2009 National Book Award Finalist Fiction
Interview with Jayne Anne Phillips

Jayne Anne Phillips

Lark and Termite

Alfred A. Knopf

Interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

Photo credit: Elena Seibert

Bret Anthony Johnston: First, congratulations on Lark & Termite being named a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction! Do you recall the inception of the book? Was there any image or incident or memory that triggered the writing process?

Jayne Anne Phillips: I live my way into my books, more or less unconsciously, for years before I write them. Thirty years ago, I was visiting a high school friend in my hometown. She’d rented a second floor apartment over a detached garage behind a house, and her window looked out over a lush grass alley. A row of one-story, tin-roofed houses fronted on the alley. In the front yard just opposite, I saw a boy sitting in a 1950’s aluminum lawn chair, his legs folded under him, facing the empty alley; he was holding a narrow strip of blue dry cleaner bag up to his forehead, blowing on it continually so that it moved in front of his eyes. “Who is that,” I asked my friend, “and what is he doing?’ “I don’t know,” she said, “but he sits that way for hours.” Perhaps five years later, in Cambridge, MA, an artist friend, Mary Sherman, gave me a page from her sketch book that I admired: a rather abstract drawing of a boy in profile, seemingly holding something transparent to his face. “Termite,” she’d scribbled in the margin, “some primal insect knocks on wood . . . ” and the rest was illegible. The boy whose image I remembered became Termite, though the rest of the novel remained illegible. I suppose Lark & Termite is an attempt to suggest one version of who he was, what he was doing.

BAJ: When you wrote Lark & Termite, did you have an audience or reader in mind?

JAP: I tell my writing students at Rutgers Newark that their responsibility is to the compassionate rendering of the material, never to an idea of a reader. One needs to be totally free of any sense of recipient of listener, in order to really descend into the heart of the book and meet the reader, so to speak, on the other side of that narrative arc. I did have in mind, though, the three children to whom I dedicated Lark & Termite. Two of them were children with whom I lived or worked long ago; the third was a name I read on a list of victims as I was researching No Gun Ri, a baby who was born and died in the tunnel. Long after writing the novel, I learned that his mother, trying to protect those still alive, suffocated him so that his crying wouldn’t draw fire.

BAJ: Did writing Lark & Termite feel any different than what you’ve written before?

JAP: The weight of history is always behind us, a pressure pushing at us, an atmosphere we breathe. The shadow world of this novel was close beside me for many years, demanding that I sustain the physical and spiritual realities of two very different, parallel, worlds, and write a way into the living connection between them. Termite himself was a secret. Language and literature have the power to communicate the ineffable, as well as the sensory and the starkly physical. I needed to capture in language the thoughts, memories, apprehensions, perceptions, of someone who doesn’t ‘think’ in language. It’s a paradox: what is beyond words lies within words, and within their limitless implications that only begin on the page..

BAJ: Did you encounter any blocks or unexpected difficulties in the process? How did you push beyond them?

JAP: Writing is continuous difficulty, or should be, yet the points of contact, like brilliant pin holes in some constellation of consciousness, are quietly ecstatic. I never “push beyond;” I just keep listening, and move deeper in, for as long as it takes.

BAJ: In the novel, you negotiate a number of characters’ consciousnesses in an elegant, commanding way. How did you manage this with such grace? Were any of the characters—Termite, for instance—more difficult than others?

JAP: Termite’s “language” seemed to write itself. All of the ‘voices’ or points of view in the book were compelling, insistent, specific. I tend to follow the sentences themselves into the characters, place, story, and each of the characters in the novel seemed to exist adjacent to one another in a kind of evolving dimension. All memory, all war, all time, are surely bound up in each specific access to memory, war, time, or literature makes this so. The intangible is made real. There’s a moment early in the novel in which Lark first opens the door to Stamble, and Termite senses him as a glow or light, accompanied by searching, whispering voices that seem to dart everywhere. Those voices, a remembrance and depth connected to the real event at the core of the novel, for me, were inside the words.

BAJ: You’ve written both novels and short stories. Do you feel more comfortable in one of the forms? Do you enjoy reading or writing one more than the other?

JAP: I love reading good writing, in whatever form. I’ve moved from writing poetry, to one-page fictions, to short stories, to novels; the longer form clearly provides me with the long narrative arc I need in order to live inside the material. The novel is a companion life, both luminous and dark, and completely compelling, even in silence. My ‘poems’ and stories are in my novels.

BAJ: One of the elements that all of this year’s fiction finalists share is a deep sense of place, a narrative focus on how time and setting both form and inform the characters’ lives. Did you always know that place would play such a large role in Lark & Termite? How did you go about evoking a landscape that would imbue the book with such power and resonance?

JAP: Place is the sensory bedrock of any imagined world, and it has be real in living, sensory ways, or more real than real, in the sense that it corresponds directly to the reader’s experience. I don’t imagine character apart from place. Voice defines place, and then elaborates. Leavitt is a foreigner in a densely chaotic place whose culture only hints at its complexity, throwing his memories and desires into sharp relief. Winfield is not so different from any isolated small town, except that West Virginia is so specific. Place implies the histories passing over it, imprinting it and disappearing.

The double tunnels in the novel, worlds apart, contain the same shape.

BAJ: Along those lines, what kind of research did you do for Lark & Termite?

JAP: One can only research facts. I read whatever I could find on the beginning of the Korean War, and I read the NY Times series of AP articles that broke the story of No Gun Ri countless times. I went back to West Virginia and filmed the alley. It was just as it had been years before, the grass as lush and green, the towering weedy plants in bloom, except that the house he lived in was gone, replaced by a fenced garden that was at once tended and wild. Rows of silver foil pie tins, strung on lines and moving in the wind to scare birds, glittered and caught the light, like presences in his absence.

BAJ: What writers do you enjoy reading? Are there other artists or art forms that influence or inspire your fiction?

JAP: Writers? The list is endless: Juan Rulfo, Leonard Gardner, Porter, O’Connor, Munro, Chekov (‘Three Years’), Kafka, Bruno Schultz, McCarthy, Bronte (Jane Eyre: Reader, I married her), Joyce, Burroughs. Certain books are seminal: They Came Like Swallows, A Death In The Family. Film addict. Theater addict, from the classics to the kicked-out experimental: I love watching actors in a space. I love the intimate experience of movies in the dark with anonymous crowds. It’s unfortunate that human beings are so politically/historically hopeless, and so artistically sublime. Sometimes I feel that we experience the miraculous only as mourners.

BAJ: As the director of the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark and as a writer of such distinction yourself, you have a unique perspective on the state and future of contemporary literature. What advice do you give your students?

JAP: I feel as though I’m a secret as a writer, but secrecy serves my purpose. I tell my students never to betray their intimacy with their own process. Writing is not a career. Working as an artist, in whatever medium, is a calling, a redemptive act. It’s religious and passionate. The artist/mentor relationship is at the heart of what we do in Newark, as is literature itself. I tell them to print out every draft, to read and edit on paper. I tell them we’re living in a second Medieval age, in which everyone reads for information, but so few are truly literate; so few read for sustenance, guidance, meaning, survival. I tell them to protect and support the book as a designed and beautiful object, as a vehicle for spiritual transformation. And I line-edit their work.

BAJ: This year is the 60th anniversary of the National Book Awards. How do you feel having your book celebrated among the luminaries that have preceded you? Are there previous NBA winners or finalists that you’ve found especially powerful over the years?

JAP: I’m honored that Lark & Termite is among this year’s fiction nominees, books that illustrate the fact that literature knows no national boundaries. The National Book Foundation has for sixty years supported the survival of miraculous texts; A Death In The Family and Lolita were nominees. Literature comprises the consciousness and conscience of a culture, and the National Book Awards supports and values that equation.

Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of the acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. He is director of the creative writing department at Harvard.