Interview with Arthur Phillips

Posted by Goodreads on April 6, 2009
Trivia buff and novelist Arthur Phillips claims that he likes to "bum" around, but winning Jeopardy! five times and authoring four novels must involve some effort and focus. His writerly curiosity has inspired very diverse stories: Prague, about young Western expatriates living, ironically, in Budapest in 1989; The Egyptologist, about a 1920s explorer searching for an ancient king's tomb; and Angelica, a ghost story set in Victorian London. Educated at Harvard and Berklee College of Music, Phillips is a jazz musician turned writer whose new book, The Song Is You, is steeped in music and the seductive world of musicians. Phillips talked with Goodreads about the book's soundtrack (listen here) and his uncanny ability to predict the weather.

Goodreads: Your main character, Julian, is a music addict who calls the iPod the "greatest of all human inventions" and uses music to access memories and emotions. How did your background as a musician shape the story?

Arthur Phillips: I was a musician for a while—jazz and a couple of small pop/rock moments—and that experience certainly helped me describe the atmosphere and attitudes of people up on stage, but I really feel like this is a book by a fan, more than by a musician. I have always been a music fiend, from when I was—I don't—and my brother let me listen to his Beatles Blue album. I remember the first time I saw a Walkman and how significant an advance that seemed to me! I don't think I've ever gone three days in a row for the last 25 years without putting on my headphones. So all of that informs this novel.

GR: With all the music references in the book, you put together a book "soundtrack," and the playlist is pretty eclectic, from Elvis and Billie Holiday to The Sundays and The Smiths. How did you make the song selections? Can a character be defined by his or her taste in music?

AP: It is totally tempting to feel that we understand someone based on what they like—music or anything else. The private eye and his cool jazz: He's heartbroken. The man crying at the opera: He's deep. The girl teeny-bopping to this or that: She's youthful and vibrant. But it's a fallacy, of course. A character absolutely cannot be defined by a taste in music; a trick can be played by an author to try to pluck undeserved sympathy by describing music, but that's different. Remember: The Nazis liked art and music, too.

I really, truly, honestly don't write anything that can be construed as autobiographical, except in this case: Julian likes my music collection. And Cait is based on some singers I have liked. That's how I picked the music—I was listening to it.

GR: Musicians seem to warrant more fan obsession than other kinds of artists. What is it about musicians and our relationship to the art form of music that generates extreme, sometimes delusional, feelings of connection in the listener?

AP: Well, in concert, they are doing "it" right in front of us. They are experiencing heavy emotion, emotion we envy. And they are moving our bodies, literally, from a distance. And they are often beautiful. And they are inspiring us to feel something more deeply than many of us can feel in private. Under these circumstances, it's actually rather remarkable the entire audience doesn't rush the stage and declare their love. It is, really, a very risky thing to go and do in public: ask people to sit in the dark and listen while you make them feel better or worse or excited or lonely.

Then even at home alone or listening on your iPod on the commute, music sucks up your life, your memories and feelings and your old memories of old feelings, claims that part of your life for itself, and from then on the music is holding onto pieces of you.

The point is, it's very difficult not to feel that someone is doing this to you specifically and on purpose! They're not, of course, but it's hard not to feel otherwise. The only sense that can be more emotionally affecting is, I think, smell. Which is why perfume can do what it does.

GR: Would you call The Song Is You a love story? Julian and Cait predominantly interact through technology rather than in person. Are you making a statement about our increasingly alienated habits of hiding behind our e-mails, text messages, and social networking websites?

AP: I really try never to make a point or a statement about anything. I'm just not constitutionally up for the task of philosopher or social critic. I like stories. That said, the stories I like probe into how people live and feel and think, and it is certainly a fact that most of us live in a different relationship with technology than we did even five years ago. Whether that makes any specific person in the real world more or less alienated, that is definitely not my business (and, for the record, I could see technology making people both more and less alienated).

How it affects a character in my fictional world—that definitely is my business, and I would say that yes, The Song Is You, is a love story. It is a love story between Julian and Cait, between Julian and Rachel, Julian and Carlton, Cait and Stan, Cait and Alec, Alec and Julian, Aidan and Rachel, Rachel and Carlton, Ian and Cait.... Some of these love stories are conducted more in person, some are more via technology. Cait and Julian's love story, I feel, is a real love story, with the limitations and baggage that people can have. In this case, those limitations encourage them to pursue their story a little less in person.

GR: You are now known for not conforming to a certain "type" of book—each of your books has been very different from its predecessors. What is your brainstorming process? Do you start with character or story?

AP: That I am "known" for anything is a lovely idea, considering that I am, really, a very lazy person, and early in my life I realized that whatever job I would have, it would have to allow me a lot of time to sit down, wander around, read, go to museums. I was warned early on that I wanted to be a bum. But I happened to find the right job for me. My brainstorming process, if you can call it that, is to relax into my routines. I walk the dogs. I cook. I take care of my kids. I hang out with my wife and friends. I listen to music. I go walk the dogs again. And I sit down to my work every day whether I have great ideas ready to go or not. As for where to start, I'm not choosy, and maybe each book is different because I am willing to start one with an idea of a character, another with an idea of setting, another with a plot twist, another with a topic I really want to think about, and so on. Honestly, I feel like any idea that hits you, that makes you feel, "I could sit with that for two years," is such a gift from the blue that to ask it to be something else ("Hey! How about a character?!") is to be ungrateful. Whatever you get, you get, and the rest comes by sitting down every day, pen in hand, and saying "I'm ready."

GR: After two books of historical fiction, was it a relief to set research aside and describe 2009?

AP: There really wasn't much research necessary for Angelica, just reading a lot of Dickens, which is no chore. The relief, if there was any, was in putting aside the Victorian language. But, really, I don't find that a chore either. The real transition from book to book is moving from expertise to ignorance, and that really is something. By the time you publish a book, you know it. You know where the commas are and why. You've read it in some version 20 times and changed everything 20 times. Then you sit down to the next one and you have an inkling, half a character, a line of description. You are back at knowing nothing, and that is a strange and disorienting feeling.

A funny side note about describing 2009: I wrote this book from 2006 to 2008 but decided to set it in April, 2009. I guessed that "spring was late" that year. I nailed it! Spring in Brooklyn has been very late and feeble this year. I'm like The Farmer's Almanac! On the other hand, I totally did not see the economic crisis coming, so it plays no role in the novel. I'm afraid that's pretty typical of my interests: good on atmosphere, weak on current events.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

AP: I don't know what's usual or unusual, but I do have habits. I just go to work every day. I prefer to work away from home, so I'm usually in cafes. I have always done that, and it makes me happy. They bring me hot drinks. Depending on what draft I'm on, I work from about four hours a day (early drafts) to six or eight hours (later drafts), alternating between handwriting and computers.

I have to say that when I was getting started at all this, I was very eager to ask this question of other writers and to look at memoirs of my dead heroes to try to find out their writing habits. All I learned was, it doesn't matter. Whatever helps you write is the right way to do it, and that way might change over time. A great thing about this job is, we're our own boss, our own judge, our own critic. Writers are wonderfully free, at least until it comes time to sell the stuff. And setting work habits is really the first area where we get to exercise that freedom, so I would advise any aspiring writers not to get bullied into doing it according to somebody else's recipe.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced your writing style?

AP: This is a question that can take all day to answer. I am constantly influenced by other writers, things that fly past me in a day, news, friends' comments, art, music, how my family is: As I said, writers are free, so all of the world is ours to take from, more or less. I'll just pick one: I think it's no secret by now that Vladimir Nabokov is probably my greatest literary hero, and therefore my greatest influence. I worship his work and consider his exercise of the writer's freedom to be unparalleled. There it is.

GR: What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?

AP: You catch me in the middle of a long and frustrating read. I've been reading William Gaddis' The Recognitions for about three months now, and I'm probably two-thirds through it. I picked it up because so many writers and critics that I admire have said how important the book is to them. Unfortunately, I'm not having that experience, but I've been doing this long enough that I can say that now and not blame either Gaddis or myself. I understand the book (I think)—I get it. I admire it and him. I'm just not enjoying it, and that has much to do with subjective matters, me at this moment in time, and very little to do with Gaddis or his text.

I have dozens of favorite authors and books; I can't imagine a writer who wouldn't say the same thing. How about just the P's on my shelf: Anthony Powell (A Dance to the Music of Time), Georges Perec (Life: A User's Manual), Marcel Proust (In Search of Lost Time), Richard Price (Lush Life), and Alexander Pushkin (Eugene Onegin).

GR: What's next?

AP: I've been writing something for about a year, and it's starting to take a nice shape now. It's about Shakespeare and my stormy relationship with him. My family has a slightly odd connection to one of the apocryphal plays, and so I've decided to write about that. It is a little fiction, a little memoir, a little light scholarship and literary criticism, nothing too off-putting, I hope, a reader's appreciation.

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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message 1: by Duc (new)

Duc Great interview. I like that the author uses music to access memories and emotions!

message 2: by V.R. (new)

V.R. Excellent interview. Can't wait to read the book.

message 3: by Adrienne (new)

Adrienne Sounds like a cool guy and a really interesting book.
Hemmingway wrote in cafes a lot too...("A Moveable Feast")

message 4: by Anne (new)

Anne Really wonderful interview

message 5: by Jed (new)

Jed I'm glad to be reminded how much I enjoyed reading Prague while on vacation in Budapest a few years ago. It turned out to be one of my favorite places on Earth and I've always wondered what role the book played in that.

message 6: by Liane (new)

Liane Spicer Wonderful interview. All of it. That remark about not being bullied into doing your work according to other people's recipes really struck home.

message 7: by M (new)

M Wonderful, excellent interview

message 8: by Marianne (new)

Marianne he sure is a cutie pie!!!

message 9: by Sharon (new)

Sharon Arthur Phillips is one of my favorite contemporary writers. I've read all his books, including The Song is You. I can't pick a favorite among them, because each one is a unique gem. Wow.

Whatever his writing method is, I hope he keeps doing it. It works!

Now I'm off to check out the "soundtrack". Thank you, Mr. Phillips!

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