Service and Disservice – An Interview with Julia Phillips
I met Julia Phillips several years ago via the tangled web of my polite, friendly, professional Brooklyn-based friends. She was a big part of editing my 2015 book, Popular Photo. Julia is a fiction and nonfiction contributor (respectively) to Glimmer Train, The Antioch Review, The Toast, Brooklyn Volume 1, Buzzfeed, Jezebel, The Rumpus, Slate, The Cut and The Awl, to a few. I admire her ability to bring immediacy to (somewhat? very?) remote subject matter and her descriptions of the narrative approach to specific people, places, characters, communities. Read more from her via Twitter at @jkbphillips. We conducted this interview using email. My questions in bold.
Something extremely hard, that you do well, is write about communities your readers may not have experience with. Do you have any rules for writing about a community?
“Extremely hard” is right. Yes. Most of my work now, fiction or nonfiction, is about Russia; I’m writing about places, people, cultures that are not mine. Sometimes that point of view is a strength, because I can look with fresh eyes at details someone used to that space might have stopped noticing years before. Sometimes that point of view is a huge weakness.
In writing about a different country for an audience based at home, I try to balance what is familiar with what is strange. The familiar things to me are often the most intimate ones: the way someone thinks, speaks, looks, interacts with their family. I hate to read nonfiction where the subjects are robbed of those human qualities, or fiction where characters become caricatures because they lack internal life. I want to bring human intimacy to my work so a reader can recognize each person as a familiar, beloved individual. At the same time, I don’t want to efface cultural, political, and social particularities in favor of creating a cozy girl- (or boy-) next-door type for a US audience. We become who we are because of the context in which we live, right? So I do my best to record the details of that context. Ideally, I present a person who is understandable shaped by a setting that may be new.
The one rule I always keep in mind is don’t forget you are an outsider. My impulse is immersive: I love a place, a person, a group of people, and so I want to sink into them and swim around inside and then emerge with a perfect knowledge of what it’s like to be a certain someone, or have a particular experience, or live a specific kind of life. I remind myself that is not possible. The best/hardest lesson I’ve had so far in this was in 2012, when I wrote about a month-long dogsled race through the Russian tundra. I went along with the race as a writer but was dying to be part of the team. The mushers were so heroic to me. Every day, they raced 50 miles over a landscape that looks like a frozen planet, and they acted like that was easy, and they had fun doing it. Heroes! Once the race ended, I wrote a long essay that was a love letter. The essay even ended with a promise that I’d be back on the race next year. When the race organizers read the piece, though, they felt betrayed. Its publication meant I couldn’t return to the race. Oh my God, I was crushed when they told me, but they felt that I had taken this incredible experience everyone there shared, filtered it through my own point of view, and exposed that version of it to the world. And of course I had – that’s exactly what I did. I wrote the truth about what I saw. I just didn’t understand at the time how doing so was incongruous with being part of their community.
As a writer, we are outsiders. Other people act, and we observe and record their actions. That’s an odd thing to do. It alters the way people behave around us and warps our role in a place. As a foreigner in Russia, I am an outsider again; as a foreign woman writing about Russian men, again; as a foreign white person writing about Russian indigenous communities, again. I do myself and my readers a great disservice if I fool myself into believing that is not the case. I’m not a dog musher. I’m not part of the team. My role is to look for what is familiar, look for what is strange, correct for my own biases, and write it all down.
Does this experience writing about community or to specific audiences help you when you’re trying to find/maintain a community of like-minded writers to help each other grow? For me personally, this is quite hard. I struggle with finding and connecting to writing communities. It’s probably one reason why I became involved with HTMLGIANT (and maybe it’s related to the reason why HTMLGIANT went away for a while!). Writing communities seem to struggle to be both critical and inclusive.
I know just what you mean. It is so hard to find a community of writers where you support each other’s work. I struggle with this, too – in particular, I was absolutely racked for years with jealousy. I wrote alone, read alone, because when I was around other people who were doing interesting things I just wanted to vomit. I could barely stand to read new books or have a magazine subscription, let alone get together with a group of like-minded writers. What the hell? So much of my jealousy came from a delusion that I think plagues any writing community that turns clubby or bitter: that literature is a zero-sum game, that success for one means failure for another, that there is not room for everyone.
Poisonous. Anyway, now I go all-in on community. Because my chosen subject matter is regionally specific, I read everything from the writers I love who cover Russia for Americans: Elif Batuman, Julia Ioffe, Anthony Marra, Ian Frazier. I also try to find peer writers who are not necessarily interested in Russia but who are like-minded in the sense that they are dedicated to their craft. How? Talking to people on social media, participating in local readings, going to writing conferences and residencies, renting a desk at a writing workspace, meeting monthly with peer workshops…I spent too long furious and nauseated while I waited for a literary community to let me in. Now I go out to make, find, and support my own.
What is BinderCon? How did it start?
Speaking of writing communities! BinderCon is a professional development conference for women and gender non-conforming writers. Outside the conference itself, which offers attendees meetings with editors/agents, career-building tips, networking opportunities, etc, the BinderCon organization maintains an online network of women and gender non-conforming writers. BinderCon also overlaps with this site in some cool ways – it’s run by Leigh Stein, whom longtime readers might remember from her open letter to HTMLGIANT in which she wrote “the sexism stops here,” and its board includes star HTMLGIANT contributors like Roxane Gay.
For the nitty-gritty on how BinderCon came to be – for what happened after Leigh called for the sexism to stop here – you can read profiles of the organization at places like LA Weekly. In general, it started out of long frustration at inequity and out of the joy of finding folks online who shared that frustration. Just as you point out above, writing, submitting, and publishing are lonely experiences. That loneliness is exacerbated when your work is systematically discounted and you can’t find peers or role models. The BinderCon community tries to ease that by offering professional opportunities and a bigger social network.
Leigh sometimes calls BinderCon a rocket ship because it took off so spectacularly. I’m thrilled to have a seat on that ship.
You’re a freelance writer. How do you balance what your want to write about with what venues want to pay for? Do you feel like you’re known for a certain piece? Do journalistic institutions tend to ask for a similar style of writing, once a writer has experienced a bit of success? Or are you able to keep changing directions, thematically and stylistically?
Man. I think all the time about the question of balancing what I want to write about with what makes money. The balance I’ve chosen to strike as a freelancer is this: I make almost all of my income from corporate freelance work, which takes about half of my every workday. That corporate work includes business writing, copyediting, consulting, even data entry – whatever pays the best and can be capped at five or six hours a day from home. The subjects I cover in that work are less important to me than the ? ! Freelancing in that way allows me to spend the rest of my day on my own creative work. It gives me the freedom to chase the stories I want and the time to find the perfect venues for publication.
I so admire the freelance writers around me who stick to their beat in order to pay the bills. Through Binders, especially, I’ve met freelance journalists who pitch and write and publish relentlessly on the subjects they choose. Their passion is their day job. That’s incredible. I haven’t been able to manage that focused hustle, especially because I write both fiction and nonfiction – for me, the fiction moves much slower and pays much, much less. I couldn’t work on a novel without something that pays well and opens up time around it.
So that’s my balance. I’m happy with it on most days, though it has its drawbacks: fiction takes most of my energy, while nonfiction publications accumulate more slowly. Journalistic institutions likely ask for a writer’s particular style once that writer has achieved a lot of success. But a bit of success? No. Not yet for me, anyway. In my freelance journalism, I have to shape the story to the publication, while the publication acknowledges that I come with my own stylistic tics.
If you could work on a writing project with unlimited budget, what would it be?
Ha! It would actually be the exact project I’m working on right now. For the past few years, I’ve been been writing a novel about a kidnapping on Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula. The qualities that make Kamchatka so compelling as a setting – its geographic isolation (it hangs off Russia into the Bering Sea, and no roads or railways connect it to the mainland), its political isolation (no foreigners were permitted to enter the territory during the Soviet Union), its natural beauty (picture Alaska with half the population and way less infrastructure) – also make it so, so difficult to reach for research. I’m always seeking the funding to get back there and the flexibility to afford a long stay. If I had an unlimited budget to work on this book? I’d pack up my manuscript, fly the 20 hours to Kamchatka, and edit the project in the place that inspired it.
What book do you remember reading last year?
In 2015, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara was the book that hit me the hardest. When I first heard about its length (almost 1,000 pages) and subject matter (following a group of guys from college throughout their lives) I was absolutely sure I wouldn’t like it, and I picked the book up expecting to abandon it. Instead, it blew me away. Yanagihara writes with extraordinary compassion and love for her characters. I fell in love with them, too. I finished the book while riding on the subway, burst into tears, and wished it had been twice as long.