HELEN PHILLIPS is the author of the short story collection And Yet They Were Happy. She is the recipient of a 2009-2010 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, the 2009 Meridian Editors’ Prize, and the 2008 Italo Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction. Her work has appeared in the Mississippi Review and PEN America, among many others, and in the anthology American Fiction: The Best Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Writers. She was interviewed about her new book by AMELIA KAHANEY, whose short stories have appeared in Best American Non-Required Reading, One Story, Crazyhorse, and other publications.
1) Congratulations, Helen, on what I can only describe as a wonder of a book. And Yet They Were Happy is one of those rare reads where every single page contains something astonishing. Unlike a traditional novel, where some sections are likely more bloated and baggy than others, here you’ve produced a collection of tiny, distilled stories, each two pages long, which can stand alone or be read as part of a thematic grouping. Can you talk a bit about how you made the choice to stick to this particular length, and how that decision affected your writing process? Did you always envision the stories as a book, or did that decision come later?
Thank you, Amelia! I’m honored to hear that you felt a sense of wonder. It’s interesting that you contrast this book to the traditional novel; I started writing the pieces that would become And Yet They Were Happy after I’d thrown up my hands in frustration at the novel I’d been working on, which had somehow gotten so far removed from the original excitement that I wasn’t having any fun when I was writing it. I always tell my students “If you’re bored when you’re writing, that’s a bad sign—start writing something else, or at least bring in a UFO or a bear attack.” So I decided to take my own advice. I wanted to be working on a project where I could feel that initial thrill of creation on a daily basis. Inspired by my husband, artist Adam Thompson, who’d recently taken a break from labor-intensive paintings to give himself the challenge of making pencil line drawings on 8 ½ x 11 paper, I decided to give myself the challenge of writing one 340-word story every day. Finally the idea and the execution were simultaneous. I didn’t envision the pieces as a book at that point—more as an antidote—but as I kept returning to central obsessions it was interesting to see a narrative start to emerge.
2) Let’s talk about magic. And Yet They Were Happy features, to name but a few things, violins that produce water when played, actors trained to flawlessly impersonate one’s husband, deadly rosebushes with the power to destroy entire towns, ghostly women who make their home on traffic islands in the centers of freeways, several kinds of monsters, dragons that become oil rigs, a city made entirely of paper, mermaids, anthropomorphized mice, and televisions that make children quite literally disappear. How would you characterize your relationship with magic, both in your reading and in your writing, and perhaps even in your life? How does allowing a world to be magical change what goes on for you on the page?
It’s fun to read your catalogue of the magical elements and to see what stood out to you. For me, magic serves to make a metaphor literal. I use it as a vehicle for illuminating something about reality. For instance, the story about the anthropomorphized mice is in fact the story of a couple confronting their own failure to embrace life fully. Somehow that message feels more visceral to me if it’s delivered via a houseful of mice who are all deeply in touch with their joie de vivre rather than, say, via a scene of a couple sitting and talking about their problems.
3) The book veers quite naturally–eerily so, and in the best way possible—from what used to be called domestic subject matter to global catastrophe and back again. You’ve got sections called “the brides,” “the mothers,” “the weddings” and “the offspring” intermingling with sections called “the floods,” “the droughts,” “the regimes,” “the punishments,” and “the apocalypses.” Is there something apocalyptic that happens to us when we marry (or don’t) and when we have children (or don’t)? How do the complexities of these sorts of life passages play out on the page for you?
Yes, I definitely found myself dealing equally with minor domestic dissatisfaction and global apocalypse. (In fact, I briefly considered the cringe-worthy title Tempests in Teacups/Teacups in Tempests.) In one of the pieces (offspring #4), a father informs his child: “all problems are equally small and equally great.” I don’t mean to put a couple fighting on par with the end of the world, but I do think there are certain life milestones that can feel apocalyptic in scope in the sense that they connect us to our own deaths. Committing to someone for the long haul has in it an element of one’s own mortality; either I will oversee your death or you will oversee mine. Similarly, having a child (an experience I have yet to undergo) connects you to your own life cycle. I also think the anxiety of apocalypse intrudes on the domestic sphere. Our homes are never the fortresses against the world we wish them to be—are these apples poisoned from pesticides, what chemicals are we breathing in, is our home going to be destroyed by a natural disaster, is there going to be a terrorist attack?
4) Independent presses are on everyone’s mind lately, what with the success of Tinkers and Lord of Misrule. What’s it like to be published by a smaller press?
It is indeed an exciting time to be a small press author, and working with Leapfrog Press has been phenomenal. I cannot speak highly enough of Lisa Graziano of Leapfrog; I’m so lucky that my debut book found such a loving home. And Yet They Were Happy is one of a handful of books they’re publishing this year, and the generous hands-on attention from Lisa and from Leapfrog’s publicist Jana Robbins has made a tremendous difference in the massive undertaking of launching a book. Because it’s a small press, Adam and I got to have a lot of say in some important aesthetic matters.
5) What are you working on now?
I’m seeking a home for my young adult adventure novel, Miss Perfect and Mister Beautiful, missing father, active volcano, magical jungle, extinct bird, etc. That was a real change of pace from writing And Yet They Were Happy—an interesting challenge to focus on a mystery plotline. And I’m working on a book called The Beautiful Bureaucrat: thriller as prose poem.