The Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia is a sparsely populated landmass that sits atop the Pacific Ring of Fire. Forty percent of the land is covered by volcanoes, twenty-nine of which are active. There are earthquakes, hot springs, extreme weather, brown bears, rivers turned blood red from spawning salmon, and vast frozen expanses. Not many people live there, though more do now than did during the Soviet era—Kamchatka was a closed military zone until 1989. There are no roads connecting it to mainland Russia and much of the territory is accessible only by helicopter (or dogsled).
Julia Phillips is the author of Disappearing Earth, a crime novel set in this remote peninsula of the Russian Far East, “sixteen time zones away” from her hometown of Montclair, New Jersey. Phillips, who studied Russian literature in college, went to Kamchatka on a Fulbright in 2011. While there, she spent a month traveling across Russia’s easternmost tundra with the organizers of the Beringia, a 685-mile dogsled race. More recently, Phillips contributed a piece to BuzzFeed about the challenges facing Kamchatka’s nomadic reindeer herders. In all her writing about Kamchatka, Phillips seems most fascinated by the creative potential of emptiness, identifying in the horizonless tundra feelings of awe and dread in equal measure.
Those feelings are written into every page of her debut novel, Disappearing Earth. Told over the course of a year, the story begins with the news that two young Russian girls, sisters Alyona (age eleven) and Sofia (age eight), have gone missing from Petropavlovsk, the capital city of Kamchatka, one August afternoon. As summer draws to an end, and winter settles in, so too do the anxieties of being a woman in an isolated landscape. In Disappearing Earth, Phillips explores the impact the girls’ abduction has on the fabric of this unique community where xenophobia and tensions between ethnic Russians and the indigenous population are all heightened by the disappearance and the criminal investigation that follows.
I spoke with Julia over the phone about her stunning debut, Kamchatka as muse, and the feminist potential of crime fiction.
One of the things that makes this book so unique is its setting, Kamchatka. It’s not a part of Russia that’s often represented in fiction. Can you say a bit more about your relationship to the place and why you wanted to set your first novel there?
I knew I wanted to set a novel in Russia. I had studied the Russian language for some years; I also studied abroad in Moscow. I knew I wanted to go back to the country and write something there. When I was thinking about where to set it, I wanted to find a place that was less of an urban center, and somewhere more contained, and more distinctive—a region that had its own identity. So, I began looking at different regions of Russia, regions near Lake Baikal. Then, when I learned about Kamchatka, it was just perfect. It was like this enormous setting for a locked-room mystery. Kamchatka’s really contained historically and geographically. There were very few people and no foreigners going in and out of it during the Soviet period. There are no roads connecting it to the mainland. In that isolation, it’s incredibly beautiful and distinctive. It just seemed like a fascinating world of its own, and I really wanted to go.
Your book does such a wonderful job evoking the geographic intensity of Kamchatka, from the volcanoes to the extreme weather to the heavily patrolled borders. Indeed, the inaccessibility of Kamchatka is one of the novel’s most prominent themes. How do you see that fitting into the story and the plot?
I feel it’s really fundamental to both. When I first went to Kamchatka, I knew I wanted to set a book there. I didn’t know what it would be. Upon getting there, it became clear immediately that this would be an ideal place to disappear. It’s the size of California, but most of the area is sparsely populated, and a lot of the area is protected. It’s so far from mainland Russia, and it has this geographic instability; it’s on the Pacific Rim of Fire so it has these volcanic grounds and is prone to earthquakes and landslides. As a result, there’s very little infrastructure there outside the main city. There wasn’t a lot of internet when I was there. There’s not a lot of public transportation or roads. All that gave me the idea for a story, a story where something happens in the city, but as soon as you leave the city limits, people don’t really know what’s going on. In Kamchatka, you can slip between the cracks so easily. It felt like an island, and the place suggested to me a kind of frightening and exciting island story where there’s so much on the island that’s unknown.
Your novel begins with the disappearance of two small girls, sisters. I couldn’t help but think of the parallel to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the most famous Russian crime novel of all time, where the instigating violent act is committed on two sisters. To what extent did you see yourself writing within a larger Russian literary tradition?
I’m interested in how people engage with the book from that direction; it’s come up in some of the responses so far. I don’t think of myself as engaging with the Russian literary tradition at all, really. I feel like what I brought to the story and the place were very much American concerns and American ideas. As much I tried to accurately reflect what I was seeing, what I was seeing was deeply informed, if not completely informed, by my Americanness. When I think about those writers whom I idolize and whom I want to write toward and who inspire me, they’re American writers and anglophone writers, which is interesting—it’s interesting to be in a different country and not be writing into that’s country’s literary tradition. I wish—I would love to chip off in that direction. I’ve been studying Russian for many years, and I feel like I’m still scratching the surface of all that Russian literature holds.
Can you say more about what those American concerns are that you brought to the writing of this novel? And which American and anglophone writers you feel yourself working toward more than toward, say, Dostoyevsky?
I’m thinking of writers like Alice Munro or Louise Erdrich, people who are telling stories of communities or entire places and take you into a rich and robust world in doing so. Those were the people who—when I read their work, I learned that literature could be intimate, real and alive. When I think about the American concerns that I brought to Kamchatka, I think a lot about the dynamics of gender-based violence. I’m interested in watching and reading and listening to explorations of individual cases where women and girls are hurt, or in danger, or go missing. To me, that’s an extremely compelling story and most compelling when it’s connected to the failings of a larger system.
That brings me to my next question. True crime and crime fiction have had this big resurgence in popular culture. The victims in many of these TV shows, podcasts, and books are women. Your novel seems to look at this issue of violence against women from a slightly different angle, namely at how hearing these gruesome stories affects all women, affects their sense of vulnerability, affects the way that other people police their bodies and behavior. Was that the case?
Yes, absolutely. The design of this book was intended to explore the range of violences in women’s lives. The girls who go missing in the beginning—that’s an example of an extraordinarily rare and highly publicized kind of violence. Abduction of children by a stranger—it doesn’t happen, really, and when it does happen, it receives a lot of media coverage. But then there are these other violences or harms that happen every day that are not talked about really, like a toxic relationship or a doctor’s appointment that goes wrong. Each of those things does not happen in a vacuum; they’re part of an enormous range of hurts. A lot of what I’m talking about are things that I brought with me to Kamchatka. These are things that preoccupy me all the time, the conversations I have and the way I interact with the world is not just around gender, but around power structures and how these structures shape whose stories are told, how they’re told, which harms are given attention and which harms are just kind of swept under the rug. That’s really compelling to me.
That also ties into my next question. Many of the characters in the novel are not ethnically Russian. The culture and social challenges of indigenous communities in Russia feature prominently in your novel. How did you see the indigenous experience fitting into a novel about crime?
Gosh, I saw it as fundamental. The girls who go missing in the beginning live in a city that is majority ethnic Russian. They’re ethnic Russians; in my American sensibility, that means they’re read as “white.” They’re young. They’re children. They fall very squarely into that perfect victim trope, and their cause is taken up in large part because they are palatable. People find them easy to sympathize with, care for, and they want to protect them. Meanwhile there are other, indigenous people in this narrative who have been hurt in the same way, but whose experiences have been totally overlooked, mischaracterized, ignored and perpetuated. It’s fundamental to the plot that that is recognized. Because the way people so often react to crime and perpetrators of crime is informed by race, I can’t imagine writing a crime story without that being a huge component.
Can you say more about the structure of the novel? At times, it almost read like a short story collection. Each chapter drops us into a different world—from the lives of employees at the volcanic institute, to an indigenous dance troupe, to the day-to-day existence of rescue workers. What did that kind of structure make possible for you?
I wanted the book to be about a whole community. The way I think of it in my head is like a spiral. We start with the girls and we get further and further out and then we kind of come sharply back in toward the end. That’s the image I had in my head when I was writing. It was interesting to me that the people on the farthest edges of that spiral, those peoples’ lives—they don’t know these girls, they’ve never met these girls, and yet their lives are showing reverberations of this crime. The way the characters relate to the girls’ disappearance is I think hugely illuminating of who’s living on this peninsula, what the priorities are of this community, and why the investigation of this crime is proceeding the way that it is. So even those things that seem most peripheral are relevant.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new novel that’s still in the early stages, and I’m really excited about it. It has a lot of thematic relevance to this book. Thank god it’s not set on a volcanic Russian peninsula that I need to save up for three years to get to. It’s a little closer to home. It has very similar things going on in terms of power structures, and gendered and racial violence. Those are the things that I think about all the time and that seem to shape my life, and so I want to understand them better. For me, writing is a way for me to better understand the world I live in. I don’t know when I’ll stop writing about those things, but I don’t think it’s now.
Jennifer Wilson is a writer. She received her Ph.D. in Russian Literature from Princeton University.
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