Jayne Anne Phillips by A.M. Homes

BOMB 49 Fall 1994

Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company


Jayne Anne Phillips 01 Bomb 049

Jayne Anne Phillips. Photo by Jerry Bauer. Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence.

The “other” worldly world of Jayne Anne Phillips first intersected mine in 1979—a senior in high school, living in the suburbs outside of Washington, DC, already scribbling away. I remember buying my first copy of Black Tickets (I’ve since gone through three or four) and immediately feeling as though I’d discovered a secret of my own, an ally. In Black TicketsPhillips wrote with a linguistic and imagistic hyper-clarity that saw everything as it was on the surface and then simultaneously saw more. She wrote like a poet walking through the world wearing x-ray specs. Her ability to take the familiar and make it un, to absorb ethereal images and experiences and translate them into a language that could be reconstituted in the reader’s mind made her a magician, a sorcerer—one of the very few writers whose next work I would always wait for. Black Tickets was followed by the novel Machine Dreams and a second collection of short fiction, Fast Lanes. With her new novel, Shelter, Jayne Anne Phillips again digs deep into the crevasses of consciousness, lingering on discomfiting moments, and articulating the odd imaginings most often associated with dream states. In Shelter, Phillips explores the power of secrets, the bonds between parents and children, and alliances among girls growing up. All of whom are struggling to come to terms with the pressures and eruptions of the world that looms outside and the equally large one that looms within.

A.M. Homes Why is Shelter set in 1963?

Jayne Anne Phillips I wanted the characters to be isolated from the world. I wanted a sense of the physical world, the natural world to be very close up in the book, so close up that it permeates their consciousness. Growing up in a rural town, they seem to stand apart from the political world, the world of what was going on in America. Kennedy was a real hero in West Virginia, a Prince Charming; many rural families hung calendars with his picture on them in their houses. I wanted the book to end right before he was killed. His assassination was the first of a string of murders of American heroes. After that, the country had to face reality.

AMH Reality being?

JAP Things were not what they seemed.

AMH Growing up in West Virginia, how did your sense of the outside world develop?

JAP I grew up on a rural road in a ranch-style brick house that my father had designed and built. It had a big concrete porch in the back. Behind the porch was an acre yard, then two or three fields, then a stream, and then the hills began. I remember sitting out on the porch alone, thinking, “How far am I going to get from this exact place?” I was intricately bound to it, but I also had the feeling that I wanted to leave. I was an only daughter, very connected to my mother. Very early on I felt this unconscious responsibility to escape for her sake or to escape for her, to do something different than what she had done.

AMH Back to Shelter, I’m curious to know how you arrived at working with four young female characters and a structure which seems to echo turn-of-the-century modernist fiction, where a large story is revealed in bits and pieces, like a chorus.

JAP I like the balance of having two older girls and two younger girls. Two of them are sisters, and they are all connected through the adults’ secrets.

AMH One of my students once said, “You are your secrets.” Secrets seem to operate pretty intensely in Shelter.

JAP I was thinking about the oldest idea of secrets, that moment when the favorite friend of your childhood would say, “I’ll tell you a secret.” There’s a selection, a bonding in that shared secret. You relate to it as if it’s a gift. It may be the first way that kids learn to protect—to respect something if they learn to keep secrets. Maybe in that way people find out they are strong enough to protect their own knowledge. The world of Shelter is open in a sense, because there’s no telling what the characters will do with their secret later. And the girls know this. They have somehow absorbed the knowledge that they can’t depend on the world, the adult world, to decide the best course of action. So they put their trust in the world itself, the natural world. I see the death in Shelter almost as an accident that they were caught up in. They were bonded enough to act in concert, to act for each other, to protect each other in ways in which they had not been protected by their parents, who had taken care of them and provided for them, but had not protected them. They had become confidantes …

AMH Participants in something beyond their control.

JAP There is an expansion that happens in all families. Children take on their parents’ unresolved issues and emotional dilemmas, and this comes out in all kinds of subtle ways. I see it in my own life, with my own kids.

AMH Take them on to resolve them?

JAP Not to resolve them, but to help carry the burden—to keep their parents alive, in a sense. Parents may act in a particular way because of what they haven’t resolved in themselves. They’re overprotective or they’re under-protective. It becomes the tenor of their family life.

AMH Why Mom and Dad do what they do?

JAP Or feel the way they feel.

AMH Part of what’s so interesting about the way Shelter is told is that the story belongs to all of the characters almost equally. I was wondering if you felt it belongs more to any one character; Buddy comes to mind …

JAP I don’t see it as belonging to any one of the characters, it’s almost as though they share the same collision course, or they’re all drawn to a center, which is what happens at the water. I see Buddy as the moral center of the book. He is so young, so supposedly unformed, already a failure in the outside world. And yet, he is the total master of his own world. And he has this extremely big relationship with his mother that’s been almost completely exclusive, and he feels he owns this as well. He’s incredibly astute. I wanted the reader to be pulled into Buddy and to feel things as they happened to him. He experiences a dark night of the soul, and the reader is pulled into that darkness with him. Buddy is a child, yet how Buddy gets through it is that he stays himself, without denying himself or disassociating. In fact, he is able to direct the situation in the cave, deal with this truly disassociated character. He’s a centered soul. He has never departed from who he is.

AMH In Shelter there’s a heavy religious presence that I’ve never seen in your work before. Can you tell me more about that?

JAP I’m not interested in religion for religion’s sake, but I saw the Fundamentalist, Parson, as being somewhat psychic, and having grown up as he did, his particular way of looking at the world took that form. I’m interested in dealing with inversion in my work, in looking at something from the other side. Early in the book there is a sense of menace and danger about Parson, in fact it’s part of who he is all along, and he asserts that. His is there to come between what’s happening. It’s an alternate reality but it’s not necessarily completely incorrect. I saw it as his language. It’s not really a language that the girls would understand, it’s not at all what they grew up with even though they grew up a few miles from where he did. It’s more the language of the world that Buddy comes from.

AMH In what way is the religious language similar to the language of Buddy’s world?

JAP The Fundamentalist church is the ethical backbone that Buddy’s brought up with. What Parson grows up with is one step deeper. Buddy’s mother accepts all that as a community, as something that is really the only outside structure they have.

AMH She seems to have one foot in both worlds. She doesn’t entirely absorb religion the way Parson does. Parson really becomes it.

JAP Her real focus is the child. Her initial instinct is to protect Buddy from the tenets of her own religion. She doesn’t use it to shame him, she doesn’t use it to prescribe certain behavior for him. She hangs that God’s Eye by his bed almost as a pagan ritual of purification, it’s not something her church would condone.

AMH Parson’s language seems hallucinatory, like an incantation, as if he could begin speaking in tongues …

JAP He and Buddy are both able to see an adjacent reality. Buddy’s perceptions don’t take the form of a religious understanding. But throughout the book, Buddy sees things.

AMH They all see things. In Shelter judgment is suspended, things are juxtaposed in a way that doesn’t often happen in reality. Much of what the reader is given is about perception, about what the characters experience viscerally, physically, etcetera. The world exists as though in a dream. I was wondering how you got there.

JAP I think that’s where I am. That’s what I’m trying to get at when I write.

AMH What’s it like in there?

JAP It’s like reading a book. (laughter) It’s what I’m trying to capture in language or put into some physical, lasting form. I’ve always been much more interested in perception and in dislocations of thought and the simultaneity of time, than in event, getting from A to B. The way memory and dream, when you read or write, function together to make consciousness or perception. I wanted to create a whole world. The characters come from that place that first colors the edges of perception until finally the girls get to a point where they can enter into it. The girls think they really become different people, they become much more who they really are.

AMH One more religious question: even though it’s 1963, I kept thinking that Parson exists in response to two movements: one is the fundamentalist far right, and the second is the more diffuse, less clearly defined New-Age, 12-stepping, angel adoring, I don’t know what. Are you in some way addressing this?

JAP There was no New Age in 1963, anywhere. The angel in popular culture today is like Santa Claus, that kind of jolly image. I don’t think anything that powerful could be completely beneficent. The Rilke quote, “Every angel is terrifying,” at the front of the book was something I found when I finished writing Shelter but it struck me as true. Any time we apprehend something that throws into question the way we’ve looked at reality, we are frightened. We get to the center of what identity is, to the illusion that we’re all separate, that we can count on things beginning and ending so we can see the whole thing at once. For me there is a metaphysical question throughout the book. Buddy, at the end of “His Kingdom,” is still inhabiting this world and has reclaimed most of it for himself. He performs a series of private rituals to reclaim his dominion, and there’s a mention of his sense of seeing Parson, or being aware of a presence. He’s not really seeing an angel, a remnant of the Old Testament: he’s seeing something that is far older. Something bigger, more devastating and promising than our sense of what an angel might be. Fundamentalism is very limited but it’s a frame for primal forces that these people are closer to than we are. They look at this power and they apprehend it, but they order it very carefully so that they can look at it.

AMH Fundamentalism implies a certain politics.

JAP The religious right has a political agenda that makes use of Fundamentalist beliefs in the same way that, as a matter of national policy, we hid behind communists for such a long time. That is why I included the sixties anti-communist propaganda rhetoric as a kind of shadow. I see religious Fundamentalism and political scare tactics (red-baiting being one example) as an ordering of good and evil, or black and white, or right and wrong—an ordering of things that reduces complexity to the point that we can feel we’re on the right side.

AMH Despite all the things that happen in Shelter, none of the characters present the actions of other people as being bad. They don’t ever say, “This person’s wrong.” Parson in his religiousness has a stronger idea of what is right and wrong.

JAP Parson, and then Buddy, question what’s inside them in different ways. Parson is aware of the struggle going on in him, and he has to do certain things to stay on this side of it. Buddy, at the end of the book, is recounting—there’s that mention of his nightmares and waking up feeling his father’s hand inside his throat, feeling that there is something devilish in him, that he did something wrong, that he’s a part of something wrong. So he’s aware of being a whole person. (laughter)

AMH In the sense of having all things inside him?

JAP In the sense of having all things inside him. It’s the world itself that convinces him that that’s the way the world is. The natural world absorbs all things and takes everything in. There’s a sense of his recognizing what happened, but not feeling guilty about it, though he knows he should. Guilt could taint him, even break him, as Carmody could not. But he feels himself cradled in the primal world, which doesn’t recognize guilt.

When Buddy’s father, Carmody, comes upon the girls at the water … it’s almost as though Carmody is inhabited by a force that has completely obliterated him. He is obliterated. The girls experience him as this force that overwhelms the world, overwhelms them. But when he’s dead, they see him as being emptied of that force. There’s a mention of the force itself rushing out of him and raging over the countryside, when Lenny imagines it flying to her mother … . That was something that surprised me when I wrote it, but it was perfect. You’re right, they don’t think of him as a bad man, they don’t think about him in those terms.

AMH It’s not something that I previously associated with your work, good and evil. That and the larger metaphysical questions those notions raise. Where are those coming from?

JAP Well, it’s complicated. I think ten years ago, I wrote the epigraph to the novel; there was something in it that was ominous and attractive, or beckoning almost. And I could only find out what it was by going through the process of writing Shelter.

AMH Do you know what it was?

JAP (laughter) I think I do.

AMH Would you like to tell our readers?

JAP No, no, I don’t want to tell. This book touched off a lot of my own fears, which are extremely intense, about protection, identity and evil. When someone does something harmful to a kid, that seems to me the most evil thing anyone can do. But in fact, I think people act under compulsion when they transverse those boundaries. The ripple effect of damage is what’s evil, but it’s man-made, arising from a confluence of elements, and an intervention in those elements is almost a matter of fate.

AMH What do you mean by intervention?

JAP Well, things come together in a particular way. Why do some people survive horrendous situations and others fold in situations that are not as extreme? It has to do with the self forging some bond, recognizing an element of intervention that establishes a connection.

AMH Are you talking about something someone can do with oneself or the kind of intervention that requires another person?

JAP I don’t think anybody can do it completely within themselves.

AMH So somebody good has to come along?

JAP No, not necessarily somebody good … somebody real. We look for mirrors of our own humanity everywhere.

AMH Where are the girls in relation to these ideas of intervention?

JAP There’s an incredible bond between Lenny and Alma, but they have moved away from one another because their parents have separated them. Delia I see as unconscious, observing everything without being aware of what any of it is. And Cap I see as being at risk, trying to act everything out with Lenny, hanging on to Lenny almost as loved prey. They only begin to reestablish connections with each other at the camp. Then they are what happens.

AMH In the end the girls, well really, the children, because Buddy is involved, come together as a unit but the men stay very separate. Does that bond say something about the nature of women’s relationships?

JAP Yes, and Buddy moves naturally into the girls’ orbit because his model in terms of relationships is his mother, Mam—he has grown up in a wholly female atmosphere. His boundaries are permeable, like the boundaries of girls’ personalities. We learn early to empathize, take on roles, absorb sadnesses, store power, bank it up in ourselves like money. We ritualize what we live in, like animists. All children do this, and girls hang onto it longer.

AMH Buddy and Lenny make an almost unconscious connection.

JAP It’s because of what Buddy feels for Lenny that he steps forward and throws the first stone, in a reversal of the Christian story. I see his response as an act of love and self-protection, a standing up.

AMH Throughout I felt a Salingeresque ethic at play—that children are inherently good until adults ruin them, or until they begin to ascribe to adult actions.

JAP I see Shelter as a dark triumph, and I suppose in my world view any triumph is dark. If it really takes in what’s involved and what happens.

AMH Why is that? How is that?

JAP Remember the old idea that ignorance is bliss, that knowledge, any kind of knowledge, comes at a price, that it’s work, that you give up something to understand the connections between things and you get larger because it takes a certain strength to see how complicated everything is? I wanted these kids to step into that knowledge nonverbally.

AMH They do. To see the whole thing, you have to accept the whole thing. And that’s sort of awful.

JAP When I thought about the book before writing it, I wanted them to experience something that clarified the rest of their lives up to that point, and made them feel strong enough to hold what’s inside them. Partly through a shared bond.

AMH The question is, what will they do with it? Shelter has one of those wonderful sorts of endings that could well be a beginning.

JAP Everything has changed. We know that they’ve left, that they go back to different worlds.

AMH Does the fact that they left mean that they got out?

JAP They’ll never get out. (laughter) But if they’re strong enough, maybe they don’t need to.

AMH West Virginia is a strange place, it’s neither North nor South, but a place broken off, a little country all by itself. I’m curious, this book seems to me much more Southern, because of the religious elements and a lot of magical qualities that I think of as Faulknerian.

JAP I don’t see myself …

AMH As a Southern writer?

JAP I mean, maybe I am. I’ve felt very connected to Faulkner’s work, but I also feel very connected to what might be called Magical Realism, the term coined for South American writers which also applies to Kafka, Bruno Schultz, and William Burroughs. There are any number of people who are working at the edge of how reality is apprehended. It’s almost that perception itself is a kind of religion, meditation, a journey or a travail. Writers dealing with this material are my sources, or allies. It doesn’t have so much to do with being Southern, but it’s a happy accident that I grew up in that place. Being from the South casts one out, particularly now, when being Southern is not fashionable anymore. What makes West Virginia different from Kentucky or Tennessee, is that there’s no genteel Southern layer that has to do with class. That really goes back to the fact that there were no plantations, no slaves, not much of an upper class. It’s also such a heavily exploited area. Back when things were being defined, it was used up, first by the timber barons, then the coal barons. Everything was constantly shipped out and taken away. So in a period of time when it seemed the whole country was on the move, constantly transforming and breaking down, West Virginia stayed itself.

AMH I think of West Virginia as dark, oppressive. The landscape is very dense, strange things can happen there. It’s a little bit menacing.

JAP I see it as magical, very Celtic. One of the first trips I made out of that world, to Europe, was on a train going from England to Wales. I was shocked to see towns that looked like towns in West Virginia. The landscape itself was similar, valleys and densely green hills. Old, worn-down mountains. It’s as though when they settled, people found the place that was most like where they’d come from.

AMH Throughout Shelter there’s a lot of sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle, sexual activity between adults and children. What are you exploring?

JAP I’m exploring sexuality itself. Children are very sexual, and they do have something sexual to do with adults. It’s not necessarily abusive. Our sexuality is the source of our power and energy, like hunger—the need to eat. These needs break our isolation. The connection between mothers and children particularly is very sexual in that it’s a merged identity, physically and emotionally. Children are very aware of their parents’ sexuality, both individually and as a couple, whether it’s an aversion to each other that the kids pick up, or a domination or entrappedness, or the safety of trust and attraction, whatever.

AMH The interaction between adults and children seems to exist as almost a rite of passage. It’s curious because there’s the potential for it to be quite destructive and yet here it occurs and re-occurs in a very familiar way. There is a willingness to acknowledge sexuality in a way that doesn’t damn it but just looks at it or lets it be.

JAP I saw both Lenny and Cap as having recreated elements of their relationship with their parents in their own relationship, so that they could look at it in a way that is almost safe—and play out Cap’s parents’ fights. There is that stream of consciousness scene where Lenny talks about sleeping with Cap frequently at her house, and Cap almost masturbating in her sleep, and on the brink of being overtly sexual with Lenny—and supposedly not aware of it.

AMH All these young girls are sleeping together.

JAP The comparative safety of being with Cap for Lenny, connects to an unconscious memory or feeling about her father which has to do with being acted upon and not being able to respond.

AMH Yet their sexuality doesn’t cause them to question their identity—it seems simply to be a part of the flow of their lives and what they’re doing.

JAP Well it’s very natural. There’s a point at which they are naturally sexual together in an almost sibling way, like same-sex siblings.

AMH In what way are same-sex siblings sexual?

JAP In a non-genital way, in the way that siblings are exploratory with each other, it’s sexual but it’s almost clinical. Girls go through a period where they have alliances, partnerships, intense rivalries. They’re acting out the bond they have with their mothers. I saw some of these girls as being mothers—Cap and Lenny are basically motherless and bond together partly because of that.

AMH Do things happen at camp that just can’t happen otherwise? You’ve taken a group of girls away from their families at a critical time in their lives—there’s a real Lord of the Flieselement …

JAP I had written so many things about children in family dynamics, that I wanted to write a book in which children were removed from their families, yet their whole experience with their families was telescoped into a few days. Camp is one of the few ways in which kids in this country across a broad economic spectrum get outside the structure of their families for a period of time. It’s also one of the few ways in which kids experience living in the natural world.

AMH You also do things at camp that you can’t do in real life—shoot arrows, fire guns … I think of camp as a mystical, magical place that was filled with things I somehow didn’t understand. Not in a huge sense but in subtle ways. And also, you couldn’t call your parents, which was weird.

JAP You also enter into a transformed reality in the world of books …

AMH Given the role that war plays in Shelter and in some of your stories, I’m curious to know how you see the role of politics in your fiction? Do you consider yourself a political person?

JAP I see politics as very subversive in most people’s lives, like ripples in a body of water. I’m often talking about people who don’t pay much attention to politics, people who are so involved in their daily lives, in raising their kids, in going to their jobs, in spending their paychecks, in the dramas of their own lives, that they are basically acted upon by political realities. Part of the role of literature in a society is to operate as a kind of conscience. The literature of an era is a record that takes in what really happened—how political decisions affected people’s actual lives. I saw Machine Dreams as a warning, or a book that shows what happens when you don’t pay attention, that you get to a point where it’s too late. And I see Shelter as descending to a level that’s pre-political, that has more to do with questions of good and evil, identity, consciousness and gender. There’s a world above the surface and I think of Shelter’s characters as being under the surface, under the water, under the surface of the world, in the cave. And yet the way they’re relating to each other is intrinsically political because they’re living in the real world, and they’re girls. But they begin in a nearly pre-conscious state, moving into consciousness as the book evolves. I see the country as being pre-conscious in 1963. It was pre-Vietnam, it was pre-assassinations: the whole thing began to erupt after that point because everyone’s ass was at stake in Vietnam. Because of the draft, people became politically aware and acted. In a strange way, the all-volunteer army has removed everyone from having anything to do with politics. I sure don’t want my kids drafted, I think I’d leave, but we are all allowed to be complacent, not take a stand, make a decision. It lets people sacrifice other people’s kids, kids who—

AMH Poor kids.

JAP Yes, kids who don’t have anywhere else to go, kids who can’t get an education. And it’s wrong. And it makes it okay for the government to operate as an isolated element. But Shelterdeals with what women choose from, and what their allegiances are about, their alliances with each other; it deals with the political realities between women and men.

AMH You’ve written several pieces in which you talk about your mother, the experience of taking care of your mother. Did that change your view of mother/daughter relationships?

JAP My mother’s death changed everything for me. And in the wake of it I couldn’t write a book about her, so I wrote this book, which is really about losing her. It’s interesting that I wrote a book about orphans, about kids who were motherless, kids adults cannot protect. And now I’ve forgotten your question.

AMH My question was: Did the experience of taking care of your mother change your view of mother/daughter relationships?

JAP That experience wasn’t just about my mother, it was a first vision of death, it was so many layers of reality. And it took such a long time, three years of my life, interwoven with the birth of my first child. And the birth of my second child was interwoven with my father’s death. So that the births and deaths of those I love most, my family, my blood, are intricately connected for me in a way that I’ll never be able to pull apart, and maybe shouldn’t. I just have to work with that. It’s something I’ve got to think about for the protection of my own children. It has to do with the way I parent.

AMH The way you parent, in the sense that your children are so linked to your parents?

JAP To my parents’ death, to the loss of my parents.

AMH You’ve written a lot about young girls. You have two sons. Do you think about the difference between having sons and daughters?

JAP I live in it. (laughter) Of course I think about it but I don’t trust that, so much. I have to do a lot more than think about it.

AMH What more do you do?

JAP You live in it, you dream about it, you talk about it, you write about it, you work through it. And the really scary thing is, it doesn’t make any difference.

AMH Doing all those things?

JAP Being conscious does make a difference in your life as an artist, but does knowing make a difference in the life you live, in the life you act out?

AMH One would hope.

JAP One would hope, but I don’t know.

AMH So often women writers resent questions about their lives as though it minimizes their worth as an artist and yet, when you’re a wife and a mother, that’s as integral a part of your life as being a writer.

JAP Well, you talk about it in your work in a truer way than you could ever comment on it. Giving people real facts, about one’s personal life detracts from, distracts from, something more real—the writing itself.

AMH Being a woman writer with a family is very different from being a male writer with a family.

JAP Any woman who works in any way is holding up everything. The difference for a woman who’s trying to be an artist is that women who have jobs, who are lawyers or doctors or computer operators or whatever, have a clearly defined work world. If you’re an artist, you’re dealing with an amorphous world, a world that you have to create, whose boundaries you define. And for any woman who’s doing everything, there’s the tension of walking the line, on the one hand giving everything to the kids, and on the other hand, pulling away constantly, and trying to establish lines that let you be something other than with your kids. The real struggle for women who are artists is that struggle.

AMH Being in your head writing is like being in a foreign land, it has nothing to do with everyday reality. It’s hard for me to make that transition, to be in reality and then be back in there.

JAP It’s a constant struggle. When my kids were babies, I finally became so overwhelmed by the struggle itself, I stopped struggling. No, I mean I stopped writing. There were periods of time that I just could not stand it anymore. I said, okay, I’ll surrender—I want the surrender, I’ll be in that. You keep pulling away in order to work and there’s a loss that’s involved, and guilt and anger. I’m beyond that now purely because my kids are older. Parenting older kids is as preoccupying and it’s worse, in a sense, because the situations that they’re getting involved with deal with the big world, so it’s not something I can erect barriers against. But the time frame is different, so by trying to compartmentalize, I can engage in the struggle in a different way. It’s horrendous, this struggle, and you can’t represent it to anyone, anymore than you can represent the power of what you feel for your child.

AMH Do you keep a real strict schedule?

JAP No, but I don’t think I ever did. It’s peculiar, I function in a way that can’t be too strictly scheduled or what I want to happen wouldn’t happen. I almost work according to an unconscious agenda, so trying to schedule everything too intently would cut me off from what I need to have access to. I have to function at some substrata level.

AMH What do your kids think of that?

JAP I seem to have been so successful at making my kids think they’re the center of the world that they’re almost unaware that I work, that I’m writing. I work when they’re out of the house. I feel that kids have a right or a need to feel themselves at the center of their mother’s life, and that’s where my kids are. It’s part of me. I see my mother as having done it far better than I ever could. A lot of women see themselves as being far better than their mothers: “My mother was this horrible mother.” I have the opposite sense. She wasn’t struggling to live two lives.

AMH Is that a gift in a sense?

JAP No, I just think it’s a different set of problems.

AMH Do you still write poetry?

JAP No, well, I do, but in paragraph form.

AMH Do you read poetry?

JAP Yes.

AMH Do you look for something different in poetry?

JAP No, I’m looking for the same thing. I’m looking for luminosity, and for allies. That’s what everybody looks for. Having allies is a way of not being alone. That’s why people read, that’s at least why writers read.

AMH Could you elaborate?

JAP Writers are different from other people. They know this from the beginning, and that’s why they start to read, voraciously, without knowing why. It’s because being alone is more painful for them than it is for other people.

AMH Why?

JAP Because they’re more aware of it.

AMH Then why are they alone so much of the time?

JAP They have to be alone to work: loneliness is one of the risks. I used to miss being around people. Now I miss being alone, because once you have kids, you’re never alone again. I carry them first, then I carry the work.

AMH Are you friendly with writers?

JAP I’m friendly with everybody. Don’t you think I’m friendly?

AMH You live outside of the literary epicenter.

JAP (laughter) You mean Boston? I’ve always lived that way. I grew up that way, outside the epicenter.

AMH You’ve been to writer’s colonies?

JAP I went to MacDowell for four days. It was the shortest residency they’ve ever had. I just had to get back to my kids. I literally had not left them for more than a few days since they’d existed, but I had to get away from them to finish the book.

AMH You really went to MacDowell and only stayed four days?

JAP I was going to go home to watch my son in Peter Pan, and then go back, but, in fact, I had finished the book, so I just left. It’s very strange.

AMH I can imagine.

Christopher Sorrentino by Dana Spiotta
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Originally published in

BOMB 49, Fall 1994
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