Helen Phillips is the author of the novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat (Henry Holt, August 2015). Her collection And Yet They Were Happy (Leapfrog Press, 2011) was named a notable collection by The Story Prize. She wrote the children’s adventure book Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green (Delacorte Press, 2012). Helen has received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, the Italo Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction, The Iowa Review Nonfiction Award, the DIAGRAM Innovative Fiction Award, the Meridian Editors’ Prize, and a Ucross Foundation residency. Her work has been featured at the Brooklyn Museum, and in Tin House, The New York Times, Electric Literature, New York Magazine, and BOMB, among others. A graduate of Yale and the Brooklyn College MFA program, she is an assistant professor of creative writing at Brooklyn College. Helen lives in Brooklyn with her husband, artist Adam Douglas Thompson, and their two children. Her new collection, Some Possible Solutions, is forthcoming from Henry Holt in 2016.
Helen’s newest novel, The Beautiful Bureaucrat, immerses the reader in a world where everything seems slightly off. The protagonist, Josephine, gets a job in a windowless building where employees are rarely seen. Josephine inputs string of numbers into The Database with no idea how her work translates in the real world. Her husband, Joseph, is her anchor. But soon he begins to disappear without explanation and her anxiety increases. Their shared dream of creating a family together seems impossible. And then Josephine discovers what her data entry means in the real world. She must infiltrate the windowless building to save that which she loves. Moody, spare, and compelling, Phillips’s work has earned comparisons to Margaret Atwood, Aimee Bender, and Haruki Murakami.
I was delighted to talk to Helen Phillips about her new novel, The Beautiful Bureaucrat.
I love books about terrible jobs. Your novel has Josephine entering data she doesn’t understand into a Database in a windowless office where human contact is almost non-existent. Was this novel inspired by a real terrible job? How much did you make up? What aspect of her job was your favorite and why?
For four years I had an administrative job at a public university, and during admissions season my work involved a ton of data entry. I liked the job otherwise, but that time of year was always hard to endure. So there was a small seed from my own experience for Josephine’s job, though hers is the dramatically exaggerated, nightmare version. My favorite aspect of her job is her hushed adventures through the long hallways and her surreal encounters with the other bureaucrats, such as the bureaucrat who’s in a conniption of laughter over a minor typo.
Josephine must type name after name into the Database. How did you come up with so many names?
I’ve always been fascinated by names. When I was seven years old, I begged my babysitter to buy me a baby name book for sale by the register at the grocery store. (“Are you planning on having a baby soon?” she said.) In fact, I referred to that same old baby name book when working on the names for The Beautiful Bureaucrat. One of the pleasures of writing the book was coming up with the long lists of names. I did a lot of research online to find a wide variety of surnames. (At one point I even imagined an unconventional format for the book—in the left column would be the story and in the right column a list of names running alongside the whole thing. But ultimately I decided that would have been too distracting.)
Josephine and her husband Joseph anchor the book. They’re twin-like in some ways and opposite in others. Can you talk about how you thought of them, apart and together?
Yes, on the one hand they are twins (they even have the same name), and on the other hand they experience times of utter alienation from each other. I was trying to capture those mysterious ups and downs of intimacy, the way a perfect sense of union can suddenly shatter, the way a moment of distance can morph into a moment of closeness. It’s a strange paradox that the closer you get to someone the more you risk feeling profoundly separate from them at times.
This novel is rich in setting. From Josephine’s dirty pink office walls to her series of cramped and filthy apartments. How did you construct Josephine’s world?
I often move through the world with the sense that there’s a nightmare version of everything hovering just beneath the surface. Take a normal office, a normal apartment, tweak it just a tad, and its dark nature arises. I think of David Lynch, the way a familiar scene (a couple sleeping in a bed, a car driving up a hill) turns almost unbearably creepy in his hands. It’s about unveiling the uneasiness lying beneath the mundane. Josephine’s world is the uncanny, haunted version of the world I know.
The world Josephine inhabits shares many traits with ours but has a distinctly ‘other,’ almost Kafkaesque feel to it. How did such a world restrict you as a writer and how did it free you in the story’s telling?
While Josephine does certainly inhabit an alternate reality, it’s a reality that comes easily to me, as mentioned above; I never felt restricted by the bizarre setting but only liberated by it, as it gave me the opportunity to fully explore and examine the shadowy alternate world to which I am always attuned.
There’s a lot of word play, between Joseph and Josephine, and by Josephine alone. Was this a trait you imagined early?
The frequent wordplay in this book is a more explicit manifestation of the wordplay, or word-awareness, that always interests me in my work. But it was only in the third or fourth draft that I realized how central the wordplay was to the plot and gave myself permission to fully indulge in it.
Josephine occupies unstable territory. You flip safe spaces into dangerous ones, and allies into enemies. It keeps the reader surprised, and uneasy. Did you plan all these reversals in advance?
I didn’t plan all the reversals in advance—but I come at writing (and, I guess, at life) from the basic perspective that nothing is what it seems. I love reading books that contain these sorts of flips, from positive to negative (and vice versa) in the space of a chapter or a paragraph or, best of all, a sentence. This seems very accurate to me in terms of how life feels, how interactions can turn on a dime, how swiftly moods can shift. The shaky territory of everyday existence.
This book is slim in page count but it packs a punch. Do you write bigger and pare down words in editing? Or are you naturally gifted at creating meaning with fewer words?
Definitely the first. At one point in the seven-year writing process, this book was 350 pages. I almost abandoned it then—it was such a confusing quagmire. But I decided to stick with it, slice it down to only the most essential elements—a process that felt challenging at first and then liberating. The draft that I finally sold to the publisher was 150 pages.
Secondary characters in this story are rarely what they seem initially. My favorite was the maternal waitress, Hillary. Did you have a favorite secondary character?
For me it’s a toss-up between Hillary and Josephine’s coworker Trishiffany, the two poles of female power in the book to which Josephine gravitates. They both possess simultaneous warmth and coldness. They both have weird little quirks and ticks. And they both offer Josephine nourishment—of a sort.
I’m always interested in what doesn’t survive earlier drafts. Is there a character or scene you cut that you still think of now?
In cutting 200 pages from the book I did have to part with a good bit of material. The main thing I miss is WOMWA, the self-dubbed “Wives of Men Who Abandon.” In earlier drafts, Hillary took Josephine to her home and introduced her to this exuberant, eccentric, boozy club of middle-aged women. In the finished book, Hillary serves as a stand-in for all of WOMWA. But those old WOMWA scenes had a lot of vitality I think. I’ll have to use them somewhere else sometime.
You’ve written two previous books: And Yet They Were Happy, an inter-genre collection of stories, and Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green, a middle-grade adventure novel. How did these books prepare you for The Beautiful Bureaucrat? Was writing an adult novel different in any way?
When I started The Beautiful Bureaucrat, I gave myself the challenge to write a book that combined the preoccupations of And Yet They Were Happy (surreality, precision of language, image, metaphor, big questions) with the preoccupations of Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green (suspenseful plot, compelling characters, chase scenes). Every book is its own mysterious journey, but I do feel as though both of those books helped trained me to write this one.
Imagine I asked you a really great question you’re dying to answer. What’s the question? What’s the answer?
Q: What it is up with the waitress Hillary brazenly telling the exact same fortune to two different individuals?
A: Check out Bertram Forer’s study “The Fallacy of Personal Validation: A Classroom Demonstration of Gullibility,” first published in 1949 in The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology.
To learn more about Helen Phillips, including her book tour dates, visit her website.