Julia Phillips’ debut novel, Disappearing Earth, explores the intricacies and complexities of women’s lives in a refreshing and beautiful way. It also takes a deep look into the violence within these lives, both publicly and privately, from grand acts of harm like kidnapping to every day hurts of toxic relationships, hiding ones true self or fear of being harmed.
Women are actively represented in this novel as a small Russian community searches for two sisters, young girls who were taken one summer afternoon. But instead of focusing on the investigation, Phillips’ novel explores how women are directly and indirectly affected by this invasive act within a small, close knit town of Kamchatka.
This book is about humanity, family, relationships, ethnicity, heritage and the rippling effect of community. I was so fortunate to speak with Julia over the phone, where we had an absolutely wonderful conversation on writing and the creation of this fantastic novel.
Check out our conversation below where Julia discusses this exploration of violence in women’s lives, the pain that comes with writing, creating really bad first drafts and how Disappearing Earth came into being.
Kailey Brennan: I’m really interested in your connection to Russia. Setting is such a huge part of this story so I’m curious as to what sparked the idea for this novel? What is your connection to this part of the world?
Julia Phillips: I’m a Russophile. Which is a funny thing to say, but I’m a fan of the country in a way that has grown and gotten more complex over time as the American relationship with Russia changes. I started being really interested in Russia when I was in middle school. Then I studied the language in college – I studied in Moscow for a semester— and all this time I really, really wanted to be a novelist. I was trying to figure out a way to combine these strong interests.
One was a professional and creative passion and the other was this persistent hobby. I would say almost obsession. So I thought, well, I want to write a book set in Russia and then I can move to Russia and write and kind of have it all. The idea was that general at first. I started looking at different places that seemed like they would be an interesting setting. I had already spent a good amount of time in western Russia and I thought I'd like to go someplace more Central or Eastern. I'd like to go someplace that has a distinctive regional identity that is perhaps more isolated or more contained. Not an enormous city, but somewhere that has fewer people, and therefore fewer subjects to get to know. And somewhere beautiful to look at because I'd like to live someplace beautiful.
So when I learned about Kamchatka, I thought, wow, this is everything I could ever imagine and more. It just seemed like the perfect setting for the story I could ever want to tell. I started applying for grants for this project in 2009 —this project being a novel about and set in Kamchatka. I got a grant and moved there in 2011.
KB: How long did you live there?
JP: I was there for about a year and then I came back to the US in 2012. Then, I saved up for a few more years and I started writing this manuscript and I went back in 2015 for a summer with the my first draft in hand to do a little more research.
KB: You didn’t know anyone there or have family there? You just went on this adventure?
JP: Yeah, pretty much. I don't have any Russian heritage. I didn't know anyone in Kamchatka besides the folks that I was corresponding with on the Internet — people who went to Universities there or from nature protection organizations who offered to support my grant applications. But I had never met anyone who lived in or was from Kamchatka until I landed there in 2011 to live there for a year.
KB: I wanted to talk about the structure of your book because I found it so interesting. We learn about the kidnapped girls and then each chapter is about how this event directly or indirectly impacted someone else’s life within the community. So you had to create all these different characters. I’m curious how you came to that narrative decision and if there were any challenges when creating so many different characters.
JP: Funnily enough, the structure is specific, as you said, in the way that it changes the point of view of characters every chapter and that it moves forward one month every chapter, going through a whole year — it’s really narrowly defined yet that structure came super early.
And I think deciding on that structure so early was that I went to Kamchatka to learn about this place, to learn about a community and I was meeting so many different people. What I realized very quickly was that I wanted to tell a story of a group of people and not just an individual or a couple of individuals or, for example, the relationship of a victim and a perpetrator or a victim, perpetrator, and investigator. It felt insufficient and I wanted to capture what I was seeing around me and what I was learning and what was exciting to me about being in this place.
So that structure came shockingly early. If anything I had too many characters. (Laughs)
It was more of a challenge paring them down than it was creating them. The challenge came in figuring out the right ways for them to overlap. So much of the book, I would say all of the book, in many ways is about their relationships with each other and about how those relationships can create space or responsibility for hurting each other. And also foster hope or promise or capacity for healing. So those relationships were so important and it was challenging and interesting to kind of tease out what those relationships are, what this network is and adjust it to fit just right. I did a lot of Google calendars and notes pinned to bulletin boards and strings going from one note to another. It was definitely complicated in the writing and revising process.
KB: I love how the perspectives are all through different women. We've got women dealing with an overbearing boyfriend, dark sexual fantasies, grappling with motherhood, women working, women having to hide their sexuality. It was refreshing to see all of these different approaches to the complexity of womanhood. What do you hope readers take away from learning about all these different women?
JP: God, that's a great question. I think a lot of the structure and the intention very early on was to explore the range of violence in women's lives. So to start with this really rare and spectacular and unusual act of violence — the abduction of a child by a stranger is so unusual. When it happens, it gets so much media coverage and attention and so much excitement around it.
Especially in a case like the sisters in the first chapter of this book, they are presented very much as perfect in their community's eyes. They’re white presenting, they're very young. They're given this space for innocence and for attention.
I wanted to look at an incident like that in relation to a lot of every day or private or seemingly commonplace violence or hurts. You named a lot of them just now. The everyday violence of a toxic relationship or having to hide your queerness, fear of being harmed — those were things that I wanted to look at. First off, to name and to point out and to tease out the relationship of those spectacular and rare violences to those everyday ones.
I really wanted to focus on women and girl's lives and look at the ways that we are both harmed and that we harm others and that we might be able to push back against or heal from or acknowledge, at least, those harms.
I would love for a reader of this book to not to look at it as, you know, here is a story about a kidnapping which is something that would never happen to me in a place I've never been and has nothing to do with me. I would love someone to read it and think this is something that resonates with my fears and with my experiences and with my desire. When I read these women's lives, even though they're so far away geographically from where I am as I read, they are very close to my life in many other ways — ways that I hope are illuminating or at least provide some feeling of comfort, of relief, of acknowledgment.
KB: Personally, I think you did that because one of the things that I took from this novel is how one event can affect everyone in the community, whether they realize it or not.
I think our current social climate in America, where there is so much going on and I don't know if people realize how much one action can affect everyone so differently, you know? As you said, the disappearance of girls really does cause a frenzy in a way, a weird excitement. I just think about all the true crime TV shows and podcasts and things that are so popular. But I'm one of the first to consume them. I kind of feel weird about it because I wonder why am I so interested in them.
JP: This one podcast that I'm obsessed with explores this in a fascinating way. I was listening to a lot while I was editing this book. It’s called “In the Dark.” It’s so good. It very specifically looks at one incident. In the first season of the podcast it a child abduction and the second season it looks at a court case surrounding a quadruple murder. But it doesn't just sit with that incident. It looks at all the relationships and the structures and law enforcement and criminal justice and how the failures or weaknesses of those systems allow these incidents to take place, even encourages these incidents to take place.
It's this enormous ripple effect.
I'm obsessed with the podcast. Whenever I listened to it, I thought these are the kinds of stories and framing of stories that I want to be consuming and that often I don’t because it's so salacious to consume a kind of individual level, really, really tight focus crime story.
KB: I’m definitely going to look that one up.
What do you value about community? Did you grow up with a strong sense of community or your own tribe growing up?
JP: That's a really good question. You know, it's funny, during the past couple of weeks I was thinking about how I felt when I was growing up. Two weeks after my book came out, which is the dream of my life come true, it's been interesting to reflect on who was around me my whole life and also how I perceived who was around me.
I have been thinking about how deeply connected I feel now. Increasingly, deeply connected to a whole world of people. Even people that I hadn't talked to in years or who's interaction with each other was pretty brief. And yet I've been thinking about what an enormous feeling of excitement and investment I have in all these people that I hardly know or never knew well. And how I feel in this happy moment and joy of others feelings for me.
It seems like that community, that network is so robust–more enormous and deep than I ever realized.
But when I was growing up, I don't think I had any perception of that at all. I was pretty pissed off a lot of the time. (Laughs) I think I felt that the reason I was pissed off must be because of my surroundings. I must be so mad because other people weren't doing enough or that I wasn't being given enough or that I wasn't being shown the right opportunity.
I grew up in a setting where I was presented with every opportunity. This was not a justified reaction. It was a very teenage or child brain feeling, but a lot of time I felt alone. I look back now and I see that I wasn't. And that’s interesting.
KB: I feel like I'm the same way. I can very much relate to what you just said.
JP: I wonder if it's some kind of brain development thing. When we're young, it's hard to have the perspective or to take a step back and see how much is around me or see how much love is there.
KB: It feels like you get stuck in this one story you tell yourself. Like for you, you felt alone and said to yourself I’m alone, even though you really weren’t.
JP: Totally. And that story becomes defining. You're trying to figure out who you are and what your identity is. Then these stories become who you think you are. All my qualities are defined by that so then I have to stick to that.
KB: Wow. Now I’m really thinking about that (Laughs)
JP: I think it's also terrifying and a big responsibility to think about the relationships we have to others and the network of feeling that we are inside of or the relationships we are in. To appreciate that is overwhelming in some ways.
KB: Did you have a specific writing routine or ritual that you like to stick to when writing this book? How long did it take you to finish?
JP: So it took me both a long time and a short time to finish this book. The seed for the idea, the idea of writing a novel set in this place was in 2009. I took notes and researched it really intensely until about 2014 but I wasn't doing any actual fiction writing. Then I wrote the manuscript relatively quickly. I started it summer 2014 and I placed it with an agent in January of 2017. So it was about two and a half years of writing and revising. Then my editor and I worked on it a little over a year together. It’s a pretty long editorial process after it is sold to a publisher —which was incredible.
I have writing rituals, but I don't have as much of a writing routine as I would wish. I write longhand and I revise on the computer. So I write out first drafts or any other material and then I type it into the computer and retype it over and over and over again to revise that.
On good days, I write every day. And I truly mean, if I write a word in my notebook, I’m like I've written for the day (Laughs) My best writing days are maybe an hour of writing and that is extraordinary. If I write for two hours, I feel like I can't talk to anyone that day. I am totally drained out and exhausted and ragged.
Editing is a lot more comfortable for me and I can revise for many, many hours a day. Getting the first draft is the hardest part for me. But then I can do many, many, many drafts after that more comfortably. I had a routine around editing as the work progressed but I really struggled with a first drafts routine. It's very painful.
KB: Yeah. Painful is a great word. I haven’t written a book like you, but when I do go to write, I think why can’t I just get this out? It’s in my head. I know what I want to say. But yet it’s painful.
JP: I feel that way with every single word I write. And it's weird to think about. First off, what is the pain coming from? And why am I subjecting myself to this? Yet it’s important and good.
I've never gotten a good meditation practice going at all, but I feel like meditation has been painful in the same way. This sitting with yourself and challenging yourself and trying to just be present and let whatever's coming up come. It feels super similar in a way that seems unbearable. (Laughs)
KB: Do you read any Marcy Dermansky?
JP: I’m dying to read Very Nice. Is that what you are reading now? Is it really great?
KB: Yes, it's so good. I thought of it because one of the characters, doesn’t hand in her creative writing project and she says something like I wanted it to be brilliant so I didn’t write it at all. That’s probably why I’m not writing (Laughs)
JP: The first draft is the worst it's ever going to be. I would love to find some way to reframe this that was a little more empowering or liberating, but I really feel like the only part of the writing process where you go from something better to something worse is going from nothing to the first draft. In your head, it is so good and perfect and then when you write it down that first time, it’s disgusting. It’s so bad. (Laughs) Then every single time you touch it after that, it just gets better and better and better and better. You can mold it. Even on bad writing days, you can revert to where you were the day before. So you can always keep it at its best possible place. But that first draft the worst. It’s the opposite of brilliant. I totally understand that.
KB: Do you have a new novel in mind or are you working on anything else?
JP: Yeah, I have a new novel in mind. I am in that first draft place, which is really challenging. I was really lucky to be able to get in a lot of writing time earlier in the spring and the beginning of this year, right after I quit my job and before starting this new job —this self-assigned job of being an author. I’m not writing at all right now. I haven't even touched it for a few months, but it's nice to know that it's there to come back to. I think about how long Disappearing Earth took and how long previous projects took and all the different kind of shapes my writing took over that time. It gives me some relief to think, okay, I've got an idea, I've got excitement, I've got something to go to. Even if it doesn't feel on a day to day basis it is going somewhere.
KB: That’s great. I’m definitely excited about that. When you are done with the disgusting first draft.
JP: Yeah, exactly. In the year 3000. I can’t wait.
Julia Phillips is the author of the debut novel Disappearing Earth. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, and The Paris Review and been supported by a Fulbright fellowship. She lives in Brooklyn.
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