Helen Phillips (left) and Laura Van Den berg (right)
When an early copy of Helen Phillips’s new novel, The Need, turned up at my apartment, I had not read a book in two months. I had been unable to read, in fact. My father had died recently and each time I tried to open a book, longing to slide into an alternate present, I instead hit a wall. The Need broke that wall for me. The novel concerns a woman named Molly, a paleobotanist who is home alone with her children when she thinks she hears an intruder in the house—and the events that follow upend her understanding of her world. The book is written in short and thrilling chapters, at once a cat-and-mouse tale of suspense and a profound exploration of identity and reality, of fate and time.
I had the great pleasure of interviewing Helen at the Harvard Bookstore recently and as we talked we discovered some intriguing overlap between our most recent projects. So we decided to keep talking. This conversation took place over email, over the course of several weeks in August. We discussed The Need, published by Simon & Schuster in July, and The Third Hotel, out in paperback from Picador this month, plus dislocated realities, genre, maternal love, and endings.
On the first page of The Third Hotel, your protagonist Clare admits, “I am experiencing a dislocation of reality,” a sentence that stayed with me as I read the book. The sands of reality do seem to be shifting under Clare’s feet in each scene, which brings me to a perhaps unanswerable question that arises for me in many of my favorite works of fiction. Do you consider your protagonist to be an unstable narrator in a stable world, or a stable narrator in an unstable world?
VAN DEN BERG
I am inclined to claim both, if I may. Clare is wild with grief of various sorts, which creates instability in her own perspective. At the same time, I do think the world—her world, our world—is inherently volatile. To make an obvious point, there is just so much we don’t know and can’t explain. I was just reading about the physicist Leah Broussard’s work on mirror matter, which is bananas, and a concept that is certainly relevant to The Need. After my father died, I thought on several occasions that he was speaking to me through my sister’s dog. I know how that sounds, and yet after a series of deeply uncanny occurrences, such a thought not only seemed possible but also like the obvious and logical conclusion. Was that instability coming from my own grief-deranged self or from some other cosmic force or a collaboration between us? Who can say?
I would love to ask the same question of your protagonist, Molly. The novel opens with a dawning awareness that there is an intruder in her home—and, without veering into spoilers, the intruder’s identity introduces major questions about Molly’s grasp on reality. The intruding force is a wholly real element in the book, it’s not a dream or a fantasy, and at the same time, the novel could also accommodate a reading more grounded in psychological realism—that Molly unconsciously conjured this threat. Do you see the instability as rising from the world around Molly or more from Molly herself? Or both?
Yes, I suppose at base we are all unstable narrators in an unstable world!
As I was writing The Need, I conceived of the science fiction/speculative element quite literally. I wanted Molly to reckon with her nemesis in a very concrete, physical way. Molly is a logical, scientifically minded person who is compromised by sleep deprivation and by the intensity of her love for and anxiety about her children. In that compromised state, she has to confront a situation that defies logic, a situation that forces her to make the most challenging emotional and ethical decision of her life. The world itself is unstable, not just Molly’s experience of it. Because, yes, as you observe, the world is always throwing surreal scenarios at us. When my daughter was eight weeks old, my sister died—the instability I experienced in that time of simultaneous new love and new loss took place both inside of me and outside of me.
To continue on this question of reality and its dislocations, we get some further insight into Clare’s dislocation of reality when Yuniel Mata—“the director of the first horror film ever to be made in Cuba”—gives a talk in which he states, “the foundation of horror is a dislocation of reality, a dislocation designed to reveal the reality that has been there all along.” Could you speak to the way that a dislocation of reality can help reveal reality?
Horror films often use extreme dislocations from reality to uncover matter that has been repressed, buried, ignored. I feel like the genre’s great subject is silencing and unsilencing. Silence is ruptured through the introduction of an atmospheric disturbance so enormous it cannot be ignored. A serial killer on the loose, a creature in the house, and so on. In Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook—which has some thematic resonance with The Need—a mother and son are menaced by a terrifying presence in their home. The presence is a real force, creating real terror, and yet there is also the sense that the characters’ untended grief and rage have helped open the portal. Who summons the monster, who needs the monster, and why? So I was first interested in looking at this idea of dislocated realities in the context of horror and, later, within other contexts as well. The dislocation of extreme and sudden grief, the way tourism can dislocate a place from itself, the way certain questions can make the foundation of who we think we are become newly unstable.
As I mentioned a little while ago, the identity of the intruding force upends Molly’s reality when it’s revealed—is this idea of dislocated realities, or some version of it, something you were thinking about while working on The Need?
I’ve been thinking about dislocated realities my whole life. I remember imagining, as a child, that versions of myself were constantly splitting off into other parallel realities—the Helen who got hit by a car when she was riding her bike through the intersection, the Helen who had Grape-Nuts rather than Cheerios for breakfast, the Helen who didn’t lose her hair due to alopecia at age eleven.
There are multiple dislocations in The Need. Yes, the dislocation of extreme and sudden grief. The dislocation of encountering a threat to one’s known reality. The dislocation of identity one experiences as a new parent. Dislocation can provide perspective. It enables Molly to be perceive the sacredness of her daily grind, something she had come to take for granted. Dislocation is also related to empathy—in order to feel for another, we must step outside of ourselves.
In your book, there’s a dynamic interplay between moments of magic—the invisible wall that prevents Clare from attending the screening or the appearance of her dead husband—and the intensely evoked physical reality of Clare’s time in Cuba. This book is part ghost story, part mystery novel, part travelogue. How did you conceive of the balance between the otherworldly and the worldly in the book? Did you know from the start that some aspects of the book would challenge conventional logic?
When I interviewed you at Harvard Bookstore, I loved what you had to say about genre. The Need is part science fiction, part existential thriller, part domestic realism—I believe, at some point, you described the book as an “existential thriller with lots of breast milk.” It sounded as though you weren’t hung up on how to categorize the novel while creating. Rather, you were responding to the demands of the story, to what interested you artistically. I work in a similar way. I am drawn to hybridity in respect to genre, and I’m often excited by the idea of encouraging unlikely narrative elements to sit alongside one another. For me, The Third Hotel is part psychological horror/ghost story, part travel novel, and part detective’s quest, in addition to also being a book about marriage, that age-old question of how well we can ever know those closest to us. And I urgently needed all those elements to tell this particular story, partly because these elements, in combination, allowed for the balance of the earthed and the otherworldly that you mentioned. But also it took time for me to understand how these different subjects would intersect and amplify one another—for a while I kept a notebook that was devoted exclusively to annotating overlap.
How do you approach genre in your work? Do you think that approach shifted at all with The Need?
What I was trying to write about in The Need—the proximity of birth and death, the terrifying ferocity and beauty of maternal love, what it felt like to be falling in love with my firstborn daughter just as my parents were losing their firstborn daughter—very nearly defies expression. Perhaps it does defy expression. But there was definitely no way for me to even approach it without pulling on a wide range of tools, borrowing from multiple genres. I needed the emotional intensity and momentum of a thriller-like scenario. I needed the appearance of the perfect nemesis from the cosmic void. And, I needed the day-to-day texture of life with young children, which is at once a very mundane reality of dirty diapers and tantrums, and a very elevated reality—I would give my life for their lives. I was thinking equally of Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood on the one hand, and Jenny Offill and Rachel Cusk on the other.
One book that bends genre along similar lines is Fever Dream, by Samanta Schweblin. The creeping physical threat in that book reminds me of a motif in The Third Hotel. Throughout the book, Clare experiences a sensation that she describes as “eels” under her skin. This visceral image sticks with me. Are we perhaps to understand that the dislocation of reality has extended even to her own body—that she is disoriented in her own skin?
For sure—in part, that’s the horror influence coming through. Horror tends to be a very bodily genre, one where the body is often defamiliarized in alarming ways. There is a horror movie-within-the-novel and it’s a zombie movie, which is of course a very extreme example of physical transformation and derangement. But any kind of dislocated reality suggests, to me, a radical upending of how one sees and also how one feels in their own skin—how it feels to breathe, to sleep, to swallow, to blink, to step outside, to pass from one room to another.
For Molly, there is a bodily component to the particular nature of the terror she’s confronting. At the same time, the bodily demands of Molly’s children help to anchor her. They might also frustrate and exhaust her, but there is mooring to be found there. How does that reading strike you?
It’s interesting that you describe horror as being “a very bodily genre,” because from its earliest beginnings, I thought of The Need as a book about the body. The way the body bears love, the way the body bears grief, the way the body is the site of both entrapment and transformation.
Pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing are concrete and striking examples of this. Bearing a child is in a sense the most “natural” thing a human can do with her body. It is also among the most surreal things a human can do with her body. When you are in labor, your body feels possessed by a force outside of you. When you are nursing, you become a food source to another creature. At the same time, the hormones released during nursing are incredible. I miss that transcendent sensation of harmony and well-being.
I wanted to try to capture that physical duality in the book—the responsibilities that Molly’s body has to other bodies, and the joyful connection of her body to the bodies of her children.
On another topic, one of my favorite lines in The Third Hotel is: “that was why surveillance was so lethal: a true erosion of privacy inevitably led to an erosion of self.” This succinctly expresses a fear that I experience as facial recognition technologies become more common. It is also particularly interesting in this context, given that Clare has spent most of the book observing, or trying to observe, others. Can you speak to the role that surveillance plays in the book?
Definitely. I was thinking about surveillance in a number of different contexts. First, surveillance—and censorship and repression of free speech—poses great difficulty for many artists in Cuba, and is thus relevant to the film festival at the novel’s center. Wendy Guerra’s recent novel Revolution Sunday speaks powerfully to surveillance culture in Havana and the profound hardship, and also the necessity, of making art in such a context. Voyeurism—the gaze of the killer—is also a common trope in horror. And voyeurism, the gaze of the traveler, is integral to tourist culture. A lecture by the scholar Paloma Duong, on consumer culture in contemporary Havana, helped me connect the overlap in vocabularies used to discuss tourism and film—lenses, gazes, et cetera. And I think Clare is scrutinizing herself and her surroundings for clues on how to proceed, on who and what she can trust. She is in such a state of dislocation that everything is being looked at anew—including her past. A sort of self-surveillance.
When you brought up surveillance, I immediately thought of your first novel, The Beautiful Bureaucrat, where surveillance plays a significant role in the plot. But it’s also relevant for The Need. At times, the intruder seems one step ahead of Molly, always watching from some shadowed corner, always lying in wait. For me, that question of surveillance is more philosophical in The Beautiful Bureaucrat and more visceral and granular in The Need. Do you see surveillance as a recurring subject?
Yes, surveillance is a theme in both The Beautiful Bureaucrat and The Need, and in my next book as well. I’m fascinated and scared by what it means when a person believes she is alone but is actually being watched. That scenario is at the core of so much horror, right? You think you are in solitude, permitted to be fully yourself, but that solitude is an illusion. I fear that solitude is increasingly an illusion, thanks to surveillance, social media, et cetera. And I think people desperately need solitude in order to have freedom and self-knowledge. So I worry about this.
On a slightly lighter note, your “Research Notes and Acknowledgments” are rich with references, and ignite further curiosity about both horror films and Cuban history. What was your research process for this book?
This book required a ton of research—from horror film theory to feminist film theory to the history of film in Latin America to elevators to hit-and-runs to Havana. In the end, influence came from so many different directions—other literary works, scholarly texts, films, lectures, site-specific research. I took three research trips to Havana. In some instances, such as the film Juan de los Muertos and Carol Clover’s scholarship on horror, the work of others left a visible handprint on my own pages, and it would have felt dishonest to not cite those influences. In other contexts, the influence is more oblique. In its earliest stages, Third Hotel was written as a call-and-response to a novel called Piano, which concerns a French pianist who is killed in the first part, spends the second part in various stages of limbo, and then, in the third part, is repatriated by the higher-ups of the afterlife back to Paris. He has been made unrecognizable, so his sister passes him on the street, but then one person from his former life does recognize him and the order of things is terribly upset. I got the idea to write from the opposite point of view, from that of the living person who recognized the dead. In time, Third Hotel evolved in radically different directions and I’m not sure readers familiar with Piano would detect trace elements of Jean Echenoz’s book in my own. But that’s one role that research notes can play—an opportunity to thank the artists who helped me find my way.
During our Harvard Bookstore conversation, I mentioned that I had incorrectly referred to Molly as an archeologist when is a paleobotanist. You said that she had been an archeologist in past iterations and touched on the research you had done to find the exact right kind of job for her. Was your research process pretty extensive?
Initially, I wasn’t sure exactly what Molly’s profession would be, though I knew it involved excavation of some kind. My in-laws happen to know a woman whose daughter is a paleobotanist, so I got on the phone with her, and after our two-hour-plus conversation, a critical plot element fell into place. The paleobotanist, Professor Sarah E. Allen, explained to me that paleobotanists sometimes find fossils that don’t match anything in our current flora or in the fossil record, and suddenly I knew how to shape the unsolved mysteries at Molly’s workplace.
Speaking of unsolved mysteries, I am going to avoid all spoilers, but I will observe that at the end of The Third Hotel, the reader does not get a traditional revelation/resolution, a reassuring sense of all the clues finally falling into place. What was your intention with the ending, and how did you decide what to withhold and what to reveal?
I am so excited to talk endings with you! I loved the ending of The Need. I feel like a speculative premise can be especially tricky to get out of, narratively speaking—I wonder if you agree?—and you managed to find the right alchemy between creating resolution while also allowing the essential mystery to be preserved. There is closure, yes, and also a feeling of ongoingness. One of my favorite sayings about endings is that they should be more of an “open window than a closed door.” The Need has a terrifically provocative and precise “open window” kind of ending.
At one point with The Third Hotel, I made a list of open questions and then thought a lot about which ones should be resolved and which ones had to remain open. Resolving the resolvable questions turned out to be fun—a subplot with a missing actress, for example, has a concrete answer. Navigating the unresolvable matter proved a bit trickier. I really dislike it when a novel offers a pat solution to a deeply complex situation. On the other hand, I don’t want to leave my readers adrift in the same old abyss. I knew that I wanted velocity at the end, a fresh sense of movement, and eventually an “understory,” a kind of secret story, concerning Clare’s father took center stage in the novel’s last quarter.
Also, the last line—I knew early on that line would be the closer but I had no idea why or how. I just had a feeling. And with writing, I find moments of blazing certainty to be so very rare that when they do happen I don’t ask too many questions. I just go with it.
How did you approach ending The Need?
The end of The Need is a mirror held up to the reader, almost a pick-your-own adventure. It was crucial to me to make plenty of room for the reader there, for the reader’s own empathy and ethics. I’m very glad the ending resonated with you, because I reworked it countless times so that each word, each beat, contains both ambiguity and suggestion. Who “wins,” the nemesis or the protagonist? Who is the nemesis, and who is the protagonist? Or does that duality disintegrate entirely?
Is the epilogue a glowingly beautiful balm, or is it the eeriest scene yet?
One of the most exciting aspects of the publication process has been hearing different readers’ interpretations of the ending. I do have my own take, but readers have found a myriad of other possibilities, and I love that. Ultimately, a book is a collaboration between the writer and the reader.
Laura Van Den Berg is the author of two collections of stories, The Isle of Youth and What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, and the novels Find Me and The Third Hotel. Her short story “Karolina” appears in our Summer issue.
Helen Phillips is the author of Some Possible Solutions, The Beautiful Bureaucrat, And Yet They Were Happy, and the children’s adventure book Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green. Her most recent novel is The Need.
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