Interview with Julia Phillips, Author of Disappearing Earth

If I had to recommend only one book this year, it would hands down be Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips.  This beautiful and atmospheric novel set on Kamchatka, a peninsula in the east of Russia, opens with the abduction of two young girls in a city.  But the genius of the novel lies in the fact that the book isn’t about the abduction. Rather, it’s about the effect this disappearance has on the rest of the community, and the everyday violence that this event reveals.

Each chapter is told in the point of view of a Russian woman in the aftermath of the disappearance, and slowly the novel reveals a full portrait of the diversity of life on Kamchatka, in indigenous communities and ethnically Russian communities, in rural regions and in the city.  Disappearing Earth was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize for Best First Book, longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence, and appeared in numerous Best of 2019 lists, among many, many other accolades.

I became entranced by this novel because of the way it immerses you in a world that’s both known and unknown.  Each time you read it, more depth comes out. The themes and characters of this book stayed with me for most of the year, and so I was thrilled to speak with Julia Phillips about this amazing book, Kamchatka and her experiences in Russia, her writing process, and more.

M: First of all, I love your book.  One of the things I found really powerful about this book was that you tackled this theme of isolation and how that leads to vulnerability and it was layered throughout the novel.  You started with these two girls who are isolated and thus become vulnerable and build it up to how Kamchatka as a peninsula is isolated and thus vulnerable. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this theme and what got you to thinking about these themes?

J: I think it’s something that I think about in daily life a lot.  I love the way you put it: isolation and the vulnerability that results from isolation.  It’s interesting to me how different people are seen as more or less vulnerable or are made as more or less vulnerable and are put at risk to different degrees.  I wanted to explore that state of being at risk and explore how narrow the border is between feeling safe and being in danger. I wanted to explore the faith that we have to keep that those in our community are going to act for our good or at least not actively try to hurt us, and how we can be betrayed by those people.  So the form of the book was a really exciting way for me to try to explore those thoughts and obsessions I have in my own life. I was so interested in how different people experience that state of being at risk, and so it was fun to move from character to character and explore through each one of them the different experiences they have in the world.

You decide to focus on violence faced by women particularly, but then we see lots of different facets of violence that women face on all sorts of levels.  What made you decide to focus on women?

When I was writing this, the question about how being a woman shaped my experience in the world, and how it shaped how people interact with me and other women around me, and what gender-based violence looked like and how that played out in our lives was the number one thing that I thought about.  It felt like the most pressing and shaping part of being in the world. Since the writing of this, other parts of my identity have come to tie that for first place. Womanhood was something I noticed a lot more, but there were other things I wasn’t noticing that were really affecting the way people interact with me and the way I interact with others in the world.  But while I was writing this, gender was far and away the question I was asking myself all the time, and so I wanted in the book to explore that. Writing it was a way to try to understand how people interacted with me and how people interact with each other.

Were the stories you told or the decision to focus on women influenced by your experience in Kamchatka?

Gender was a really prominent part of my time there.  I would say Russia is a patriarchy in the same way that the US is a patriarchy, but the way any patriarchal culture manifests I think is a little different in any specific place.  The way that people talked to me about expectations or understanding of what gender meant or what womanhood meant was a little bit different from the way I was used to hearing about it in the US.  When I was in Kamchatka, my being young and alone and a woman were the three states that put me most at risk. And my being American was often a state that drew a lot of attention but also conferred a lot of safety because it stuck out so much that people protected it, as opposed to folks who weren’t Russian citizens who were not from America.  They have very, very different experiences than I did.

How do you think being American affected the themes or the writing of the book?

I think it affected the book so much that the book is inextricable from it.  The book is entirely shaped by my American-ness. I don’t think it was ever a filter I was able to take off.  I’ve talked about it with a couple of Russians who have read it. They’ve said to me, the terms in which you talk about race in the book are not the terms in which we talk about race.  And that’s strong enough that it feels like an error to those readers, I think. Which is to say, what I would name as an American as white supremacy, ethnonationalism, racism, colonialism are all powerful forces in Russia in some of the same ways they are in America.  They are present around the world in many different cultures and are really powerful forces shaping social interactions. But naming someone as white or talking about whiteness, the way that Russian characters do in the book, is an American convention of what whiteness is.  It’s an American convention in the same way that, when people talk to each other in the book, they say yeah or right or okay or they use words that are American-voiced.  The closest analog in Russia [to that concept of whiteness] would be Russianness: being ethnically Russian and what ethnically Russian means.  But it’s not called whiteness in the same way. To me, that’s the clearest example of the kinds of focus and vocabulary and ways of thinking I have as an American that shape the story.

What was it like discovering these concepts that were so different from the way we talk about things in the US?

My experience as an American is so deeply foundational to me that it’s hard for me to go to a place and contextualize something as totally different from the way we talk about it in the US and completely new.  I go to a new place and I contextualize what I’m seeing there in relation to the American experience I’ve had. And so to me, Kamchatka, which is a completely particular place in the world, totally itself, and has a really rich and unusual and fascinating history, is also a really tidy microcosm of the dynamics in Russia and a lot of American dynamics.  Kamchatka is not a place that’s meant to be or has any intention of being an analog for the American experience. Yet to go there as an American and to see a place that’s been so recently colonized and where those colonizers, that ethnic majority now, have put themselves so emphatically in the seat of power, have made policies around disenfranchising and destabilizing the indigenous inhabitants, where the talk of others coming in or migrants or immigrants is so fearful and so hateful – because my filter is so strong, it’s really hard to come to that place and see it as something unrelated to America or totally different from America.  It seems to be a unique place in the world that is experiencing the same challenges and tensions as lots and lots of other places, and it’s fascinating to me because of that.

In the novel, you bring in lots of historical and political details and context, about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the increase in tourism and the effect of globalization.  How do you think these details set the foundation of the book?

It’s really interesting, because I feel like I’ve just spent twenty-five minutes telling you how similar Kamchatka is to other places and yet the fact that it’s post-Soviet, its geography and infrastructure, that it has no roads connecting it to the mainland, that it’s effectively an island and that it’s—if not literally walled off, by policy was walled off—it was a closed territory and outsiders (people from the mainland or people who weren’t assigned by the government to live on Kamchatka) couldn’t go there—those things are so fundamental to the development of the plot and the way that people relate to each other.  [There exists] the pervasive sense of risk and loss experienced by people who lost their nation thirty years ago, an entire national identity or national faith was changed overnight, the whole economy of the place changed radically, the sense that the golden age is past is so strong. Again, I don’t think that’s particular to Kamchatka in any way. You could find a million Americans, more, unfortunately, who want to go back to the golden time of America, for example. But that is so particular on Kamchatka and it profoundly shaped the way the story was told. If the story was set elsewhere, the themes might be the same, but the plot would be radically different.

The two girls aren’t the only girls who have disappeared in the novel.  There’s also this character Lilia, a girl from an indigenous community who disappeared many years earlier, and her disappearance is treated quite differently than the disappearance of the two sisters.  How did you want to describe the interactions between different communities within Kamchatka—indigenous versus ethnically Russian, rural versus city?

To me, from the start of developing the manuscript, it was most interesting to me to look at a kind of narratively cliché and statistically unusual event of these two little white girls going missing and being abducted by a stranger, not as an end in and of itself but as an entry for us into the dynamics of a community and as a way to understand what everyday violence is.  The way that people who harm others operate is that they choose to harm those who are marginalized. The people we choose to harm in our lives are those we feel are below us or those we would like to position as below us, and that is true across the board. It’s as true for the kidnapper in the first chapter as it is for the characters in later chapters who fetishize or are cold to or try to hurt those in their family or their neighbors or the people around them.  It’s a constant dynamic in the book and so the perpetrator is not this aberration that comes out of nowhere. He is a product of a community or a society in which this behavior is in fact encouraged and learned.

Because that’s my theory of the way the world works and the way that violence happens, the book is like an explication of that theory.  So it was really important to me not to have our only victims be ethnic Russian children. I wanted to give readers the ability to contrast the way those girls are treated with the way Lilia is treated, the way those girls’ mother is treated and what power she has with the way Lilia’s mother is treated, the way those girls’ community is treated by authorities, by media, by neighbors, by anybody with the way [Lilia’s community is treated].  To be able through the advantage of having many characters in many places over a lot of time, to be able to give many perspectives on what has happened here and to be able to share a range of narratives.

I know you spent a long time traveling around Kamchatka and interviewing people. What was the research process like?  After this year or so of being there, how did you figure out what stories to tell and what stories to focus on to bring in a diverse set of voices?

So the research process looked really open-ended.  I just tried to meet as many people and travel to as many places as possible and take all the notes I could take.  I was really, really fortunate in that people on Kamchatka went out of their way to create opportunities for me. I got to travel to a lot of places that people born and raised on Kamchatka might never be able to go because they’re too expensive or because they’re off limits or because of red tape.  Folks there really opened doors for me and it was huge, it was unbelievably fortunate. It ended up being extraordinary for the research and development of the book.

I got to accompany a dogsled race for a month, so I got to go to places on Kamchatka that are usually only accessible by helicopter or by dogsled.  I got to live in a nature reserve for a month, which was really extraordinary and also a place where, if you’re not volunteering there, it’s really only accessible if you have a lot of money to visit.  I got to travel with a group of reindeer herders and see them work for a season and that was really extraordinary and hugely generous of them.

Once I got home, it took a while for the book to percolate.  I wasn’t writing any fiction while I was there and there were some situations or moments that I came across that I thought would be a good seed for a story to start from.  But it took a while for me to see which seeds were most promising and which fell away. I sat on all the material for a year, maybe a year and a half, before I started writing. When I started writing, I found that some of the stuff that really stuck with me were very American seeds.  When I had been on Kamchatka, there were some missing person posters for some girls that grabbed my attention. I found out after I was almost done revising the manuscript that there was a serial killer operating in Petropavlovsk while I had been there. There were stories of American crimes that were ongoing at similar moments that really obsessed me and compelled me and shaped the story a lot.

Part of the reason all of these vast perspectives are fascinating to me is that they are all set in Russia and experienced by Russian women but they aren’t necessarily specific to Russia and Russian women—domestic violence, abuse, struggles of indigenous populations.  When going into the writing of the book, what did you hope readers would get from the novel and what did you hope the universality of the book’s themes would be?

My hope with the book is that people would read it and feel intimacy and engagement with what the characters are experiencing.  Maybe the apartment they’re in or the peninsula they’re on is a place that a given reader has never been, but that they feel some sense of: I understand what it is to be in this person’s shoes, I understand what it is, for this moment, to live this life.  For me, that is what I want fiction to do. I want it to name for me what is unnamed around me and to open my eyes to what in my own existence or relationships or world I hadn’t seen before. That’s my hope for the fiction I would write always. I didn’t want [the book] to be diluted into universality.  I feel like universality comes out of specificity, and so I hope people attach to or love the specific thing about Kamchatka that I really, really love, that I have been in love with for a long time. But that specificity is no impediment; it eases their way into feeling intimacy for who these people are.

To close out, do you have any favorite books or books that you would recommend to people?

Yes! I was actually thinking of this when we were talking about universality and specificity.  Women Talking by Miriam Toews.  It’s so good. To me it’s a perfect book.  It just blew me away. There were so many good books that came out this year, it’s crazy.  I really, really love Good Talk by Mira Jacob.  I love Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine.  I also really love The Affairs of the Falcóns by Melissa Rivero.  Really beautiful, super stunning.  And Miracle Creek by Angie Kim is incredible.

About Julia Phillips: Julia Phillips is the debut author of the nationally bestselling novel Disappearing Earth, which is being published in twenty-one languages and was a finalist for the National Book Award. A Fulbright fellow, Julia has written for The New York Times, ​The Atlantic, and The Paris Review. She lives in Brooklyn.

2 comments

  1. Pam

    What a great interview. Such a compelling book–I love Phillips’ thoughts on violence: “the people we choose to harm in our lives are those we feel are below us or those we would like to position as below us, and that is true across the board. It’s as true for the kidnapper in the first chapter as it is for the characters in later chapters who fetishize or are cold to or try to hurt those in their family or their neighbors or the people around them. It’s a constant dynamic”. This is now on my must-read list. I’m also so curious as to what drew her to Kamchatka and how she managed to spend a year researching there.

  2. Pam

    This is now on my must-read list. Such a compelling read. Phillips’ thoughts on violence are so wise “the people we choose to harm in our lives are those we feel are below us or those we would like to position as below us, and that is true across the board. It’s as true for the kidnapper in the first chapter as it is for the characters in later chapters who fetishize or are cold to or try to hurt those in their family or their neighbors or the people around them. It’s a constant dynamic”. I’m so curious as to what drew her to Kamchatka particularly.

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