Jayne Anne Phillips Goes to War
The acclaimed novelist talks about her haunting new book Lark & Termite, the emotional fallout of a Korean War massacre, and why writers are truly heroic.
Jayne Anne Phillips’ moving new novel, Lark & Termite, melds the stories of two weekends in the 1950s, nine years apart. Corporal Robert Leavitt is trapped in the chaos of the Korean War during the No Gun Ri massacre. Years later, his son, Termite, a severely disabled nine-year-old, is taken care of by his half-sister Lark and his aunt Nonie in rural West Virginia during a flood.
“Books about women and children are not valued in the same way as a book about war. And why is that? I don’t know.”
Lark & Termite (Random House) marks a critical comeback for Phillips. Her first commercial success, Black Tickets, a 1979 short-story collection, won praise from literary legends including Raymond Carver, John Irving, and Annie Dillard. Nadine Gordimer once called Phillips “the best short-story writer since Eudora Welty.” Her second book, the novel Machine Dreams, was also a hit with critics, although her next three books, the collection Fast Lanes and the novels Shelter and Motherkind, didn’t find the same level of acclaim. Phillips is the director of the MFA program in writing at Rutgers Newark. She talked with The Daily Beast about her new novel:
Where did the idea for Lark & Termite come from?
The idea really came from a boy that I saw about 30 years ago in my hometown. I was looking out an upstairs window over a beautiful grass alley and there were several houses that fronted on the alley. In the front yard of one of them, facing this empty alley, there was a 1950s armchair and in it sat this boy who looked to be eight or nine years old. He had his legs folded up under him and he was holding up to his forehead this strip of long blue dry-cleaner bag and looking through it, blowing it so that it moved in front of his eyes.
The image of him stayed with me. Years later, a friend, artist Mary Sherman, gave me a drawing that looked exactly like him. She’d written across the top, “termite,” [and] a lot of inscrutable words that I couldn’t read.
I think I was trying to answer the questions for myself, who is that and what is he doing.
In this book, you return to a theme similar you used in Machine Dreams, what the New York Times called the “emotional fallout of war.” What drew you to the theme and why did you choose to set Lark & Termite in the past, and not say, during the current Iraq War?
I think we really forget how connected we are to the past. Leavitt [Termite’s father] says at one point, “it’s all one war,” with weaponry and scenery and reasoning changed, but it’s one continuous war. One of the other characters says, “You forget that every soldier’s death lasts a generation.” Because there’s a life unlived and there are people left behind who are dealing with that loss for all of their lives.
Battle is battle. There might be certain elements that are different, but the sense of panic and the sense of chaos and the uncontrollable nature of war is the same and I think it’s important to remember that and to look at the past and see that things are so unresolved, that we haven’t really made much progress.
In what order did you write the sections of the story?
My first entry into that world was Lark’s voice, sort of the older sister who speaks for Termite. She describes that world of 1959 in West Virginia, the secrets she knows, the secrets that have been kept from her and the physical landscape of the town, and this double railroad tunnel down by the river that they go to that’s sort of a secret place […]
Lark says early on in the book that she doesn’t know who her father is, but she knows that Termite’s father was killed early in the Korean War. Then in 1999 the story of No Gun Ri broke, was broken by the AP after 50 years and the photograph on the cover of the Times was of this double railroad tunnel. It was the same shape as this tunnel that was already so much a part of the book.
I looked at the photograph and realized that was what happened to Termite’s father, that he had been involved in that incident. And the parallels between these worlds began to multiply. I really had to write my way into the book to answer a lot of the secrets that were established early on.
Why did you choose to write using so many points of view?
Well, I had to because I was working with this idea of parallel worlds and the shifts happened associatively, almost. The switch of point of view happens each time at a very specific moment that has to do with layering of language and images and even repeated elements that happen despite the fact that we’re dealing with two different periods of time.
Do you find it easier to write around themes than in a more traditional beginning-middle-end narrative?
I think the material dictates the form it should take and I have written stories that are more beginning-middle-end oriented. I think the material has to… the writer has to listen carefully to the material to find out how to write it. The story makes certain demands or what you’re trying to do makes certain demands and trying to meet those demands and sustain them is the most difficult thing about writing a novel.
Has it been hard to live up to the name you made for yourself early on?
I have never taken reviews or statements about the work as being personal. I think you kind of have to ignore it whether it’s positive or negative and just stay connected to the work you’re trying to do.
Both Shelter and Motherkind are about women in a sense—they’re not about war. I think that books about women and children are maybe not valued in the same way as a book about war. And why is that? I don’t know.
What is your writing process like?
I work via the high-tension-wire method, which is maybe going for long periods without writing while the tension builds up—when am I going to write this, am I going to be able to write this, what is this image about—and I’m thinking about it all the time, but I’m not really inside it, inside the writing.
In a way the pressure of being separated from the actual work is part of the process for me. I don’t know that I chose that, but it’s just simply a feature of the life I live which is a life in which I constantly multitask. It’s the demands of living a whole life—the family, the job, the emergencies.
You recently told the Los Angeles Times that you think it’s “heroic” to become a writer. Why is writing a heroic act?
Writing provides no guarantees. And writers who stay with writing do it for reasons that are larger than self.
We live in a culture that is so media-saturated. I think that writers are stemming the tide of the loss of meaning because writers invent or discover meaning inside what might seem random.
It’s very risky to write the material that’s most compelling to us—it should feel risky. I think writers have to overcome their own resistance to the material, their fear of the material, their fear of what they will find out about themselves or about the world every time they sit down to write. So I think in many senses it’s a heroic venture.
Lizzie Stark is a freelance journalist who has written for the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Daily Beast. She also edits the lit-mag Fringe and is at work on a book about Live Action Role Play.