Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Arthur Phillips on his novel "The Song is You"

(This interview appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger in April 2009)

In his fourth novel “The Song is You “(Random House, $25) Arthur Phillips tells the story of Julian Donahue, a TV commercial director in his mid-forties who is reeling from the death of his son and the collapse of his marriage. On a cold winter night, he enters a Brooklyn bar and finds himself entranced by a 22-year-old Irish singer named Cait O’Dwyer, who is poised on the edge rock-and-roll stardom.

The obsessed Julian starts to follow Cait, shaping her career with anonymous e-mails and notes. Cait responds with a kind of reverse stalking. Julian meditates on his dead father’s 1950s brush with Billie Holiday that changed his family history, his own musical infatuations with 1980s pop and Cait’s scorching rock. The unlikely couple create an intense, intimate bond while never meeting, and Julian addresses the grief that he has fought so hard to repress. In a trip across Europe as Cait’s musical career explodes, the two would-be lovers are destined for a fateful encounter in Budapest. “The Song is You” is a moving look at grief and comic take on obsession and the meaning of celebrity.

Phillips, 39, was raised in Minneapolis, educated at Harvard University and is the author of the acclaimed novel “Prague.” Phillips lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife and two sons, and spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley at a cafe near his home.

Q. You’ve wound up with an intriguing mid-life crisis novel. Was this your goal from the start?

A. My book did turn into a mid-life crisis novel. I guess I am starting a little early. I started the book with an earlier version of the singer Cait. I pursued that for a while before the book became about Julian’s emotional state. I found a hook for a plot that allowed me to write about music, which I had wanted to do for a long time. The first thing that hit me was the image of somebody listening to music and singing out loud while being watched by somebody else. When I got my first iPod, I was walking on a beach, and was singing very loudly. I spun around, thinking someone was behind me, but there was no one.

Q. Cait is egocentric, passionate and Machiavellian. How does she fill Julian’s void over the loss of his family?

A. As the writer, I kept going with the feeling that Julian thought he could be over this grief, and he keeps collecting material that makes him think he is over the death of his son. Even though Julian is stagnating, Cait makes him feel that he could move on by restarting at an earlier phase in his life. Remember, Cait is only 22. There’s a lot you don’t know at 22, but people who are that age and appear to know something like Cait appear to be fascinating. When I was 22, young women with knowledge of the world were incredibly appealing.

Q. What interested you in Julian and Cait’s obsession with each other?

A. I didn’t want to write an obsessive stalker story. There are plenty of those. I was interested in the idea that people could communicate with each other without meeting, that they could be involved with each other, sniffing around each others’ lives without knowing each other.

I’m like everybody--there are celebrities that fascinate me. At times in my life, I’ve wondered what if a certain celebrity was my friend, or my girlfriend. Similar to the shampoo ads that Julian makes, these celebrities are lies, they are ads for better worlds. They do appeal to us. When I go to the doctor’s office, People Magazine has to be ripped out of my hands.

Q. How does Julian’s non-relationship with Cait and her music helps him break through to the pain and mature as a man?

A. I find the ending somewhat ambivalent, which I really prefer. There is the guilty, unpleasant middle-aged realization that you can’t have certain things in life. Somewhere I am sure that it was written down by some psychologist that one of the key factors to entering adulthood is you can’t have everything, that commitment to monogamy, to work and raising a family are steps to renouncing other things. For some people it is natural, while others find it painful. For Julian at 44 or 45, knowledge of what he can’t have in his life comes from knowing Cait. He’s finally come to the end of a certain road.

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