Interview: Holly Phillips
By David Lynton
17 October 2005
Prime Books—an imprint of Wildside Press—is well known for publishing innovative, original, and intelligent fantastical fiction, and Holly Phillips's first collection of short fiction is no exception. Published in April this year, In the Palace of Repose [Editor's note: Reviewed here.] gives the reader nine excursions into urban fantasy and magical realism. The resulting short stories straddle a strange territory, evoking images of Charles De Lint, Michael Moorcock, and Ben Okri, to name but a few. All the characters in these stories have been touched by the world they inhabit in many different ways, and in each case their lives are about to become a little bit stranger. . . .
Holly Phillips lives in Trail, British Columbia, and is currently working on her next book.
Thanks to Sean Wallace at Prime Books for making this interview possible.
David Lynton: How did you come to Prime Books?
Holly Phillips: A couple of years ago I submitted a story called "In the Palace of Repose" to Weird Tales, which at that point was a joint publishing enterprise between DNA Publications and Wildside Press, Wildside being the parent organization of Prime. At the time, Wildside was developing a new magazine called H.P. Lovecraft's Magazine of Horror, and John Betancourt, head of Wildside, sneaked my story from out of the Weird Tales shortlist pile and bought it for H.P. Lovecraft's. When John sent me the contract for the story, he added a Post-It note which said, "If you ever think of publishing a collection, please keep Wildside in mind." Who's going to pass up an offer like that? I chose the nine stories and sent them to Wildside, John passed the collection on to Sean Wallace at Prime Books, and that was that—though I have to say, I think all three of us were taken by surprise at how well the collection has done, both critically and in sales. We launched the trade paperback at Readercon this past July, but what's really exciting is that Prime Books is going to be publishing my first novel, a dark fantasy called The Burning Girl, in 2006.
DL: The conflict or juxtaposition between nature and industry seems to be a constant theme in your fiction. How does it relate to your work?
HP: This is a new slant on my writing I hadn't really noticed myself. I suppose it must be a function of my environment. As I sit here at my computer I can look out the window to my right and see the Columbia River, which is running high after heavy June rains, or I can look out the window to my left and see the zinc plant of the Cominco smelter here in Trail. But come to think of it, nature and industry must be basic components of almost everyone's environment these days, and I am definitely interested in how characters function in their settings. In fact, it's one of the great things about writing SF: setting and environment can play such a central role.
DL: Would you say that your environments in some way become characters? In all your stories the environment often plays a key role.
HP: I suppose you could say that, though I've never been entirely sure what people mean by setting-as-character. Characters have motives, settings mostly don't. But yes, setting is tremendously important to me, because the environment shapes people's lives—it even determines whether people live or die—and that's true in all fiction, though fantasy (and SF) might be a special case. Especially in the sense that, whether you're writing otherworld or real world fantasy, the more tangible and immediate the setting is, especially in terms of the characters' perceptions and reactions, the more realistic the story will be to the reader, however fantastic the other story elements might be. A strong setting grounds both the character and the reader in the story's reality.
DL: One thing I like about your fiction is its open-endedness, your characters on the verge of performing some new action. The stories seem to take a breath that they do not release. I find it very liberating to feel that there is more story, even if I can't read it. What is your intention behind this?
HP: You nailed it, at least part of it. As a reader, although I understand the satisfaction of an ending that wraps everything up into a solid conclusion, the novels and stories that really stick with me, that keeping me thinking about them and coming back for another read, are the ones that give me that delicious sense that there is more happening, that the characters' lives are still going on in that world that still exists, somehow, somewhere. . . . So I do generally have the goal that every story should end with a new beginning. Also, I would say that these particular stories, and probably most of the stories I've written, are moment-of-decision stories: the kind of story that's about what leads up to a character's momentous, life-changing decision, action, or realization, rather than the kind of story that begins with a dramatic action and then details the consequences of that action until a new status quo is achieved. Two different story paradigms, and I'd say they demand two different kinds of endings.
DL: The cover art for your book is a painting by Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Desolation, which seems to reflect the characters we encounter in your stories very well. That sense of change and transition that affects us all. The almost miraculous decay that can occur before an upheaval. Did you choose the artwork?
HP: Sean Wallace and I both hunted for potential art—a little franticly, due to deadline issues. I actually wanted an image from a contemporary artist, because I liked the idea of giving someone the work, but for one reason and another we couldn't nail down any of the possible choices, and so Sean went to art in the public domain. I can't say I'm disappointed, though. I think it's a haunting image, and a very fine cover design.
DL: Which writers have influenced you?
HP: Probably too many to name. Ursula K Le Guin and Ray Bradbury have to head the list, with Mervyn Peake, Michael Ondaatje, Sandra Cisneros, A. S. Byatt, Sean Stewart, Peter Watts, and Martin Cruz Smith somewhere in the crowd.
DL: Any thoughts on the work of fellow Canadian Charles De Lint? I thought that there were some similarities in the sense of environmentalism, urban fantasy and the interplay of art and music in your writing and his.
HP: I think we could be said to be working in much the same field, and we're often dealing with similar subjects and themes, particularly in the sense of young characters searching for identity in the midst of strangeness.
Frankly, I'm not a huge De Lint fan. I find his work a little too warm and fuzzy, and too gossipy, for my taste, and his approach to fantasy elements usually leaves me unsatisfied, as if they're not quite integral to the story. But I do understand the comparison.
DL: It's a cliché to ask I know, but are you a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien?
HP: No. There are aspects of his writing I admire, obviously, but Mervyn Peake vastly overshadows Tolkien in my list of influences.
DL: As a relative newcomer to the genre, where do you see fantasy going in the future? Are there any trends at the moment that you particularly love or hate?
HP: I think my answer has more to do with trends in publishing in general than with fantasy in particular. The big presses are too conservative; the small presses are increasingly taking up the slack and publishing the more innovative or daring material, not to mention the new writers. It's fascinating to see how the big presses are responding by picking up small-press books. K. J. Bishop is a prime example, if you'll excuse the pun. Her first novel The Etched City was published by Prime Books, nominated for a World Fantasy award, and reissued by Bantam. Bishop is an especially good example, because she's writing dark, literary fantasy, and that is one of the new waves in the genre that I heartily approve of, especially given the doldrums horror has been in for many years. Nevertheless, the big publishing houses continue to spin out epic fantasy after epic fantasy, and I'm afraid that I do get cranky that the books I want to read are crowded off the shelves by Martin and Jordan spin-offs.
One trend—if it's not too early to call it that—which I'm hopeful about is the apparent softening of the borders between genre and mainstream. When books like The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clark, are being published as literary novels, it looks like maybe some of us might get a passport out of the genre ghetto. On the other hand, I heard a bookseller babbling about how Susanna Clark's book challenged his notions of reality by being so incredibly daring as to suggest magic might once have been real, and I'm afraid I said bad words at the radio. Don't get me wrong, Jonathan Strange is a pleasant read, it satisfied the reader in me that enjoys both Jane Austin and Mervyn Peake, but it's—ahem—a fantasy novel. It doesn't present half the challenge that books like Gormenghast, or even Sean Stewart's Perfect Circle, do.
But then, I get equally cranky at genre snobs who wouldn't get caught dead reading a Booker Prize winner, and that's a rant that would take us a long way away from the question.
DL: The "New Weird" movement seems to offer an alternative to mainstream epic fantasy. What do you think of China Miéville, Steph Swainston, and their ilk? Would you put yourself in their company and if so, is it good company to be in?
HP: The New Weird is a phrase I encountered very recently, and although I like the sound of it—and have certainly read Miéville—I don't know if that's where I belong. I'm not sure I'm weird enough. Er . . . I mean, I'm not sure my writing is weird enough. . . .
DL: Your biography mentions that you play music. What influence or inspiration does music, film or art have on your writing?
HP: Probably too many influences to name. I find music utterly mysterious for the way it can create such powerful emotional effects with nothing but sounds. It's as if notes, rhythms, harmonies sneak into the mind through a back door, carrying a kind of meaning that bypasses the intellect entirely. I'm always trying to achieve that kind of effect with my writing. Come to think of it, that's probably why I'm so obsessed with the sound and rhythm of the words I use. And of course anything that sets me dreaming—or daydreaming—can inspire a story. But I play music because when I play with my trio the creative process is shared, and so is the result: the very opposite of the writer's solitary experience.
DL: What made you decide to become a writer?
HP: Writing is basically an escalation of my reading addiction, but what sparked my ambition to be a professional writer was waking up one day when I was in university and discovering I was too tired to get out of bed and write an exam. I was eventually diagnosed with fibromyalgia syndrome, but what it really meant to me was living in my parents' basement for a year with no obvious future and a desperate need to do something with my life. Once I had pared existence down to the basics, writing was what was left.
Sometimes the universe gives you that necessary kick in the butt.
DL: Describe a typical day of writing.
HP: I'm a morning writer, so I usually drag myself out of bed and take my tea and cereal into my office where I can wake up over email. Then I get down to writing, usually between 3 and 6 hours a day. But I'm a sporadic writer, so there are fallow weeks when I slack off alternating with intense, every day sessions when I'm really engaged on a project. This summer I've been struggling to get a few words down in a day, simply because of life stuff getting in the way. I love the novel I'm working on, and I really want to get a draft finished by the end of the year, which is going to mean a very busy fall.
DL: So what are you working on now?
HP: A fantasy novel. The working title is Oceanside, but that'll change a few times before I'm done. I've been developing the idea the last few weeks, scribbling madly in my notebook, but now I'm writing again and feeling pretty good about how it's going. That will also probably change a few times before I'm done, knowing me. Speaking of industry and nature, I would say there's definitely some interplay in this novel.