October 2004

Laura Leichum

features

An Interview with Arthur Phillips

Arthur Phillips’s debut novel Prague received any number of glowing reviews and other accolades, and I remember well my own excitement at having discovered this funny and intelligent novel standing tall in a crowd of lackluster fiction. With the publication of The Egyptologist, he is said to have broken the sophomore novel curse and the comparisons between the first and the second book began to fly fast and furious. As you will discover, Phillips has a lot more than that to talk about -- including how all human beings are unreliable narrators, what it’s like to fall head over heels in love with Nabokov, the fine art of writing for laughs, and a little bit about the blogs and online magazines we all know and love.

In the middle of his book tour, I was able to catch up with Arthur Phillips via phone in his hotel room in Denver, Colorado.

Several reviews have mentioned that The Egyptologist is quite different from your first novel. A similarity that I did notice between the two books is that there is a recurring theme in the game of Sincerity which you introduced in Prague. To me The Egyptologist is essentially a large-scale game of Sincerity. [Sincerity is a game introduced in the first chapter of Prague in which players take turns saying a number of apparently sincere statements and have to guess which of each other’s statements are in fact true. Players are awarded points for both guessing correctly and for having their false statements accepted as true.]

That’s interesting, I won’t argue with that. I think Sincerity probably attracted people’s attention because it’s the way a lot of people are in life. It’s not necessarily always easy to know that someone has told you the truth or not. So that obviously interests me and it seems to be the center of almost all books.

There are certainly many unreliable narrators in The Egyptologist. Overall, you seem to be a big fan of an ensemble cast of narrators and have a great deal of fun with the different voices and perspectives. Have you ever attempted to write anything with a single narrator?

Each time I do this it seems to me a completely new and different experience, every time I write something it seems to dictate the format that it’s going to take. Maybe I haven’t been sufficiently aware that I am falling into patterns, but I feel like I only have two books out there and the next one could be different -- although frankly the next one seems to be lining up as having more than one perspective.

Why Egypt in particular? It is a place and a culture that has been well mined in both fiction and nonfiction and I was wondering what you hoped to discover there and what made you want to tackle it?

Well, I would argue that it hasn’t been thoroughly mined, I haven’t actually read a lot of Egypt fiction. I know that there is Elizabeth Peters who I have heard of and there is a French writer whose novels are set in the court of Ramses, but I also haven’t read him. And then there is a Norman Mailer novel that everyone is sort of scornful of, but I haven’t read that one either. But aside from those, and I guess that Ms. Marple appears from time to time over there, but I saw the movie version when I was eight. Otherwise I don’t think that I ever read a novel that takes place in Egypt. But that said, I didn’t set out to tackle Egypt. I had an idea for a story and it began to dawn on me that the story was going to have to be in Egypt, but it started as the seed of a fiction and I suppose I could have had it take place in an Incan pyramid. And if I had then other themes might have predominated based on Incan life of which I know nothing, but as it was it was Egypt. Despite its surface plot I don’t think the novel has much to do with Egypt. I certainly don’t claim to be an Egyptologist or to know very much about Egypt really.

That leads to my next question -- you were saying that Egypt occurred to you because of what you were trying to write about -- since one of the strongest themes in the book is immortality and Ancient Egypt was a cult of immortality, it would seem logical then that you would choose that place to explore the theme.

I wish it was that logical. No, I thought of a story and then working from that I thought of who would be in such a situation and what drives them. I did some research on Egypt and had already written some essayish things about art and immortality in order to knit these things together, but it wasn’t as straight ahead as "have idea, must proceed with Egyptian knowledge." All the imperatives are fictional imperatives more than thematic and certainly not point driven.

So then where exactly did the story come from?

The first thing I thought of -- I don’t know why, I don’t know where it came from -- I was walking down the street and I thought of what ends up being the last two pages of the book. And I thought, well, that’s pretty cool and it stuck with me for days and I just knew that I am going to write whatever it takes to get to that scene. I have no idea where it came from, but I am smart enough to not say no to it.

The explorer in the novel is in search of the tomb of Atum-hadu [Atum-is Aroused], when you christened this memorable yet fictional pharaoh, where did the idea of him come from?

Well, a couple of things. I started working and I did some research and found out about Atum, who was real -- I mean who was mythological but real -- and was fascinated by that creation myth and the culture that thought of that creation myth. And I was interested in why more kings didn’t use him as a center piece of theology and what if one had -- and then I started sketching the court of such a king, what would he be like, where would he have come from.

This is probably going to sound a little strange, but for me Atum-hadu became sort of like an Egyptian Hugh Hefner and his tomb was like some long-lost ancient Playboy Mansion that everyone was looking for.

[Laughing] I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I am not going to fight a reader taking that track.

And this got me thinking about the role of pornography in the book and how these pornographic texts written by Atum-hadu sort of lead the explorer Trilipush in a lot of different directions. It’s how he gets funding for his explorations, it’s how he gets the girl and it’s sort of about the power of pornography.

It’s more about sex in general whether it’s depicted pornographically or not. If some explorer today turned up at a museum and said this guy exists, I think there are these texts in a tomb somewhere, he would have no problem getting backing.

There is also a bit of confusion having to do with sexual identity, Trilipush’s sexual preference and other details about his past are called into question once the detective investigating him discovers that many of his school chums were homosexual.

Well, it wasn’t so much sexual identity as identity period. Who is going to make a mistake about another person and what mistake will they make. I don’t know how often this has happened to you. You have a misunderstanding with someone you know reasonably well and someone comes to some conclusion that you meant to say something offensive. And you say, I didn’t mean to say something offensive, there has been a misunderstanding. And even after you explain it the person and they seem to acknowledge it, yet it is often difficult to believe that the person who misunderstood the situation doesn’t somehow forever thereafter carry around a seed in their head of the misunderstanding. I think that things like that happen all the time in social interactions. People misunderstand each other constantly, it’s just the way that human beings are built, how they communicate with each other.

It’s true, you can’t fully erase what has happened.

You can’t erase a first impression even if it is a completely misunderstood first impression. All these things are the way people interact with each other. When it takes on a larger scale, such as you are trying to write a biography, Graham Greene’s biography for example just came out recently -- big Graham Greene fan, I love Graham Greene. And I haven’t read the Norman Sherry, but I have read a few reviews of it and a couple of them say the usual kind of snotty, “oh, he wrote three volumes that missed Greene entirely” or something like that. I think that’s probably both true and entirely false, obviously there is no way that he wrote nine million pages and missed Greene entirely. The reviewers who say that are snotty smartasses, which is their business, and I am a snotty smartass too, so I don’t begrudge them. At a certain level it is probably true and the more you actually knew Greene, probably the truer it seems to you, let alone someone whose life was by definition at least partially secretive because he was a spy for a long time and no one is entirely clear on when he stopped spying. So all the things that sort of irritated me about Graham Greenes’s life when I was a kid, like geez, why is he still a communist and what’s he got against the United States, and I can’t believe he is hanging out with Kim Philby and all the rest of it. And now it turns out maybe he was working for MI-6 the whole time and maybe he was hanging out with Kim Philby and reporting back to MI-6. Well, maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t, but Norman Sherry just spent his entire fucking life writing about a guy who is basically a moving target.

Now I have gotten myself excited about something that may or may not be relevant, but back to the question of Trilipush’s sexuality, on the one hand entirely irrelevant and on the other hand, probably relevant to Trilipush. And the fact that someone, namely Ferrell, is entirely convinced that he’s got it right, someone else may have an entirely different impression and to me it’s a moving element of human existence.

It’s always more complicated than it first seems. You try to present many different viewpoints, as in this novel where there are many narrators, and yet there are still many more perspectives that you could have explored or that could have shed more light on the situation, or more likely shed more confusion on it.

Exactly, it becomes increasingly prismatic until you realize that you have to pick somebody and trust them. I had a friend who explained to me how much harder life was going to be when I had my second son. He said it’s not just a fourth person, it’s an exponential increase in the number of relationships and the views on those relationships that are going to be in the family. It just takes up more of your head. It’s not just your love for your new child, it’s questions about your wife’s relationship with your new child and the first child’s relationship with the new child and your worry about your first child’s views on the new relationship and on and on and on. It isn’t that I discovered anything new here, it’s just the way life is.

Let’s go back to what we started with Graham Greene because I wanted to ask about what else we would find in your library today and who influenced you when you wrote this novel. I can see a little of him in this novel and also there is a nod to Sherlock Holmes and an anagram of Shakespeare’s name appears in the book...

That king Shepseka’are actually did exist, I had to add another ‘a’ but that’s totally legitimate in Egyptian because they didn’t write vowels, so whoever transliterated his name can’t tell me that I was wrong to throw another ‘a’ in.

There are also some references to Balzac and a couple of other writers. Who else do you turn to for inspiration?

Sherlock Holmes and Dumas were my first serious love affairs with books. Now I would say that the pantheon would include Robertson Davies, Hemingway, Salinger, Fitzgerald, Henry James, Borges—love him, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Tom Stoppard, Thomas Mann, Kafka and Proust, George Perec, Kundera, Svevo, Calvino...
Also, a huge Nabokov fan, worship Nabokov, he’s all over this book. Am I forgetting anyone. . .

I am sure they won’t be offended, they’re mostly dead.

Yeah, you’re right. The living ones would be Stoppard, Kundera and George Saunders, who I love the bejesus out of. I just read The Things They Carried [by Tim O’Brien] the other day on the plane. And want to find someone who knows him well so I can debate the review excerpts at the front of the paperback because I think they’re wrong almost to a single one. They all say he’s a genius, which is fine, but they say other things as well. But anyway, I just started reading for the first time in my life Phillip Roth, which I should have done years ago.

You have obviously always been a big reader, were you that boy like Paul Caldwell, the character in the novel who spends so much time in the library and waits eagerly for the new books to arrive? Obviously it probably would not have been books about Egyptology, so what were you excited about?

Well, I had a slightly easier existence than he did. When I was twelve the big deal was that a lot of the Dumas was not in print. I think Oxford ended up doing a nice paperback collection of Dumas about ten years ago and I bought them all again. But at the time it was hard to find anything besides The Three Musketeers and that was a very big deal, so I discovered Twenty Years After and The Vicomte De Bragelonne. I was always very excited about fiction as a kid. My dad made me read Man with a Sword by Henry Treece when I was about eight or nine and that was it. I have been in the middle of a novel for the last twenty-five years.

Do you read anything besides fiction?

I read a lot of poetry and occasionally nonfiction, but mostly my fiction to-read list is longer then years I have left, so I feel that I can’t waste time on current events.

In some way every piece of literature is partly a search for immortality and this theme figures largely in The Egyptologist. Was there a certain book in particular that you have read that drove home for you the lasting power of literature?

That’s a great question. I read Kundera’s novel aptly titled Immortality probably ten or twelve years ago and I remember thinking that is was one of Kundera’s best novels and if remember correctly it was about Goethe trying desperately scrambling to snip off some loose end, some young woman who was messing with his carefully prepared memoirs. That must have been in my head to some degree. However, that said, the book that I was most bouncing off of and consciously wrestling with -- it was not about immortality, it was not thematic it was entirely structural -- and that was Pale Fire by Nabokov, which to me is one of the most perfect novels ever, most specifically because I can not find any predecessor for it. I really admire unique writers -- only Virginia Woolf writes like that, only Kundera inserts himself like that, only Kafka turns his phobias into that and in Nabokov’s case, only Nabokov writes prose like that and, in the case of Pale Fire, produces a book so perfectly unified in plot, structure, and theme. And that accomplishment more than any particular individual theme like immortality or -- have you read Pale Fire?

No, I haven’t, but I’ve read other Nabokov novels.

Well, you should just hang up the phone now and read Pale Fire and forget talking to me because it isn’t relevant.

[laughing] So Pale Fire is it, huh?

Well, if Pale Fire hadn’t existed I would still love Nabokov, but something happens in Pale Fire that to me is almost inexplicable. The relationship between the plot in Pale Fire, which is wonderful, and the themes of Pale Fire, which are wonderful, and the structure of Pale Fire, which doesn’t exist anywhere else in literature that I know of -- I cannot see where he started, I cannot see that he picked one and the other two fell into place, they just seem to exist knotted up together.

As if they couldn’t exist any other way?

Well, they could, they just wouldn’t be as interesting. Somehow they all support each other in this perfect sphere so to me that is such a massive accomplishment that I have always stood staring at it, and wondering -- not how does one imitate Pale Fire or try to duplicate its structure which would have no point outside it’s theme and plot, but how does one tie those three together in one self-contained perfect sphere.

Would you say then that every time you write a novel that structure is of primary importance to you?

No. As this book sort of unfolded, structure didn’t come first in this novel, it came sort of six months in and then it was a long and conscious internal debate about structures. The biggest influence on me was Pale Fire, but nothing in or about Pale Fire other than the perfect Sphinx that is Pale Fire, the experience of how Pale Fire knocks me on my ass. I have read it three times now and I finally read the intrusive introduction which I had been avoiding and after three times -- and I am not a dullard -- there were parts of the plot I just never even noticed, stuff happened that I didn’t know happened. God bless him. When I got to the end of it the first time, I thought, well, I’ve got to read that again immediately. I would like people to get to the end of The Egyptologist and say: Wait, I have to go back to page one again.

This type of layering is something that I definitely noticed in Prague and that’s exactly why I didn’t want it to end and I wanted to read it again right away.

You should have seen the early drafts, they never actually did end. But the problem is that you can have a really bad experience with that. I read Infinite Jest and I got to the end of it and said: Wait, what? And I went back to the beginning, but quite grudgingly and not that I didn’t enjoy reading Infinite Jest, I totally did. He’s a brilliant, brilliant writer and a brilliant mind and a very funny writer and I got to the end and well, I guess something happened at the beginning. There’s all these internal references to the ring structure of art, which is clearly what Infinite Jest is, it starts in the middle, goes to the end and then goes back to the beginning, but I was not amused that I didn’t understand the basic plot of Infinite Jest without having to go do some research. And maybe I would if I read it today for the first time, but I don’t know. It’s a risk you take, people can have a very bad experience where they don’t understand it or ultimately feel like they understood it twenty pages in and the rest of it was window-dressing. Then it comes down to the question of whether you can control the reader’s experience and if you give up on that then a certain calm washes over everything.

Do you enjoy Joseph Conrad at all because I also heard echoes of him in this book, especially towards the end, when Trilipush the explorer is alone and struggling in a foreign country and hanging on to the last bit of his own culture -- in this case a phonograph.

You know it took me a long time to get to Conrad. I read Heart of Darkness probably in college and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything else. I remember his name coming up a lot when I read about Nabokov and always kind of being puzzled why, except maybe he was Polish and wrote in English. I am sure it must have crossed my mind, I certainly can’t deny it, it’s evident now that you say it. And yet it also seems like one of those things that if I had never read Heart of Darkness and I had never seen Apocalypse Now, somehow those things would still be there. Credit to Conrad for getting it on paper first, no disrespect to him at all, but it seems like a metaphor waiting for people to trip over and drown in, you can’t escape it.

Since I haven’t read Pale Fire, I don’t know if humor plays a big part in it, but writing with humor can be hard to carry off. There were many times that I laughed out-loud when I was reading Prague and I often chuckled at some of the over-the-top language and parody in The Egyptologist. Maybe there are some things that can be deemed universally funny, but it’s still difficult to get it right so that the reader is really there with you and finds it amusing. Is there some way that you exercise that muscle?

There’s a total trick to what you just said. Ignore the reader at all costs -- no, I’m totally serious -- you cannot control the reader’s response. If you’re lucky you will have more than one reader which means that you will by definition have more than one sense of humor out there, which means if you try to hit that you will miss at least one of them. So, no effort is required, if something makes you laugh then include it and some number of people will also think it’s funny and some number will not, everything else is just commentary. People who are widely read because they are funny, I mean comic writers -- I think Mark Leyner is hilarious, I don’t know if you’ve ever read him. When I was a kid I thought Robert Benchley was hilarious and I read two Kingsley Amis novels and I laughed so hard I wet myself. Dave Barry is funny week after week and Andy Borowitz on the web is hilarious.

I really admire people who are truly and consistently funny, that’s a real talent.

Well, it’s just that they are funny people and they enjoy being funny and making themselves laugh.

So I guess the rule is that if you are making yourself laugh then it’s working?

Yeah, and lots of other people think they’re funny, too. And then people who don’t think they’re funny sort of self-select and they disappear from the audience. You only have to read Dave Barry once to think this is not funny and then you don’t read him anymore. So everyone who is left likes Dave Barry. I don’t think there is any great mystery to it.

Finally, being a modern author, I imagine that Bookslut isn’t your first encounter with Internet literary culture, what other experiences have you had with online magazines and blogs etc.?

There is a lit blog that I check out every day or two, Dan Green’s site The Reading Experience, I stumbled on to it, although maybe I found it through Robert Birnbaum who I did interview once. I think Dan Green is the right man in the right job and is really, really a smart critic about literature and reading and our standards of aesthetic judgement match even though we don’t always like the same stuff. He just seems like a very smart, very humane voice in literature and I don’t know why he isn’t more widely disseminated.

What is your opinion of blog culture in general? It has become an important avenue for many writers to reach readers and connect with fans in a sort of grassroots, underground fashion.

I guess I didn’t really know about its marketing uses. But aside from that it seems like a wonderful and healthy and great achievement and a credit to American literary life. Some of the blog based dramas of whether it should be marketing tool or whether it should be a stepping stool to print writing, I don’t really know. But I just watch the chats about various topics, read people’s enthusiasms about authors that I’ve never heard of and a couple times I’ve seen someone challenge a mainstream critic and find that the critic writes back. It seems to me just unadulterated good.

This culture has definitely become a source for those who are looking for something beyond the mainstream. And given that less and less space is given to literature coverage in the major newspapers, it provides a form for introducing new writers and for creating another type of critical dialogue.

What interests me is that it takes a lot more love and interest and knowledge to produce a blog day after day then to get yourself enraged on Amazon.com. The difference is so obvious and I think that people are dismissing what is happening on blogs as being that sort of person that gets mad at an Amazon.com review. I think that the New York Times did a very good thing in listing some sites for people to get involved in. I think it was an act of courage on the Times’s part.

To come full circle back to our discussion of immortality and the power of the printed work -- blogging and Internet chats are by their nature an ephemeral medium, very few people print out these discussions and sometimes sites shut down after a certain period of time or morph into another type of site. How do you think we will be able to keep a record of their role in American letters?

You’ve got me. That’s probably why there’s this aura hanging over the whole thing of somehow this is a farm league and eventually it’s going to shoot out its superstars into print. I think that probably will happen. The debates that go on from time to time are wonderfully interesting to me, but in that case sort of appropriately ephemeral because it’s like you get the best bunch of your friends together and sit up late one night arguing about books and very little was said that needs to be written down. What happens in those bull sessions is that you are helped along in the process of forming your taste and your aesthetics and your attitude to literature. And maybe this is happening for people for whom this has never happened or it is a continuation for others and that I think is wonderfully healthy and, I would imagine, enormously pleasurable for the people involved. But if it’s never written down I don’t think anyone’s going to lose any sleep over it.