Helen Phillip’s latest novel, The Need, is a genre-bending thriller that explores the scary, intense and sometimes comical experience of being a mother. Molly is home alone with her two small children, Viv and Ben. Sleep-deprived, she is holding down the household until her husband, David, gets back from a business trip. When she hears footsteps and then a flash of movement, she doubts her own senses, blaming it on her lack of rest and the exhaustion of the day. But she suddenly finds herself face to face with an intruder in her living room, a person who knows far too much about her and her family. And that is just the beginning.
Phillips’ portrayal of motherhood is beautiful and intensely real. She explores the dualities of raising children, the loose of self a woman can go through yet the fierce love she feels for these tiny humans that grew inside her. She showcases the dread, the joy, the fatigue, the monotony, the spiritual and physical connection and elation a mother can experience. All at once, sometimes. Phillips intertwines this with elements of horror and science fiction, which brilliantly showcase the complexities of being a mother.
Helen and I spoke over the phone where we had an absolutely wonderful conversation about the joyful, expanding and animalistic nature of motherhood, finding neutrality in our creative failures, writing to explore anxieties and her writing process during the creation of The Need.
Kailey Brennan: It’s funny because I just turned 29 and being this close to 30, has had me thinking about motherhood a lot — if I'm going to go down that path or not. I started reading The Need and it was kind of perfect timing.
Helen Phillips: It's been so interesting with early readers. Some of the women of your age who have read the book have been like, this is why I don't want to have children and that then other women have been like, this is why I want to have children. I don't know where you come out on that, but I hope it won't affect anyone's life choices in any negative way. (Laughs)
KB: You show the duality of motherhood so well—the beautiful parts and the crazy parts.
HP: I was trying to capture that because I feel like it's not often evoked in all of its nuances as I would like it to be.
KB: One of the things that struck me, especially towards the beginning of the book, is Molly mentioning this kind of mother and animal connection and the primal feeling of feeding her children from her body and the instincts that come with motherhood. I was just wondering if you could speak a bit more about this mother animal connection.
HP: I think that in contemporary times we don’t think a lot about the fact that we are animals. But when you are pregnant and birth a child and nurse a child, it just feels like this really in your face reminder that you are an animal. That acknowledgment is every beautiful but also kind of disorienting to one's other identities. Molly experiences that with her work-life bumping up against this animal side of herself.
The breast pump is, for me, a very symbolic thing. It's the intermediary between the animal self, of the milk that comes out of your body —you are a food source. And the professional moment that you're in where you need to be ready to give a talk or teach a class or give a tour. The breast pump is the site on which those identities toggle back and forth.
KB: I liked that you weren't afraid of talking about that. I feel like, in a world where we discuss so much about ourselves, the topic of bodily fluids is not one of them.
HP: I had one early reader say, your book is so disgusting. And it wasn't an insult. I mean, is the body disgusting? I guess so. But it's also amazing. I don't feel like there's gratuitous grossness in the book. I just feel like it's what it's like to have young children. (Laughs)
I was so surprised to reach that stage in my life where I began lactating and realized that I knew almost nothing about such a common human experience that people have been doing throughout history. I just wanted more advocations of it. My book is one advocation of it. I am always excited when I encounter others and I think there should be more. Just a scene in a movie where a woman is using a breast pump and maybe not a funny scene, you know? I think that a lot of times these things can be comedic and I understand why, but also, I want helpful representations of this human experience.
KB: Despite the suspenseful elements of this story, it contains a lot of depictions of the more quiet life of a mother with children— the everyday monotony and the joy. In our society today, where sometimes it kind of feels like our worth and value was based on how much we do, do you think that the more quiet life of a mother home with her children is looked down upon sometimes?
HP: I think that after having young children, I feel a much more profound sense of awe at women who stay home with their children because it is a lot of work. I mean it is truly work and effort. I have a new perspective on what an incredible job that is though. The book is about a working mother and that is my own experience and that is Molly's experience. In the book I was exploring what it is like when you have these children who you love more than anything and you have a professional pursuit that you are devoted to and love more than anything as well. How do you balance those two passions and how do they enhance each other and how do they detract from each other?
KB: You did that so well because, as the reader, you can feel that Molly is fully committed to both roles.
HP: Thank you. She is committed to both things and she's not doing either of them as well as she wants to. There's sort of a passion and then an inherent sense of failure at the same time that one can experience in that situation.
KB: What made you want to talk about motherhood in a fictional space?
HP: For me, writing has always been a place to explore my anxieties. At the time that I began to work on the book, a lot of my anxieties arose from the intensity of the love that you feel for your children and the intensity of being a working mother. Also, the same summer that my daughter was born, my sister died. So I was standing at that portal of life and death and it was just very strange to be falling in love with this new member of my family and losing another member of my family at the same time. The duality of that experience is very present in the book.
KB: Definitely. I've heard The Need described as both having horror and science fiction elements. I think I would say that as well. Can you talk about your influences with these genres or what drew you to them?
HP: It’s so fascinating to me because the question of genre comes up a lot with this book. You said horror and sci-fi. Thriller has come up. Even someone called it a ghost story. I think it's exciting to have all these different ways of describing it. But when I was setting out to write it, I wasn't thinking about genre very much at all. I was just thinking, what are all of the tools at my disposal to express what this feels like— this emotional experience and this duality. I needed to borrow elements of science fiction to explore that in its fullness. I needed to borrow elements of thriller to have the propulsive plot. That for me echoes what it feels like sometimes to have young children. There's a lot of urgencies and you're trying to serve a lot of different needs both at home and at work.
And it can almost — I'm joking a little bit– but it can feel almost like a thriller at times of having to come in the door from work and then you've got to do this and oh no, someone needs something and there's pasta on the stove and I need to make sure the pasta doesn't boil over on someone. And so I was using elements of genre because those were the best ways to get at what the emotional experience I wanted to evoke.
A book called Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin is what I would say is kind of a thriller, but I'm also dissatisfied with labeling it. It's just an incredible book that has a propulsive plot along with really deep questions. So whatever genre that is, I don't know. People love to put labels on things and there's a part of me that just wants to say, this is just a book. I'm happy to have the conversation, but at the end of the day it's the book I wrote and I used all the tactics I could to evoke it as well as I could.
KB: I want to ask you a little bit about your writing process. Do you have a routine or a ritual that you stick to?
HP: I do. It was a little more ritualistic before I had children and I could have my specific kind of tea at my specific time of day and write for usually three or four hours before I went to work. But since having children, my writing schedule is pretty much an hour a day. I teach undergrad and graduate creative writing at Brooklyn College so during semesters after I get my kids to school or wherever they're going and before I teach, I preserve an hour. I put a timer on and I'm committed. I know it's a small thing, but somehow it helps me to put a timer on and not look at the Internet during that time and just really have an hour of pure focus. So this book was written that way with just an hour of pure focus each day, five days a week. It’s surprising if you do it, how it does add up over time.
It also varies for me throughout the year. Last summer when I was revising the book, I wasn't teaching and I was able to work more, like six hours a day, but I always put on a timer. That helps me. I don't have a room of my own to write in. I write in the corner of my bedroom but the timer creates the room around me.
KB: I want to try that.
HP: Yeah. If you can just commit yourself to a certain amount of time and stick to that goal, even if it's not very much time, I feel like it's a very powerful thing.
KB: Did you always know you want it to be a writer or did it evolve later in life?
HP: I'm one of those people who, from the age of six, I knew I wanted to be a writer. As soon as I could read and tell stories. It's always been and I feel so lucky that I've always had that calling. The stage that I'm in now with this book and with my other books, is a lifelong dream come true.
KB: What do you love most about being a mother?
HP: That's an amazing question. I think that I just feel so expanded by the experience of watching these human beings grow up and watching their own encounters with language, their own encounters with emotions. Just their selfhood. I just feel like I get to witness this incredible development of a human. That is in The Need too — the many little moments of just sheer physical joy of having someone hug you with such abandon and someone run to you when they need you.
At one point in the book, Molly is nursing Ben and she experiences the pleasure of giving someone exactly what they want. As a mother to be able to comfort someone that way… I mean, you can't always do it. It's more when they're little. As they get older, there are problems that they have that you can't solve. But just the experience of being needed. I think that ties into the title of the book. There's this joy of being needed and then this joy of witnessing these humans evolve.
I think that another part of it is that every single day, there will be some moment where my kids say something or do something that throws me out of my known reality. It gives me a perspective. I said to my son the other day when my book came out, my book is launching today. And he was like, Oh, a book launch. That's like when you're reading a book and you're on a rocket ship, right?
There's just something about it that kind of takes me out of my habits of mind, my habits of language, my habits of emotion, and gives me this kind of cosmic perspective. I highly recommend motherhood, even if you might read The Need and be too scared to ever have children.
KB: I love what you said about children taking you out of your own reality. They just make you see things so much more innocently. And without the burdens and baggage we take on as we get older.
HP: And there's a long period early on where they don't know about death. There's a different quality to hanging out with people who don't know about death. There's something very in the moment and beautiful about that. It's the most fascinating, expanding experience that I've had.
KB: Do you have any writing advice that you can share that you have heard over the years or any advice that you like to tell your students?
HP: The writing advice that I go to from other people is, Samuel Beckett's “fail again, fail better.” And Toni Morrison's “A failure is just information.” I think for me feeling like you can fail and that it's okay to fail is what enables you to take risks. And there were times when I was working on The Need where I was like, what am I doing here? This is a weird concept. How is this all going to come together? This is such challenging and dark emotional territory.
Then I would just tell myself, well, if it doesn't work out, that's okay. That comfort with failure is, for me, the stepping stone to taking risks that are important.
I also love the Isaac Dennison quote “I write every day without hope and without despair.” Isn't that so great? Like I was saying with the timer, I set aside the time and I do something during that time and I try to not be dramatic about it. I'm doing this almost like a habit that you do, in almost a flat way where you just let it happen without bringing a lot of emotion or ego to it. Those are things I think about in terms of how to hold steady.
I always recommend that my students get a subscription to Poets & Writers. I think is wonderful for its writing articles, and also the listing in the back that reminds you to send your work out. Recommending that people send their work out ties into this idea of failure. Yes, if you don't send your work out, you won't get rejected and you'll be spared the rejection. But if you don't send your work out, you'll also never get accepted. So I'm a big believer in once you feel like something is done, just send it out there. Why not? If the only possible risk is that you get discouraged from feeling rejected, then why not just send it out and get rejected a bunch and just let it fall off your back?
KB: What you said about the ego resonated with me. Sometimes you have an idea and then you can kind of talk yourself into why you shouldn't follow that and why it wouldn't work. Ego has so much to do with it, because like you said, you have to fail sometimes. You can hold on to that feeling of not wanting to be rejected and then you don’t do anything.
HP: Yes. It can be paralyzing to fear failure. Whenever I'm sitting down to write, I just try to get in this open state of it's truly okay for this to not work out. Just give it a try. And when I send my work out, it's okay if I don't get accepted.
The starting place is one of just embracing failure and understanding that failure is a part of it and that it’s not a negative part of it. I try to be very neutral about failure.
Helen Phillips is the author of, most recently, the novel The Need. 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 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the NYPL Young Lions Award. Her collection And Yet They Were Happy was named a notable collection by The Story Prize. She is also the author of the middle-grade novel Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green. Helen has received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and the Italo Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Tin House, and on Selected Shorts. She is an associate professor at Brooklyn College and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, artist Adam Douglas Thompson, and their children. Visit HelenCPhillips.com.