Website: Rutgers MFA
Jayne Anne Phillips was born in West
Virginia in 1952 and now lives in Massachussets. She has published two
collections of short stories, Black
Tickets and Fast
Lanes, and three
novels, Machine Dreams,
Shelter and Motherkind.
She is Professor of
English and Director of the MFA Program at Rutgers Newark University.
with Jayne Anne Phillips
How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
Jayne Anne Phillips: If
you are speaking of Black
Tickets, about 6 years.
TSR: Did you
have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
I wrote each story or piece for itself, but my work tends to have
organic/thematic connections that link one story to another. After the
collection was complete, I wanted to include the majority of the one
page fictions in Sweethearts,
my first short book published originally
by Truck Press, between the longer stories.
TSR: How did
you choose which stories to include and in what order?
JAP: I very consciously
organized the order of the stories, with the one page fictions teaching
the reader that Black
was an unusual book, particularly for the time, 1979. The stories
themselves teach the reader how to read the book, and the first few, Wedding Picture,
etc, the linkages between the stories, are important. The book has an
imagistic, novelistic arc.
TSR: What does the word "story"
mean to you?
means 'transformation,' interpretation, invention, it's personal, told
relatively quickly, one-to-one.
TSR: Do you
have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?
never. I tell my students never to 'think' of the reader, but to be
'in' the work itself, lest you 'perform' for an audience, rather than
hearing the story, penetrating the material, coming to the truth of the
TSR: Is there
anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your
anything at all?
JAP: No. I feel the
reader's reaction is a private matter. The work is there, independent
TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?
JAP: I just hope
they are. Because I don't publish frequently, and come out with a book
every 5 to 8 years, I seldom see my books displayed in bookstores,
especially the big chain stores. I'm probably the respected, 'forgotten
writer,' or 'writer's writer' one hears referred to by literary readers
TSR: What are
you working on now?
JAP: My new novel, Lark and Termite,
is in the production process and will be published by Knopf on Jan 30,
2009. Excerpts were published on www.narrative.com, in two issues of Granta, in the Southern Review,
and in a new magazine called Murdaland.
This is the description of the novel:
Lark And Termite alternates between July
26th, 1950, the day of
Termite's birth and his father's death, and July 26th, 1959, the day of
Termite's ninth birthday: one world of secrets answering another. The
book begins with the third person POV of Cpl. Robert Leavitt, an
American soldier who finds himself caught up in the chaotic early
months of the Korean War. The novel then shifts to the same July day
nine years later, in the small West Virginia river town where Termite
and his half sister Lark, who is seventeen, live with their Aunt
Noreen. Noreen, or Nonie, a matronly, vibrant woman in her fifties, is
raising the children of her younger sister, Lola, whose story she keeps
hidden. Lark has been living with Nonie since the age of three, and
Termite arrived five years later, when he was about a year old (“he
couldn't sit up by himself but Nonie had him a baby bed and clothes and
a high chair with cushions and straps, and she had papers that were
signed”). Lark has no memory of her mother and has been told only some
early family history. She doesn't know her own father's identity,
though she does know that Termite's father was married to Lola for just
a year before he died in the first months of the Korean War (“They
never even got his body back and they had to have the service around a
flag that was folded up
. . . Nonie says it was wrong and it will never be right”).
Lark And Termite deals with the atrocity of war and its echoing
ramifications, with a sibling bond whose strengths are both obvious and
mysterious, and with perception itself as reflected in Termite's
intricate, shuttered consciousness. Adjacently dimensional patterns of
time shift and layer as the novel unfolds. Lark And Termite echoes the
concerns of Machine Dreams, which deals with a sibling bond against the
backdrop of a burgeoning war that would change America, of Shelter,
which deals with the perceptions of children against an intricately
patterned world scrambled by adults, and of MotherKind, which describes
generational bonds and adjacently dimensional patterns of time. Though
Americans had no way of “reading” events in the context of the 50's,
the Korean War was in many ways a precursor to Vietnam. In Lark And
Termite, a cataclysmic event early in the Korean conflict is made very
real to the reader, and the cyclical nature of its aftermath continues
to influence and echo the present in ways made increasingly known to
TSR: What are
the three most recent short story collections you've read?
JAP: The Beggar Maid, stories of flo and rose,
by Alice Munro; other than that, I've been kept busy this year reading
the stories of my students at Rutgers Newark, two of whom have had work
recently accepted by The Paris Review and McSweeneys.