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Author/Reader Discussions > "And Yet They Were Happy" Group Discussion

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message 1: by Lori, Super Mod (new)

Lori (TNBBC) | 9517 comments Mod
Hi everyone!

Somehow I missed posting this on Goodreads - I have a great book giveaway going on on TNBBC's Blog.

The book is And Yet They Were Happy by Helen Phillips. And it's going to be our Author/Reader discussion book for the month of June.

If you want a copy, simply head over to the blog and leave a comment. http://thenextbestbookblog.blogspot.c...

I can't wait to discuss it with you.. and Helen is excited to join us!!

message 2: by Lori, Super Mod (new)

Lori (TNBBC) | 9517 comments Mod
Hi Everyone!

In just two days, we will be begin our author/reader group discussion of And Yet They Were Happy

Author Helen Phillips will be joining us throughout the month to discuss the novel, and answer any questions you may have for her.

Welcome Helen! I am so happy to be working with you, and thrilled to have been given the chance to feature your novel here in the group!

How did you come to be published by Leapfrog Press?

message 3: by Shannon (new)

Shannon (IandSsmom) | 30 comments So excited! got the book by my bed just waiting for the 1st!! :)

message 4: by ILoveBooks (new)

ILoveBooks | 85 comments ^Me too :)

message 5: by Helen (new)

Helen Phillips | 27 comments Lori, thank you so much for the warm welcome! And Shannon & Krystal, I appreciate your enthusiasm. I've really been looking forward to our month-long conversation.

As for your question, Lori, I discuss how I came to be published by Leapfrog in my interview with Teddy Wayne on the Huffington Post:

Essentially, when my agent sent And Yet They Were Happy out to all the major New York publishing houses, they liked the book but expressed concern about marketing a book that didn't fit into a clear genre, so I started sending it out on my own to independent publishers, including Leapfrog Press. I cannot speak highly enough of Lisa Graziano of Leapfrog; I feel very fortunate that my debut book found such a supportive small-press home.

message 6: by Shannon (last edited Jun 01, 2011 12:26PM) (new)

Shannon (IandSsmom) | 30 comments I cheated and started reading a day early! Read the first part Flood went to sleep and immediately had a crazy dream!! :) Then I read the next part and all I can say is that it is like magic words! When I'm reading it all I keep thinking is it is putting a story together by magic! :)

message 7: by Helen (new)

Helen Phillips | 27 comments Shannon! Thanks so much for this comment; I'm honored to hear that reading The Floods might possibly have contributed to a crazy dream. In fact, many of these stories have their seed in crazy dreams I've had. And thank you for feeling the magic--that's what I was aiming for and it means a great huge lot to me that you sense that coming through.

message 8: by ILoveBooks (new)

ILoveBooks | 85 comments ^The words are definitely magical, the characters are very well-developed :)

message 9: by ILoveBooks (new)

ILoveBooks | 85 comments Have you really had crazy dreams that inspire your books? I never even considered that that would be a great way to write a novel :)

message 10: by Amy (new)

Amy | 6 comments Hi Everyone! I think I may have cheated, I have already read most of the book! I can go back and re-read along with all of you. But I am enjoying these stories immensely, and I love the cumulative effect that they have!

message 11: by Shannon (new)

Shannon (IandSsmom) | 30 comments That is what I'm looking forward to- the cumulative effect!! You can feel it coming slowly even in the very beginning! I'm on Fight right now! Oh the metaphor and pictures!!! Each section is like it's own little artistic play but then it just melds into the next one even though they seem random!! I'm so excited to hear your thoughts Amy as we go since you know the "ending"!!! :)

message 12: by Erica (new)

Erica Spangler (bookedinchico) | 18 comments I just started reading and I am really excited. I love that this doesn't "fit" into a genre. It is new and fresh.

Helen, what gave you the inspiration to write your book in these short lyrical passages? Did you write "chapter" separately or did you have an idea of where you were going to go?

message 13: by Charlotte (new)

Charlotte (Charallen) Hi! I have read all of Flood and am about halfway though we?. I am trying to take it slow and really take in every little piece as I go. There is so much to take in!! Very much enjoying it so far.

message 14: by Helen (new)

Helen Phillips | 27 comments Yes, Krystal, I have to admit that many of these pieces spring from dreams I've had! For instance, Monster #2, about the kids & the TV, comes from a dream I had 20 or so years ago, when I was a little kid, but the terror of that has always stuck with me. Wife #1 is based on a dream, as is Punishment #2, and many others. I would refine the dream as I wrote about it, striving to capture in words the surreal situations I'd encountered while also adding other elements.

Thanks, Amy & Shannon, for your comments about the cumulative effect. I was definitely trying to create a feeling that was at once expansive/random AND added up to a unified whole with repeated images/words/characters/ideas. I'm glad to hear you're getting that cumulative feeling--sometimes I wasn't sure if that was working!

message 15: by Lori, Super Mod (new)

Lori (TNBBC) | 9517 comments Mod
Wow, look at the excitement in this thread, it's so strong you can FEEL it :)

Don't worry about pacing yourself guys. If you want to get into the meat of it all, and discuss parts farther along in the book, just remember to hide them under the spoiler code....

So happy you are all enjoying the book. I hope to start sometime next week, and you guys are making hungry for it!!

message 16: by Helen (new)

Helen Phillips | 27 comments Thanks for your comments, Erica & Char, and for your enthusiasm, Lori!

To answer Erica's great questions, I'm going to once again borrow some words from the HuffPost interview, because in this passage I really delve into the origin of the project that would become And Yet They Were Happy, and discuss how I created the sections:

Some years ago I was feeling bogged down in the novel I was writing. The excitement of the original idea had faded in the long execution. I wanted to experience that initial thrill of creation on a more regular basis. Encouraged by my husband Adam Thompson, an artist who had recently given himself the challenge of doing all his work in pencil on 8½-by-11 paper in lieu of belaboring paintings, I set myself a similar task: I'd write one 340-word story every day. The idea and the execution became simultaneous.

Although the genesis of this book may sound rather formalist, in truth the constraint merely served as a sort of scaffolding that enabled me to explore central themes and concerns from many different angles. While it was helpful to have one thing to cling to amid all the chaos of creation, ultimately it's not so important. Its primary role was to set me free, to make me feel that, as long as I held to my little word limit, I could do absolutely anything, could draw any bizarre parallels, bringing together history and mythology and Snow White and Charlie Chaplin and my own experiences in one breath. I wrote this book while I was engaged and during my first year of marriage, which was an intense and transformational time for me. The idea of a book comprised entirely of 340-word stories might sound rather rigid; but this book is flesh and blood and mess and life.

The sections of the book were created fairly late in the process, after I'd written all the pieces. But because I'd found myself continually (obsessively!) returning to explore repeated themes (marriage, mistakes, family, natural disasters, supernatural visitors, punishment, apocalypse), it wasn't too hard to name and craft the sections of the book. I think of the fables in each section as various manifestations of the same experience. Here's the wedding ceremony where the bride and groom drive their guests away by laughing too much; here's the wedding ceremony that's performed by wooly mammoths. Ultimately these are a series of metaphors, many attempts to describe those milestone experiences that evade description.

I feel like our culture doesn't offer many alternatives to the traditional cliche of the radiant blushing bride who's just dying to get the altar; my experience of getting married was so much more intricate, complex, rich, difficult, and interesting than that. A lot of the book was geared toward exploring that experience with more nuance ...

message 17: by Shannon (new)

Shannon (IandSsmom) | 30 comments I love in Fight #7 the ones cup is half full and the other is half empty! I just loved that -fighting/argueing so much they can't even agree on that!! Just really loved it! Hard to explain but I was so excited when I read it!
I'm wondering- I sense a christian theme in some of the parts ie-Adam and Eve etc. and I'm wondering if it is inentional or just a natural process in your writing! I love it and think it adds wonderfully to the stories but I'm just wondering not to pry but more in the writing process and your thought process!

message 18: by Helen (new)

Helen Phillips | 27 comments Thank you, Shannon! A lot of times in this book I was interested in exploring phrases we use all the time, such as "The glass is always half-empty" or "That's just the nature of the beast" (Mother #3).

As for the Biblical themes: I've always loved Bible stories as stories unto themselves. A man who builds an arc and saves all the animals two by two! A couple that lives in perfect harmony until a haunted apple is eaten! These are such powerful, potent images of apocalypse, of loss, of grief, and I kept finding myself returning to these themes as I was writing. I also refer to fairytales and Greek myths--all these iconic stories that shed so much light on human experience.

message 19: by ILoveBooks (new)

ILoveBooks | 85 comments I loved the Fight #7 too. I loved Bible stories too, usually they have a solid meaning-sometimes they make me laugh too though.

message 20: by Amy (new)

Amy | 6 comments I had a different kind of reaction to many of the stories. Some, as a complete story, hit me and I loved the idea of them, whereas others were enjoyable, but one or two lines had stuck with me. This isn't really a question, just a comment, but I'm curious how others responded to them. For example, I loved "we? #3", I could relate to the feeling of nakedness and the anxiousness of exposing that side of you to someone. "we? #6" also made me laugh because I also formulate those intricate plans, and the whole story just exemplified love and partnership.
On the other hand, in "we? #2", the story as a whole was good, but it didn't resonate with me as much. But two specific lines hit with me: "Her heart swells, swells, shrinks, shrinks, swells, swells, shrinks, shrinks. Unaware of this turmoil, his heart plods patiently." Man, this kills me, because it's completely true. My heart can swell and shrink with just one comment, while I'm sure his heart plods on, oblivious.

message 21: by Amy (new)

Amy | 6 comments I do also have a question! Some of these stories are clearly very personal, and as you say that you are continually returning to, I wonder if it helped you to work through any anxieties or thoughts or unresolved wonders? What about the stories that came from dreams? Sometimes a dream can seem so real and make you think about things, did writing these stories help you think about stuff?

message 22: by Helen (new)

Helen Phillips | 27 comments Thanks, Krystal! I'm so glad you enjoyed Fight #7. All of the action is offstage in a sense, but I tried to infuse the simple description with tension.

Amy: thank you for your observations & questions. It's extremely interesting for me to hear which stories resonated with you as a whole, and which lines stood out even in the stories that resonated less.

As for your questions, YES, writing this book very much helped me cope with various fears/anxieties about everything from commitment to global warming! By putting into words some of my neurotic concerns/recurring thoughts/haunting dreams, I was able to diffuse the tension. Somehow just articulating what you're scared of makes you less scared of it, or so I found--maybe writing about your fear is a way of staring it down.

I remember one time going to the bridal section of Barnes & Noble when I was engaged, just hoping there was a book there that would guide me through what I was finding to be a very rich, complex, and unexpectedly disorienting experience--but of course all they had were books about floral arrangements and picking your bridesmaids. I didn't care about any of that! I just wanted to know if other women had found the process of being a bride a bit more complicated and fraught than the old cliche of the gloriously-happy-young-bride. (As a side note, I have this fantasy of AYTWH being stocked in the bridal section of bookstores, and also in the fiction and poetry sections!). I think that for women now marriage is more of a choice than it ever was before--it used to be that getting married was simply what you did. Now there are other options for women that are totally acceptable. And with choice comes greater responsibility for your life path.

All that said, I am lucky enough to be very happily married to a brilliant, creative, supportive man. Writing And Yet They Were Happy helped me enter our marriage with openness and honesty. I think that acknowledging the challenges of loving another person well ultimately makes for a deeper, truer, more meaningful connection ...

Whew, that was kind of heavy! Anyway ... thanks again, Amy, for the question ...

message 23: by Bracha (new)

Bracha (bgoykadosh) | 2 comments I love this book so far! I must confess that I am not reading it linearly. So far, the one about the factory where the virgins are made is my favorite. It's the type of story I find myself thinking about long after I read it. Haunting, elegiac, mysterious. I wonder if there was an inspiration for this story, what was it?

Also, thank you very much for this opportunity to chat with you! So often I wonder about the process behind the creation of a book. Especially since your book is so unique, it's a privilege to hear about its background!

message 24: by Shannon (new)

Shannon (IandSsmom) | 30 comments I totally agree! I was just thinking about that today how wonderful it is to read this book then be able to turn around and go right to the source!! It is so wonderful you are taking time out for us!!

message 25: by Esther (new)

Esther (eshchory) | 545 comments I enjoy the writing in these stories but it is definitely for dipping into which is opposite to my usual way of reading.
So far I have some favourites Bride #3 in particular but also Flood #1, Fight #3, Regime #10 and Punishment #1

message 26: by Helen (new)

Helen Phillips | 27 comments Thank you, Bracha! I'm honored to hear that you're enjoying it.

It's really fun and interesting for me to talk with all of you about the book--thank you for all your reactions/comments/questions.

As for Helen #4, about the factory where the virgins are made: I was in a cathedral in Guatemala, looking at a statue of the Virgin Mary, and it got me wondering: where do these statues get made, and who makes them, and do they have regulations about the facial expression?

As for Bracha & Esther's comments about the non-linear reading method: I'm actually on book tour right now (reading at Books Inc 601 Van Ness in San Francisco tonight at 7pm if anyone's in the Bay Area!) and one of the most interesting things has been to hear all the different methods people have for reading the book. Some people pick a section from the table of contents and start there (one woman said she went straight to The Envies--I won't psychoanalyze that!). Another reader said she read the first one in each section, and then the second one in each section, and then third one in each section, etc. Some people say they just open it to a random page. A lot of people say they read it aloud with family members. It's really interesting for me to hear all the different ways people read the book--almost as though they're creating their own unique book as they go (this reminds me of Julio Cortazar's book HOPSCOTCH--he encouraged his readers to read it in a non-linear fashion) ...

message 27: by Esther (new)

Esther (eshchory) | 545 comments I also wanted to ask if I was the only one who finds the stories quite melancholy and was this intentional?

The word sad re-occurs quite frequently and there seems to be a lot of dissapointment and unfulfilled dreams.
Also the headings fights, failures , mistakes. Where is love, sucess or honeymoon?

message 28: by Amy (new)

Amy | 6 comments Esther, I found some of the stories to be a little melancholy as well, but overall I found many of them to be rather hopeful. Perhaps I'm just seeing my own life view in them (which is normal, I guess. We all have our own experiences that affect how we view things), but I don't feel that the titles are negative. Fights, failures and mistakes are a part of life, and these stories had a feeling of still being optimistic. (thus the title of the book)

message 29: by Helen (new)

Helen Phillips | 27 comments Hello all--sorry to be MIA for a few days--I was traveling back from book tour and getting over a cold and readjusting to work etc!

Esther: yes, you're right, there is a melancholy tone to the book, and it is intentional; I was often striving to express that central loneliness of the human condition and of mortality.

That said, I promise that there is tremendous joy, tenderness, and true love in this book. As Amy observes, it is essentially an optimistic book. It was important to me to write very realistically and frankly about human emotion and experience.

message 30: by Amy (new)

Amy | 6 comments I had forgotten about the "virgin factory"; that story made me laugh. I had never thought about where those statues are made, and I loved the fiesty-ness of the protagonist.

message 31: by Bracha (new)

Bracha (bgoykadosh) | 2 comments Still loving the book-- I read a little more each day and I am struck by the mosaic quality.

Now that this book is out, what are you working on writing? :)

message 32: by Lori, Super Mod (new)

Lori (TNBBC) | 9517 comments Mod
Hey guys! I just started the book today. Read all through the Flood (#2 and #2 were my favorite) and most of the way through We.

I love how symmetrical the stories are!

message 33: by Shannon (new)

Shannon (IandSsmom) | 30 comments I'm sorry if this was already answered but I can't find it. Did you write the stories with a whole book in mind or just indiviual stories that then ended up going together well. I read above that the 'groups' came later and I know in the article it said you wanted that new book feeling over and over but I'm wondering initially if you thought this would make a book and put it together or if originally it was more random. That was longer than I wanted :)!!

message 34: by ILoveBooks (new)

ILoveBooks | 85 comments I still love the book, I love how the chapters could be considered part of a cohesive whole or just put together-the reader can't tell.

message 35: by Lori, Super Mod (new)

Lori (TNBBC) | 9517 comments Mod
I'm enjoying how the stories sort of read like fevered dreams. Some of them are crystal clear, vivid, and relatable. Others are nonsensical, temperamental, and appear to be looking at the world sideways.

Really enjoying the short, abruptness of them!

message 36: by Helen (new)

Helen Phillips | 27 comments Thanks for the comments, all!

To answer Bracha's question: I have a few projects going right now. My children's adventure novel recently sold to Random House and will be published in Fall 2012, so I'm about to start doing some final revisions on that. And I have a "poetic thriller" called The Beautiful Bureaucrat in the works. And finally I'm putting together a collection of short fiction (but not as short as 340 words!). Never a dull moment ...

To answer Shannon's question: Though I didn't write the pieces sequentially as they now appear in the book, I always felt that these were all part of one project governed by the same 340-word rule and the same concerns/preoccupations/obsessions. While variety was important to me, moreover I was seeking my own definition of what comprises a book. I wondered: Could I write a book that held together through mosaic (as Bracha observed), through symmetry (as Lori observed), through metaphor and reptition and image and rhythm and obsession?

Lori, I love your "fevered dream" description, and the idea of looking at the world sideways ...

message 37: by Amy (new)

Amy | 6 comments Lori, I love that "fevered dream" idea too. Some of them are clear, and some leave you wondering, much like dreams. Good description!

message 38: by Lori, Super Mod (new)

Lori (TNBBC) | 9517 comments Mod

It just popped into my head when I was reading one of the stories. It reminded me of some of the whacky crazy things that linger in your memory after waking... something that makes sense in your head, but when you start to explain it... it's sounds disconnected and "off"....

message 39: by ILoveBooks (new)

ILoveBooks | 85 comments Lori, you're completely right. That describes that part of the book perfectly.

message 40: by ILoveBooks (new)

ILoveBooks | 85 comments Helen, if you didn't write the book all at once. Did you just write down the chapters as they came and then decided to put it all together, if you did-it worked really well!

message 41: by Lori, Super Mod (new)

Lori (TNBBC) | 9517 comments Mod
Wife #5 was funny but such a sad way.

Helen, where in the world are you getting the inspiration for these stories? Some of them have such an undercurrent of sweetness, but others are just so strange that I wonder if you took an experience and built off of it or if they all just sprung from your imagination.

(please don't tell me you knew someone who kept dead birds in the freezer!!!)

message 42: by Helen (new)

Helen Phillips | 27 comments Lori--I was meeting with a book club recently and they said the exact same thing you say above--that some of the stories are clear while others are more mystifying and dreamlike.

As far as inspiration goes: well, I got ideas from all sorts of things--as mentioned above, dreams, and also newspaper articles, overheard conversations, myths, fairytales, historical events, weird emails, odd things stumbled upon in the course of daily life, an image or metaphor that flashes into my head as I'm walking around. The statue of Mary from the Catholic Church down the street kept on appearing in these stories, and there really is a blind women in my neighborhood. And--well--yes, the dead songbirds in the freezer do have some basis in reality ...

Krystal: after I'd written all the stories I knew that they would divide well into my different themes/obsessions--weddings, monsters, apocalypses, etc. Then it was just a matter of sorting them out and ordering them, which was a lot of work but a very fun part of the creative process, to shape these separate-but-linked pieces into a larger whole.

message 43: by Lori, Super Mod (new)

Lori (TNBBC) | 9517 comments Mod
What closing comments or questions do you have for Helen? We'll be wrapping up the author discuss this week....

Helen, I finished the book a few days ago (still working on the review in my head, should be up in another day or so) and loved how the stories continued to be foggy and murky one moment and then clear and straight forward the next.

It certainly was not what I expected - I am not sure if that's the fault of the book blurb, or of my interpretation of the blurb - but it was interesting. I found it to be an exercise in thinking about what you are reading.

The format forced you to pay attention to each story!

message 44: by Shannon (new)

Shannon (IandSsmom) | 30 comments Helen thank you for doing this! I'm really enjoying this book! I think I'm taking so long with it because I don't want it to end!! It has been a great treat and maybe not something I would have normally picked up but am so glad I did!! This is one of those books you want to shout from the roof tops to get people to read! :)

message 45: by Helen (new)

Helen Phillips | 27 comments Thanks, Lori, for your observations. Once again I love the way you've articulated the foggy&murky/clear&straightforward dichotomy--something I definitely hoped to achieve when I was writing the book. Yes, you're not the first to say that the book blurb isn't quite accurate! Well, it was very difficult to figure out a clear way to describe the book--there are so many different ways to approach it. If anyone has any jacket copy suggestions for the (*hopefully*) future printings of the book, I'd be curious to hear them--how would you sum up this book in the paragraph on the back cover?

Shannon, thank you so much for your generous words about the book, especially that part about shouting from the rooftops! For a small press author, that word-of-mouth enthusiasm makes all the difference. I'm extremely honored to hear that you're reading it slowly. I know it's a bit of an odd book so I'm particularly moved when people connect with it.

Thanks to everyone for participating, and for your thoughtful comments and questions. It's been a true privilege to discuss the book with you, and I'm certainly happy to answer any remaining questions before the end of the month ...

message 46: by Lori, Super Mod (new)

Lori (TNBBC) | 9517 comments Mod
Thanks for the above comments, Helen. It was hard to put what I wanted to say into words. I felt I did it justice in the end :)

Writing jacket copy for your book would indeed be difficult - I wouldn't want to be the one responsible for it!! I like the back cover quote from Kirkus - "The story of the world unfolds in bursts of imagination".....

message 47: by Helen (new)

Helen Phillips | 27 comments Yes, part of me just wants the back cover to consist of quotes from different reviews, even if they sort of contradict one another (some calling it a novel, some a short story collection, etc)! Then readers can make what they will of the "plot" or "story" of the book, creating their own description/definition ...

message 48: by Lori, Super Mod (new)

Lori (TNBBC) | 9517 comments Mod
That's actually a very good idea!!!

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