By Leslie Lindsay
Eerie, speculative fiction with a slight thriller aspect, THE NEED is existential, mind-bending, and gloriously rendered.
I have a very teetering TBR bookshelf at home and on it are several Helen Phillips novels. Her stories are wild and brilliant and a bit eccentric. That’s what I like about her work. It’s not the mundane. It’s like a fever dream, those little bits of oddities that keep us awake at night, but we don’t do anything more with because, well…we don’t know how. Or we think they’re ‘too minute’ to flesh out into a whole story. THE NEED (Simon & Schuster, July 2019) is clever and strange and distorted, but I loved it.
You may read the first lines of the synopsis and see that Molly is a mother of young children and there’s an intruder in the house and automatically think this is domestic thriller. It’s not. THE NEED is a literary exploration of what it means to be a mother, but also a study in identity, empathy, fear, the joys and insecurities and also the miseries of motherhood. It’s gorgeously, lushly rendered with so much authenticity you will sometimes wonder, ‘is this a memoir?’
THE NEED is a very character-driven story and focuses mostly on the isolation of motherhood (Molly is home alone for a few days while her musician husband is on tour), and we get a claustrophobic sense of this woman’s interior life. She’s hearing things and startling at loud noises, imagining the worst-case scenario.
“An enthralling book. With its short chapters, unsettling prose, and riveting suspense, it feels designed for binge-reading.”
There’s a lot going on here–and astute readers will find the symbolism hauntingly eerie –from The Pit where Molly works as a paleobotanist, to the ocean/fish-themed birthday party she throws for her daughter, the subtle religious imagery (mother and child; breastfeeding), the deer mask, and so much more. I am afraid to say more because I don’t want to spoil the bigger picture, which I think is we are often our own worst enemy.
This story is a bit myth or folklore and readers should be aware that they may have to be more open-minded when they read; to suspend belief.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Helen Phillips to the author interview series:
Helen, I finished this book at lakeside park. The sun was beginning to set, shadows cast sharp-edged shadows on the edge of the book. There were families walking past holding the hands of children and pushing strollers; it seemed like the perfect synchronicity for THE NEED’S ending. But I want to talk about beginning. What inspired you? Was it a feeling, a character, or theme you wanted to explore? Something else?
When my daughter was a few months old, my husband was out one night and I was nursing the baby. I thought I heard a footstep in the other room, and an instinctual fear shot through me. What would I do if there was an intruder in my apartment right now, while I’m in this vulnerable moment of nursing this vulnerable person? There was no intruder, but that momentary terror stuck with me, and I knew I had to write about it.
My older sister died when my daughter was eight weeks old, so the early months of motherhood were extremely intense for me. I was both falling in love with my daughter and mourning my sister. And while I was reveling in my firstborn child, my parents were grieving their firstborn child. The challenge of holding love and loss at the same time is at the core of THE NEED.
So, I am reading and thinking, “Gosh, you nailed this motherhood thing.” It’s about fear and worry and identity and joy, and growth. I started to look for you in these pages. I wondered, ‘is this a memoir?’ but it’s not. How much of THE NEED was inspired or borrowed from your ‘real life?’
Well, it’s definitely not a memoir, thank goodness! Mercifully, I have never had to confront the otherworldly situation in which Molly finds herself.
But I do have two young children, and I did want to capture the rhythms of daily life, the way the mundane and the sacred, the exasperating and the miraculous, the dread-inspiring and the awe-inspiring are all mixed in together when one has children.
Do you think you could have written THE NEED if you weren’t a mother?
No, I couldn’t have. The book arises in large part from that life experience. That said, the author Samanta Schweblin did not have children when she wrote one of my favorite books about motherhood, Fever Dream.
I want to ask a bit about your process and also the structure. THE NEED reads as if we’re in the flow of consciousness of Molly. It’s about organic things: nature and motherhood, it reads very organically, but is it? Was it carefully plotted? Also, sections and chapters are very short, but densely packed with emotion and imagery. Can you tell us a little about that?
Each novel I write begins as a chaotic hundred-page list of images, overheard lines of dialogue, newspaper headlines, questions, snippets from dreams, etc. I then sort that list into vague sections and begin weaving it all together. I call that first draft “Draft Zero,” to take the pressure off myself. Once Draft Zero is done, I make an outline for the next draft. So I’d say that Draft Zero is very organic, while Draft One is carefully plotted.
As far as the short chapters: I teach at Brooklyn College and during the semester I can usually carve out one hour a day to write before running off to teach or grade papers. So to some degree those short chapters reflect the way in which the book was written! But also I really wanted the book to have a powerful forward momentum, because I love that rhythm as a reader. And that sensation of momentum echoes the sensation of parenting; no time to take a breath as you fulfill all of the roles in your life.
The symbolism most definitely left residue on me as a reader. I am thinking of that deer mask, the fish costume, The Pit. What more can you tell us about these symbols, without giving too much away?
There’s a shapeshifting quality to Molly’s nemesis; the nemesis assumes different forms as necessary in order to achieve a particular aim. The nemesis is connected to animals, to creatures driven by instinct, and to the earth, to the mysteries in the soil beneath our feet.
THE NEED made me want to write. It made me think about and examine small intricacies in new and surprising ways. I looked at the clouds differently, the blades of grass somehow seemed ominous. I found some similarities between your book and Sarah Blake’s NAMMAH meets IN THE DARK, DARK WOOD (Laird Hunt) and also Julia Fine’s WHAT SHOULD BE WILD. Who or what influences you?
I am thrilled to hear that THE NEED made the grass seem ominous to you! I am fascinated by the duality of life, by the way the most mundane moments can have cosmic implications, and I love writers whose work taps into that for me. I’ve already mentioned Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin. Another recent favorite is Amatka by Karin Tidbeck. At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid is always with me. I’m obsessed with Exhalation with Ted Chiang, which I’m reading right now. And my old favorites will come as no surprise: Jorge Luis Borges, Octavia Butler, Italo Calvino, Franz Kafka, Ursula K. Le Guin …
Helen, this has been most delightful; thank you. I could ask questions all day. What might I have missed? Your research for THE NEED, what’s next for you, if you’re obsessing over anything…
I am always obsessing over many things. And my current obsessions are the source of my writing … so be on the lookout (in a few years …) for a book about artificial intelligence and climate change.
[Above image designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow me on Instagram for more like this: @leslielindsay1]
For more information, to connect with Helen Phillips via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE NEED, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Helen Phillips is the author of five books, including, most recently, the novel The Need, a July 2019 Indie Next pick and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her collection Some Possible Solutions received the 2017 John Gardner Fiction Book Award. Her novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat, a New York Times Notable Book of 2015, was a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her collection And Yet They Were Happy was named a notable collection by The Story Prize. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and the Italo Calvino Prize. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Times, and Tin House, and on Selected Shorts. An associate professor at Brooklyn College, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband, artist Adam Douglas Thompson, and their children.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
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[Cover and author image courtesy of H. Phillips and used with permission. Author image credit: David Barry. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. For more like this, or to follow, please see my Instagram account @leslielindsay1]