GMW’s Book Reviewer (and WHS Sophomore) Scores Interview with Author Julia Phillips

GOOD Morning Wilton‘s book reviewer, Gayathri Kaimal, is a sophomore at Wilton High School and an avid reader who hopes to share her love of reading through her reviews. You can learn more about Gayathri on GMW‘s “Our Team” page. 

Earlier this month, we published her review of Julia Phillips’ debut novel Disappearing Earth, which she wrote, “…is a deeply moving reflection on the power of loss to shake a whole community and the difficult processes of recovery and reconciliation.” Kaimal celebrated Phillips’ ability to create a complex study of multiple characters, each one “realized and three-dimensional–a testament to Phillips’ ability to inhabit her characters and speak through their distinctive voices.”

Kaimal got an amazing chance to interview Phillips about the book, and she shares their email conversation here.

Gayathri Kaimal:  You chose such a unique setting for Disappearing Earth, and you were able to really transport the reader there. What inspired you to choose this setting, and write this story?

Jullia Phillips:  As a student of both Russian and fiction, I really wanted to set a novel in Russia. Focusing on Kamchatka seemed like the very best way to learn about the country as a whole. Kamchatka is huge–larger than Italy–but self-contained. No roads connect it to the mainland. Most of its population lives in one city. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, Kamchatka was classified as a closed military zone; no foreigners were permitted there and even Russians needed special dispensation to visit. It was an isolated area of an already insular state–an intensified version of mainstream Soviet culture’s self-reliant course. After the USSR collapsed, though, restrictions on Kamchatka were abandoned. The peninsula attracted everyone from foreign investors to adventure tourists to poachers. It remained, and, indeed, still remains, a microcosm of its nation. That microcosm was exactly what I wanted to get to know.

Kaimal:  Disappearing Earth intertwines the story of several women and places the kidnapping of the two girls in the background. Did you know from the beginning that this was the direction you were going to take with the novel? What was your writing process?

Phillips:  Yes, I made that structural choice at the very start of the process, because I wanted the book to explore the spectrum of harm in women’s lives—from the rare and highly publicized (an abduction by a stranger) to the mundane and hardly spoken about (a difficult doctor’s appointment, a social slight). I wrote Disappearing Earth to run the range of violence in contemporary womanhood because I’m fascinated by how those hurts echo each other, overlap, and connect us. But that idea definitely required a long time to execute! The writing process was slow and took many, many drafts.

Kaimal:  You were able to weave together the stories of so many diverse women, each struggling with some form of violence in their lives. How did you decide which stories to tell, and what do you want readers to take away about the violence they experience?

Phillips:  You know, I’m not sure I even did decide which stories to tell–the stories just came to me as they were. There weren’t other possible characters or situations to write about, I felt. I very much wanted the novel to tell the story of a group of people, a whole community affected by a single event, so I tried in every chapter to draw out the connections between characters. Their shared experiences were just as crucial as their unique qualities in moving the plot forward. To me, the moral argument of the book to readers is that we survive by coming together. In our most desperate moments, we save, and are saved by, each other.

Kaimal:  One theme of Disappearing Earth is the importance of community. Kamchatka is so isolated from the rest of the world that a large emphasis is placed on the relationships and dynamics that exist within the peninsula. Due to the pandemic, we are all isolated and contained within our communities to some extent. Many of us feel more connected to our local community than ever before. Would you draw any parallels between Kamchatka and our current situation? What lessons can communities in isolation take away from Disappearing Earth?

Phillips:  Oh, gosh, I think Kamchatka and Russia have always had deep parallels to the United States, but you’re right, that might be more true now than ever before. One lesson from life in Kamchatka that feels most helpful in this moment of isolation is to focus our energy locally. Foster happiness in our homes, maintain connections with our neighbors, support the businesses down the street–care for those around us rather than turning all our attention to things beyond our control. That, and go outside as much as possible. Enjoy beautiful nature!

Kaimal:  Disappearing Earth explores the far-reaching effects of a single tragedy, and while we don’t focus on the whereabouts of the two girls, their disappearance is palpable in every scene. How did you balance the specificity of the setting with the universality of themes like loss and community?

Phillips:  The universal is found in the specific, I think, so the more precise and accurate you can be in writing about a place (or person or situation), the more depth and texture you give your themes. When I was drafting this manuscript, I kept reminding myself that the more richly I could depict Kamchatka, the better I would be able to get my thematic argument across.

Kaimal:  What are you currently reading/writing?

Phillips:  Oh god, my to-be-read pile is toppling over these days. I’m really excited to dive into The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan, Sarahland by Sam Cohen, and Flight by Kimi Cunningham Grant. Right now, I’m reading the much drier book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth, because my new baby is taking up all my brain space…agh.

Kaimal:  What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Phillips:  I’d offer anyone interested in writing three pieces of advice:  first, read as much as possible; second, write as much as possible; third, embed yourself in an artistic community. Through reading, you’ll learn so much about storytelling. Books offer the best possible education in craft. And through regular writing, you’ll sharpen your skills, learning what works for you on the page and what doesn’t. The third piece of advice, community building, might be the most important. It’s so challenging and limiting to create art in a vacuum. That’s especially true in this isolated moment! So connect with the folks around you (whether in person or online), read and cheer on their work, participate in conversations around creativity, and get feedback from others on what you’re producing. In those ways, you’ll not only fuel your own growth but also help foster a world of stronger, better, more supported artists.

The story was updated to reflect that Kaimal interviewed Phillips via email.