Julia Phillips is the author of Disappearing Earth, a National Bestseller and a National Book Award Finalist. Her debut is being published in thirteen countries and has been named one of the best books of 2019 so far by Vanity Fair, USA Today, and Entertainment Weekly. And many sang its praises: Tayari Jones, ‘An “astonishing debut”, Vanity Fair, “Mesmerizing…Heart-stopping” O, The Oprah Magazine, “Pulsating…” just to pick a few.
Phillips has long been fascinated by Kamchatka and has always wanted to write a novel set there. Kamchatka, named for a native people, the Kamchadal, from Koriak konchachal, said to mean “men of the far end, and it’s true to its namesake. The place is surrounded mostly by wilderness – forests, mountains, bears, salmon, reindeer and severe cold weather – the perfect setting for Phillips novel, Disappearing Earth, a novel about two young girls kidnapped in a place isolated from the rest of a world.
“I loved everything about Kamchatka. I was in love with it. All the time, I remember the moments I found exceptional there; getting to trail a month-long dogsled race through the tundra, staying in a cabin in the Valley of the Geysers, watching reindeer herders work, how gently people spoke to me in Kamchatka, how friends took care of me. I will always be grateful I got to live for a while in that place.”
When asked about the inspiration for the book, Phillips says,
“So many things inspired the book: real-life crimes in the US like Ariel Castro’s kidnappings and the Jacob Wetterling case; TV shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit; the little violences and indignities we experience in our daily lives, no matter where in the world we live; my study of the Russian language and obsession with Kamchatka.”Tweet
It took Phillips 10 whole years, from the conception of the idea, to writing and publishing of ‘Disappearing Earth’. “That decade between conception and publication included two years applying for grants to go to Kamchatka, a year living there, two and a half years drafting the book, a year editing it, and a year of pre-pub anticipation. It was full of starts and stops.”
Writing a novel in a foreign land, based on a foreign land, about people and culture foreign to her, came with a new set of challenges, such as speaking the language, finding her way around the place, getting acclimated to Russian history, literature, politics or culture and its surrounding areas like Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and a village like Esso.
“Seeing those enormous gaps in my knowledge, I tried to push myself toward learning everything I could while recognizing that I would never be able to get it all right. I would have to do my best even as I was failing.”
Sometimes, initial titles of novels get changed pre-publication, but Phillips’ remained the same. “While I was working on the manuscript, I always called it Disappearing Earth. That title is inspired by a story about a tsunami that one character tells another in the first chapter. It also speaks more generally to a sense of instability that I hoped the book would capture. Geographically, politically, and socially, these characters are building their lives on unsteady ground. When the project found a publisher, I thought the title might change, but Disappearing Earth stayed the best fit for what this novel is about.”
Running alongside the case of the kidnapping, were stories of people living in Kamchatka, some more intimately portrayed than another, covering topics like violence, abuse, misogyny, discrimination, loneliness, lost and love all ‘buried’ beneath the icy-cold peninsula, unseen, unheard, yet felt. Phillips says, “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.”
“This novel is structured polyphonically, with every chapter focused on a different woman’s point of view, because it is intended 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). That format was integral to the project from the very start.”
Her experience as a volunteer at the Crime Victims Treatment Center (CVTC) gave the voices of the women in the story an authenticity that made her novel stood out. “Training as an advocate with CVTC quite literally taught me how to listen. It showed me what immense challenges people are facing each day and what resilience we have to keep living. It is a huge inspiration.”
This is her debut novel, and already it has been getting many rave reviews, and a finalist in the National Book Award. But this doesn’t mean that the book is spared from some unfavorable reviews. “I don’t read any reader reviews, positive or negative, anymore – I stopped looking at Goodreads and Amazon once the book came out. It’s totally reasonable and valid for someone to dislike this book. The sharing of opinions around a text is an important conversation for readers and reviewers. It’s not my place to take part in that discussion, so I choose to step away.” Way to go, Phillips!
When she isn’t reading or writing, she enjoys going out to eat with friends, seeing movies, listening to podcasts, making collages, and walking around New York.
I’m one of the many who have read this book and was blown away by it. My review here. I’m looking forward to re-reading it in the cold winter months, all snuggled up in a blanket, with a cup of hot chocolate in hand,
in the peace and quiet of the house. (I just remembered I have kids. So peace and quiet in the day is out of the question)
Have you read ‘Disappearing Earth’? If you haven’t, you got to get to it now. If not, wait till winter, and it’ll totally set you in the right mood, especially if it snows in your area!
Thank you, Julia for giving me this opportunity to interview you! You’re truly inspiring and I’m looking forward to reading your next novel!
Last but not least, thank you for stopping by and reading! Have you read ‘Disappearing Earth’? Do you share the same enthusiasm and love as I do? Please share with me your thoughts!
Psst…Also, check out Phillips’ recent favorite books! Look at those covers!!!!!! Adding all of those except ‘Women Talking’ which I’ve already read. Have you read any of them?
4 Comments Add yours
What a fabulous interview, Jee! I love your questions! I bought this book shortly after it came out and really need to read it. The setting definitely sounds like one I’ll love too!
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I know you’re gonna love the book, Jennifer! Looking forward to reading your review when you get to it! 😊 ❤️ And thank you! ❤️ Julia is brilliant!
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Lovely to read more about this author.
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She’s fantastic, Rosie! Very talented! ❤️