Literary Hub

Helen Phillips on Her Dark Exploration of Motherhood

First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.

This week on First Draft, Helen Phillips joins Mitzi to discuss her novel The Need.

From the episode

Helen Phillips: I feel like this is a book about empathy—and I don’t know if that comes through to all readers—but really the thing you think is the greatest threat in the beginning of the book, as you go deeper into the book, that threat really changes form. I think that part of what I’m asking us to do is to think about the assumptions we bring to a situation and how those assumptions might change if we had the full story about someone.

Mitzi Rapkin: In the case of this book, did you have realizations writing from this real place, putting this fictional character into this, and adding the speculative aspect, about motherhood, writing, or about the earth?

Phillips: One part of Molly’s journey, in addition to being a journey of empathy, she also becomes very grateful for a life that she had begun to take for granted. In that sense, I found it to be a very positive book for Molly, even though there is so much darkness in it. She realizes that she needs to cherish these moments that she had taken for granted.

Though it may seem odd to spend time away from one’s children writing a dark book about anxiety and your children, I would return to my family after working on the book with a renewed sense of gratitude, just for my daily life. You can take your daily life for granted until it’s under threat, and then suddenly it is more precious than you had ever realized.

Another thing that the process taught me was when I was revising the book was that there were certain flaws in the book. Usually when I’m revising a book it may be because of craft reasons or character reasons, but in this case I had to revise for emotional reasons. There were certain emotional places in the book that were so hard for me to go to that I had avoided them in the first draft.

In progressive drafts, I had to go on an emotional journey myself and really imagine what it would feel like to be in this situation. It was not pleasant to imagine that, but I had to do that. It was somehow connected to the process of grieving for my own sister.

To listen to the rest of the episode, as well as the whole archive of First Draft, subscribe and listen on iTunes or wherever else you find your favorite podcasts.

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Helen Phillips, author of The Need, has written five books, including the short story collections Some Possible Solutions and And Yet They Were Happy and the novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat. Her work has been featured on Selected Shorts, at the Brooklyn Museum, and in the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times, and Tin House, among others. She is an associate professor at Brooklyn College.

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