Both Ways at Once: Talking with Helen Phillips
Helen Phillips’s new novel poses questions about identity, empathy, and motherhood in a thrilling plot that will both quicken your heartbeat and incite introspection. The Need begins in Molly’s house, where she huddles with her children, attempting to protect them from the seemingly phantom noises coming from the next room. Cut in between scenes of the horror-stricken Molly are scenes from earlier that day at her job as a paleobotanist. The interchange of bone-chilling and safe moments does more than propel the story forward with exhilarating cliffhangers. It reveals the duality of her life, in which she is both a life-giving force and a woman that unearths innocuous, ancient plants for a living. Phillips’s novel is charged with juxtapositions of dual lives, bringing the reader to wonder about the nature of our identity, what it means to look in the mirror and know it is the self that is looking back.
The Need is Phillips’s fifth book after two short story collections, a novel, and a children’s book. Her first novel, The Beautiful Bureaucrat, was a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her short story collection, Some Possible Solutions, received the John Gardner Fiction Book Award.
I recently spoke with Helen Phillips about genre-bending novels, identity, empathy, and doppelgängers.
The Rumpus: In a Vulture article, the genre of your book was described as “motherhood as horror” and placed it in a category of stories which includes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Karen Russell’s Orange World. Would you agree, or do you have another way of describing the unique writing style that you employ in your novel?
Helen Phillips: I love Frankenstein, but I wasn’t thinking about Mary Shelley when I was writing the book. Horror is a word that has come up a lot with early readers and since the book was published, although I wasn’t writing a horror novel. The idea of writing a thriller or borrowing elements of thriller, the idea of using science fiction, that was very present for me. But it’s been really interesting to me that horror has come up as a category that’s been used a lot. That’s been really interesting to me. I was just trying to use whatever tools necessary I had at my disposal, and I understand why people use the term horror, but that wasn’t in my mind. I was trying to describe what some aspects of motherhood feels like and, I guess without trying to use elements of horror, they slipped in naturally. When I’m trying to articulate something that I think is very hard to articulate, which is to love children so much and to be so responsible for them and so worried about them, when I tried to describe that as well as I could, it had some horrifying elements to it. It instills a sense of risk.
Rumpus: It’s very scary.
Phillips: Yeah, it’s scary. You feel invisible threats around you, you feel a sense of helplessness, a sense of not being quite confident in your own capacities to protect and defend. I love Karen Russell’s work and the story “Orange World”—I read that when I had already written my book essentially, but reading that story, I felt that we were really thinking about the same thing. A book that I would place The Need in connection with would be Fever Dream by Samantha Schweblin. It is such an incredible book; it’s about motherhood and it has the forward momentum of a horror or thriller story. She’s using genre in a really interesting way, while also exploring some philosophical questions and evoking visceral feelings of loving someone you can’t protect.
Rumpus: Are there any other novels that inspired The Need?
Phillips: That one was a really big one. But there are just so many. I love Ursula K. Le Guin, and I feel that her writing has given me permission. I love Margaret Atwood. I love Kafka and Calvino. One book that I think is very interesting for having one element of magic surrounded by a lot of realism is Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Our books aren’t that similar other than having a magical portal that changes everything.
Rumpus: What works so well with that, I think, is that when you surround one bit of magic with mostly realism, then you can look at real problems from a unique or different perspective.
Phillips: Right, rather than going through the whole journey that his refugees go through, we just get to the heart of things quickly. And then the contrast between the different places they go to becomes really stark because there is no transition time. And that’s really powerful.
Rumpus: Something you mentioned caught my attention, you said Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing gave you permission. What do you mean by that?
Phillips: I feel like the books that mean the most to me as a writer are the books where someone did something so bold and original and strange that I feel that I can do something bold and original and strange. Books that make me feel that there are no rules for what this thing is. And certainly with The Need, I knew that I needed speculative fiction to make it work and the pacing of a thriller to make it work. What genre is it? I don’t really know. I love books that make me think that I don’t need a genre. Like The Handmaid’s Tale. How would you even define that genre? You don’t even need to define it now. Now it’s just “The Handmaid’s Tale.” My understanding is that Margaret Atwood does not like her writing to be called science fiction, but she’s grouped into that genre, too. The books that really matter here are the books that make me feel free from the bonds of genre and form. Another book I find really interesting is Renata Adler’s Speedboat or Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. My book isn’t written using those forms, but you can have fragments, you can have stream of consciousness, and that can be an organizing principle for a narrative.
Rumpus: So, to get to your new novel. The beginning of the book quickened my heartbeat while simultaneously calmed me down by bringing me outside the spine-chilling moment to a more mundane scene. Like watching a horror movie that cuts away from the demonic scene in the nighttime to a lighthearted scene in the daylight, I found myself forgetting to breathe while Molly was in the house and remembering to breathe when we were back at work with her. If horror wasn’t what you were intending, could you tell me about your intention with structuring it this way?
Phillips: I was thinking of having the pacing of a thriller; I wasn’t thinking of having the pacing of a horror novel. Because I can’t even watch horror movies. It’s really shocking to me that I’ve written a book that some people call horror because I can’t even handle that. And if I hadn’t written the book, I think I would have a hard time reading it. It’s very scary. So, the first scene of the book was there so early on in the process. I knew it would be Molly in front of the mirror in the dark with her children. She’s in front of the mirror in the first scene, so you already have the mirroring, which is very intentional. She’s in front of the mirror, looking at herself, hugging her children to herself. I feel like some literary writers can be very dismissive of page-turners.
But I think that if you examine that term, a page-turner means that you’re getting the reader to turn the pages. I think it’s very interesting to think about what it takes to get the reader to turn the pages and how to get that momentum. You can use the momentum from the plot and draw people in to think about philosophical questions. I wanted all the chapters in the first part of the book to end in a cliffhanger because that’s interesting, and exciting, and fun. I love reading books that make me feel that momentum. But like you said, it was too intense; I couldn’t just stay with Molly and the kids. I wanted that to be on the back burner while you’re in the work scene so that you get a break from it but it’s simmering and growing in the back of your mind. So, the structure was very critical to the movement of the beginning and also to set up the duality of the book; the work identity and the home identity.
Rumpus: This book raises the interesting philosophical question of what constitutes an identity. Do you have an idea of what you think constitutes an identity? Does a traumatic event, such as losing a loved one, reconstitute an identity?
Phillips: A lot of what I was exploring in the book was identity, and what makes you who you are. I think it’s worth mentioning here that the book, you may have noticed, is dedicated to my older sister, Katherine. She died when my first child was eight weeks old. Right as I was experiencing the bounty and abundance and love and stress of having a newborn, my parents were dealing with this tremendous loss of their first-born child. And I was dealing with the loss of my sister. That feeling of duality of love and loss, and the fact that any time you love someone you will eventually lose them, or they’ll lose you. You know, when you find someone to love you know there will be an end to it.
Both the beginning and the end were present in that summer. I felt like I was being transformed in both ways at once. I think certainly that great loss and grief reshapes our identity, and becoming a parent reshapes our identity as well. I think that a lot of the book has to do with the idea that the selfhood that we cling to, and that we feel is solid, is perhaps not as solid as we think it is. There’s also a central question in the book of, not only identity, but also empathy. And Molly has to answer the question of whether or not she can take someone else’s pain as seriously as she takes her own pain. And in this case, the someone else is someone who is as close to you as anyone could be. It really forces the question of empathy. To me, Molly goes on something of an ethical journey over the course of the book.
Rumpus: We often take for granted what we have until we lose it or recognize that we can lose it. Molly comes into the harsh realization that she can and might lose her children someday. Do you think this realization makes it harder or easier for her to enjoy life as a mother? Can you truly enjoy something that you know will or might someday disappear?
Phillips: That’s getting to the heart of the book, which is about the things that we take for granted every day because it’s impossible not to. Sometimes you have to just live your daily life, but there is so much that you take for granted. This situation throws Molly into a moment where she can no longer take for granted her day-to-day life and all of its messy, diaper-stained glory.
My intention with having what she takes for granted come under threat and making it seem precious in a new way is that it makes her better at it. She cherishes it in a way that she didn’t before. In terms of taking things for granted, I have alopecia universalis, so I lost all of my hair when I was eleven years old. Very early on in my life I had a moment, it felt very apocalyptic at the time, of losing something that was so easy to take for granted. And my older sister, who I lost in 2012, had a rare neurological disorder called Rett syndrome. She was apparently healthy for her first year of life, but at one year of age she stopped progressing and over the course of her life she wasn’t able to walk or talk or feed herself and she wore diapers for her whole life.
Those two aspects of my childhood really have made it impossible for me to take for granted the fact that I have healthy children. If we live with an awareness of the abyss, we can live better. Even though it’s hard and painful to acknowledge the abyss. People have very different impressions of the ending of my novel, and I won’t say too much about it, but I do think that there is a version of the ending that is a happy one; where there might be a newfound appreciation and strength after what Molly has gone through.
Rumpus: When Molly’s nemesis talks about the umbilical cord, she says: “The mother keeps the children alive and the children keep the mother alive.” The need of the characters for one another is palpable. Need is a multifaceted word. In some cases, like for the children, need can mean “without which one will not survive.” Children cannot survive without their mother. But on the other side, a mother may be broken but can survive without a child. What do you believe need means for the mother? In what way does a mother need a child?
Phillips: Obviously that’s the title of the book and I wanted to draw attention to that. That title actually arose very late in the game. It was titled Moll(y) at first. Then I had an epiphany that I needed to call it The Need, because that idea of need is woven throughout the book in so many different ways. At its most basic level, the first human need is the need for milk. Lactation comes up throughout the book, that and the child’s desperate, literal need for the mother, in utero and out of utero. And, at the same time, the mother needs her children. She might be able to physically survive without them, but in a way she cannot survive without them, as we see.
Also, and this is something I didn’t know until I began nursing, because I feel like there is not nearly enough fiction that has nursing as a central theme, but your breasts get so full of milk and it is really painful. You need the baby to take the milk. You get so desperate. It’s really a back and forth symbiotic relationship. Then, of course, the most central and horrifying need in the book is the need that Molly’s nemesis has and what she asks Molly for.
Rumpus: I found, while I was reading The Need, that I was constantly thinking about what it would feel like for me to come face to face with myself. Was this something you battled with as well? Or perhaps something that helped you with the writing process?
Phillips: I have another story called “The Doppelgängers” that was in my collection Some Possible Solutions, about doppelgängers. And in the Beautiful Bureaucrat, my other novel, the protagonist often sees people who she thinks might be her or versions of her. This is a fascination I’ve had for a long time. I think it’s because the idea of having another version of you is at once horrifying and at the same time somewhat comforting. What would it be like to meet yourself? Would another version of yourself be your greatest enemy or your greatest friend? For me, the idea of meeting yourself is a way of gaining perspective on yourself or stepping outside of yourself to gain a new understanding of your identity. On another note, because I am bald, people often mistake me for other bald white women in Brooklyn. I even have a feeling in my own life that I have doppelgängers, because someone will come up to me and say, “How’s your dog?” and I don’t have a dog. I actually wrote an article for the New York Times where I got together four of these bald women and we talked about this. But even my son, if we see a woman in a restaurant who doesn’t have hair, he’ll run over to her and say, “Mommy!” So, I’ve had a little touch of doppelgänger in my own life.
Photograph of Helen Phillips by David Barry.