Helen Phillips talks about making the transition from experimental prose to young adult mystery, the trailer for her new book, and finding inspiration in a fairly active volcano in Costa Rica. By Matt Dorville
Your first book, And Yet They Were Happy, had a lot of fantasy but it’s a much more adult book than Here Where The Sunbeams are Green. What made you decide to write young adult fiction as your next book?
And Yet They were happy is definitely a book for adults. The challenges of writing And Yet They Were Happy were challenges with metaphor, language, imagery and I loved writing that book. It was really a breakthrough for me. I’m not sure if you’re aware but each of the stories in that book are 340 words. And within that kind of constraint I allowed myself to do anything that I wanted. So I could have Persephone and Bob Dylan in the same story and all sorts of weird interactions between anachronistic figures and all of that. Because of the way that project was constructed it was about coming up with these quirky metaphors and when I was writing the book I would often write 1000 words and then cut it down to 340 so I was constantly thinking about the language. Every word really had to earn it’s place on the page. After I finished that book, I wanted to challenge myself to attack the other writerly challenges of plot and character and suspense and mystery. So in both cases I set myself a challenge but it’s just that the challenges were very different and in both cases they were trying to get at a different kind of writing skills.
The style is very different. And Yet They Were Happy is written in short experimental vignettes while Here Where the Sunbeams are Green is written in more of a conventional way. Is the writing process that you go through different from writing an experimental book to a more conventionally written one?
They were very different. In And Yet They Were happy I would usually write one a day and spend a lot of time cutting it down to 340 words. So there was something very process oriented. In writing Here Where The Sunbeams are Green it was a complete outpouring romp, getting as many words on a page as I could every day, going forth with the mystery and the characters and letting them take me forward. In And Yet They Were Happy there are lightly drawn characters that but it’s not at all like a novel where you get to delve into the psyche of the characters. I felt in Here Where the Sunbeams are Green I was pulled forward by that momentum of the characters.
Did it come from plot, characters….
Not plot. Not at all. Actually that was one of the problems coming from And Yet They Were Happy. Each of those 340 words is a little story with its own tiny little plot but I was not accustomed to write a novel length plot. So it was a big challenge for me; can I actually write a full novel length plot. The plot of Here Where the Sunbeams are Green was incredibly weak in the first draft and all I got out of it was the character and the setting. And then I went through 8 drafts to arrive at a plot that had the suspense and mystery I was aiming for.
The setting of Here Where the Sunbeams are Green is very adventurous. You set your novel out in a fantastical jungle. How did you arrive at such a setting?
I actually lived in Costa Rica for two summers in high school and college and I got to know it a little bit. There’s a volcano there called Arenal. It’s a fairly active volcano that erupted pretty severely within recent memory since the last time I was there. There were towns nearby and I was like, seriously, people live here? So I was pretty fascinated with a semi-active volcano or a volcano that could go at any time. I come from Colorado, which is an arid climate, so to go to someplace that’s really lush stuck with me.
Also you have pretty wonderful animated videos accompanying each book done by your husband. Could you tell me how that came about?
Yeah, my husband is an artist and he made a trailer for And Yet They Were Happy as well (shown here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROtW75HNAiw). This time we found a girl?
You found a girl?
Yeah well, my mother-in-law is one of those people that is really great at befriending everyone and there’s this lovely little 12 year old girl in her neighborhood that was biking by in the summer. So we went Olivia, would you mind narrating a book trailer and she said sure. I got her a gift certificate to her favorite bead store so it was a good exchange (the video is located here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9sP5AJsnpg).
I see that you’re also on social media, where you see so many authors these days but you haven’t tweeted yet. What’s the hold up?
I know. Oh god you’re calling me out on it!
Well some writers really like it like Colson Whitehead and Margaret Atwood enjoy it but some others definitely look at it as a distraction.
Haha maybe I should start tweeting but I have this resistance to it. I prefer paragraphs. It’s interesting because people looked at the 340 words of And Yet They Were Happy with its 340 words and Twitter with 140 characters as maybe there was a connection but it’s a total coincidence. I’m curious about when people find time in their day to tweet. Between writing and teaching and trying to have longer thoughts, it’s not a medium that I am yet comfortable with. But maybe someday I will be.
Not only do you teach at Brooklyn College but you have a brand new baby. How do you have time to write?
I have one hour a day that I protect furiously. Usually it’s an early morning hour. My husband and I drew up this elaborate schedule when she was a few months old of when he would do his art and when I would do my writing so it is a delicate balance. I am a little bit tired right now but my I also feel that my life is full of so much that I care about so I can’t really complain at all.
In the story, the main character Mad has a New Year’s Resolution to write a poem a day. I hear that you had that same resolution. So how much of you is there in Mad? Also when you decided to include it, did you read over your poerty?
A lot. The voice came really easy to me. For all the troubles to get the plot, the voice was always near at hand to me. Mad feels like a version of myself, certainly.
Did you look at your poetry before writing the book or as you wrote it?
I didn’t. I think I was too nervous to think what I was coming up with then. It would be really fun to read those. My parents live in an area in Colorado that is always in being in a forest fire because they live in a forest. So they have all those journals in a lockbox somewhere in hope that they’ll be really valuable one day. I guess all parents are like that. I haven’t looked at them in a very long time but, who knows, maybe I’ll look at them over the holidays.
It was a hope that maybe we could have one or two to post on the site.
Oh that’s really fun. I’ll ask my mom about it, I don’t have any in New York. I love the idea of incorporating something like that. (Two of our favorite poems are located here.)
And lastly, who are you currently reading?
Well I don’t have a ton of free time right now but currently I’m reading a non-fiction book called Bringing Up Bebe written by Pamela Druckerman. I think it’s great and really fascinating and relevant not only to parenting but also to teaching as well.
In addition to facilitating programs such as "Babies in the Library" and "Toddler Time," the Monclair Public Library offers college and career advice to teens. The institution also hosts a variety groups for adults, including writing, bridge, chess, and knitting sessions.