May 2009

John Zuarino


An Interview with Arthur Phillips

This month I finally bought an iPod for the first time (I’ve been living with old hand-me-downs with little memory until now). When I finally transferred my entire music library to the tiny device, I felt mad with power -- I could go from Johnny Dowd’s drunken storytelling set to music to Beyoncé’s borderline anti-feminist yet amazingly catchy pop in a matter of seconds, and I still had room to add several years’ worth of new music. Julian Donahue, one of Arthur Phillips’s protagonists in The Song is You, feels the same way. He’s in love with his iPod. In some ways, he can’t function without it. Phillips’s newest novel offers a glimpse into the lives of star-crossed lovers in different parts of the music biz, each to some extent defined by their libraries and uncanny abilities to find the perfect song for each and every moment, emotion, or thought.

I sat down with Phillips recently in a Brooklyn café where we discussed the process behind his new book, the time and effort that goes into creating a novel’s soundtrack, and the pain associated with a forced shift in medium (I don’t care how neat or green it is -- I’ll never buy a Kindle). Having been a Jeopardy! champion in the '90s, Phillips also spoke about weaving that experience into his novel.

How would you say your writing process has changed for The Song is You as opposed to your previous novels?

I don’t know that there’s any real difference for me in the writing process for something that is set now or set in the past. I certainly researched a lot for The Egyptologist, and not very much for Angelica, and not very much for this, so I wouldn’t say the process is any different. It’s just which direction you throw your imagination. I’m going to say no difference!

In the prologue we learn of the connection between Julian’s father and a very specific recording of Billie Holiday singing “I Cover the Waterfront.” Does this have a special significance for you at all?

No, it doesn’t have a particular significance for me other than it exists. There is a 1947 recording where you can hear someone scream “Waterfront!” I’ve had that recording for fifteen or twenty years. I’ve heard it a thousand times, and I never thought about it much. And then one day I thought, “I wonder if he ever found out he was on this recording.” That’s the only special connection to me. I love Billie Holiday though.

We also see Julian’s father briefly struggle with the advent of the CD -- while searching for the “Waterfront” recording again after his vinyl copy is destroyed, he struggles A) to find it and B) to figure out how to play a CD in the first place. Do you think a transition like this, from vinyl to CD to mp3, even Kindle, will always be somewhat painful in a way?

Is any transition of format painful? Some are and some aren’t. You do grow attached to a format, but then sometimes it’s easy to see that something else is better and it doesn’t hurt. I’m very fond of iTunes and my iPod, obviously, and yet I’d like to display my CDs even though I never play them. And certainly other people felt when you went from LP to CD that you lost cover art. It’s really the end of it now when you’re down to a postage stamp on your screen. And Kindle and e-readers, I totally understand the appeal. I don’t use them, and I understand why you would want to use them, but it does sort of hurt my feelings a little bit. Is it necessarily painful? Yeah, you know you get your memories attached not only to the work of art but also to the medium that carries the work of art to you.

Why did you decide to write about music in this way?

I’m a music lover, so the only extent to which this book is autobiographical is that I have that music collection, that fixation on that music and my headphones, and those feelings about listening to music all the time, which I do. I think it was inevitable that some day I would get around to writing about.

Speaking of transition of formats, when I got my first iPod it was about the time I started to have the ideas for this book. But the process of putting all my stuff into it, realizing its power, and walking around with it all the time and playing with it just brought my love of music right back to the top of my consciousness. That was probably what triggered all of this.

You were a champion on Jeopardy! for a while, and so is Julian’s brother Aidan in your book. What was the experience like for you, and where does Aidan’s “incident” [in which he accidentally says something truly horrible on national television] factor in?

It was great. I had nothing but a wonderful time on that show. It was a long time ago. Sometimes I’m back for a couple of tournament things since, but basically what happened to me happened in ’96, so it’s been a long time. It was like getting paid to do very little is what it was like -- it was great! I had a wonderful time on the show, they were nice, and they gave me a lot of money.

Aidan’s incident is just about the worst thing I can imagine happening to someone on Jeopardy!. It’s just one of those things you start daydreaming about when either you’ve had an experience or you think about an experience, whether you’ve been on Jeopardy! or you watch it or you imagined it. You start to let your mind wander, and then suddenly your mind has wandered into this “Boy, that would be terrible!” state. And I’m sure it plays often based on fears. I’m sure if I thought about the thing I was most scared to do on air, it would be losing badly, but even worse would be saying things I didn’t mean to say or blurting out something stupid. It’s a big audience to blurt something stupid out to.

You also created a playlist for the novel. How long did it take you to compile? I know that whenever I make a playlist or mix CD it takes me a couple of days because it has to be absolutely perfect. And how do you connect some of these tracks back to the book?

They are either tracks that are mentioned specifically in the book or in some cases it might be things [Cait] might have listened to or women she was somewhat modeled after. So it didn’t take very long. I mean it took me two years to put the list together because I kept changing it as I was writing, putting different things on [Julian’s] iPod, putting different things in her collection, putting them back, and all of that. So it’s been sifted through for a while. I actually posted one on iTunes that’s sort of the finished results. It took months. 

Do you think the iPod is the greatest of all human inventions like Julian does?

Do I really think that? No. I think vaccines are good, and architecture. I’m very fond of architecture and clothing. Maybe then the iPod. Maybe we can broaden it. I’m very fond of art, literature, and music, civilization and culture. The fact that you can actually hold as much of that audio civilization in your hand as you want, you can hold dozens of years of music in your hand -- it’s a wealth unimaginable to monarchs. Before audio recording, you had to hear music or you didn’t. You couldn’t go get it. So I do think that our ability to collect and distribute our culture is pretty astonishing. But no, I think I’m going to stick with medicine as our greatest invention.

What are you listening to most these days?

Right now, because of the book, a couple of people have been pointing out that I like mostly old stuff either made by dead people or people who haven’t been recording in a while. There’s also a band called Scrapomatic, which is my buddy Mike’s band, and a guy I met over the course of the start of the tour named Jonathan Spottiswoode. He was in a New York-based band called Jonathan Spottiswoode and His Enemies. Going back to the older stuff, I tend to listen to a lot of English alt-poppy rock stuff from the early '90s and late '80s. So I’m digging the Manchester stuff: The Smiths, New Order, Happy Mondays… that’s pretty much the pinnacle of European civilization.

You also have a background in music, correct?

I did play jazz for a while. I went to Berkeley for a while and played jazz percussion. It was probably two or three years back in the early-mid '90s when I realized I wanted to write more than I wanted to make music. So I studied it, and I’m fond of it, and I love it, but I was never good enough at it or enjoyed doing it enough to keep going further than I did. It was one of those strange things where I think something was in me where I knew what I wanted to do was make art, but I was just making the wrong one. It took some time to sort through all that.

And do you think that experience has informed your writing?

Oh sure it has. I’ve been in bands, so I have a sense of what goes on on-stage and what goes on in bands. I’m a musical person, and I have an appreciation of it and how it’s put together. I don’t claim to be a great musician -- I mean I’m not. But it’s certainly helped me write about it.

Who would you say has influenced your writing in the past?

That’s a big question for the universe. I mean everyone I meet, everything I see…

How about just writers?

Even just writers, we’ve got hundreds of people. I’ve been reading obsessively since I was six years old. So there are literally thousands of writers I would say have been extremely important to me. Let’s pick a country.

Okay. Let’s say the United States.

Okay. American writers that have really, really, really influenced me are Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Henry James, the second half of Nabokov’s career as an American writer… Those are the big stars for me. I’m very fond of Paul Auster and George Saunders. Let’s leave that for American writers.

Do you read much contemporary fiction as well?

I read some, but I don’t read a whole lot because I feel like I’ve got so many holes in the list of dead people that I need to fill in. But I do read some contemporary.

What are you reading now?

Right now I’m in the last third of The Recognitions by [William] Gaddis, which has been toted as a big monument of American literature. I was sort of scared to read it, because it is this monster book, and I’ve read about it a lot from writers I admire and from bloggers and critics. I’m not loving it, frankly, which is sort of a sad thing to confess. I admire it, and I get it, but I’m just not enjoying it. I’m sort of pushing my way through. I’m old enough now where I realize that’s not my fault, and it’s not his fault. It’s just air.

That’s kind of a problem with literature where we feel the need to push through a book when you don’t really like it rather than putting it down and moving on to the next work.

If I’m aware that the problem is not my fault and not his fault, then I’ll be more prone to get through it because I feel that there’s something there. I would like to find out what’s going on, how it’s put together, why it has such appeal to certain people. And that’ll usually keep me going. Or it’s an acknowledged masterpiece, something that achieved a certain reputation and I feel like I really should know why. Or at the very least I go through it and I get to say I did the whole thing. I hated it, and I know from my own standards why I didn’t like it, but that’s not the case with Gaddis’s book. You’re constantly measuring books against your own standards and double-checking those standards because they’re going to change over time. I think it’s worth getting to the end of stuff. Most of the time. As I get older I probably won’t do it. Stuff I’m willing to put away is when I really feel like I’m in the hands of somebody who, by my standards, does not feel competent to the task. It sounds more arrogant than I mean it to. Let me say it precisely: if I put the book down, it’s because I’m not enjoying myself, and I feel it might be somebody else’s fault.

When was that last time that happened?

I really can’t remember. I usually wouldn’t start the book in the first place. On the rare occasion, I can tell if I’m not going to enjoy it.

You’ll be reading at the Happy Ending Reading and Music Series this month. Do you have an idea of what you might do for a risk, or is that just all sorts of confidential?

I’m thinking hard about it. Strangely, that’s one of the highest pressure things I’ve had to think about lately. I don’t feel nearly so much pressure when I’m writing as when I have to think of something interesting I have to do at Happy Ending. I don’t have anything yet.

What are you working on now?

I’ve been working for about a year on a novel. Well, I shouldn’t say novel. I should say book. It mixes. It has something to do with Shakespeare, and it mixes some fiction and memoir, and some scholarship, and some dramatic interpretation, and some access to more apocryphal works.