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For the week of August 30 through September 5, 2000

Composing line by line

An Interview with author, Jayne Anne Phillips


"Language is the ocean in which culture floats."

Jayne Anne Phillips


By DANA DUGAN
Express Staff Writer

Everyone at the annual Sun Valley Writer’s Conference, including author Jayne Anne Phillips, always seems so glad to be there. And why not?

They and their families’ airfares are paid. They eat at wonderful restaurants and homes, are driven around by young, enthusiastic "ambassadors," and hang with their own literature idols, friends and fellow authors.

They kiss each other, they hug and most importantly they heap praise upon praise upon each other. Before their lectures the writers are introduced by a cheerleading squad of spouses, friends, family members or other participants, all of whom are witty and clever and full of laudatory remarks.

It’s enough to make the audience feel rather dull in comparison.

Phillips, who spoke to a reporter during the conference, also has the ability to do that.

Phillips, 48, grew up in a small mountain town in West Virginia as part of "West Virginia aristocracy," with, as she said, "a lot of mashed potato recipes" (some of which she shared during the conference with those of Irish author Frank McCourt. See McCourt interview on Page B1.).

Now a mother of two and writer in residence at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass., she teaches fiction workshops and a literature/film course one semester a year. Her most recent novel is the newly published "Motherkind."

Phillips, an attractive dark-haired woman with intelligent eyes and an impressive array of silver jewelry, is viewed by her peers as brainy beyond measure.

Her start was as a poet, and she still writes with a deep regard for the words she chooses (in speech as well as in prose).

Her practice is to "compose line by line, slowly, moved and driven very much by the rhythms and spiritual content of the language," she said.

As Phillips explained, she "relates to language as a kind of subversive subconscious force. I don’t think about the work or the language. I hear the first line and work from that line to the next. I want to have a sort of organic organization, which I wouldn’t have if I tried to organize it from the outside."

Phillips is at her most lucid and compelling when she's working with the mother-child relationship. It’s an area she is attuned to personally, both as a mother and a teacher, but also the caretaker of her own mother who lived with Phillips’ family for a year before passing away. This is also the briefest description of the plot of "Motherkind."

A line from this novel expresses her version of familial dynamics that play out in spite of illness or circumstance: "Kate and her mother often held opposing opinions. In such instances, Katherine [the mother] signaled to Kate with small silences or fondly directive remarks that she, Katherine, was still senior partner in their mother/daughter enterprise."

Indeed, Phillips has her own quandaries based on experience, over mothers who work, write and raise kids, all at the same time. She claimed not to be able to separate herself from the parental daily grind and her life as a writer.

Part of it, she said, is her "own resistance to writing because I typically write about what is most dangerous for me to think about, what is riskiest to work through, most terrifying."

She continued: "If my work doesn’t shake or frighten or rouse me or really get me in some unexpected way then I am not on the right track.

The kind of attention one gives to her work, she said, is "very much like nurturing a child or student. It’s hard to do all at once. When I am teaching (one semester a year) I give it up.

"I can’t be as deeply into it as I need to. Parenting is the first priority because it has to be done. Sometimes I find that an incredible sacrifice and sometimes I find it a relief."

Phillips, who has been teaching for 25 years and writing even longer, has attracted certain attention to her work, which is both character driven and deeply rendered.

Her novel "Machine Dreams," for instance, was optioned by the actress Jessica Lange, who is at work on a film script of the book.

Phillips herself is trying her hand at screen writing, as well as working on her next novel.

It seems almost a paradox that this author, so highly metaphorical and precise, would work in film, since her love of language is paramount to her life, and movies are so dependent on the actors’ and director’s interpretation.

Declared Phillips:

"I feel that language has a boundless sensory apparatus inside it and that’s the level in which I want to connect with the reader.

"Words, even though they are flat dimensional symbols, when put together in particular ways can connect with the reader in a very associative way."

A rare aspect of Phillips—she offered at her lecture in response to a question—is that she is seldom edited.

Her work is so faithfully and painstakingly created that it tends to stand on its own, as a finished product, prior to an editor’s read, according to her interview with the Mountain Express.

"Language is the ocean in which culture floats," she said. "I’ve always wanted, more than anything else, to represent perception itself in my work, in the language of the work. To represent the way people think and remember and fantasize and the way these things are connected.

"The so-called story is a part of that. I discover what happens through the language and through my perception of the language."

 

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