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An Interview with Holly Phillips

by Matthew Cheney

I received a review copy of Holly Phillips's first collection of stories, In the Palace of Repose (Prime Books, 2005), without In the Palace of Repose by Holly Phillipsknowing anything about the author or the book. After reading the nine stories in the collection, I was curious to know more about a writer who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere and yet was so in command of her craft. Each story struck me as having been written with a fine sense of form and language, while also maintaining a commitment to many of the traditions and conceits of fantasy fiction.

Some inquiring revealed that Holly Phillips is Canadian, currently lives in British Columbia, had her first story published by On Spec in 2000, and was born on Christmas day.

But I wanted to know more, and that desire led to the following interview, which took place via e-mail between December 2004 and January 2005.

Matthew Cheney: In the introduction to your book, Sean Stewart talks a bit about being excited by Tolkien as a child and says, "I rather suspect Holly Phillips has a similar story. Different books, maybe, at a different age; but most fantasy authors are born out of a desire to escape into Middle Earth, or Narnia, or Earthsea..." Is his suspicion about you correct?

Holly Phillips: Very much so. My father read C.S. Lewis to my sister and me before I even learned to read, and I have a vivid recollection of being eight years old and checking the back of my closet to see if it would work like Lewis's wardrobe. I don't suppose even then that I thought I really could open a door onto Narnia, but I had to check just in case. So I read Narnia and Earthsea, Susan Cooper, and Tolkien and Peake later on. I've always read widely, not just in fantasy, but there is something about the joy fantasists take in purely imaginative work, and something about the way that imagery and metaphor are made literal, concrete, in fantasy and all the speculative genres, that has always fired my own imagination. I think Sean once called it "opening a window on the numinous," which I think is a beautiful phrase.

MC: What about the literalization of metaphor appeals to you? Is it just that that's what seems to most easily ignite your imagination, or is there more to it?

HP: Definitely more to it. What I see happening in my best stories -- because this part of the process is always unconscious -- is that the speculative element, the idea, comes to serve as a metaphor that runs the course of the whole story. "A Woman's Bones" is an example, with the tomb acting as a metaphor for the character's self. To me, the very best SF isn't just about playing around with cool ideas -- although that's part of the delight I take in the genre, as a reader and a writer -- but it's also about making those ideas meaningful. Writing fantasy lets me give a story's theme, its meaning, a central role. I especially love the duality in this: it's meaningful, and it's fun.

MC: What's the difference, do you think, between ideas that are just cool ideas, and ideas that end up being meaningful in a story?

HP: Well, this is one of those things I'm still figuring out, but I suspect that the best ideas are multifaceted in the same way that the best characters are. A complex idea or speculative element plays out in different ways in different situations, affects different characters' lives in different ways, and especially affects the protagonist's life in different ways. There is an enormous potential for conflict and drama if the speculative element has a different effect on her private and public lives, internal and external experiences, friendships, enmities, love affairs....

Mind you, I don't necessarily mean "complex" in the sense that the idea itself has a lot of moving parts. In LeGuin's classic novel The Dispossessed, one of the main speculative elements is that her societies are on two different worlds (actually a world and its moon). A very simple speculative element that works on a literal, practical level by complicating and shaping characters' lives -- LeGuin's protagonist is the first person to travel between the worlds in several generations, and everyone in the novel has a very strong reason for wanting or not wanting him to go, and all the reasons are in conflict, even when the desires are not. But the novel is also about alienation, and who has alienated whom; and not only that, her protagonist is a physicist who has invented a mathematical construct that will allow for instantaneous communication between any two points in the universe, however widely separated in space. Get it? Communication, separation... So the speculative setting also works on a metaphorical or thematic level.

I have issues with SF that uses the speculative element as window dressing, cool F/X like you see on TV. Magical powers can be fun to play around with, in the same way that superpowers are fun in the comics, but to me, magic isn't a substitute for the telephone, or the ray gun. Magic is a force that animates and sometimes rips apart the ordinary world, a force that opens a window on the numinous.

MC: How did you happen to get connected to Prime Books?

HP: I like telling this story, although I can't help but think it was all Way Too Easy. I submitted a story to Weird Tales, which is a joint publishing venture between Wildside Press and DNA Publications, at about the time that John Betancourt at Wildside was starting up a new magazine called H.P. Lovecraft's Magazine of Horror. I gather that John was snooping in a pile of Weird Tales manuscripts when he found my story and appropriated it for HPL. George Scithers at Weird Tales sent me an email asking me if I minded whether the story appeared in HPL instead of WT. Heck, says I, a sale is a sale, and anyway, I'll still get paid, right? So John bought the story for HPL, and stuck a post-it note on the check that said (once I'd deciphered John's scrawl) "I loved this story! If you ever think of doing a collection, think of Wildside," which seemed like too good an invitation to pass up. So after much angst and late-night rooting through piles of manuscripts, I put together the collection and sent it to John, who passed it on to Sean Wallace for his Prime Books imprint. The title story, "In the Palace of Repose," is the story John bought for HPL, and it appeared in Issue #1.

MC: How did you go about selecting stories for the collection?

HP: I had a couple of science fiction stories that I really liked, and wondered if I should do a mixed collection or stick to fantasy. I have several traditional otherworld fantasies, some of them with swords even: do I want to include some of those? Questions like that. So that was one reason I ended up with so many unpublished stories in the book: they just happened to be the ones that (a) I liked, and (b) fit into the more literary, known-world, slipstream end of the spectrum. Though come to think of it, I chose that "spectrum" to showcase because those stories were the ones I liked the best. Putting the collection together clarified my own interests, and even what projects I'll be working on over the next few years, in a way I would not have anticipated.

MC: How so?

HP: Well, I've been writing fairly widely in SF up to now, playing around in science fiction, classic fantasy, urban fantasy, slipstream, horror, even (gasp!) some straight mainstream stuff. Putting the collection together made me realize that my strongest interest is in dark, literary fantasy, so I decided I should probably put that science fiction novel away (I was badly stuck halfway through) and concentrate on where my strengths and my interests lie -- and also where I was publishing the most. I wrote a dark fantasy novel called the burning girl in 2004, the third draft of which is currently in my first reader's hands (Steven Mills: watch for this name!) -- and my plan for this year is to write another, rather different, dark fantasy called Cobwebs & Rust, and then I have a Darwinian fantasy in mind after that... I don't know that this means I'll be writing fantasy for the rest of my life (probably not, I do love variety) but the more engaged I get in the genre, the more possibilities seem to open up before me. But those are the novel projects. Short fiction is still the perfect venue to play around with whatever idea comes along.

MC: I'm curious about those piles of manuscripts you mentioned earlier. How long have you been accumulating them?

HP: I have dozens of stories going back to 1997 or so, many of them previously published, and a big part of my angst when putting together the book came from trying to decide how many reprints to include. I gather that the traditional approach to a collection is to use your published stories and maybe throw in one or two new ones if you're feeling generous. I have to admit, from a mercenary standpoint, it does make more sense to get paid twice for every story if you can. But when it came down to it, I wanted my very best stories to go into my very first book, and it happens that I've had a hard time placing some of my favorites. So do I trust myself more than magazine editors? I actually found that hard to do. Sending a rejected story on to the next market on my list is one thing. Gambling that the stories I like are not in fact stories that everyone else in the universe is going to recognize as crap is something else.

MC: Any speculation as to why those stories had trouble finding a market?

HP: It's hard for me to judge why my stories sometimes have a hard time finding a home -- and keep in mind that some editors have been pretty generous with their enthusiasm. (Just not all of them, darn it!) Part of it might simply be a question of length: I write long stories, which raises very practical space issues, and they tend to be paced like long stories, which raises impatient-reader issues. I also suspect that stories like "The Other Grace" and "Summer Ice," where the speculative element is minimal, are too much in the margins: too weird (and too long) for lit markets, not quite weird enough for SF. I mean, "Summer Ice" has garnered some fabulous rejection letters from great literary markets, so I guess I had some reason to hope that it was a good story, in a back-assward kind of way. But frankly, although I try to keep in touch with the field, if I read everything that's out there, I'd never have time to write, so there could be an ideal market for Phillips stories that I just haven't encountered yet.

Sean Wallace is launching a new literary magazine, Jabberwocky, which is hopeful for me. But what exactly is my kind of thing? Is there a sub-genre I can belong to? How do I know when a story is being rejected because it's too far outside the bounds of the expected, and when it's being rejected because it has some fatal flaw I can't see? And so forth, and so on. Ask me again in ten years and I might be able to give you a better answer. I will say that there are some markets that I quit reading and even submitting to because it seemed like too many published stories were reiterating old styles and ideas -- especially styles. I don't actually consider myself a very imaginative or innovative writer, but I at least aspire to ... what? ... literary authenticity. I hate to say it, but I do fear that some SF markets out there are as hostile toward literary aspirations as literary markets are toward speculative elements -- and some literary markets are pretty damn hostile.

MC: There are some inventive, and sometimes disturbing, images in the stories. Do stories tend to start from an image for you, or do you latch onto images as you write, or does each story have a different process and origin?

HP: Stories start in all kinds of ways. At the risk of sounding like fluffy fantasy girl, some of my stories have their origins in dreams, and those stories are probably the most image-driven. I think "By the Light of Tomorrow's Sun" began that way. I'd been playing with the idea of an out-port that sometimes was an interface for other worlds, but I had no character or story until I had a dream about children's bones being uncovered by waves at the edge of a cliff -- an image I simply could not leave alone until I had figured out who and how and why. But most of my stories begin when a character finds herself in a dramatic situation in my head, and images and metaphors usually arise out of the workings of character, setting, and plot -- although I'm really only good at making those kinds of distinctions after the fact. The process is much more organic: some images resonate, some seem worth extending and building on throughout the course of a story, and some don't. If I started worrying about Why, I would probably never write another word. But I can say that one of my great delights in writing fantasy is the way imagery and metaphor get to play a central role, illustrating and embodying theme. As to where those images come from, or why they're often so dark...

MC: Artists (of all sorts) are common characters in these stories. Is that a deliberate decision on your part (to write about artists), or do you just find yourself drawn to artist characters?

HP: The realization came as a bit of a surprise to me, how many artists and musicians I write about. Part of it is wish-fulfillment: if I had a few lifetimes to live concurrently, I would definitely be painting, sculpting, playing the piano. But mostly I think it has to do with the lives artists lead. There is something extraordinarily precarious and demanding about building a life on the foundation of making stuff up out of one's own head. Artists build castles on sand, on air, on imagination, on nothing at all. They take tremendous risks every time they sit down to do their job, and they don't just risk poverty and scorn and troubled relationships. They also risk losing themselves in the deep, dark abyss that lies between reality and imagination. It isn't an empty abyss, it's an abyss full of monsters and angels, heaven and hell, and it is no coincidence that creative artists of all kinds court depression, dysfunction, and insanity. Well, okay, maybe that's a wee bit of an exaggeration -- I feel fairly sane most of the time -- but they do make great characters for the kind of fantasy I write.

MC: Most artists seem to do exactly what you say you like about fantasy -- they give concrete expression to imaginary concepts and images, they make the unreal real in some way. Is fantasy useful, then, in understanding the "real world" that people so often think fantasy writers and readers are trying to escape?

HC: Oh, dear. Is any fiction useful? I might feel better about my chosen career if I could be sure it was. Anyway, it's tricky to make blanket statements about an entire genre. I think a lot of writers write more for fun than anything else, which is great. This world can always use more delight, there's not enough to go around as it is. But yes, I do also think that fantasy has the potential to connect profoundly with people's lives. If the idea is not only fun, but also meaningful, if it embodies the universal themes that are present in all literature of whatever genre, if it is an important part of the character's experience, then maybe it will reflect back some of the reader's own experience in a way she might never have seen before.

MC: Are there other writers who inspire you?

HP: You may be sorry for asking this one. Ursula K. LeGuin and Ray Bradbury top the list, for their humanity, their vision, and their language. Michael Ondaatje is one of the giants of the Canadian literary world, and in my opinion, one of the greatest living writers. Colette makes me cranky sometimes, but her immersion in her physical world is almost perfect, even in translation. There are many, many writers whose work I admire, but Sean Stewart is the only one who consistently writes the books I wish I had written, and writes them better than I ever could, which drives me crazy but doesn't prevent me from reading everything of his I can get my hands on. I'm also faithful to Patricia McKillip, because of her language and the way in which she has made the lyrical fantasy her very, very own. Tanith Lee is probably the one writer who defined dark fantasy for me, and Peter Watts is The Man for dark science fiction. I read Don DeLillo for his ambiguities and his dialogue -- so out of my league, but someday maybe I'll learn. I love A.S. Byatt for her lushness and her history. Margaret Atwood taught me a lot about structure, for which I am grateful, despite her extremely annoying approach to the whole SF/literary debate. I admire -- and share -- Peter S. Beagle's determination to write a different book every time. I've just started The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and I can already see that she's writing the kind of SF I want to write when I grow up. And I'd better quit now before the list gets any longer.

MC: Reading "A Woman's Bones", I was curious about the Alyakshin culture in the story -- is this based on any actual culture or mythology?

HP: Based on, no. Inspired by, yes. Several years ago I came across an article -- my memory's a little vague now, it might have been a TV show -- about an archeological discovery in the Russian steppes. A tumulus had been excavated, and the archeologists found a well-preserved body, complete with grave goods (I think including a saddle and horse) that indicated the woman, who had been buried thousands of years ago, had been a high-ranking warrior from one of the western horse-herding cultures (Scythians? I don't trust my memory on these things). I do like how modern archeology is overthrowing our rather Victorian idea of gender roles in the ancient past, so that part caught my attention. I've also been troubled by the way white scholars (in this case, Russians) charge around interpreting other people's cultures in the light of their own, but that put me in a double bind. How do you write about that kind of appropriation without falling into exactly the same trap? Hard to do, especially if, like me, you don't like research, can't afford to travel, and have a very small library to work with. At the risk of sounding terribly lazy, that is another thing about writing fantasy I like: I just invented a "mythic" corner of the Russian steppe and populated it with imaginary natives and imaginary Englishmen, and one lonely woman caught somewhere in between. And speaking of images, I think "A Woman's Bones" is a fabulous example of the literalization of metaphor. The tomb in that story is my character's self, uncovered throughout the course of the story, awaiting the final exposure, the moment of release, of change. In my opinion, the metaphor saves the story, which otherwise does not have the most original premise in the world. As it stands, it's one of my favorites.

MC: Once you knew that the tomb was a literalization of the character's self, did you know the story would work? When do you know that a story is working well -- or not?

HP: With "A Woman's Bones" I only knew that I stubbornly persisted in liking the story even after my best reader told me it had a "terribly predictable ending." He may even have put that phrase in italics. Of course I had to change something, and I only discovered the right ending after I realized that the tomb was a metaphor, and should probably remain a metaphor right through to the end. But I've been slow to develop a clear, conscious understanding of what makes a story succeed or fail, and I'm still figuring a lot of stuff out. Mostly it's a gut feeling. I do like to finish things, so often I'll muddle through to the end of a story, even when it feels like I'm sewing a quilt out of soggy kleenex squares. Occasionally I'll quit halfway through when I realize it isn't making sense, or the idea just isn't that interesting, or I've gotten the tone all wrong. Tone, atmosphere, is very important to me, and I have to admit that if I nail the tone, I'm too forgiving of other flaws. But I have a whole lot of stories in my wanking file that will never see the light of day.

MC: My two favorite stories in the book are ones that are the least "fantastic" in the traditional sense -- "The Other Grace" and "Summer Ice". But I also thought only a fantasy writer would be likely write them, precisely because of the centrality of imagery and metaphor in both stories. I particularly liked the fact that in "The Other Grace", the ending is not an easy or convenient one. How did these stories come about?

HP: Gosh. How did they come about? I had to delve into my notebooks to see. The only note I have on "The Other Grace" was the girl who loses her memory and has to start from scratch with her other self looking over her shoulder. I guess I just sat down and wrote the story as it came to me, though the "real" ending didn't show up until months, actually years after I wrote the rest. The story just kept nagging at me until I had to drag my character into making a choice. "Summer Ice" began with the image of the ice sculpture, which led to the sculptor, and then I stumbled across the phrase "the livable city" which set me to daydreaming. I suspect that sometimes I give plot too much importance, but in those two stories the characters were absolutely central. I suppose I was exploring their situations more than plotting the course of life events, but I don't really know. I do know that tone was extremely important to me in "Summer Ice," maybe even more important than character. It absolutely had to be full of light, and I started it a few times until I found the door into the story I wanted to write. But don't ask me where all the ice cream came from.

MC: For one reason or another, the title story, "In the Palace of Repose", felt to me like its setting was one you could return to in other stories, or perhaps a novel. It has a depth that not every setting has, and I, at least, would be happy to know more. Was it a one-shot deal, or do you think there might be more there?

HP: That's an interesting thought. I can certainly see that there is huge potential for conflict and change in that world, and change is one of the things I love to write about. Me and most writers, come to think of it. My problem is that I have so damn many novel ideas already that I'm inclined to let the stories lie, just call them done and move on. My strongest interest is always in my next project: I forget what writer said it, but your best work is always the one you're about to write. Actually, of all the stories in the collection, the one that most tempts me to revisit and expand is "Summer Ice," although to write a novel in that world, with that style, would be a departure for me, and a challenge. But I've already got the next year's work planned, and goodness know what will happen the year after that. And then, you know, characters sometimes get reborn in other guises, and subjects and themes get revisited, and images get reincarnated again and again, so who's to say?

MC: Reading through the stories, I often found the phrasing or diction of a particular passage fascinating, and it struck me that when you write you must be as concerned with how a sentence is constructed as with how a world is. Does that seem like an accurate impression to you?

HP: Oh yes. I love language. I don't think I've ever admitted this out loud before, but I love sentences like I love good food. I love the infinite variety in structure and content, I love the rhythms of words and phrases and clauses, I love the sounds of the words themselves. I even love their shapes. I love messing with grammar. Sometimes I read my own work and think I'm being too Holly-ish: I have favorite words and sentence constructions I use too often. I can tone those things down sometimes, but I like to be messy. I like to walk around with mangled words between my teeth.

© Matthew Cheney 2005.

In the Palace of Repose by Holly Phillips

In the Palace of Repose was published in January 2005 by Prime; ISBN: 1894815580.

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