Helen Phillips is an award-winning author, who most recently released her short story collection Some Possible Solutions. The book received incredibly positive reviews, and won the 2017 John Gardner Fiction Book Award. Helen Phillips has received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, the Italo Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction, The Iowa Review Nonfiction Award, the DIAGRAM Innovative Fiction Award, and a Ucross Foundation residency. Her work has been featured on Selected Shorts, at the Brooklyn Museum, and in the Atlantic, the New York Times, and Tin House, among others. Her books have been translated into Chinese, Italian, German, Spanish, and Polish. Helen Phillips is a graduate of Yale and the Brooklyn College MFA program, she is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College. Please enjoy my interview with the wonderful Helen Phillips…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I’m a writer and a teacher.
I’m listening to the audiobook of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, read spectacularly by Adjoa Andoh. And I just finished the galley for the U.S. edition (forthcoming from Melville House) of the fascinating & surreal debut novel Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes, the Scottish author.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
The Nightingale and the Rose by Oscar Wilde. When I was six or seven, my mother read me the edition illustrated by Freire Wright and Michael Foreman. It was the first book that ever made me cry. I was so beside myself that we almost had to cancel our dinner plans with family friends.
Can you remember the first story you ever wrote?
I wrote Mark of the Snowflake Village when I was six. It starred my younger brother Mark as an elf who discovers that he is more suited to helping Mrs. Santa bake cookies than to working in the toy factory. I’m confessing here for the first time ever that the several significant plot points were stolen from a picture book I had at the time, the name of which I’ve entirely forgotten. I felt guilty about that for a long time, but I suppose “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I’m boring: A writer, always.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
She would be shocked that the dream came true.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
Somehow I made it through my entire formal education without reading Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. When I finally did read it, it was a revelation—I consider that one of my primary “permission books,” because he so seamlessly unites unlike, and unlikely, elements.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
I wish! I have two young children, so I don’t have a lot of quiet time in my daily life. Hence my recent obsession with audiobooks, which go well with cleaning the kitchen and sorting laundry. I look forward to long subway rides with joy: reading time.
Can you talk us through your writing process, from the first spark of an idea, to having your first completed draft?
Years of note-gathering, followed by months of note-sorting, followed by months/years of composing Draft Zero, followed by months of soliciting feedback from a few harsh and brilliant critics, followed by years of revision to arrive at Draft Six or Eight or Ten.
Which book has had the biggest impact on your career so far? How did it impact it?
Reading “flash fiction” or whatever you want to call it in the mid-2000s played a critical role in developing my interest in condensing a narrative down to its most urgent form. I could never point to one book but some authors include Jamaica Kincaid, Lydia Davis, Matthea Harvey, J. Robert Lennon, Bernard Cooper, Amy Hempel, Italo Calvino, Alan Lightman …
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring writer?
(1) Samuel Beckett’s “Fail again. Fail better.”
(2) Set a timer when you are sitting down to write and don’t allow yourself to be distracted for your allotted time, be it fifteen minutes or four hours.
The ending of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino has been a touchstone for me and my husband: “A great double bed receives your parallel readings.”
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
In recent years, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
I love both, and turn to both for similar reasons. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson makes me question everything I think I know, as does The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.
Do you think reading is important?
To quote Annie Murphy Paul’s New York Times article, “The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction” (March 17, 2012): “Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective. This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels.”
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
My favorite recent novels are Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin and The Vegetarian by Han Kang. My favorite recent short story is “A Love Story” by Samantha Hunt, published in The New Yorker in May 2017. And I love the new collection; Wait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
Doesn’t everyone prefer real books? But I find my Kindle absolutely miraculous and whenever I travel I’m grateful to be able to take along an absurd number of books without having to lug around an absurdly oversized suitcase.
Name a book that you feel everyone would benefit from reading and explain why.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, because it boldly explores our American problem with nuance, complexity, eloquence, and raw honesty. Also, I’ve been very moved lately reading National Geographic’s First Big Book of Space with my daughter—did you know that it would take 19,000 years for a spacecraft from Earth to reach our nearest neighboring star, Proxima-Centauri? The facts/factoids filling that book have been bestowing a certain cosmic perspective on my daily life.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
A family friend gave me Emily Dickinson’s Collected Poems for Christmas when I was twelve years old. That gift inspired me to make a New Year’s resolution to read a poem a day and write a poem a day, a tradition that endured for nine years and developed my habit of (obsession with) daily writing.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
The Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.
The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka.
Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin.
The Stories of Kelly Link.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.
Tenth of December by George Saunders.
Plus so many more.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
Currently in my to-read pile:
Outline by Rachel Cusk,
The Art of Death by Edwidge Danticat,
The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner,
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine,
Amatka by Karin Tidbeck,
Borne by Jeff VanderMeer,
Touch by Courtney Maum,
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
Everything I write is already equal parts autobiography and science fiction.
If you’d like to learn more about Helen Phillips, you can find her on her website, Facebook and Twitter.
Image Credit: Andy Vernon-Jones