Interview with Jayne Anne Phillips

I am thrilled today to post an interview with Jayne Anne Phillips, whose novel Lark and Termite I enjoyed thoroughly and reviewed earlier this year here. I mention all of the critical acclaim the novel has received. It has since been featured in several places, including the New York Review of Books.

I want to thank her for answering these questions!


Q:  I am curious about how the idea for Lark and Termite came to you. Did the first ideas come after the news of the No Gun Ri massacre/incident broke in 1999? Was No Gun Ri integrated into an already developing idea?

I have actually been “working” on Lark and Termite, somewhat consciously, for nearly thirty years. That long ago, I was visiting a high school friend in my hometown; she’d rented a small apartment over a detached garage behind a residential house. Her window overlooked a grass alley, beautiful, quiet, tire tracks full of white stones or gravel. Several small houses fronted on the alley. There was a 1950s style lawn chair, metal, in front of the house just opposite. In it sat a boy, nine or ten, his legs folded up under him as though he couldn’t feel them; he was holding up to his face a long strip of a blue dry cleaning bag, and blowing on it, looking through it. He was clearly in his own world. I asked my friend, “Who is that, and what is he doing?” “I don’t know,” she said, “but he sits that way for hours.” The image really burned itself into me.

Years later, I went to a birthday party hosted by the American artist Mary Sherman — in Cambridge, for her boyfriend, who happened to have the same birthday as me. I was looking at her sketchbook and admired a particular drawing, and because it was my birthday, she ripped the page out and gave it to me. The drawing is the one that appears in the American edition of Lark and Termite, opposite the title page. She had written “Termite” across the top, with some illegible writing; the drawing reminded me so of the boy, and he became Termite in my mind at that time. I wasn’t really thinking of a book, but I carried the drawing, framed, around with me, moving it house to house.

The novel began with my question of so long ago, and incorporated birthdays as part of its mystery. Lark’s first words, first section, were the beginning, and she begins with the chair, the alley, the town; she says who Termite is, what he’s like, what she knows and doesn’t know. I consciously set the book in 1959 so that he would not be “diagnosed,” labeled, figured out. The chair I originally saw suggested that time, and the silence. Lark tells us that his father was killed in Korea, which was the war of the 50s, and she tells us they “never got his body back.” She goes on to describe how Termite loves big sounds, storms, the double railroad tunnel by the river, when the trains go over on the tracks above, the train yard. I had a strong sense of the look of the tunnel, which is a common sight in West Virginia — those stone structures, bridges, tunnels, built during the Depression by the WPA.

This novel was kismet from the beginning. I had written at least Lark’s and Nonie’s first sections of the book before September 1999, when the AP broke the story of No Gun Ri. A large color photo on the front page showed the tunnel, from above, over the should of a survivor in a pale pink suit. I just wish I could meet that woman some day. At any rate, I recognized the shape, the space, the tunnel, immediately, and knew that was what happened to Leavitt, Termite’s father. The parallel worlds of the book began building and layering.

Q:  In my review I make note of what looked like the obvious influence of William Faulkner, particularly his The Sound and the Fury, whose elements — the overlapping narratives, the sound and the fury going on in Termite’s inert body — you use in your own unique way. What other authors do you feel influenced by?

James Agee. Katherine Anne Porter. McCullers. Authors who articulate childhood, time, from deep inside.

Q:  Your last novel, MotherKind, was published in 2000. Did writing Lark and Termite, published nine years later, take longer to write than your other novels? Was writing it a particular challenge?

Each novel is a particular challenge in its own way. I blame my constant multi-tasking, and it’s true that I can’t write if there are other things to be done — but, in some way, I write the way I do because I live with the material of the books for so long. They become alternate worlds, and they must be compelling enough that I can come back to them, despite time and distraction, trauma, loss, life (!) in its goodness as well — and sometimes the distance even seems to solve problems, or advance my understanding, when I enter the book again. It’s always been five to nine years between books for me.

The challenge with this one was the immense problem of all it encompasses, sustaining parallel worlds, really through language and mystery. Language is, I think, a layered mystery that encompasses history, and dimensions beyond the physical. Language is consciousness itself, which, like music, prayer, thought, is more than physical, and bridges time.

Q:  On your website you have a page called “The Secret Country” which contains many photographs, letters, and other items from various time periods in which your books are set. In Lark and Termite you begin each day’s section with a picture from a variety of angles of the bridge at No Gun Ri. What role do these visual elements play in your writing?

I often build up a sort of artifact collection around the book I’m writing, private things that help me hang on to the work, enter the work, get inside the world that is still unknown to me. Some of the photographs on the website I discovered in hindsight. For Lark and Termite, I had a movie that I took, many years later, of the alley — it looked exactly the same, except that the house where he lived was gone, replaced by a garden.

And when I was researching No Gun Ri, I depended heavily on the AP series, which won a Pulitzer for Martha Mendoza, Charles Hanley, and Sang-Hun Choe, and did further research — including emailing various travel book companies. Robert Nilsen, a writer for Sun Moon guide books, happened to be in South Korea when I reached him, and he generously volunteered to go to the tunnel and photograph it for me. The black and white, cropped versions, the color translated to black and white, are the photographs he sent me, and allowed us to use in the novel. They get tighter as we enter into Leavitt’s mind, into what’s happening to everyone in the tunnels. The post cards of Main Street (that Lark collects), the small moon pitcher Termite loves, are all things, real things, that were part of the process.

Q:  You are also an acclaimed short story writer. Your first compilation, Sweathearts, was published in 1976, followed by another, Counting in 1978, and then Black Ticket in 1979. Since then you’ve written five novels, interspersed with collections of short stories. Is there a different sense of fulfillment when completing a novel than when completing a short story?

Well, yes, if only because a novel has to be sustained over such a long period, and the arc is so much longer and more complex. I loved writing stories, but I feel as though my stories and poems are inside my novels. I often publish excerpts along the way, that work as stories or focused excerpts. My books are mysteries to me — for me, material dictates form, meaning that the material teaches me how to write the book, what form the book will take.

Q:  Has your work become more focused on novels?

I find that the novel, as I conceive of it and write it, gives me the long arc of time I need in order to really enter the work. I want that long, familial form — which is never a given, and always a gamble.

Q:  This might not be a fair question, but what is your favorite short story you’ve written?

I don’t play favorites! To me, the work is a continuum. Everything I’ve written had to precede what came next. It is one body of work.

Q:  What are some of your favorite short stories?

“Pale Horse, Pale Rider” comes to mind, as perfection in itself, but there are dozens of stories I love.

Q:  This book was set in your native West Virginia. Now that you are the director of the MFA program at Rutgers Newark, can we New Jersey residents hope to see a book set in or around this area?

Hmmmm, well, in some way, perhaps. Perhaps when I write my “academic” novel!

Q:  And finally, what are three novels that you recommend we all read?

Here are four. You’ll love them. I live by them.

  • A Death in the Family, by James Agee
  • They Came Like Swallows, by William Maxwell
  • Last Exit to Brooklyn, by Hubert Selby
  • Fat City, by Leonard Gardner
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