Name: Thomas Phillips
Occupation: Author, sound artist, teacher
Current publication: Thomas Phillips's "Sentimentality: A Novel" is still available from Zagava.
Recommendations: Ken Greenhall’s novel, "Elizabeth"; David Behrman’s album, On the Other Ocean/Figure in a Clearing
If you enjoyed this Thomas Phillips interview, visit his personal website for an overview of his book publications and sound art releases.
When did you start writing- and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about literature and writing that drew you to it?
I began writing in the mid-90s, in my mid-twenties, after having completed a first degree in literature. At that time, I was interested in some American fiction, DeLillo above all, but mostly Europeans: Kundera, Duras, Hesse, Flaubert, Goethe, among others. My initial academic focus was set to be either philosophy or psychology, though I soon discovered that literature addressed both disciplines in ways that resonated very strongly with me.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
My trajectory has been exactly that of emulation at the beginning, in terms of the development of both literary and musical efforts. I learned by attempting to capture something of favourite writers/composers/sound artists. Of course, it didn’t take long to realize that not only was I incapable of this, but that the effort itself was ultimately unsatisfying. It was and is necessary to break from that tendency (which isn’t inherently useless) in order to locate what would be authentic to my own aesthetic practice in a given moment.
The lesson can be demoralizing, but it’s absolutely worth taking on and moving forward.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
My sense of identity has certainly changed over the years. There was a time when identity and the creative act were inextricable in my case. Even as I embraced a minimalist sensibility that ostensibly influenced my sense of self, I took great pleasure in identifying with the role of specialized artist.
For the most part, I’ve been able to distance myself from this perspective and now reserve pleasure for the creative act alone. The latter is always better, more profound, innovative, enriching, when stripped of the personality that would grasp at self-expression and recognition, in my experience.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
This really takes me back to the earlier question regarding imitation. The central challenge was alleviating that impulse. On the other hand, it’s useful to have a notion that what you’re doing will go somewhere, find some kind of audience, no matter how small or large, to feel oneself part of a community. That took time, particularly given that what I was doing tended to be quite marginal, which is still generally the case.
Having come from an early 80s punk scene, of course, went a great distance in affirming the value of community and transgressive artistic practices.
How do you see the relationship between style, form, plot and storytelling – and how would you rate their importance for you, respectively?
The first two of these are inevitable, one way or another, while the latter two are common but inessential. Even when I’m working with relatively conventional literary devices or meolodies, form is always at the forefront of my process.
What I find most exciting about writing or composing along the lines of convention is, first, learning how to do that, and then subverting it enough to make it interesting. Telling a story the plot of which is more accessible than the work of the nouveau roman writers, for example, is difficult, though the difficulty lies not simply in reporting events but in marrying clarity and ingenuity. Moreover, I’m usually prone to some level of artistic provocation, form being a perfect medium for that in light of how attached many people are to convention in this regard.
Observation and research are often quoted as important elements of the writing process. Can you tell us a bit about your perspective on them?
It really depends on the project. I’ve done a great deal of research about places, customs, classical composers, historical moments, to help inform certain narrative events. Because I’m an academic, it’s a familiar, mostly enjoyable process. As for observation, I jot things down on occasion, when something strikes me as especially amusing, remarkable, or disturbing. They’re both necessary in the right context.
How do you see the relationship between conscious planning and tapping into the subconscious; between improvisation and composition? When dealing with the end of a story, for example, do you tend to minutely map it out or follow the logic of the narrative as it unfolds itself?
It’s the same between music and writing for me: there’s always a balance there. For a novel, I make notes but never too far in advance of where I am in the writing. Certainly ideas will occur as to a conclusion or other key events, and those are recorded, though I write better, more fluidly, when I’m allowing it to happen, as opposed to imposing too rigid a frame.
Teaching is identical to this, at least when leading a seminar. It’s critical to let other voices enter, work off and through them. With writing, those voices may be your own, but they’re true to the immediate operation rather than a fixed idea or mode.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do writing and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
It depends on the season, the academic calendar. When I’m teaching, I find creating music much more productive than writing, while the latter, when necessary, is enriching but arduous given how much time I already spend with texts, student papers, and so on. During the summer and winter breaks, however, the average day tends to revolve around writing.
Though there’s no rigid schedule, I begin writing in the morning after breakfast, tea and quiet music often accompanying my time at the computer. Then it’s a break, lunch, a run later if the weather’s right. The embodiment of writing is aided by a healthy body, I find. I aim to come back to writing later in the day but it doesn’t always pan out that way.
Nevertheless, a three-month summer screams by, so I endeavour to integrate the writing/editing as much as possible into daily tasks.
Can you talk about a breakthrough publication in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
The first novel I felt warranted publishing was Long Slow Distance in 2009. Its fragmented nature constructed around a notion of immanence, for lack of a better word, would have made it a hard sell, especially in the US. Fortunately, a close friend in Toronto was starting a literary press, so we decided to go in on it together and begin with the novel.
Opening the box of books was an extraordinary feeling, not unlike receiving my first CD (On Dit, Trente Oiseaux), though it soon precipitated another sensation: that of realizing it’s ultimately another object that will sit on a shelf, which suggested to me that the writing process must be the priority, pleasurable though seeing a project come to fruition may be.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
For me, this state is highly dependent on unbounded time and what we might call ontological spaciousness. In other words, I prefer to write when the morning is open, no responsibilities lined up, no anticipated interference, which allows for the moment to fulfil itself in a series of inspirations, revelations.
I don’t mean to be melodramatic here, though when I’m not over-thinking or even conceptualizing myself as a writer writing, then the ideas and their expression emerge more fluidly. It really is a bit like meditation, a habit that one learns to do without thinking, every day, sitting in that quietude. Or perhaps it’s more akin to running, which certainly requires effort and sometimes a pushing through to reach a point in space, or in the case of writing, the other side of an idea.
This is not to say that ideas don’t occasionally emerge in odd places: driving, showering, on the cusp of sleep. I generally keep a notebook handy for such moments.
Words can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for literature and poetry as a tool for healing?
Well, I suppose that like most people I’ve encountered others, familiar or unfamiliar, who had less than kind things to say in certain moments. Of course, we see this every day via media, social or otherwise. I think the most important ameliorative quality of literature or poetry is its capacity to broaden our understanding of self, other, culture, community, etc; that is, as long as we allow it to unseat our presumptions and prejudices, if only temporarily.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I tend to view such limits on a case-by-case basis. Alain Badiou speaks not of Truth but the “truth-process” of a given event. In keeping with this departure from conventional ethics, not to mention the reductive essentialism at the core of such specificity, I would advocate for careful consideration of both the artist and the work before slamming down an imperative concerning who is allowed to do or create what.
Literature works with sense impressions in a different way than the other arts. How do you use them in your writing? From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Since 2013, much of my fiction writing has focused on literary horror, the atmospheres of which, as Lovecraft puts it, are all-important.
Traditionally, the genre works with sight and sound, and my work is no different. You certainly experience this marriage in film, but in literature, the provocation of sense relies, of course, on description; or, in what I experience as especially advanced forms of writing, form. To tantalize, disturb, or awaken these senses with structure rather than plot, adjectives, etc, is an extraordinary achievement.
Though it’s not horror, I think of something like Pamela Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe” in this regard. A wonderful, unsettling story.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
As an artist, I would probably fall directly between l’art pour l’art and the organic need, on occasion, to create art that functions as social/cultural commentary.
My first few novels depict pretty insular worlds and characters but also manage to critique aspects of the world beyond the immediate narrative here and there, or as a sly extension of the narrative. As it happens, it wasn’t until I began experimenting with horror that sharper, more pointed critiques began to emerge, all while maintaining narrative tension and atmosphere. It’s hardly news that the last few years have been tumultuous, in many areas; I know that my desire to confront that tumult informed some of my stories, and one novel in particular, "In This Glass House".
And yet, the dramas of life, as shocking and unparalleled as they are, appear to repeat when you consider larger cultural and historical contexts. Art for art’s sake can be both a retreat from madness and, as we implied earlier, a mechanism of health.
What can literature or poetry express about life and death which other forms of art may not?
It seems to me that language has its own life and death processes. It enters consciousness, exercises its basic function in lived experience, but ultimately hits a ceiling of signification. Maybe that ceiling is closer to a proliferation of meaning than it is to death.
Either way, because it’s so closely tethered to how most of us operate on a daily basis, we as speakers, writers, and readers are implicated in this dissemination of significance, or death of singularity. I think literary language can draw attention to this phenomenon by virtue of its strategic or methodological projects, which can facilitate a more or less productive detachment from preconceptions concerning life and death.
As our perceiving horizons broaden in this way, so to, it would appear, does our capacity to inhabit each of these poles, our beginnings and endings, with greater depth and appreciation.