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Author Talk: February 13, 2009


February 13, 2009

Jayne Anne Phillips, a writing professor and author of several award-winning novels and short story collections, recently published her latest work of fiction, LARK AND TERMITE (her first in nine years). In this interview, Phillips recalls a decades-old memory that planted the seeds for her protagonist and sheds light on the complexities of his character. She also shares her thoughts on the spiritual and emotional bonds among family members, discusses the real-life events during the Korean War that inspired the book's plot, and offers advice to aspiring novelists.

Question: Was there a particular event or idea that gave birth to this novel?

Jayne Anne Phillips:
I was in my hometown perhaps thirty years ago, visiting a high school friend. She was living in a second floor apartment over a detached garage behind a house and her window looked out onto a lush grass alley with white gravel tire tracks. One-story, tin-roofed houses faced the alley. From her window, I saw a boy sitting in a 1950s aluminum lawn chair facing the alley, his legs folded up under him as though he couldn’t feel them. He was holding a narrow strip of blue dry cleaner bag up to his forehead, continually blowing on it so that it moved in front of his eyes. He seemed to be watching the blue or looking through it. I asked my friend, “Who is that? What is he doing?” “I don’t know,” she said, “but he sits that way for hours.” The image burned itself into my consciousness.

Years later, on my birthday, a talented artist named Mary Sherman gave me a drawing I admired in her sketchbook. She’d written some words around the edge that were almost illegible, Termite, something, something, something. She ripped out the page and gave it to me. The drawing became the image of Termite, because my actual memory of the real boy was almost a spiritual impression. I wasn’t aware at the time of the merging of the real image and the created image. Mary’s drawing, strangely, suggests a boy in profile, holding something we don’t quite see. And strangely too, or fittingly, his face and expression resemble what I imagine as the older face of a child I knew in the early '70s, the child of a friend, born with severe problems, a baby who was nearly silent, whose aspect and unfocused gaze were open and beautiful, who smiled at his mother’s voice, and at motion, when he was lifted and swung. In LARK AND TERMITE, Mary’s long-ago gift to me becomes Lark’s drawing of Termite, and my sense of Termite is informed by children I’ve known whose perceptions, altered by disability, seemed very intense.

My books come together slowly, in elemental ways, long before I begin writing them and one book opens into the next.

Q: LARK AND TERMITE begins in July, 1950, on the day of Termite’s birth and his father’s death during the Korean War. These two characters never meet and yet their intuitive sense of each other is so beautifully captured. It seems you are exploring the idea of the ever mysterious and powerful ways families are linked together across time and generations. Is that an accurate assessment?

Generational bonds are mysterious and powerful; love does imply a spiritual dimension. I believe that love, in its strongest, most primal forms can endure beyond death --- in memory, in forms of perception, and that story or literature can redeem what is otherwise lost, unknown, forgotten. In LARK AND TERMITE, relationships of great yearning and power are interrupted by war, by a catastrophic event no one can escape. The story told again and again, in all cultures and religions, tells us that we can find our way home within a spiritual dimension we cannot fully imagine. Leavitt begins to intuit that dimension, those enlarged perceptions, through the Korean children with whom he is trapped; they become his family. The reader begins to enter Termite’s perceptions, his sense of adjacent dimensions, his apprehension of time and space not obvious to others.

Q: Are the portions of this novel that take place in Korea based on actual events during that war? What sort of research went into this aspect of the novel? And what drew you, as a writer, to the Korean War?
The event in which Leavitt and the South Korean refugees are involved is based on an event at No Gun Ri. North Korea invaded South Korea on June 26, 1950. U.S. troops retreated seventy miles in the first weeks of the war, decimated by North Korean forces backed by the Red Chinese. There was confusion and chaos. No Gun Ri took place on July 26th, when several hundred civilians and the American troops evacuating them were mistakenly strafed by friendly fire. The Koreans who survived took shelter in a double railroad tunnel near the hamlet of No Gun Ri. American forces were told they were enemy, and not to let anyone out.

The picture of the double railroad tunnel appeared on the front pages of newspapers when American reporters broke the story, a story suppressed for almost fifty years. I saw the photograph and recognized the tunnel as almost identical in look and structure to the tunnel I’d already written into the world of LARK AND TERMITE. I began to research the beginning of the war and to write Leavitt’s section of the book, which became the first section of the novel. I read all I could find on No Gun Ri, including eyewitness accounts from children, now middle-aged, who survived because they hid behind the bodies of their dead mothers. Some US veterans also broke their silence. There was a report on a second lieutenant who carried a young Korean boy into the tunnel, thinking he’d be safe there. In LARK AND TERMITE, Leavitt is with the Koreans in the tunnel, and becomes their witness. The Korean boy he tries to save is a counterpart to Termite, the son Leavitt knows is about to be born in West Virginia.

As a writer, I am preoccupied by war itself, by the generational cost of war, by war’s spiritual devastation. Atrocities occur in all wars; war, once unleashed, is atrocity. Korea was in many ways a rehearsal for Vietnam, a never-declared civil war in an Asian country. We find ourselves now, globally, in a state of constant war. Leavitt, speaking in 1950 from a battlefield, says “It’s all one war.” I’m asking if that’s true. Certainly the ramifications of war remain timeless --- the generational inheritance of loss and damage.

Q: Tell us a little more about Termite. How did you go about capturing his voice and imagination with such visceral effect?

I tried to find my way into him through language itself, in the syllables of the words and the layering of images. I knew Termite was fascinated by big sounds and loved to hear trains go through a double railroad tunnel where the kids played. I set the book in the '50s partially so that he occupies a world in which no one can really name what’s “wrong” with him, in a time when family, a family like his, who are very specific, would care for him.

I see Termite as extremely perceptive, a trapped intelligence and awareness shaped by sensory deprivation, by poor eyesight and muscle control, by stasis and by sensory overload. He has extremely acute hearing, and fugue states in which he sees images he doesn’t recognize, except that he knows he’s seen them before, and the images, unlike what he physically sees, are visually clear and defined.

Termite is trapped in his body, in a sense, but, like many disabled people, has learned to compensate in specific ways. Unable to move, he “throws” his consciousness as a ventriloquist might “throw” his voice; he locates himself in the ragged orange cat, for instance, inside an animal consciousness that moves at will. Termite doesn’t communicate in normal ways; he doesn’t even think in those terms. Strangers view him as insensate, unaware, while Lark sees him as having his own type of awareness. She feels that in some ways he knows more than she does. Termite’s perceptions are patterns of images, information, sensory associations. He does apprehend, in scrambled fashion, what goes on around him, and more. He clearly has a prescient quality that he does not comprehend or even consider, yet, it is partially through Termite that the reader understands secrets never revealed to the other characters in the novel. In that sense, the reader becomes a character in LARK AND TERMITE. Termite is a living secret told only to the reader.

Q: Lark is an amazing young woman, a 17 year-old girl caring with such love and strength for her disabled brother while trying to find her own place in the world. In fact, many incredibly strong women who are in essence the ones who hold together their families --- financially and spiritually --- during a time, the 1950s, when women were not expected to take that role, populate this novel. Where did the inspiration for all these amazing women come from?

I think they are patterned on women in my own family, women from my place of origin. Appalachia was a pioneer culture that drew independent, resourceful people who worked for what they had. I didn’t grow up knowing pampered women. Men were defined by their jobs, while the family, regardless of whether they worked outside the home, defined women. Strengths in families shift and move. Those who take up the burden often get stronger and stronger, and many women, raising children, responsible for children, all over the world, simply never give up, as long as there is breath in their bodies. The Korean girl who reaches out to Leavitt for help is such a woman, as well.

Q: LARK AND TERMITE takes place in West Virginia where you were born and raised. How much has that place shaped you as a writer?

My family, on both sides, had been in Western Virginia since the 1700s, pre-dating states and nations, when the land was territory. The sounds and smells and feel of that world, the mountains, the small towns, the fields around the house my father built, where I grew up with my brothers, are the ground of my imagination. It was where I became aware, became myself. West Virginia was an excellent beginning for a writer because there was such strong natural tension between the fact that it was a storyteller’s world, a place of oral tradition, yet there were so many secrets, so much that you weren’t supposed to talk about, so much knowledge of which no one spoke. Everyone just knew. That culture, its isolation and way of being, seemed a manifestation of the land itself, so green and mountainous, the only state enclosed completely in Appalachia, a world inside a world.

Q: This novel, like your previous books, explores the bonds between family members and especially between siblings --- Lark and Termite and Nonie and Lola. What is it about sibling relationships that so interest you as a novelist?

The family, our family of origin, is a genetic and psychic map to who we are. We move inside that map all our lives and we inherit our parent’s unresolved emotional dilemmas as well as their physical characteristics or traits. We may learn to “read” the map, or we may not. Sibling relationships are a deep blood bond; siblings, wholly different, reflect one another. The power of that bond, truly realized, can rival the strength of the parent/child bond. I’ve always wanted to pick up a newspaper and read the headline Love Conquers Death in big bold letters. I suppose I’m trying to write that headline, create that meaning.

Q: There seems to be the hint of a ghost story in this novel --- in the form of a character who appears and then vanishes in a way that makes the reader speculate as to who or what he may have been. What made you decide to include this character in the novel?

There are “hints of ghost stories” everywhere, it seems to me, in the repeated patterning of events, circumstances, realities, history. All the great religions of the world, and literature is one of them, center on stories of supernatural dimension: on visitations and revelations. The Annunciation, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is the story of a visitation. Christians speak of “the Holy Ghost,” and other traditions present their own versions of a spiritual force or dimension. In our own lives, dreams, fantasies, memory, perception itself, exist outside the usual continuum of time and space.

Q: Was it difficult to write from the point of view of many different characters?

One point of view inspired another. I’m a very voice/language-oriented writer, and this novel began with Lark’s line: I move his chair into the yard under the tree and then Nonie carries him out. I knew who Nonie was carrying, I knew Lark by her voice; Lark told me what she knew of Termite and their mother, Lola. Lark told me what she didn’t know, as well. The world of the town, the alley, the train yard, the river, the double railroad bridge, her knowledge that Termite’s father was killed early in the Korean War, that they “never got his body back” and “had to have the service around a flag that was folded up,” were all established in Lark’s voice. Nonie’s no-nonsense voice speaks directly to the reader: It was wrong and it will never be right. Leavitt’s third person point of view is needed to tell his story, and Lola’s story, to a point, yet pull the reader inside the feel and smell and reality of the war, just as he is inside it. I didn’t originally intend to represent Termite’s point of view, but to revolve the novel around him. Writing often knows more than the writer knows, or the truth is inside the image. Termite’s voice begins with the words He sees inside the blue, but I didn’t know what that phrase truly meant until I wrote the end of the novel.

Q: There is a flood in this novel --- both literal and figurative --- that forever changes the future and also bring to life the past for all of the book’s main characters. Was this image of the flood as a kind of biblical event in your mind while writing?

The flood, and the consciousness of approaching storm, corresponds to Leavitt’s sense and experience of the war. War obliterates, like devastating, overwhelming, man-made weather. And weather, now, can seem an expression of injured consciousness, the “voice” of the planet, so to speak. There is an inevitability to the war, and to the storm and flood, in the novel -- a patterning between one world and another. From the moment Leavitt wades into that crowd of refugees and takes the Korean boy in his arms, he senses, with the boy, what is coming, just as Termite senses the flood. Catharsis, in the original dramatic sense, devastates and redeems.

Q: Tell us a little about your writing process --- how you write, when, etc.?

Fiction is the slow apprehension of meaning through the elements of story and language. For me, writing is the creation or apprehension of meaning, understood from the world, and then impressed upon it, opening into it. I see into the story through language itself: the novel presents itself as a mystery, inside the lines I write. I follow language into the heart or core of the book.

I like to work early in the day, and I need to work all day, really, to make much progress. It's exhausting, meditative, slow work, work that I usually have to balance with doing many other things. It’s good, in a sense, because the novel I’m writing has to be so compelling to me that I can put it down, and re-enter it when I find time to work. I live in the work, even when I’m not writing it.

Q: You teach creative writing, and currently direct the MFA Program at Rutgers Newark. What advice can you offer for aspiring writers?

Read, widely and deeply, and understand that writing is hard, demanding work in which we must constantly overcome our own resistance to the material that is most risky and important to us.

© Copyright 2009, Knopf, an imprint of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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