We can't think of a better way for you to spend Friday night than popping over to Vroman's in Pasadena to catch Arthur Phillips reading and signing his new novel Angelica, a Victorian ghost story and "an intriguing literary and psychological puzzle, and a meditation on marriage, childhood, memory, and fear." In honor of his Los Angeles visit, we convinced him to sit for a 3MI - in which the first three questions are custom-written, and the last two are the same for all players.
Arthur Phillips was born in Minneapolis in 1969 and educated at Harvard. He has been a child actor, a jazz musician, a speechwriter, a dismally failed entrepreneur, and a five-time Jeopardy! champion. His first novel, Prague, a national bestseller, was named a New York Times Notable Book, and received The Los Angeles Times/Art Seidenbaum Award for best first novel. His second novel, The Egyptologist, was a national and international bestseller, and was on more than a dozen “Best of 2004” lists. Angelica is his third novel. His work has been translated into twenty-five languages. He lives in New York with his wife and two sons.
We'll also be offering a copy of Angelica for this Friday's TEV Giveaway, so make sure you come back for your chance to win.
TEV: Over three novels, you've ranged in time and place from post-curtain Budapest to early 20th century Egypt to Victorian England but you seem to have become something of a go-to for Eastern European issues (witness your recent Marai review for the New Yorker). Readers of this site know I have a special interest in All Things Hungarian but we also know novelists don't like to be thought of simply in terms of their first novel. How do you reconcile this continuing notoriety with your clearly wide-ranging literary ambitions?
AP: Well, the Magyar Go-To thing is a lucky break for me. I'm not really an expert, I just have read a lot of Hungo-lit, so when it comes time to write a review, I feel comfortable putting myself out there. And really it's just self-serving: I really like Marai, so I jumped when I saw The Rebels was coming. And I'll claim the right to pontificate about other varieties of Central European, too. I just wrote about Milan Kundera in Harpers, and that was also taking advantage of a recent publication (The Curtain) and of my vague reputation as having something to do with the Czechs, but mostly it was to publish some Kundera-thoughts I'd been mulling over for, literally, a decade.
And, the beautiful thing is that I stumbled into Hungary. I don't have any Hungarian blood, had never been there before I moved there, still barely speak a few words of it. But I found myself a country that I love (and now I do have Hungarian relatives) and I love the writers, so I am more than happy to (illegitimately) claim some Hungarian expertise simply from having written a novel about people with exactly zero Hungarian expertise. And because I wrote it, I get to go back to Hungary dressed as a literary figure, I get to correspond with my Hungarian translator, I get to feel like I'm somehow wise in matters of Marai or Nadas or Krudy. I live with no fear that this limited skill will overwhelm my other ambitions.
TEV: A recurring theme in the Standard Arthur Phillips Profile is that you reject the "Write what you know" model, though as a five-time Jeopardy! winner one could argue that perhaps there's little that you don't know. I'm always drawn to writers and artists who don't keep repeating themselves but who show some creative restlessness, leaping around trying new things. Can you talk about what animates your choices?
AP: The thing about stuff like this is, you do what you want and then, after it's done, you start a personal religion to justify what you did. As a friend of mine said, "Philosophy is just inclination wearing a toga." I write about the notions that grab me hard enough to convince me I could spend two or three years doing nothing else. And when those moments of inspiration come, it's not usually about any grand idea, exactly; it has, all four times now, been a fragment of plot or a scrap of a character or a glimpse of some unique structural possiblity, and I recognize that kernel as something I haven't read somewhere before. It's usually an inspiration about writing or about a story, not about the nature of life, so, by definition, it's not about me or what I know; it's about books and what I want to read, and therefore what seems like fun to write about. What I write is what I'd want to read. Can I say "fun" or does that make me sound shallow? You know the old story about Trollope shooting his reputation as a serious writer in the foot by admitting that he sometimes started writing his next book within MINUTES of finishing his last one?
TEV: You're a smart, literary writer who not only doesn't disdain plot but embraces the notion of story. Wherefore this acute narrative sensibility?
AP: Again, subsequently canonized inclinations. I write what I like to read, and as I look at my bookshelves, all my favorite novels contain stories. But, then again, this is one of those questions that might hinge on a confused definition. I'm not sure I can think of a novel that doesn't have a story... That said, maybe I'm not an adventurous enough reader. Ulysses has a story, and I read that. Am I starting to sound stupid yet? (TEV Note: Hell, no! We're all in favor of plot at this URL.)
TEV: Who is the best author we've never heard of?
AP: Possibly Rohan Kriwaczek, but the jury is still out. He's only written one book, and he is purportedly working on a second, but I will read it as soon as it's done, and then let you know if he wins the title. Have you heard of Gyula Krudy? Everyone in Hungary has... I always say Georges Perec, but more and more people know him. Up and comers like Kelly Link? Appalachian wizards like Ron Rash? Nobody reads Witold Gombrowicz anymore, I suppose, but you've heard of him, I bet. You know that beautiful four-volume set written by Anthony Powell, The Dance to the Music of Time? Unbelievably good.
TEV: Ask yourself any question you like - but be sure to answer it!
Q: How many published novelists live within one mile of your apartment?
AP: Thirty? More?
Q: Which of them is the most preposterously pompous?
AP: I refuse to answer that question, and you should be ashamed of yourself for asking.
Don't forget to catch Arthur Phillips at Vroman's on Friday night - details here. We haven't quite finished the new one yet but we're enjoying it as much as the first two, which is to say a great deal. Smart, funny, involving fiction. Egesegedre!