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Why a writer traveled to a far-off Russian peninsula for her debut novel
Our April pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club “Now Read This” is Julia Phillips’ “Disappearing Earth.” Become a member of the book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.
As a child, writer Julia Phillips was enamored with Brothers Grimm fairy tales, famous for their recounting of dark, captivating stories such as “Rapunzel” and “Little Red Riding Hood.”
“Every tale was bloody and bizarre and hypnotizing,” Phillips recently told the PBS NewsHour, noting that she carried on reading her copy even after it had been dropped in the bath. “The collection gave me nightmares, for sure, but it also blew my mind and began to teach me how compelling fiction could be.”
Years later she set out to write her own work of fiction, but this time found inspiration in Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. The far-flung locale, which is surrounded by seas that border Japan and Alaska and has one of the highest concentrations of active volcanoes in the world, has the look of a fairy tale setting — so much that a Google Image search alone was enough to peak Phillips’ interest in visiting. After spending a semester in Moscow in college, she applied for a Fulbright and moved to Kamchatka to research the novel that would become “Disappearing Earth.”
The writer’s experience living there shaped her idea of the plot and themes she wanted to touch upon in the book. As Phillips told the NewsHour of her time in Kamchatka, “countless conversations with folks there directed my interests, which bent steadily toward a mystery plot, women characters, and experiences of vulnerability and loss.”
Phillips shared more on her writing routine, sources of inspiration, and the process of writing “Disappearing Earth” below:
What is your daily writing routine?
An ideal writing day for me is spending an hour or two drafting new material by pen in a notebook, or a good chunk of hours, maybe four or six, revising what I’ve written on the computer. As a manuscript progresses, I want to immerse myself in it for longer and longer periods, so the more I’ve been working on a project, the more frequently those ideal writing days come – by the end of a book’s development, they really do become the routine. But that habit of everyday immersion takes a while to develop and is all too easy to break. Now I’m trying my best to learn how to come to my desk daily with the same discipline, no matter where I find myself in a given story.
What is your favorite childhood book?
I grew up obsessed with the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. I had a thick, beat-up paperback of their collected stories, waterlogged because I’d dropped it in the bath at some point, that I carried with me wherever I went. I couldn’t get enough. Every tale was bloody and bizarre and hypnotizing. Characters cut off their own toes; people decapitated each other with the heavy lids of apple boxes; villains were always being put into barrels studded with nails and rolled down hills into rivers. The collection gave me nightmares, for sure, but it also blew my mind and began to teach me how compelling fiction could be.
What is something you’ve seen, watched or read that you think is overlooked and deserves more attention?
Kiese Laymon’s entire body of work, including and especially his most recent book, “Heavy: An American Memoir,” should be read and reflected on by everyone everywhere in this country, I think. Laymon is one of the great writers of our age. He is the caliber of artist who makes you grateful to be alive in the same era he is, just for the privilege of hearing his thoughts in real time. “Heavy” models how to reckon with oneself, one’s family, and one’s nation, acknowledging all the violence and deceit we’ve done while not leaving out the love. The memoir is extraordinary. His work sets an example we must not overlook. It deserves so much attention.
What is the best piece of writer’s advice you’ve received?
Oh my gosh, there are so many wonderful pieces of writer’s advice, every one of which is the best at a different point in the process. These days I’ve been thinking a lot of Anne Lamott’s wonderful writing guide “Bird by Bird.” She writes with such ease and acceptance about first drafts, which can be messy and sentimental and dreadful but need to be done in order to move forward with the work. Her approach is straightforward: “Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it…Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something – anything – down on paper.” During times of challenging writing, her advice both soothes and energizes. I’m hugely grateful for it.
Can you describe the moment you knew you wanted to write this particular book? And when did you know it was over?
I remember many different moments of deciding to write this particular book. The knowledge of what I wanted it to be came on gradually. In 2009, after a college semester in Moscow, I wanted to write a novel about Russia. Later that year, I decided on setting that novel on the Kamchatka Peninsula. (Seeing beautiful Kamchatka through Google Images made up my mind for me.) I moved to the peninsula to research the project in 2011; over the next year, countless conversations with folks there directed my interests, which bent steadily toward a mystery plot, women characters, and experiences of vulnerability and loss. When I returned to the U.S. in 2012, I spent another year sitting on my notes from Kamchatka before the book began to take proper shape. It really took years for all my particular decisions about it to get made.
Knowing it was over was easier. Over years of writing and revision, I did the best I could do with the manuscript – I pushed it to the end of my abilities. I shared it with my writing groups, and their feedback pushed it further. I took it to summer writing workshops where teachers pushed it on. Then I got the great good luck of having my agent and editor take it into their hands. Both of them, and the brilliant people around them, pushed it further, strengthening it, sharpening it, making it better all the time. By the end of that stage, the book had improved so far beyond what I was able to accomplish on my own that it seemed like a community miracle to me. I imagine some other writer at some other time would’ve done more, but I, with the tools and limitations I had, couldn’t even imagine what “more” would be. It went to the very end of its possible path; there was nowhere else, inside myself or outside, I knew to take it; it was done. And letting it go after that was a joy.