Monday, October 3, 2011
Jayne Anne Phillips on her Novel "Lark and Termite"
(This interview originally ran in the Newark Star-Ledger in January 2009)
In “Lark and Termite”(Knopf, $24), her first novel in nine years, the writer Jayne Anne Phillips tells the parallel story of a young corporal dying during the retreat of American forces at the beginning of the Korean War in 1950 and the life of his young son Termite in a small West Virginia town in 1959.
Corporal Robert Leavitt is mortally wounded trying to save two Korean children during the infamous massacre at No Gun Ri. His wife Lola is due to give birth in America on the same day as his death. The book alternates between the corporal and the lives of Lark and Termite, Lola’s two children being raised by their Aunt Nonie. Termite is nine years old, can’t see and can’t walk, but he is a radiant child, and is doted on by Nonie and his teenage sister Lark. In some breathtaking passages, Phillips goes into the mind of Termite, exploring his nonverbal passions and impressions. Hanging over Nonie and the children is the tragic story of Lola and the devastation the war wreaked on the family.
Phillips, 56, was raised in West Virginia, is the author of the novels “Shelter” and “MotherKind” and has taught writing at many schools, from Harvard University to Williams College. She presently heads the creative writing MFA program at Rutgers University Newark. Phillips spoke to freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from her home in Boston.
Q. How did you start the new novel?
A. I’ve been thinking about the novel for many years. That is how I usually work. Thirty years ago, I was visiting a friend in my hometown in West Virginia and I saw this boy sitting in a chair and blowing on a strip of plastic. He was so beautiful and so self contained, and he seemed to be involved in his own world.
When I finally started writing the book, I first wrote it in Lark’s voice. Her first line was “ I move his chair into the yard under the tree and then Nonie carries him out.” The whole world of Lark and Nonie, and how they take care of Termite was really the beginning of the book for me, establishing time and place. I wanted to locate the book in a time far enough ago, in a small town like that, so that Termite’s condition wouldn’t be so specifically diagnosed. I was fascinated by trying to represent his language, and the perceptions of someone who doesn’t really speak or relate in language.
Q. How did you link the Korean War death of Corporal Leavitt and the story of his son Termite nine years later?
A. I was writing the Lark section and I established that Termite’s father had been killed in the Korean War, and I also established that Lark and Termite like to go down to the train tracks because because Termite is very involved in huge sounds. I had in my mind this double rail tunnel like they had in my hometown in West Virginia. There are a lot of tunnels like that, many of them built by the WPA. I was working on the book when the No Gun Ri massacre story broke. There was a photo of the Korean bridge on the front page of the New York Times, and it reminded me of the tunnel under the bridge that the kids played near. This parallel became the throughline of the book.
Q. How did the fierce devotion and love of Nonie towards Termite evolve in your writing?
A. Nonie has a heart and a devotion to her family that many working-class people have. She is patterned on many people I knew growing up in West Virginia, in a town of 6000 to 8000 people.
Q. What interested you in writing about Lola, Nonie and Nonie’s boyfriend Charlie’s particularly complex relationship?
A. I love to look at family dynamics, generation to generation. I think we all operate inside a dynamic. We carry it with us, even if we are not aware of it. When I started writing the book, I didn’t know who Lark’s father was. Lark didn’t know who he was, but Nonie did. I knew that Lola’s story was being kept secret from Lark, and at the beginning I did not know what happened to her. The way I write is that I follow the language into this world.