Shared Violence, Hope, and Connectedness: Julia Phillips Interviewed by Bill Cheng

On traveling to Kamchatka as an American and how domestic violence advocacy inspired a novel about community and complicity.

Disappearing Earth

Full disclosure: Julia Phillips is a friend. We’re in a few of the same writing groups; I also blurbed her debut novel, Disappearing Earth (Knopf), which just so happens to be the chief object of this interview’s concern. Even fuller disclosure: the novel is a stunner. Set in the backdrop of the remote region of Kamchatka, in the Eastern reaches of the Russian Federation, Phillips documents an ecosystem of anger, fear, violence, abuse, hope, healing, and redemption brought into relief through the abduction of two young sisters, Sophia and Alyona, and the community from which they vanished.

We sat down twice, speaking for what ended up being over five hours. In revisiting that audio, what comes through strongest is the writer’s fierce morality. “Her wish was simple,” Phillips writes, “ … for a terrible moment she allowed herself to believe it, that [they] could actually make [the sisters] come home; that the major general and his detectives would succeed at last, that her family would be restored. That Lilia’s family would track down their daughter, their sister.  That they, too would be healed.”

In some ways, Disappearing Earth accomplishes what not enough fiction tries: It demands a brutal and honest reckoning of the ways we live with and deal with each other. 

— Bill Cheng

Bill ChengWhat I found really compelling in Disappearing Earth is how you created this feeling of a living communal space. What role does community play in your work?

Julia PhillipsIt’s essential. The book’s main argument is that the big violence against these girls [their kidnapping], which people are passing around in their gossip networks and through their own filters, is reflected in the other smaller violences perpetuated by the same people. The portrayal of the community is necessary in order to understand how and why their abduction happened and also how to recover from it.

When I was growing up I didn’t have a sense that my actions or my feelings or the stories I told myself had any relationship to what was going on in other people’s heads and hearts and lives.  I only started to sense that as I was my hometown. Living in New York for me has been about coming to understand that more and more.

BCHow so?

JPI remember one year, early in my time in the city, I had just started volunteering as an emergency room advocate for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. I’d be on call at the hospital, then I would come home and down our hall was this couple who would scream at each other and slam around—bang! bang! bang!    

At the same time there were two women—one in the building next to us, and one down the block—who were killed by their abusive partners. We came home and saw the block all roped off. One of those women was decapitated. Brutal, brutal violence. That history made us feel justified to call the police on the people down the hall from us.

All of those things: the people getting fucking murdered, the people going to the hospital for domestic violence treatment, the people having the police called on them by neighbors who knew nothing about their situation, us sitting in our apartment—we all had vastly different experiences that were happening simultaneously. They all influenced and echoed each other. 

That overlap—that wasn’t something I could identify at all—those relationships between relative strangers.

BCHow did that figure into the writing of Disappearing Earth?

JPThe time of my life in which I wrote this book corresponded with an increasing faith in the power of reaching out to others. It became a healing project for me to work on that argument in the text as much as in my own life.

BCWhat was happening in your life at that time?

JPAt the time I was working as an editor at a small press and then did some corporate copyediting. All the while volunteering at the Crime Victims Treatment Center.

I volunteered there for ten years and worked in the office for the past two years as the coordinator of the volunteer program. I just left this January. We teach folks how to be crisis counselors in emergency room settings. You meet folks who are in their first moments of shock. They’ve just experienced an incredible act of violence and a loss of control. 

You are showing up at the ER not as a doctor and not as a police officer and not as a therapist. You showing up is you saying, “I’m here to help you and the way I can help you is just by being present. I can listen to you and I can validate your strength and affirm your choices and tell you how strong you are to have survived this act of violence. I am just here to take care of you. I’m here to make sure that you’re taken care of, that when you’re hungry we get you food, that when you’re thirsty we get you water; that if you’re cold you can get a blanket; that if you want to sleep you’ll sleep and I’ll sit outside the door and make sure no one wakes you up. I am now the most caring person you’ve ever met in your life and I’m a stranger off the street.”

When I started training I thought,That’s a fucking intrusion! Why would anyone want that? I have no expertise. Why would anyone in this vulnerable and horrific moment of pain—often caused by someone close to you, someone trusted, often in your home by your partner or by your spouse or by your child or by your friend—why would you want a stranger to show up and say, “I don’t have anything to say but I’m just going to sit with you in the emergency room”?

People love it. People need it. It is life-changing. There are studies on how transformative it is. It makes a difference in the quality of care you receive; in how competently your evidence is collected if you choose to report to law enforcement; in how your healing process goes; in how much therapy you go to afterwards.

When I think about healing or about finding a way forward, when I think about this book, I think about that kind of connection. Not the connection of—Oh we all just need to sit down at the same table and talk to each other and listen to each other and then racism will be over!

Racism is not over. Violence is not over. The characters we feel sympathy for in this book continue to hurt other people all the time, and they’re still being hurt. They’re not suddenly people that don’t make bad choices or will not make bad choices in the future. But the establishment of some kind of physical presence with each other, of recognizing another as a full and legitimate self, of saying, “You are real. I see you. I see your experience. I hear your experience. I’m not ignoring it.” That matters.

Crisis counseling work has shown me over and over again that it doesn’t fix everything; it doesn’t undo anything. Everything terrible that happened, happened. But approaching the pain in this way actually does make it feel like we can do this. We can get up tomorrow and continue living. 

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BCSo that was New York. Tell me about what it was like to leave for Kamchatka.

JPI applied for the Fulbright to go to Kamchatka while I was in college. I was studying writing and Russian at the time, and Kamchatka was a super beautiful and isolated place. The perfect setting for a book. But I was waitlisted two years in a row. That second year they ended up taking me off the waitlist pretty late in the spring, in advance of a summer departure. All of a sudden things were about to change radically. I felt like my life was about to start. My adult life, my writer life, the life I had dreamed about having.

BCDid you have rules for yourself as a writer while you were there?

JPI was in Kamchatka to hunt for stories. My rules were that I needed to meet as many people as possible; and do as many things as possible; and travel anywhere I was able; and push myself out of my comfort zone; and take notes on all of it.

BCHow necessary is travel for a writer?

JPNot necessary at all. I went to Kamchatka as a shortcut for something that is necessary, though.  Since it was a new place, I didn’t have assumptions about the way things should go. I was attentive to everything, noticing every single detail and writing it down every day—this is what happened; this is how people talk; this is what things smell like. 

Paying that kind of attention is the only thing that’s necessary, no matter where you are.

Right now I’m working on a project set closer to home and I’m finding I have to do new things to see the world with fresh eyes. I’ve been trying to learn how to run because when I’m jogging through Prospect Park, I notice things I wouldn’t have noticed before.

I engage with the world in a different way. In a routine I’m not able to observe as keenly.

BCWhat sort of details did you notice in Kamchatka?

JPThat there were always mountains around. That there were identifiable volcanoes that people know. The way things smelled—even now when I smell smoke and cigarettes and fish it just smells of Kamchatka. If you go out to where there are hot springs, the way it smelled like sulfur. The way people dressed. These little flower stands they have in the streets there.

BCIt must’ve been hard talking to people there as a complete outsider.

JPI was in a pretty small and isolated community in which Americans in particular were highly unusual, so my reputation preceded me. People usually knew who I was before I started talking to them. I looked notably foreign there, and behaved notably foreign there so I was recognizable on the street as a foreigner.

I was there for so long that I was a different kind of tourist. People would say, “There’s that foreigner who’s still here.” People seemed interested in what I was doing and in my project—not everybody, but enough that I could talk to many of them.

I think it’s true in other communities around the world with limited infrastructure and harsh climate conditions that people go out of their way to connect. Because there is no state safety net in place, people have to do it for each other. Strangers would say, “I understand you’re the American who’s come here to write a book about us, How are you, do you need anything, can we help you?”   

When I came there I knew one person. For about the first two weeks I thought, This is the most alone I can possibly imagine being. And then I started meeting people. I was meeting people who went on to introduce me to people who went on to introduce me to people. Two weeks in I was going camping with strangers. It was really hard and I was a total outsider in the mix. But they suffered through that awkwardness in order to ensure that I felt connected to a community that would keep me safe.

BCIn many ways, the girls’ disappearance in your book shows the gaps in these kinds of safety nets. It’s also what draws the other characters together. With all the emphasis on community connection, how important is it that we follow the fate of these girls? 

JPThe central question of this book is what happened to Sophia and Alyona. To me, it is important that we know the answer to that question. Some reviews say that what happened to the girls isn’t the point of the book. Maybe they think because the plot is driven by these other characters that what happens to the sisters doesn’t matter. But to me, it’s very much the point.

Sophia and Alyona are not a device. We don’t meet them in the beginning of the book as symbols. They are in this world and in my mind they are very real and they matter. I am not willing, as the writer, and I don’t want to give the reader the willingness to say, “It doesn’t matter where they are.” It matters where they are.

Part of writing this book is constructing a world that is more hopeful and connected—I’m building it. It’s got to be better somehow. 

Bill Cheng is the author of Southern Cross the Dog (HarperCollins 2013).