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Exclusive: Jayne Anne Phillips and the Birth of Lark and Termite

Jayne Anne Phillips, known for her free-wheeling Faulkner-esque storytelling (her first short story collection, the visceral Black Tickets, is a must-read), is back with her first novel in almost a decade. Lark and Termite delves deep into the big questions of family ties, the damage wreaked by war, and what exactly is (capital T) Time? But, just as sweeping and epic as this novel is, there are moments that are so intimate and blisteringly pitch-perfect in detail, that it almost seems (as the New York Times‘ Michiko Kakutani noted),“…the characters…threaten to move in and take up permanent residence in the reader’s mind.”

We hear from her here, but you can find Phillips for yourself in New York this Friday at the Cue Art Foundation, Sunday at KGB Bar (that literary center of yore), or at the 92nd Street Y, reading with T.C. Boyle on February 9.

Don’t live in NYC? Get up close and personal with the author after the jump.

Flavorwire: It has been nine years since your last novel, MotherKind. Was there a particular event or idea that gave birth to Lark and Termite?

Jayne Anne Phillips: I was in my hometown perhaps thirty years ago, visiting a high school friend. She was living in a second floor apartment over a detached garage behind a house and her window looked out onto a lush grass alley with white gravel tire tracks. One-story, tin-roofed houses faced the alley. From her window, I saw a boy sitting in a ’50s aluminum lawn chair facing the alley, his legs folded up under him as though he couldn’t feel them. He was holding a narrow trip of blue dry cleaner bag watching the blue or looking through it. I asked my friend “Who is that? What is he doing?” “I don’t know,” she said, “but he sits that way for hours.” The image burned itself into my consciousness.

Years later, on my birthday, a talented artist named Mary Sherman gave me a drawing I admired in her sketchbook. She’d written some words around the edge that were almost illegible, ‘Termite,’ something, something, something. The drawing became the image of Termite, because my actual memory of the real boy was almost a spiritual impression.

My books come together slowly, in elemental ways, long before I begin writing them and one book opens into the next.

FW: MotherKind dealt with motherhood in its various forms. Speaking of a natural progression from one novel to the next, there are many examples of phenomenal mothering from the women in this book, and some that are not as commendable. Are you trying to say something about motherhood here as well?

JAP: There is a spectrum of mothers in this book — Lola who loves her children more than anything and Nonie who is a very matriarchal figure. Lark and Nonie are both mothers to Termite, and the book shows how powerful that relationship is, even it’s not by blood. And mothering is very difficult. It’s a paradox — the greater the burden, the greater the blessing.

FW: Why did you decide to divide the novel into three corresponding days occurring in June of 1950 and 1959?

JAP: The model focuses on a particular atrocity — three days that happened in 1950 and begins again in 1959, on Termite’s birthday. The book deals with parallel worlds — the world Leavitt inhabits and the repercussion of those events; it asks the question: what is Time?

FW: Talk about the atrocity that inspired the novel. What drew you, as a writer, to the Korean War?

JAP: The event in which Leavitt and the South Korean refugees are involved is based on an event at No Gun Ri. North Korea invaded South Korea on June 26, 1950. US troops retreated seventy miles in the first weeks of the war, decimated by North Korean forces backed my Red Chinese. There was confusion and chaos. No Gun Ri took place on July 26th, when several hundred civilians and the American troops evacuating them were mistakenly strafed by friendly fire. The Koreans who survived took shelter in a double railroad tunnel near the hamlet of No Gun Ri. American forces were told they were enemy, and not to let anyone out.

The picture of the double railroad tunnel appeared on the front pages of newspapers when American reporters broke the story, a story suppressed for almost fifty years. I saw the photograph and recognized the tunnel as almost identical in look and structure to the tunnel I’d written into the world of Lark and Termite. I began to research the beginning of the war and to write Leavitt’s section of the book, which became the first section of the novel. I read all I could find on No Gun Ri, including eye witness accounts from children, now middle-aged, who survived because they hid behind the bodies of their dead mothers. Some US veterans also broke their silence. There was a report on a second lieutenant who carried a young Korean boy into the tunnel, thinking he’d be safe there. In Lark and Termite, Leavitt is with the Koreans in the tunnel, and becomes their witness. The Korean boy he tried to save is the counterpart to Termite, the son Leavitt knows is about to be born in West Virginia.

As a writer, I am preoccupied by war itself, by the generational cost of war, by war’s spiritual devastation. Atrocities occur in all wars; war, once unleashed, is an atrocity. Korea was in many ways a rehearsal for Vietnam, a never declared civil war in an Asian country. We find ourselves now, globally, in a constant state of war. Leavitt, speaking in 1950 from a battlefield, says “It’s all one war.” I’m asking if that’s true. Certainly the ramifications of war are timeless — the generational inheritance of loss and damage.

FW: It seems throughout the book that “families” keep popping up even where there may not be any blood ties. There is a sense of adoption in the story; does this have something to do with that inheritance of loss?

JAP: We operate in a familial way; it’s primal. When the family is fractured, we recreate it in various ways in our lives. The human need and talent for creating relationships is a survival instinct, and love can be more powerful than death. When we lose people who are part of our identity, they are still compass points that guide us, and when lives are interrupted by violence and catastrophe, there is still that human need.

FW: What are you working on now?

JAP: I’m starting on something new — it’s a secret for me right now. It’s a mystery.

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