An Interview with Julia Philips

Amy Gustine

The foundation of every novel is built on two choices: point of view and chronology. No matter how much text she’s written, until a writer commits to how many characters’ perspectives readers will hear and what order they will hear them in, the story remains unrecognizable, like a sculpture whose ears, nose, and toes are spread out on the floor.

Having struggled with structure myself, I began writing about it a few years ago, trying to make sense of the bewildering options through categorization. One of the more challenging and rare point-of-view approaches is what I call the “relay” novel. In this form, every chapter features a new perspective, like a baton handed off to a new runner for each leg of the race.

One recent novel that takes this approach is the gorgeous and emotionally searing Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. Set in Russia, it tells the story of two girls who are abducted (no spoilers here, this happens in the opening pages) and the ripples their disappearance creates. The novel features thirteen chapters and twelve narrators (one repeats), and each chapter is labeled by consecutive months (except for “New Year’s” in the middle).

Disappearing Earth received many accolades, including being named one of The New York Times “10 Best Books of the Year,” a National Book Award Finalist, a Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize, and a Finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award. As part of my own book about structure, I interviewed Phillips on how she came to the relay form and what she found liberating and challenging in it.

Northwest Review (NWR)
Fiction in which each chapter is told from a new perspective is often labeled a “novel-in-stories.” Did you start Disappearing Earth with the idea that you were writing stories or did you know from the beginning this was going to be a novel?
Julia Phillips (JP)
I started conceiving of it as a thematically linked short story collection. It had the same structure as it does now. It was a year in the life of this community and was bookended by the disappearance of the girls in the beginning and a return to the question of the girls at the end. Each chapter was in the current order that it’s in, and each narrator shifted for every story or chapter. We went month by month through this community.

I wanted to have this thematic connection through this idea of loss. The girls are lost in the beginning, then we have someone who loses a friend, someone who loses an object, or a temper, or their relationship, or a fantasy that they had. When I read the whole manuscript with that structure in mind, I came to understand that making more explicit connections of plot would really help enhance the thematic linkages between stories. There was too much connection between characters for the book to just be thematically connected, but there was too little for it to feel robustly connected in that first draft.

After I did that revision, I saw that I had a linear, chronological story. I have an umbrella story — the investigation of the girls — and under that many smaller stories, and I started to think of it as a novel-in-stories. One big story told through twelve smaller ones. That’s how I thought of it for a long time. The structure didn’t change at all from first conception, but the linkages between chapters and the mindset I had about it did. In the last few months of it I started calling it a novel. I went to a conference and there was an editor there who said that novels-in-stories don’t exist. It’s either a novel or a short story collection. And I thought oh no! So if it was between a story collection and a novel, then it’s a novel. My rhetoric changed around it.

NWR
Did the editor acknowledge that there are linked and non-linked story collections?
JP
I asked him about A Visit From the Goon Squad and others, but he insisted it was either a novel or a story collection.
NWR
Was he an experienced editor or new to the business?
JP
Very experienced. I went right back to my room and changed my query letter. That was the final change in conception and no one questioned it later in the process.
NWR
Thank goodness, because it is an opinion and someone might have questioned it. I think that opinion might have been less literary and more marketing.
JP
Yes, I think it was 100% and that was my concern, how to most effectively pitch the product to agents and editors. But it was not a structural change.
NWR
In my opinion, it feels like a novel, and it probably sold better to the average reader because it was marketed as one. Rightly or wrongly, the average reader is not as likely to pick up a book that has the whiff of a “collection” about it. It’s not fair and they would be doing themselves a disservice to have turned your book away based on its cover, but it’s a reality. And it’s not a mislabeling in any way, shape or form.
JP
I have come to think of a novel as a big story, and this is a big story, with lots of littler stories inside it. I still think privately that a “novel-in-stories” feels like the most precise description, but it’s not something I imagined printed on a book cover.
NWR
The same way you could think of it as a “relay novel.”
JP
Exactly. It’s a description for the self to understand what’s going on there.
NWR
What did you think was the most challenging thing about the structure?
JP
Maintaining momentum. Every time you switch the point-of-view character or the topic of concern it invites you to set the book down. There’s a finality in the ending of chapters that doesn’t pull you into the next one. I think of this novel as a spine with ribs around it. The story of the missing girls is the spine and the chapters are the ribs. In the early drafts I spent so much time attending to each rib that the whole thing couldn’t support its own weight. The story of the missing girls wasn’t robust enough or able to make the necessary linkages. Now I think the balance is as good as it could possibly be. It’s just a very challenging endeavor.
NWR
Did you ever have any characters or storylines that you considered writing but you didn’t because they didn’t lend themselves to supporting that spine?
JP
For me each chapter began with a certain “what if” sentence: what if someone loses a dog, what if someone loses a friend. Very early in drafting I imagined an image that could be interesting, but I couldn’t even make a sentence out of it. That was the only potential thing I considered and discarded. Other than that, the process of drafting the book was very efficient. I only had as many ideas for chapters as I had chapters. It just worked out. NWR
One thing challenging about the relay novel is the need to write enough. Partly the marketing aspect of it starts to creep in. You might have only four ideas that fill up 42,000 words, but that’s more of a novella, which is also hard to market. And sometimes you have too many ribs and you have to take some out.
JP
That’s how it worked with my previous project, it was too short, and the current project I’m working on is too long and I have to cut all of it.
NWR
What did you find the most rewarding or the easiest thing about the relay novel structure?
JP
I was really pleased by how the writing felt unintimidating. The chapters were such manageable chunks. I could write two drafts of a chapter in a month, and send it to my writing group, and redraft it again, and at the same time be writing a new chapter, and stay on a steady pattern. For me the design was really helpful for writing quickly and staying engaged in each story because it was so discrete. I was also able to submit the stories to magazines as standalone stories for the first year or year and a half, which was very helpful. As it got farther along and the ties got tighter between chapters, I couldn’t do that because the chapters were too enmeshed with each other. But especially in the beginning, I found the design to be extremely engaging, and it kept me incentivized to write and return to the manuscript over and over. Nothing ever wore out its welcome.
NWR
I’m thrilled to hear that other people struggle with that idea of conflation. It is difficult to write about people with failings and thread the needle between judging them as the superior author and suggesting too much sympathy for characters with serious failings.
JP
Or making an argument through the text that we should be spending all our time trying to understand this asshole.
NWR
Yet writing about unpleasant people and conflicts from the most noble perspective would be difficult to always make interesting and it would be very constraining. I have often wondered about this, for example, with Lolita and Nabokov’s fascination with that material.
JP
And our fascination as readers. It made sense that he would want to explore that mind, and as readers that we are so compelled by that mind, and the idea of hearing Lolita’s voice is so frightening, and unsavory, we want something novel and compelling, but also when you spend a long time in a place that is‚Ķchallenging. It’s challenging.
NWR
For me, I saw the racism and the us-them mentality in your characters, but I thought it was gorgeously balanced against human weakness and limitations. For the most part, the characters are very sympathetic. For example, Chegga. From his girlfriend’s perspective, he doesn’t seem very sympathetic, but you did a beautiful job of refracting his complexity through other people. JP
I’ve had conversations with readers who ask why all the male characters in Disappearing Earth are assholes, and others who think the guy that the dancer is with is wonderful. She thinks he’s wonderful, but I’m not so sure he’s great. Or like Chegga. His girlfriend is mad at him. I want to communicate that there is some truth that is different from what the character is telling us or themselves. But the multi-faceted structure of this book was very helpful because I could have characters check each other. We have the girlfriend’s perception of Chegga and we have Marina’s perception of Chegga. He’s still nosy and gossipy, but in a way that’s not so scathing.
NWR
I wonder if one of the reasons readers felt all the men were assholes is because every point-of-view character is a woman.
JP
I completely agree with you. Though the women have asshole qualities, we also get to see them as fully rounded folks who can be insecure, tender and loving. Whereas all the men in the book are only observed, and sometimes by people who don’t like them very much. Are they objectively worse people? I don’t think so. I think it speaks to the power of POV to invite humanizing and sympathy toward the person whose perspective we are listening to. That said, I don’t think that’s the only cause for that feeling readers have. Part of working on the book was working through some of my own feelings around gender-based violence, around men as threat, even the kind men in our lives, and I think I got to a different place through the writing that helped me grow and learn. I don’t think that when I was the person writing this book, I had the most tenderness toward all the male characters. NWR
I did feel the gender-based violence and the need to balance the love we have for the men in our lives with the ways in which the generic male gender has been a dominating and often violent presence.
JP
If we live in a patriarchy, there’s a power imbalance, and that power imbalance is not lovable even when the men in our lives are.
NWR
Did you ever consider having a male point of view character?
JP
No. The book was meant to be a range of experiences of the lives of girls and women. That’s why it’s built around what to me is an archetypal and constant refrain of how we need to pay so much attention to little white girls who go missing. I wanted to question what underlies that archetype. I wanted to show what everyday lives look like and the little violences and harms in our lives that create a foundation of encouragement for enacting physical harm, like kidnapping or murder, like something so rare as the abduction of white children by a stranger. These violences are the tip of an iceberg. I wanted to look at the iceberg.
NWR
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book was the culture you chose to write about. You aren’t Russian, though. I was wondering if you could speak to the difficulties of writing about a culture outside your personal experience.
JP
I studied Russian, and I wanted to move to the country to research a book and keep studying Russian, and I think that mentality of being a student was really helpful. I am extremely hobbled by my own culture, heavily biased by my Americanness in a way that I can’t get rid of. It would have been a failure from the start to have ever imagined that the book is totally objective and free of bias. It’s a story written by an American about Russian characters in Russia, and it was for me to learn and grow. I love to re-read a wonderful Kaitlyn Greenidge piece called “Who Gets to Write What” in the New York Times from September 2016. She says write whatever you want, but do it well, and understand some readers will know more about what you write than you do because they aren’t changing their interests with every new project, and they’re going to give you feedback and that’s not an offense.
NWR
Every time we write fiction we are stepping into someone else’s shoes.
JP
There’s a piece by Zadie Smith where she talks about imagination and how fiction is imagining, and how there’s an uninformed imagining that becomes presumption. Because the U.S. is so racist and white supremacist, we see a lot that someone white writes a story that’s not about mainly white characters, the writer has it workshopped by all white people, and finds an agent who’s white, and then publishing staff is 85% white, so no one has the knowledge or experience to say that something here is wrong, inconsistent, or lacking. The art is under no demands to get better, and the story is pushed out there, and by then the writer who has spent all this time imagining is fashioned as an expert, but the story they made up is flawed. I say that as someone who knows that experience well.
NWR
Did you ever consider not revealing what happened to the girls?
JP
No. I’ve learned there are some readers who feel the ending is open-ended, ambiguous, but my intention from the jump was always to know what happened. I don’t like a story that starts with a question and we don’t get an answer at the end. I have no desire to sit with an unresolved story. Everyone’s conception of what “resolves” feel like is different, but I wanted to feel resolved at the end of the story.
NWR
I was blown away by the beauty and brilliance of the last chapter in terms of how you handled that point of view. I think of it as an implied dialogue or a monologue, and the unique approach avoided some of the pitfalls of high-drama chapters. I’ve noticed literature is often the best when it avoids looking too directly at these moments. Did you ever try this section in another narrative style?
JP
What you’re saying about avoiding the most dramatic moment — it’s like with a sex scene which can be sexier in the imagining than in the actual seeing. The imagining of something is often more fulfilling than any actual rendering could be.
NWR
Maintaining tension in a resolution chapter can be difficult. Instead of relying on plot — or what happens — you do it in a purely rhetorical way with one-sided dialogue. There is a brilliant friction created by having to infer what one character is saying based on how the other character responds.
JP
To me that’s the most joyful part of writing — when in the revision you realize that you subconsciously set up all these pieces, all I have to do is knock them down, I’d left them there for myself and I didn’t even know it. That was so thrilling, that the story I started with is what the book is really about. That it wasn’t about disappearance or sudden tragedy as much as it was about what it looks like to survive after pain, that things can happen to you that are so hard, and not in your control, but if you survive there’s always some hope of changing and growth. To live is a beautiful thing even if living is painful.

Amy Gustine is the author of the story collection, You Should Pity Us Instead, a 2017 Finalist for the Ohioana Book Award in Fiction. She is also the recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award. Her fiction and craft essays have appeared in periodicals such as Tin House, The Kenyon Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Fiction Writers Review, and Alaska Quarterly Review. Keep up with her at AmyGustine.com or on Twitter at @AmyGustine.