Two appearances at the Montclair Public Library, Tuesday, Sept. 7
The Write Group, 10:15-11:30 a.m.
“Off the Shelf,” 7 p.m.
Montclair Public Library
50 South Fullerton Ave.
By GWEN OREL
Without social reinforcement from other writers, Julia Phillips is sure she would never have written “Disappearing Earth.”
Her debut novel was one of the New York Times’ “most anticipated” this spring.
So it makes sense that on Tuesday, Sept. 10, she’ll speak to The Write Group at Montclair Public Library in the morning. She’ll speak again that night at the library’s “Off the Shelf.”
“I love writing groups,” said Phillips, who graduated from Montclair High School in 2006. “I find them essential and inspiring, educational, and fundamental to sustaining the writing craft.”
She’s in several groups; one that meets online and is an “accountability group” for check-ins, and a workshop where people share manuscripts.
The Write Group is a writers’ support group in its 20th year, with sections that focus on memoir, fiction writing, poetry, and more. It has a mailing list of more than 700 people, and about 50 active writers in workshops, according to Carl Selinger, one of the group’s founders.
Nobody in the group has titles, and there are no fees to participate, nor dues to join.
“We keep it loose and unstructured,” Selinger said. “There are about 30 events a month.” They invite an author to speak to the basic support group on a Tuesday morning every few months. Screenwriter Robert Whitehall spoke to the group in July.
These are not typical author talks, where an author appears to talk about her book, nor book discussions: they are talks about the author’s journey.
Phillips will discuss her experience, about working with a major publisher — the book is published by Alfred A. Knopf — and about her journey as a debut author, Selinger said.
Several of the chapters in the book, which centers around the kidnapping of two young girls, and takes place on the Kamchatka peninsula, Siberia, were published as stories in literary journals. The chapters are named for months, each one the next month following the kidnapping.
The people who attend the Tuesday meeting will likely be at varying stages in the publishing process, Selinger said.
SHOCK, AND AWE
Phillips said she was shocked when the manuscript was sold to Knopf. She knew the publishing world often looked to M.F.A. programs first, and she did not have one.
“The experience of getting an agent and the acquisition by Knopf was so shocking, and so different to me from the path that I had presumed I was on, that everything afterwards feels like the most miraculous dream. To see it on the most-anticipated list was shocking, but in the same way it’s been shocking since the start, layering incredible thing on incredible thing. It’s all unbelievable in the same way,” she said.
The critical response to the book has been rapturous: “Disappearing Earth” has been long-listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and named a best book of 2019 so far by Vanity Fair and USA Today. The New York Times Book Review said it was “a superb debut — brilliant. Daring, nearly flawless.” NPR called it “stunning.” It has blurbs on its jacket from authors Simon Winchester, Tayari Jones and Gary Shteyngart, among others.
And when people reach out to her on social media to say they’ve read the book, “it blows my mind,” she said.
Phillips went to Kamchatka on a Fulbright Fellowship, came back to New York to work on the book, and then returned to Siberia again.
She had been looking for a place in Russia to set a novel, and wanted somewhere with a regional identity, with a connection to America, that was picturesque, and rural. The place she chose, Kamchatka, has forests, volcanoes, and is separated by the sea from Japan.
It’s a place with different ethnicities, including the Even people, who speak their own language as well as Russian, and have Asian features. When she returned for a month in 2015, Phillips spent time with reindeer herders, learning more about their lives.
But apart from the setting, she did not know what the plot would be when she first arrived.
“I consume a lot of media, TV shows and books about endangered girls, and disappearance. I read about it in the news all the time. I come back to it a lot, violence against women, women and girls in jeopardy. I wanted to explore that, and my own fascination with that,” she said.
Rather than follow one character throughout the book, the interlocking chapters explore different women dealing with different kinds of danger or risk. Some react directly to what happened to the girls; others are more peripherally connected.
Having the month-by-month narrative gave Phillips specific writing goals.
While each chapter is character-driven, for Phillips, the book is a literary thriller.
A detective is introduced early on.
“I went to Kamchatka intending to write about the region and the community. I wanted to keep my focus pretty wide, and include as many characters and locations and relationships as possible in the text.” Phillips said. As she began writing she realized she wanted to explore the theme of what everyday harm or hurt against women looks like,“the everyday hurt that was reinforcing, and impacted by, and related to or pushed back against the visible headlines.”
“It’s not here.”
Katya handed him the flashlight and started to dig through the trunk. Shadows lengthened and contracted against their things: sacks of food, sleeping bags, two foam mats. A folded tarp to line the tent floor. Loose towels for the hot springs, a couple folding chairs, rolled trash bags that unraveled as she shoved them. Katya should have packed the car herself, instead of watching his body flex in the rearview mirror this evening. Pots clanked somewhere deep in the mess.
“Max!” she said. “How!”
“We can sleep outside,” he said. “It’s not that cold.” She stared back at his outline above the circle of light. “We can sleep in the car,” he said.
“Magnificent.” We forgot, he said, we, as if they together kept one tent in one closet of one shared home. As if they jointly made these mishaps. As if she had not needed to leave the port early this afternoon, drive twenty minutes south through the city to shower and change at her own place, drive thirty-five minutes north to get to his apartment complex on time, then wait eighteen long minutes in his parking lot for him to come out.
He’d told her earlier in the week he would bring his tent. His car, a dinky Nissan, didn’t have four-wheel drive, so they were taking hers, and he had loaded such a stack of stuff into the trunk—enough to merit a second run up to his apartment, a return trip with his arms full—that Katya told herself he had it handled. Instead of checking she tuned her car radio to local news of a shop robbery, an approaching cyclone, another call for those two little girls.
Excerpted from “Disappearing Earth” by Julia Phillips. Copyright © 2019 by Julia Phillips. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.