Publishers Weekly Profile

Saint Elsewhere
An Arthur Phillips novel inhabits a place far from its author.
By Wendy Smith — Publishers Weekly, 2/12/2007

Publishers Weekly – a conversation with Arthur Phillips…

Even a cursory glance at the hilarious Reader’s Guides appended to the paperback editions of his first two novels will tell you that Arthur Phillips does not follow that hoary creative writing seminar advice: “Write what you know.” True, he did spend a few post-college years in Budapest during the early 1990s, like the characters in his bestselling debut, Prague (Random House, 2002). But, he declares in an interview following the final chapter of Prague, “anytime I was tempted to write autobiography or biography, I went and had a cold shower and a lie-down.” As for The Egyptologist, his Nabokovian romp through 1920s archeology, Phillips cheerfully confesses in an afterword that he acquired any information he needed about life along the ancient Nile from a helpful curator on e-duty at the British Museum’s Website, “as my novel’s giddy plot persisted in yanking me into the dark and dusty chambers of the unknown.”

“The story dictates where I’m going,” he says, sipping tea in the trendy Brooklyn trattoria Boca Lupa. “At this point I would certainly rather make something up than write about my life, which mostly involves walking the dogs and playing with the kids.” Phillips and his wife, Jan, have two sons, ages eight and three; the clutter created by boys and pets is his justification for a rendezvous down the block. If Dad is as amusing at home as he is when meeting the press, then life in the Phillips household must be highly entertaining. Intelligent and articulate, the 37-year-old author reveals that he takes his work seriously, but he undercuts any hint of portentousness with his quick wit. He apparently saved all his darker impulses for Angelica, his new novel coming from Random House in April. This time out, Phillips’s muse took him to Victorian London for a somber ghost story reminiscent of psychologically unsettling tales like The Turn of the Screw.

Angelica, banished by her father, Joseph, to a separate room after four years of sleeping at the foot of her parents’ bed, has nightmares, wakes up choking, shrieks “I WILL NOT STAY ALONE!” Her mother, Constance, becomes convinced that something supernatural is afflicting Angelica; she finds the child’s room unnaturally cold and foul-smelling, and later sees a demon hovering over the bed. The spiritualist Constance hires to investigate agrees that these unnerving events are physical manifestations of Joseph’s “overpotent emotions.” (In carefully Victorian language, the author makes it clear that Angelica was sent to sleep alone because Joseph wants to have sex with his wife.) But as the novel shifts to Joseph’s point of view, readers begin to wonder whether the escalating horrors are produced by Constance’s hysterical fears. Nothing is certain in Phillips’s twisty narrative, which closes with the adult Angelica offering several different theories about what actually happened and refusing to decide among them.

With their multiple points of view and ambiguous endings, all three of Phillips’s novels suggest that the author doesn’t just decline to write what he knows—he wonders how much we can ever really know. “It does seem as you look at my books that I have a bone to pick with reality,” he acknowledges. “I start to write a story, and I realize, well, that’s not the way the person across the room would have seen it. Once you start picking that apart for fictional purposes, then everything starts to unravel! Certain novels will provide every single answer, but the way Angelica sets itself up, it’s just not possible to have a complete answer. If you move from there into questions of what we do and do not know about the world, I think that’s probably okay.”

Nonetheless, Phillips insists, “I don’t come to literature with a philosophical question I need to untangle. The main question that comes up over and over when you sit down to write a book is: Who is this person, and why are they doing that?”

He learned how to create believable characters in about the last job you’d expect to provide inspiration for a budding novelist: crafting press releases, sales material and speeches for corporate officers and academic administrators. Not that Phillips thought of himself as a novelist when he got back from Budapest and returned to Cambridge (where he’d earlier acquired a Harvard B.A. in medieval history). “Speechwriting turned out to be as apt a training for fiction as there is. You’re writing a fictional character, because if this person actually existed, they’d write their own speeches and would be able to organize their ideas by themselves. But they can’t, so you’re doing it for them. You want them to sound like themselves and not like you, and you want them to think like themselves and not like you, so you’re getting all this great practice in making people up.”

“I was not one of those kids who always wanted to write. I stumbled into professional writing, and that showed me, oh, I actually can write x hundred words a day; they just happen to be really boring. I started poking around in fiction, then I realized, this is actually what I’m going to do—I’m not going to make a living at it, I’m not going to publish, no one’s ever going to look at this, but this is my important hobby, and I will do whatever I have to do to protect it. That was one of the great moments of my life.”

Prague surprised no one more than its author when it hit the bestseller lists and made it unnecessary for him to continue putting words in college deans’ mouths. “At the time I thought, if I can write fiction in the mornings and then go write ad copy, I will not be heartbroken. I knew what happens to the usual book. All you have to do is go into a bookstore if you’re feeling cocky—Tolstoy could go into a bookstore and say, ‘Wow, nobody needs War and Peace; there’s plenty of stuff to read!’ If the bookstore doesn’t depress you, go to BEA: it’ll be very clear how unimportant your work is. Well… I don’t want to depress the readers of PW too much!”

Hardly, since the collective success of Prague, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Everything Is Illuminated and The Winter Zoo, all published in 2002, proved that the American reading public had a healthy appetite for thoughtful novels set in unfamiliar parts of the world. “It was a good year for Eastern and Central European fiction,” Phillips comments. “I don’t know why, but clearly something happened so that people were ready for it.” It discomfited him, however, to “get asked all the time about the meaning of expatriate existence. I only know what I lived through, which was very different from what other people lived through and very different from what I wrote. I think, because of the inevitable marketing— ‘Here is the Voice of Whatever, the Story of Us’—a lot of Us read it and said, ‘That’s not my story.’ Well, of course it’s not your story—it’s not even my story, it’s just a story.”

The story occupying Phillips’s attention right now takes place closer to home than any of his previous novels: in Brooklyn, where he’s lived for two years and seems comfortably settled. (If knowing the owner of the local trattoria and quizzing a fellow parent about the neighborhood’s public schools constitute being settled.) “I think I’ve got one or two books lined up after this that will skitter off in other directions,” he says, “but I thought it was time for a little Brooklyn.” The borough’s a literary hotspot, home to Jonathan Lethem, Emily Barton, Elizabeth Gaffney and a host of others, a place where, it’s been said, “all the hip people live.” “I hear the same thing,” Phillips says, “so I’m thinking very hard about changing it to China in 1804 and running away before it’s too late.”

Arthur Phillips