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Author Archive: "Arthur Phillips"

A Plug for a Book You Can’t Read Yet

Yesterday I finished reading a manuscript by a friend of mine, Whitney Terrell. His next novel, The Good Lieutenant (if that's what it ends up being called), is a story of the Iraq War at its toughest, around 2004. You will probably be able to buy it in 2012. And you really should. I'd say preorder it now, but you can't yet. Man, oh man, it is good.

I should say at once that this is one of the great benefits of the writer's life: I have gotten to know other writers, often lovely people (Whit is), and often incredibly talented (Whit is), and occasionally generous enough to let me read their work for free months or years before it's published. (Not in this case. I stole a flash drive of Whit's when he was passed out drunk and bleeding in my living room after a bizarre dinner party/brawl, so he is only about to learn, this very moment, that I read his book. Yo, Whit, who's a "light-weight writer" now, eh? )

I know a few things about the author. He has been an embedded ...


In Defense of Poor William Shakespeare

Imagine I said this about any novelist of the last 200 years: "X is one of my all-time favorite writers. I think X is fantastic. I love most of X's stuff. It's not all perfectly to my taste, of course; some of it is badly constructed, forced, misses the mark, even lazy, because some times it seems X was just going through the motions for the money, but, that said, I like the best of X's stuff as much as almost anyone's. X is definitely in my top-five, desert-island, reread-as-I-am-on-my-deathbed list. I associate some of X's best work with the best moments of my reading life."

For almost any writer, living or dead, I cannot imagine higher realistic praise from a serious reader than this. except if X is William Shakespeare. Let X=Shakespeare, and my praise seems somehow insulting to him, reveals depths of philistine idiocy in me. Oh really? Shakespeare is one of your favorites? How sweet.

We have set him up for something more than this. He is in his own category, a god, the greatest not just of ...


In Defense of B.S.

"Novel" used to mean "something new," which was to say, something beyond any of the accustomed categories of prose. We may still not agree on a definition of a novel (and that's for the best, I'm certain), but we do know roughly what it includes: imagined or synthesized prose which lays no certain claim to events that most people would call "reality." Even "realism," another scarcely definable figment, implies events that might have happened, could have happened, or even resemble things that did happen, but which did not necessarily happen. Fiction, in other words.

And so we say some books are about things that happened — nonfiction — and some are about things that didn't necessarily happen or, if they did happen, happened not quite the way they are described — fiction. And then, beyond either, some things are, the author promises, the way he remembers them happening, as best he can recall, give or take, don't make him swear to it, and nobody's perfect, and actually maybe it wasn't quite like this, but it might as well have been, and look, honestly, ...


In Defense of Irrelevance

My older son is lately being asked by his sixth-grade English teacher (in increasingly suspicious tones to match the rebellious doubtfulness of his resistant replies), "What do you think the writer is trying to say in this story?" I have done my child no favors, I suppose, by telling him, since he was three years old, that this question is inane and should be ignored.

"What is the lesson of this story?" my younger son is asked by his second-grade teacher in turn, and it's all I can do not to storm into his class like a parent with strong views about the Pledge of Allegiance or Huck Finn and demand she stop indoctrinating my child with dangerous nonsense.

I know. I know it's not bad to teach kids to read closely, to pay attention to words, and I know this fossil of a question is a tried and true method to inspire readerly concentration. Still, it seems like we pass this idea of the writer-as-fancy-messenger from generation to generation without thinking about its misleading, reductionist, exclusionary, fun-smashing, possibility-laming nature . Some writers — at least some of them — are not trying ...


My Glass Is Half Empty and Draining Fast, and Yet…

Who's more blogged about than I?
Whose tweet @-mentions number high?
Which is my editor's true favorite book?
How did I so annoy this Avid Reader from Chinook?

Let's all push the elephant out of the room quickly and efficiently:

I don't just happen to be blogging at Powells this week. I do have a new book out, here, and I would appreciate it if you'd go buy a few and then come back. I'll wait. Go ahead now.

Thank you! I'd be glad to sign those for you? No? I quite understand. Let's just move on. Really? You prefer her books over mine? Well, yes, I suppose mine aren't for everyone...

When I started writing my first novel (Oh? Really? Well perhaps you'd like to read a page or two here?), the deal was quite straightforward, and but for a few details hadn't changed in a century or more, I imagine. One took as long as necessary (forever, perhaps) and wrote one's precious little novel, with trembling hopes but scrawny expectations of publication. If luck smiled, and you got a book ...


Powell’s Q&A: Arthur Phillips

Describe your latest project.

The Song Is You is my fourth novel, so I am wobbling into mid-career and mid-life already. Farewell, wunderkindergarten; hello, erectile dysfunction. That was fast.

Themes first, or plot? Let's do plot. A middle-aged (oh, no! it's autobiographical!) TV-commercial director (hmmm...loosely disguised autobiography?) becomes obsessed with an Irish singer half his age whom he sees performing with her band in a Brooklyn bar. As her star rises in the music world, he pursues her, from a distance, and they carry on a peculiar relationship, half-stalking, half-teasing, circling each other but not quite meeting, until...

Themes now. The novel (entirely un-autobiographical, I swear) is a tragic-comic-romantic soufflé, puffed up on its love of music, and should be shelved accordingly. The book is very much about music, how it shapes our emotional lives, how it can even guide our actions. The main character is, like me, an iPod addict, and the novel is (okay, okay) autobiographical to the extent that it maps out some of that tumultuous love affair: man and iPod.

If you're the sort of person who is constantly updating your iTunes files, who attaches memories to music and vice-versa, who has bought the same album on more than one format, this might be the 2009 novel for you. Alternately, if you just like tragicomic romances, or dogs, I would say there's a fair chance you'll like this.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.

This is a dangerous game, because I don't think there is such a thing as a writer everyone should read. I am bound to irritate someone who gamely picks up Gyula Krudy now and then hates him. So, I will only say that Krudy is not well-enough known in the U.S., and I admire him enormously. He was a Hungarian (1878-1933), extremely prolific, beloved in his homeland, and sparsely translated in English. However, the translations reveal a unique and beautiful writer. Try The Adventures of Sinbad. Wait! It doesn't have anything to do with the Arab sailor. Sinbad is the nickname of the main character, a man wandering the streets of 1920s Budapest, recalling his life and loves. The language is extraordinary; Krudy writes unlike anyone you've read, images piled on images. It's very ornate, very much "calling attention to itself," so if you don't dig that, don't do it. But if you're looking for a writer who can astonish you by making you see the world how he sees it, Krudy is worth a gamble.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.

Well, since we're on the topic, here's a taste of Krudy, describing a storm rising in the countryside: "The wind, like some bandit, blew a sharp whistle in the fields, and hunched-over assassins rushed behind bushes and fences."

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?

I recently read All Quiet on the Western Front. Besides its lofty reputation as the greatest war novel ever written, I finally got around to reading it because I answered a question about it on Jeopardy. I knew the answer without ever having read the book. In other words, the distinctly shallow nature of my knowledge was again revealed to me. Finally, shame drove me to read it.

And, of course, it was unbelievable. It deserves its reputation. I was sitting in a park one day reading it and had to stand up and walk around to shake off some of its power. I was audibly grunting at some of the descriptions of war.

Why do you write?

I like it. I am lucky enough to get paid for it, but I'd do it anyhow. I am not working through childhood pain. It is not torment for me to write. I don't suffer for my art, other than having days where it doesn't come out the way I want it to — the "suffering" of taking one's work seriously on good days and bad. Really, I just find the process of making things up, of putting stories together, of hacking away at a sentence, a description, a character, a structure, to be as pleasurable an activity as anything I can think of.


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