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Who Is Arthur Phillips?

[$100] This American novelist debuted in 2002 with a novel "of devastating emotional accuracy, striking intelligence, and irrepressible wit" (raved the Christian Science Monitor's Ron Charles), named after a central European city, Prague, where none of the story's action takes place.

Arthur Phillips [$200] Critics called his sophomore effort, The Egyptologist, "a wonder," "a kind of brainy animated cartoon in novel form, and "an equally inventive if totally unexpected foray into ancient Egypt."

[$300] Born in Minneapolis, this five-time Jeopardy champion will be remembered as the first bestselling author to arrive at dressed entirely in fencing costume (on a day that was not Halloween).

[$400] From his own pages: "An acquaintance's newly introduced husband whose name has still not adhered to John's memory, a jazz fan and a trivia buff and something of an incorrigible know-it-all."

[$500] Not Utah, nor Sam, nor Carly, nor Caryl; nor one component of the third largest integrated energy company in the United States, based on market capitalization, oil and gas proved reserves and production. Art Seidenbaum Award winner, Harvard educated, former speechwriter and dismally failed entrepreneur.

[Editor's note: That bit about showing up in fencing attire isn't, technically, true. However, the author did give us permission to say it.]

Dave: So, let's start at the beginning: Why would you write a book on a subject you admit to knowing almost nothing about?

Arthur Phillips: Because I'm a fiction writer, and I had an idea I thought was going to be a good story. Then it dawned on me I was going to have to learn something about Egyptology to write it.

It's like looking a gift horse in the mouth. If you get an idea you want to write about and you can imagine spending two years on it, you're not going to say, "Well, I'm an idiot and I don't know anything about that." No, I'll make it up. I don't have to tell anybody the truth about anything.

Dave: What was the idea?

Phillips: Basically, it ends up being the last two pages of the book. That's what I thought of first. I thought, That would be an interesting way to end a book. I don't know where it came from and I don't know why I thought of it, but I thought of those last two pages.

Dave: Many reviewers have said something to the effect of, "Most careful readers will be able to figure this one out pretty early on." What's interesting is that it doesn't seem to be an indicator of whether the reviewer actually liked the book.

Phillips: My only grumble with that relatively frequent comment is that I don't think they're talking about the ending of the book.

As I was writing, I thought, Okay, a reader is going to get this about a quarter to halfway through. It's not going to be a secret forever because I have other things I have to keep secret.

Of course, I'm not totally sure because obviously no one is saying what it is they figured out, but I think we have a big international misunderstanding on our hands.

Dave: One of the characters is a detective, but a reader would be mistaken to pick up The Egyptologist expecting a police procedural or a traditional mystery.

Phillips: It isn't really a mystery. I didn't try to write a mystery. I was probably halfway through when I realized that the idea of misunderstanding the past, or excavating the past, or pursuing an understanding of somebody's life would take you one level deeper if we had somebody else on top of the character trying to figure him out on entirely opposite principles.

One guy is interested in style and creation and the other one in reductive criticism and cynical doubt. A detective occurred to me, and I thought, This could be fun. I could play with detective story elements. But then you start to play with those elements and you do think maybe people will start to think this is a detective story.

Dave: You experienced the setting of Prague first-hand. How did working with The Egyptologist's distant, historical setting change your process?

Phillips: The driving force that got me started in Prague was that I really wanted to write about Budapest and what I found beautiful in my time there. The driving force in The Egyptologist was This is a great idea for the ending of a story. What do I have to figure out to make it stand up? So I worked forwards in one and backwards in the other. The whole thing was different.

Dave: What brought you to Budapest?

Phillips: It was 1990, and I'd just finished college. I was at loose ends but really wanted to see the world. I wanted to live abroad. I wanted to see something historical happen, though I didn't know what that meant exactly. Then there were all these revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe. I would have done anything to go.

I didn't know anybody there; I had no family or language or anything. I got a dumb job there, about which I knew nothing. A week after college I woke up in Budapest.

Dave: We were talking at a meeting today about Prague. A couple of us were trying to explain to the people who haven't read it the idea of very much liking the book but not necessarily enjoying it. In the sense of I really like this book, but sometimes I feel a little bit miserable when I read it.

Phillips: I actually have that feeling about Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office. They make me very uncomfortable, but I wouldn't miss an episode.

Dave: The characters aren't monsters by any means, but they're not role models, either. Do you find any of them more redeeming than others?

Phillips: There are people in the book that I would imagine wanting to hang around with somewhat, under certain limitations on the nature of our friendship, I suppose. I certainly didn't set out to write anybody villainous.

People often say, "Boy, everybody in it sucked except?" Then they'll name one character. Whoever that one is changes from person to person.

I don't find any of them so off-putting that I couldn't spend some amount of happy time with them. Obviously, bits and pieces resemble things I have seen or known or been.

Dave: There's an element among them of the American abroad (though Mark goes to great lengths to make it clear that he's Canadian). They're all so deeply self-conscious, yet they don't even know why they've come to Hungary.

Phillips: Well, I want to be careful. There are people who go over there with full consciousness and who do good work and are proper travelers and representatives of the country. I don't want it to stand as sociology. If people read it and wonder, Are Americans as bad as this?, well, they're probably a lot worse and also a lot better. These are just the people who fit my literary itch.

These situations occur. It was a place where some people who felt that the world was their oyster and they didn't know what to do with it ended up in the midst of people for whom the world had shit on them and they didn't know what was going to happen next.

I'm sure there are a million stories that can come out of that, many of which would be more uplifting or redeeming than what I chose to write about, and some probably worse. But that was a juxtaposition that certainly interested me.

Dave: I loved Mark's doctoral work on nostalgia. The premise is fantastic.

Phillips: When you were in college, did girls have that Robert Doisneau poster on their wall?

Dave: Of course they did.

Phillips: Wasn't that weird? Everyone had that picture.

Dave: You're a pretty nostalgic person, yourself?

Phillips: At various times, more or less. I'm sure as I get older the disorder will flare up badly.

Dave: Can a person's tendency toward nostalgia be reduced to an algorithm based on quantifiable measurements?

Phillips: Not that I ever figured out, but I do like the idea that you could try.

It's funny: I was working on that book and I had this idea that Mark was writing his Masters on the history of nostalgia and what a ridiculous, self-reflexive idea that was. Then out came this Svetlana Boym book called The Future of Nostalgia. I was like, I can't believe this is coming true.

One of the things Boym identified is the first time nostalgia was being noticed, how it was treated, and what they did to cure it. For instance, in the Napoleonic armies when it was considered a real menace to discipline.

Dave: Why would it be considered a menace?

Phillips: Because people were too homesick. They wanted to go back to France and stop messing around with the Russian countryside. He gives some great examples of really rough punishment, essentially for nostalgia.

Anyway, if I'd known about that maybe I wouldn't have written about it. I didn't know it was real. I was so excited to think of something fake.

Dave: The characters in Prague consume a great deal of a drink called Unicum. What is Unicum, exactly?

Phillips: It is a real liquor with a long and important history in Hungarian culture. It's sort of the national drink in the same way that a lot of the Central European countries have a digestif. It tastes more or less like Jagermeister. It's an herbal, goopy, black concoction.

It's got a great history. Since the 1700's, one family has owned Unicum. When the communists took over, the Zwack family took the recipe and hid it. The communists tried to create state-produced Unicum, and one of the complaints Hungarians had with the communist government was that the Unicum sucked. Then in 1989 the head of the family, Peter Zwack, came back with proper Unicum again and was promptly made the first free Hungarian ambassador to the United States.

They had great advertising in the 20's and 30's, poster advertising of a guy drowning, and just as he's about to go under he sees a bottle of Unicum and he's all happy that he can drink that before he drowns. It's an important drink to the Hungarians. It is, unfortunately, undrinkable.

Dave: Besides a deep bank of trivial knowledge, how did you wind up on Jeopardy?

Phillips: That's exactly why: I have a shallow understanding of everything and depth on nothing. I've always had trivia-brain, since I was a little kid. I was on the Quiz Bowl team in high school.

A friend said, "You know, they're coming through Boston if you want to go try out." I'd gotten married a couple months before, and my wife was increasingly dubious about my abilities to make any money. I went and tried out. Six months later I got on. My wife had said, "Listen, I don't care how you do it, but this year you have to make x dollars." I was like, "Okay, okay. I can do it." And I came back after two days in Los Angeles having made three times what I had to.

Dave: Did you have your own killer categories?

Phillips: I cleaned up on dogs and Shakespeare, as I recall.

Dave: What about dogs?

Phillips: Something about a Tibetan dog. It turned out to the Lhasa Apso. It's a long time ago now, eight or nine years. In my day, you were kicked off after five games.

Dave: Is that no longer the case?

Phillips: You're the first person who hasn't asked me about Ken Jennings.

Dave: See, I haven't kept up with Jeopardy.

Phillips: I haven't either, but Ken Jennings is now on game sixty or something like that. He's this Mormon who's up to like two million dollars in Jeopardy money.

Dave: I always told my mother I'd someday regret not watching more TV.

When you came back from Budapest, you attended the Berklee School of Music, right?

Phillips: Yes. I started playing music in Budapest I have a cameo appearance in Prague as the out-of-tune saxophone player. I decided to come home to go to music school. I went to Berklee for a year and half then started playing music professionally.

I'd pretty much just quit playing music when my wife said, "Well, what are you going to do for a living now, sucker?" I said, "Well, game shows, of course. What else?"

Dave: What music do you listen to?

Phillips: A lot of different stuff. I'm so in love with my iPod. I can finally take all 500 CDs with me wherever I go. And I live on shuffle. It goes from Erik Satie to Chet Baker to New Order.

Dave: A gramophone has played a role in each of your books. Do you have one?

Phillips: I don't. It is in both books; I'd forgotten that. I'd better get some new crap. For different reasons though. The gramophone is in Prague as the ultimate useless nostalgic affectation. And in Egyptologist, I was thinking, This guy should be a music freak like I'm a music freak. He should always want to hear music. Unfortunately, he lives in 1922, so he has no choice to haul five gramophones with him on his expedition.

Dave: Have you read anything lately that's made a particular impact?

Phillips: Usually I'm reading fiction unless I'm researching something specific for what I'm writing. Right now I'm reading research stuff, trying to catch up on what the Victorian middle classes were really like. Mostly I've been reading a guy named Peter Gay, who did history of Victorian bourgeois. He's a kind of revisionist with a much broader picture of them than what everyone thinks of when they think of Victorians. I'm reading that, and he's fantastic.

Just before that I was reading fiction, and the last thing I loved was Moby-Dick, which turns out to be quite a good book. Who woulda thunk it? I'd somehow managed to get through my whole life without reading it, so I finally did.

Dave: I've actually never read it.

Phillips: It's totally fantastic. No one who reads both books will understand what I'm talking about, but I feel that Prague and Moby-Dick are related to each other somehow. They each come back to a topic of interest from different angles until you feel you've got it. His happens to be whaling. It's great on twenty-five levels, as everybody already knew except me and you. But it really is.

What else? I just read Disgrace by Coetzee, which knocked me out.

Dave: A good example of a great book that's not particularly uplifting as you're reading it.

Phillips: That's a good example, yes. I certainly felt bad as I was reading. And I'm a huge dog person; it's a rough book for dogs. Disgrace is a tough book for dog people, but I read it in one of those obsessive I've-got-to-read-the-whole-book flurries.

Also, there's a book coming out next month called Tearjerker by Daniel Hayes, a story about a frustrated writer who kidnaps a New York editor and forces him to read his manuscript. It turns out to be a brilliant book. And I read and blurbed the Paul Murray book, An Evening of Long Goodbyes.

Dave: What did you think of that? We ran Ron Charles's review from the Christian Science Monitor. He absolutely raved about it.

Phillips: I wouldn't blurb something if I didn't really like it. I thought it was great. It starts out in Wodehouse country, quite openly and I'm a big Wodehouse fan, so that was fine with me. He does that very well. It gets funnier as it goes, but it veers off into his own head. It struck me that this is some very unique stuff. Having started at a place where it's clearly homage to a given writer it ends up in a very different place. And it is, as the kids say, laugh-out-loud funny. I was crying I was laughing so loud.

Dave: What interests you that people might not expect?

Phillips: Everything interests me. I used to be a speechwriter, not for interesting people, for academic and business people. And I would learn a lot about a business quickly then have to write something about it. I wrote a speech for guys in the insurance industry; for five days, insurance was fascinating. I did advertising copywriting for medical devices like stents and angioplasty balloons. I'm interested in everything for a little while. I have a very short attention span.

Beagles interest me a lot. I fence.

Dave: Okay, that's something that the average reader would not know.

Phillips: You wouldn't guess it.

Dave: You didn't wear any of the costume here.

Phillips: You can tell them I'm wearing the whole thing.

Dave: You still fence actively?

Phillips: Right now I'm living in a place where there's no fencing club so I'm not, but I'm moving and I'm going to start fencing as soon as I do.

The United States just won a gold medal at the Olympics, which we have not done since time immemorial.

Dave: The woman was from Oregon.

Phillips: She won a gold medal in women's saber. We had a certain advantage because women's saber wasn't really an event until about ten years ago, so we got to get good at it at the same pace as everybody else, but God bless her. We can hold our head high in international fencing circles.

Dave: Good for that.

Phillips: Exactly. Pride, everyone. That's another thing I read recently, a history of fencing by a guy named Richard Cohen, By the Sword.

Dave: Will you continue to focus on longer works, or do you have shorter projects in mind?

Phillips: I'm working on a novel now. I have a pile of stories, some of which I like quite a bit. Maybe if I can get enough of them together I'll foist them on an unwitting public.

Dave: Are the stories a pleasant diversion for you, a chance to get some distance from your larger projects?

Phillips: A little bit. Also, an idea comes and you think you'll pursue it for a while. It turns out to be short. Or sometimes stories come up as part of a commission. I got asked to write a story for an anthology, so I wrote a story to fit it.

Dave: Ian McEwan talked about that a bit, having to break off from his work on Atonement to write an essay about language that he'd promised the Guardian. At the time, he felt like the essay was derailing him from his novel at a crucial stage of its construction. After the fact, he was thankful for having had the opportunity to slip into nonfiction. He talked about one project shaping the other.

Phillips: It seems everything has an effect on a book. You spend a number of years on it you're not in a vacuum and by the time you're done you're far away from what you started. Anything you read, things that happen, they're bound to have some effect. So if you take time off to go write something else or think about something else it's got to have a bearing on it.

I was a big Atonement fan, as well, for what it's worth.

Dave: I read it on vacation. I distinctly remember reading a very sad chapter of the novel on the plane while my girlfriend was laughing hysterically in the seat next to me reading the novel she'd brought. I loved Atonement, but it's another book that doesn't bring the sunshine out. Maybe it wasn't the best choice for a mirth-filled week at the beach.

Phillips: That to me is very good company to be keeping: books that make you uneasy.

That question comes up with Prague: "Did you intend to write something that would make people uneasy?" It didn't ever cross my mind. I just pursued whatever was entertaining to me at the time. But yes, Atonement offers a shortage of redeeming characters, but it's long on great writing, fantastic interplay, and brilliant structure.

Of all the pleasures that fiction can offer, likeable, identifiable, or redeeming characters haven't been on my list of desires. And I'm not making fun of people who look for those things. It just hasn't been of interest to me since I was about twelve and wanting to be D'Artagnan of The Three Musketeers.

I wanted to be a lot of characters, and I'm really not downplaying that at all. It's one of the things that's fun about reading: to find a character that you like and would like to be around. But it doesn't crack my top five things that I want to get out of a book. When I'm writing I'm trying to come up with something I'd want to read, so I don't find myself asking, "Who'd want to spend three hundred pages with him?"

I love so many unlikable characters. I'm a big Nabokov fan. Time spent with Humbert Humbert or Hermann or Kimbote is time well spent as far as I'm concerned.

Arthur Phillips visited Powell's City of Books on September 22, 2004.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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