Interview from the Past: Helen Phillips' The Beautiful Bureaucrat
Here is another one of my favorites from my days at Novel Enthusiast. Reading this interview makes me hope a new book from Helen is on the way soon:
Helen, Thank you so much for agreeing to spend some time with us here at Novel Enthusiasts. The Beautiful Bureaucrat is such a unique kind of novel. It has terror; it has humor; it has magical realism. It’s a really fun novel to unravel.
Thank you for hosting me. I was aiming for terror meets humor meets fun meets weird meets you.
I notice that your book’s cover has a wonderful blurb from Ursula K. Le Guin. She writes, “Told with the light touch of a Calvino and the warm heart of a Saramago, this brief fable-novel is funny, sad, scary, and beautiful. I love it.” What was it like to get that kind of praise from such a legend?
I literally trembled for ten minutes after receiving her email. I hadn’t even known that the goddess uses email like us humans.
Congratulations on being recently long-listed for the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. You are up against some really wonderful novelists. How do you feel to be included in the list? Where were you when you found out?
Thank you—I’m beyond honored to be in such company. I was hanging out with my kids when I sneaked a peek at my phone and saw the news. I celebrated wildly inside myself, and then got back to doing the cupcake puzzle or whatever it was.
You are already an accomplished writer. You’ve written a couple of short story collections, a children’s novel, and adult fiction. Is it difficult for you to switch modes whenever you begin a project?
It is difficult, but that’s the whole point. I always like my new project to be as different as possible from whatever I just finished. That challenge is what keeps me engaged.
The Beautiful Bureaucrat is a wonderfully odd novel. It’s mysterious, thrilling, and very layered. I’m curious what inspired you to write it?
I had a job that involved some data entry. And then also I was wondering about the meaning of life J
Your protagonist, Josephine, is a desperate woman. When we meet her, she’s lost. She wants a job—maybe I should say she needs a job. She walks into this aesthetically cold building and encounters a man with no face. He asks her all kinds of inappropriate questions. It’s a terribly odd experience, but she still accepts the job when it’s offered to her. I think it’s so disturbing to me because it’s such a realistic situation. She feels like she’s at the bottom, so she takes anything she can get. Can you talk about Josephine’s decision to accept the job?
“I think it’s so disturbing to me because it’s such a realistic situation”: I love this comment of yours, because some readers have the opposite reaction—that initial scene strikes them as surreal. Throughout the book, I was trying to walk a very fine line between realism and surrealism, in terms of the mood and the setting and the characters’ actions/decisions. But yes, this is an extreme, parodic version of that familiar feeling of having to take whatever you can get.
After she’s working there for a while, things get worse. Much worse. People don’t really communicate with her. She types long strings of numbers into The Database all day. The building is disgusting. The walls are dirty. Dust is everywhere. The food in the vending machines is old. At one point, she bites into a candy bar, and her tongue begins to bleed. Why doesn’t she leave?
Partly because she was so desperate for a job for so long—one does what one has to do. And partly because she is an everywoman heroine who must confront head-on the bleakness of existence J. Am I allowed to use two smiley face emoticons in one interview?
Are we all really like Josephine? Are we all trapped inside something that we don’t completely understand?
The book is my answer to that question.
Do you mind explaining Trishiffany? Her name. Her character. Everything.
I’m intrigued by the different ways readers interpret Trishiffany. Some find her creepy, others find her annoying. For me, she represents one possible solution for how to respond to the dark machinery of the universe: wear bright colors and bake rich cookies and don’t be afraid to be tacky.
When people find out that you are a writer and ask about your work, what do you tell them The Beautiful Bureaucrat is about?
My elevator speech is: “A young woman gets a job in a vast windowless building, inputting information into a mysterious Database. Then her husband disappears, and it all goes downhill from there.” It’s an existential thriller, as my friend Elliott Holt put it. An attempt at a poem in the form of a page-turner.
Writers are some of the best readers. What have you been reading that you’d like to recommend?
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel kept me glued to the couch during my 4th of July vacation. I'm obsessed with The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk is a harrowing/hilarious account of early motherhood. And right now I’m loving Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation.
Congratulations on your success, Helen! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.