By Peggy Townsend
SANTA CRUZ (January 2009) -- Jayne Anne Phillips’ new novel “Lark and Termite” began 25 years ago in an alley in West Virginia.
Phillips was visiting a friend when she looked out a second-story window into an alley below and spotted a boy sitting in a 1950s aluminum lawn chair. The boy was holding a strip of blue dry cleaner bag in front of his face and blowing on it so the plastic twirled and moved in front of his eyes. Her friend told Phillips the boy would sit like that for hours.
The image burned into Phillips’ memory and became the impetus for one of the central characters in her latest book -- a boy named Termite who can neither speak nor walk but is attuned to the world in ways that go beyond normal consciousness.
On the phone, Phillips is relaxed and thoughtful.
“I began writing as poet,” she said. “Then I wrote short, one-page fiction. Then, novels.” Her writing process, she said, is slow and careful, with language the key. “I compose line by line as a poet would,” said Phillips, who directs the MFA program at Rutgers Newark. “It is a layering of images.”
She starts writing early in the morning and said it is a slow and laborious process for her. "I need to work all day to make any progress," she said.
A demanding job and her role as a parent also means she has to stop and start her work at times. But rather than a negative, Phillips sees those delays as a positive. They guarantee the story will be compelling enough to bring her back again and again, she said.
It took eight years to complete this book.
Told from alternating points of view, “Lark and Termite” is a story about secrets, love and memory, telling the tale of a young soldier in the Korean War named Leavitt, his bride Lola, the son Termite whom he will never know, and Termite’s half-sister Lark who becomes the boy’s caretaker and soulmate.
As Phillips tells it, the creation of her novel seemed almost magical at times.
From that first glimpse of the boy in the lawn chair, she created a character who, among other things, was fascinated by the sounds around him and loved to hear the roar of a train going through a double railroad tunnel nearby. That old lawn chair also sparked the idea of setting the story in the 1950s, so that no one could really say what was wrong with the boy, Phillips said.
As she was finishing up the stories of Termite and Lark, according to Phillips, she opened the newspaper one day to see a color photograph of a double railroad tunnel, almost identical to the one she had fashioned in her novel.
The tunnel was the scene of a massacre of South Korean refugees by American troops at No Gun Ri, Korea, in the 1950s. The story of the killings was unearthed by three Associated Press reporters, including Martha Mendoza of Santa Cruz, who won Pulitzer Prizes for their work.
"It struck me as this amazing kind of coincidence," Phillips said. "It was so much like the image that was already in my manuscript."
Phillips began doing research about No Gun Ri and it became the setting for the soldier Leavitt’s story, which opens the novel as he tries to save a young Korean boy from a massacre as his own son is being born in the United States.
“A writer,” said Phillips, “is someone who walking home in the dark, hears a fragment of conversation from an open window and imagines a world from that.”
That kind of imagination and empathy was how Phillips was able reach into the lives of each of her characters, including the life of a boy whose world was about sensation and perception, rather than language.
“I have known children in my life who have made a deep impression on me,” Phillips said. They are children challenged by disabilities but who have extraordinary ways of looking at, and being, in the world.
It is the process of writing, when an author may find themselves sinking into a meditative state, that “they have access to things they may not know,” Phillips said.
In this way, she was able to climb inside a boy who was intelligent and extremely perceptive, but whose body did not work, a boy who compensated by learning to “throw” his consciousness like a ventriloquist, finding himself, for instance, inside the consciousness of a yellow cat, where he feels the power of its nimble and quick movements.
“A writer often has permeable boundaries,” Phillips said. “They empathize deeply whether they want to or not.”
It is Phillips’ gift that she allows a reader to empathize deeply with her characters, to let the reader feel them as strongly as she did while she created them.
"A good book should operate at different levels of reading," Phillips said. "A good book teaches a reader how to read it."
Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips, 254 pages, Alfred A. Knopf. $24