Helen Phillips (’04) on Writing New Novels in New York City


"...One morning the summer after graduating from Yale, I woke up knowing

that what I wanted to do was (entirely unoriginally, I’ll admit)

move to Brooklyn and try to be a writer, unrealistic fantasy or no."

Helen Phillips (’04) is a writer and assistant professor in the English Department at Brooklyn College (CUNY). Her books include Some Possible Solutions (Henry Holt, 2016); The Beautiful Bureaucrat (Henry Holt, 2015); And Yet They Were Happy (Leapfrog Press, 2011); Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green (Delacorte Press/Random House Children’s Division, 2012). We asked Helen to tell us about her journey as a writer, what's exciting her right now, and how it feels to have NYC as her creative playground. Her novel The Need is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in 2019.

How did you get started? When/how did you know that you wanted to pursue writing?

From the time I could first write a story, around age six, I knew I wanted to be a writer. It felt like a vocation, even then. Still, I went through times when I thought it was an unrealistic fantasy. But one morning the summer after graduating from Yale, I woke up knowing that what I wanted to do was (entirely unoriginally, I’ll admit) move to Brooklyn and try to be a writer, unrealistic fantasy or no.

Were you involved in the arts/literary scene at Yale?

Yes, I was the co-editor of the Yale Literary Magazine (though I actually majored in Latin American Studies, due to my interest in Latin American literature and in travel).

What is your favorite book? What are you reading right now?

I just finished teaching a class called “Experiments in Fiction” in the M.F.A. program at Brooklyn College, and the syllabus included some of my current favorites: Amatka by Karin Tidbeck, Kindred by Octavia Butler, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, Speedboat by Renata Adler, Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid, and My Private Property by Mary Ruefle. I also recently read The Ash Family, the riveting debut novel of a former student of mine, Molly Dektar, forthcoming in 2019. And, The Power by Naomi Alderman is at the tiptop of my summer reading list.

What current projects are you working on?

My fifth book, The Need, is a sort of sci-fi thriller about motherhood. It’s forthcoming in the summer of 2019, and my editor is sending me edits any moment now, so very soon I will be diving into another round of revision to prepare it for publication and obsess over every sentence.

How did this current project come about?

In my early days as a mother, I found myself craving (and not always finding) fiction that could help me process the intensity of the experience: the intensity of the exhaustion, of the anxiety, of the bliss. The intensity of using a breast pump! This book arose out of my exploration of those complicated emotions, and the ethical implications of loving one’s offspring with such instinctual force. The Need hinges on the intersection of motherhood and moral responsibility. In it, a mother is presented with a surreal situation that forces her to make an impossible decision. There’s also some paleobotany, an alternate version of the Bible, and a Coca-Cola bottle with the wrong font. The book begins with a woman home alone with her two young children, crouching in front of a mirror in the dark because she’s just heard footsteps in the other room …

The publishing industry can be brutal. What were your challenges getting your first book published? How did this change for subsequent projects?

For many years, I’ve kept an Excel spreadsheet of all the magazines/publishers/awards to which I submit my work, and in the final column I always put the result. So you look down that column and it’s a big bunch of REJECTED! REJECTED! REJECTED! I take a lot of pride in that document. Along those lines, it was quite a challenge getting my first book, And Yet They Were Happy, published. For one thing, before I even wrote that book, I shelved three full-length novels I’d written. Then, when I finally did have a manuscript that I was happy with, my agent submitted it to all the major publishers. And Yet They Were Happy is a bit of an odd book, a sort of inter-genre work consisting entirely of linked-but-nonlinear pieces that are each two pages long. The book got all sorts of rejections along the lines of, “Wait, what genre is this book?” So I started submitting the book to the publication contests run by various small presses. When the book did finally find its way to publication, thanks to the wonderful indie press Leapfrog, reviewers and readers described it as being flash fiction, short stories, a novel, a memoir, prose poetry, etc., and I was delighted by that flexibility of categorization. My subsequent four books have ended up with large publishers; it’s a long journey, but the momentum does start to build over time.

In pursuing your passion, have you taken on secondary jobs? If so, which was the most interesting?

I have taken on many secondary jobs, from babysitter to bureaucrat. My current, and favorite, is teaching creative writing at Brooklyn College. But the most interesting was probably when I worked as a “mystery shopper” at bars and restaurants. I’m sworn to secrecy so I can say no more.

If you could meet one author, alive or dead, who would it be?

Ursula K. Le Guin—only recently lost to us! It pains me never to have met her. I had all sorts of things I wanted to ask her about motherhood and courage and imagination, though I’d have been tongue-tied around her in person. But writers are immortal—I can always turn to her books.

Have you always been or plan to be based in NYC?

It is quite a surprise to me that I am now a passionate New Yorker. I grew up in the mountains outside of Denver. You could leave my childhood home and walk for hours in the wilderness. Elk, buffalo, etc. I never understood why anyone would choose to live in a city. But now Brooklyn feels like a village to me. I love walking everywhere and having a real sense of neighborhood.

Does NYC affect your work? I love New York because whenever one of my kids has a meltdown on the subway, there always seems to be some kind stranger, be it a grandmother or a hip teenager, who helps me out by playing peekaboo with my kid or giving us a Kleenex or what have you. That special brand of NYC juxtaposition—the human connection amid the disgruntled rush—has found its way into my work in all sorts of ways.

What is your best advice for recent grads?

Nothing beats Samuel Beckett’s “Fail again. Fail better.” And, relatedly, Toni Morrison: “a failure is just information.” Embracing the possibility of failure makes you courageous enough to create the book/life you want.

Join yale.NYC on June 6, 2018, for a panel discussion on fiction publishing, featuring Helen and three other Yale authors! Info and tickets here.

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