A Conversation with Arthur Phillips
Random House Reader’s Circle: Angelica is to some degree about a claustrophobic Victorian household in which the wife/mother feels trapped and powerless. Would you object if a reader thought of it as a feminist novel? Do you think it is, and did you mean it to be?
Arthur Phillips: I wouldn’t object to that on political grounds, only on aesthetic ones. The term “feminist novel” implies a writer with a point to make, and I honestly didn’t start with one in mind, and I don’t think I ﬁnished with one on display. Unlike a writer like me, though, a character does have points to make and perspectives that matter. Constance lives in a world in which she does feel trapped and powerless, and her feelings should get through. I am very interested in portraying how she felt and what she did as a result. But I hypothesize that a truly feminist novel would take that one character’s experience as proof or indictment of the society the character lived in, would use her to make a point about the world. I think that I can say I wrote the novel as a feminist kind of guy without ever meaning to write a feminist novel. I have no point to make about Victorian life, or about women’s lot either then or now. Now, all that hemming and hawing aside, if a reader takes Constance’s plight as proof or indictment of something anyhow, then my intentions are beside the point; the novel then is a feminist novel and my opinion is moot.
RHRC: Mrs. Montague, who tries to help purge the Barton house of the spectre that Constance believes is haunting it, is both a con woman and a sincere spiritualist–or so it appears. How aware is she of this duality–that is, if she were to write a brief description of herself, what do you think she would say?
AP: I think the description of her at the start of Part Two, although written by Angelica Barton in later life, would probably not have offended Anne Montague. I think of it as Angelica’s loving and frank description, and it is Angelica who shows the insight that Mrs. Montague could purge real ghosts that she saw and pretend to see ghosts if it made her clients happy and lie about ghosts to make money as necessary. Really, once you believe that ghosts could be, then the rest of Anne’s behavior is like any other somewhat desperate professional consultant’s. Take a somewhat seedy lawyer: Personal injuries do happen and should be compensated, but also, when you need to make money, you might be willing to have your client wear a slightly larger than necessary cervical collar to get the point across, and, further, maybe you are convincing your client to ask for money that you know he’s not really entitled to, but you do get a percentage of it. So what would Anne Montague say about Angelica’s (my) description of her? I think she’d shrug and say that life is not perfect, but she deﬁnitely helped those she could, and she hurt no one.
RHRC: Everywhere one looks in Angelica, one ﬁnds a possible construction of reality called into question by another–and sometimes yet another. How does this uncertainty reﬂect your own view of the possibility of understanding what’s going on in our everyday lives?
AP: This is a case, I think, where writing has led me to certain beliefs. It started in Prague with a technical realization about writing scenes: Events look different depending on where, literally, you’re standing. In The Egyptologist, knowing only one’s own part in the story gives a character only a partial understanding of the events. And now, in Angelica, it’s gotten even more extreme: The events themselves change depending on who’s describing them. I don’t think I started all this consciously, but it has led me to a point of believing that much of life–not all of it, but more than is commonly believed–is subjective.
RHRC: Angelica is set in a culture in transition–from superstition to science, from women’s status as chattel to a less subjugated existence, from severe class distinctions to less severe ones, from sexual and medical repression to greater openness. Do you think the Victorian era was singular in the intensity of its changes, or do you think our societies are always changing this dramatically, whether we know it or not?
AP: The speed and intensity of change, the drama of change, does vary from era to era. I recall a college class on medieval Europe, the main reading for which was a text about climate change in the ﬁfteenth century. I had the impression that possibly things were not moving that quickly for most people at the time. My limited study of Victorian history–mostly from the work of the historian Peter Gay–certainly gave me the impression of almost frightening rates of change. Whether that’s what it felt like at the moment is an interesting question. I think the historian’s job is to try to give a sense of what the average person felt, but it’s dangerous to assume that any given individual would have that average experience. The novelist, conversely, has the fun of trying to imagine what it felt like for a speciﬁc individual (a character), but it’s then equally dangerous to extrapolate outwards from that character’s experience and apply it to anyone else. I don’t think, to answer your actual question, that all societies evolve with the same speed, and there are periods in history–perhaps even some cultures today–that are deﬁnitely slower to change than the Victorian period was.
RHRC: Angelica herself, as a child, is reminiscent of other literary children–created by writers as far apart as Stephen King and Nathaniel Hawthorne–in danger but also capable of savantlike observations and utterances. How aware were you of the tradition that includes such characters as Pearl in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and the children in Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” as you wrote this novel? And why do you think that children in literature are so often given such otherworldly and sometimes supernatural characteristics?
AP: I was keenly aware of the children in “Turn of the Screw,” less so of other famous, literary horror children. And I would point out that I think Angelica the child actually has very few utterances that make much sense or carry much weight at all. On the contrary, she just says all the plain old stuff that most kids say–it’s the grown-ups that interpret her words as carrying some real weight. She’s just a four-year-old with a fair-to-middling imagination; the adults project onto her the horror, the exquisite insights, the aptitudes, and the almost supernatural awareness of dangers. As for the generic child-in-horror other-worldliness, I don’t have a good answer, but I can make up one that sounds catchy. How about this? Childhood is, in retrospect, magical, frightening, and profound; when writers look back on it, it seems a faraway country with incredible natives.
RHRC: Your novels are known for their unreliable narrators. Why are you drawn to this technique?
AP: Well, part of the answer is up above in question three. Another part is that I think all narrators–even the old classic third person omniscient narrators of the great nineteenth-century novels–are unreliable. There is a point-of-view, a logic, a morality in every narrator, because they’re all human. That said, I’m working on a third-personomniscient narrative now, and Prague was third-person and classically reliable, but it had some characters who were quite unreliable who told their own stories without the main narrator’s editing them. I just think that ﬁrst-person is much more recognizable as unreliable, and in both The Egyptologist and Angelica, technical requirements of the story made ﬁrst-person a much more appealing choice. In The Egyptologist, it allowed a slow revelation of facts that an omniscient narrator would have owed the reader a lot sooner, and in Angelica, the combination whammy of ﬁrst-person telling third-person stories added a fun layer to the plot. I am drawn to stories in which the plot produces the document you’re reading. I won’t always use it, but that’s deﬁnitely something I enjoy because it opens up a lot of room to play with the structure.
RHRC: Novelists often say that the characters they create take on a life of their own and surprise their own creators with their “demands.” Did you experience anything like this as you were writing Angelica?
AP: I think that is a nice, if overused, metaphor for what the process of creating a novel feels like: You think about the book even when you’re not sitting down and literally writing it, so thoughts about it intrude on the rest of your life. Characters develop over the years it takes to write, so they gain traits that you think of only after you’ve been writing about them for a while. Plot sometimes grows out of character, so you think of something new about a character and that causes the plot to change. These are just the facts of the matter, but the sensation, especially when you’re deep in the process, can resemble that loony notion that the characters are alive, demanding, dictating, etc.
RHRC: Psychoanalysis was in its earliest stages during the time in which Angelica is set, and it plays a role in the novel. As you understand the process of analysis, what relation does it bear to novels as a form of narration and interpretation?
AP: I did my time in therapy, and I can absolutely see the relationship between psychotherapy/psychoanalysis and the certain structures of novels. Obviously, there are therapy novels. One that was much on my mind when writing Angelica was Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo, which takes the same form as Angelica: a letter to an analyst that ends with the patient quitting analysis. Novels don’t come out of you fully written. You don’t think of the story and then write it down; writing it down helps you ﬁnd the story. And talking on the couch helps you ﬁgure out the story of your life. To me, the parallels are very clear.
RHRC: I found myself sympathizing more with Joseph, Constance’s husband, than with Constance. Did you by any chance mean him to be a more sympathetic character? Or is this just me being sexist?
AP: I didn’t mean him to be more sympathetic, nor are you being sexist. I think that sympathy in a novel should be left as much as possible to the reader, and that, ideally, the “good guy” of a novel should be very subjective. I am less interested in novels where the sympathetic qualities are hoarded by one of the characters.
RHRC: At the end of the book, there is a kind of intellectual rejection of the idea of exploring one’s own past as a legitimate and beneﬁcial exercise. Does this reﬂect your own view of the importance of an adult’s exploration of his or her own childhood?
AP: Deﬁnitely not. Angelica herself is done with analysis, and has had experiences in it that would no longer be ethically allowed in current therapeutic sessions. She has rejected it, and yet, I think you can read the novel as the story of her beneﬁting from analysis despite her belief that she hasn’t. For myself, I absolutely have no doubt about the importance of an adult’s exploration of his or her life in a therapeutic setting. Look at that! A real, honest-to-God position of my own! So there!