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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.

  1. The Song Is You
    $6.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    The Song Is You

    Arthur Phillips
    "Phillips is in top form and does a brilliant job of transcribing the barrage of Julian's sensory data into cool and flexible prose. This is a triumphant return for Phillips to the level he achieved in his wonderful debut, Prague." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    "[A] beautiful, intelligent meditation on music, loss, and intimacy, a story of star-crossed not-quite-lovers who radically affect each other's lives....Phillips's best book yet, as smart and intricate as Prague, but more generous and poignant." Recommended by Jill,

  2. Prague
    $2.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist


    Arthur Phillips
    "Stop yearning for that elegant, entertaining novel that used to be. Thanks to Phillips, it's right here, right now." Newsweek

    "[I]ngenious....[T]he beauty of Prague lies in Mr. Phillips's empathy for [his characters'] lapses. In the end he presents them with a wry generosity and haunting poignancy to rival his wonderfully subversive wit." Janet Maslin, The New York Times

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.

Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
Are you kidding?

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
When I lived in Budapest, just out of college, I fell in with some Hungarian artists and spent a lot of time in their world. I learned an enormous amount from them — painters and photographers — even though I am a writer now and fancied myself a musician then. One of them, Zoltan Hajtmanszki, I consider to be one of the greatest living photographers, somehow both very modern and also timeless, reminiscent of the great European urban photographers of the early 20th century: Atget, Brassaï, Kertész, Doisneau...

On the other end of the spectrum, I watch my five-year-old discover drawing and painting, and I am amazed by him. He is suddenly a fully formed Romantic figure, intensely working for hours, then enraged at his failures, then forcing himself back to the blank page, despite its betrayals. I wish I could ease his pain, but I have to admit it's fascinating and inspiring to watch. Does that make me a bad dad? The evidence is mounting...

Do you read blogs? What are some of your favorites?
I religiously keep up with The Reading Experience, where a brilliant and dogmatic lover of literature has thrown away his PhD and teaching career in order to discuss how fiction affects us and how idiotic most critics are. Always good stuff!

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.

Five Novels That Make You Feel Like You Might Know Something about Life During the Collapse of the Hapsburg Empire:

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth

The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil

The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch

The Rebels by Sándor Márai (or Embers by him, if you prefer)

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (Not the Hapsburgs, admittedly, but you get the idea.)

÷ ÷ ÷

Arthur Phillips is the internationally bestselling author of Angelica, The Egyptologist, and Prague, which was a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. He lives in New York with his wife and two sons.


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