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 Writers 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.
Its 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 dont 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 wouldnt 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. Its 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 doesnt 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. Its hard to do all at once. When I am teaching
(one semester a year) I give it up.
"I cant 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
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 directors interpretation.
"I feel that language has a boundless sensory apparatus inside it and
thats 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 Phillipsshe offered at her lecture in response to a
questionis 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 editors read, according to her
interview with the Mountain Express.
"Language is the ocean in which culture floats," she said.
"Ive 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."