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Jayne Anne Phillips

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.

Short story collections

Black Tickets (Faber & Faber, 1979) 

Reviewed by Brian George

Fast Lanes (Vintage, 1984) 

Sweethearts (Truck Books, 1976) 

Interview with Jayne Anne Phillips

The Short Review: 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?

JAP: No, 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 Tickets 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?

JAP:  It 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?

JAP: No, 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 story.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your
collection, anything at all?

JAP: No. I feel the reader's reaction is a private matter. The work is there, independent of me.

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 only!

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 the characters.

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.