the last of your trilogy of war novels (after Machine Dreams & Lark & Termite). I am curious to know if you planned this trilogy when you started to write Machine Dreams or did these books grow and take form as you evolved as a writer and novelist.


JAP  After I finished Lark And Termite, I had in mind my next novel, Quiet Dell, which also required much research, very different from the 1950’s Korean War era.  I had to find my way  into the Depression era of the 30’s and the reality of the crime on which Quiet Dell is based.  Quiet Dell is partially about the cultural derangement and violence directed toward women (and children unprotected by patriarchy) specifically during that time, to control and victimize and shame them.  Of course patriarchy has changed its face, but the pattern is the same.  And the times themselves, the Trump era, with its tribal divisions, bald dog whistles and mayhem, brought to mind the Civil War.  I see my work as a continuum, with one book opening the way for the next, but it was clear that thoughts about the new novel (Night Watch) completed a trilogy.  Both MD and L&T are about foreign civil wars (in that the wars comprise the atmosphere in which the characters live and breathe), and it was natural, even necessary, to write about the American crucible that still has a death grip on our history. ConaLee, Eliza, Dearbhla were all revealed to me as I wrote the novel.



RS: Could you please walk the readers through your creative process when you are approaching a new project. Are you a method writer or does your narrative evolve and grow spontaneously while you write?


JAP: Having begun as a poet, I’m a language-oriented writer who still composes line by line, hearing the beats and stress of each line and phrase (my excuse for being so slow, along with working as an academic and administrator until recently).  My novels don’t begin with ideas but with the writing itself: a scene, a defined voice caught up in a specific action.  That scene may finally be located toward the middle of a novel, but Night Watch begins just as the process of writing the novel began for me.  Years of research and writing followed.


RS: Your books explore different facets of life and human beings and also belong to different genres. Shelter, for instance, is an evocation of childhood rite-of-passage. Quiet Dell is based on a true murder story etc. What makes you decide on the narrative that you want to take up for your book?


JAP: The writing, in my experience, has to find the structure: I always told my students that material should dictate form, not the other way around.  I want my work to progress organically, in a kind of spiral construction that uncoils concentrically outward from a luminous core, which is the original passionate inquiry of that first scene, the voice, the words.  The whole book is there but it’s like following a whisper into one revelation after another.



RS: For a writer, all books are their creative offspring and it is difficult to pick out a favourite. Even so, I would love to know which of your books gave you the most creative satisfaction and why.


JAP: I definitely don’t have a favorite: I see my books as connected. All the words are on a long scroll, surely, somewhere. 



RS: You are an award winning novelist and short story writer. Our readers include a lot of young, upcoming writers. What advice would you give them about honing their craft as a writer? What aspects of writing should they focus on, so as to become better novelists or writers?


JAP: Writers are born, I think, into a family dynamic that casts them as the confidante, the one who listens to the stories, who keeps the secrets, the “writer in the family,”  the child who almost functions as an inchoate adult consciousness within the group, the one whose boundaries are permeable, who never quite detaches as an individual.  So there’s that.  Reading is the other piece – most writers read voraciously even as children, and segue into reading for instruction on seeing, knowing, for guidance and mystery, reading all of an author’s work in order to see inside it, reading literature widely and deeply, discovering as the lights turn on.  You need to find your allies and keep them close.  Writing is hard work and dogged persistence, and intense, perilous desire.



RS: Are you working on another book as we speak? Our readers would love to know when your next book will be in the book stores.


JAP:  I’m working on a book but I never talk about work that is still in progress.  The book is partially secret, even to me.



Thank you so much, Jayne Anne, for taking time out to speak with The Wise Owl. We wish you the very best in all your creative and literary endeavours.

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