An Interview with Holly Phillips
I received a review copy of Holly Phillips's
first collection of stories, In the Palace of Repose (Prime Books,
2005), without knowing
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 was published in January 2005
by Prime; ISBN: 1894815580.
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