An Interview with Award-Winning Author Jayne Anne Phillips

By Sabrina Völz

Pho­to cred­it: Ele­na Seibert

After par­tic­i­pat­ing in an inspir­ing writ­ing work­shop with Jayne Anne Phillips as part of The 15th Inter­na­tion­al Con­fer­ence on the Short Sto­ry in Eng­lish in Lis­bon this past June, Jayne Anne kind­ly agreed to answer a few ques­tions for the ASB. The result­ing email inter­view gives our read­ers a glimpse into the many roles that Jayne Anne plays and her take on cre­ative writ­ing in a post-lit­er­ate society.


Sab­ri­na: Please use three adjec­tives to describe yourself.

Jayne Anne: Three words: these might change day to day, but today I’d say: Deter­mined. Ques­tion­ing. Hyper-sen­so­ry aware.

Sab­ri­na: Your ear­ly short sto­ry writ­ing has been labelled “dirty real­ism.” Would you con­sid­er that label appropriate?

Jayne Anne: Dirty Real­ism was a term coined by Gran­ta mag­a­zine to describe cer­tain Amer­i­can writ­ers com­ing into their own at that time. Who knows what it means. Real­ism that is more ‘real’ because it’s sen­so­ry, or real­ism that describes, in part, work­ing peo­ple – peo­ple who build or make or tend rather than mov­ing mon­ey on a com­put­er? ‘Dirty’ as in ‘sexy?’ What­ev­er, it’s a phrase that hung on.

Sab­ri­na: Your uneasy rela­tion­ship to teach­ing is well doc­u­ment­ed. In your essay, “Why She Writes,” you have remarked that “[t]eaching shoots writ­ing in the head.” I would imag­ine that it is dif­fi­cult to have enough time for your writ­ing while direct­ing a strong cre­ative writ­ing pro­gram and teach­ing bud­ding writ­ers. How does being a writer inform your teach­ing, and con­verse­ly, how does teach­ing and being a uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor inform your writing?

Jayne Anne: Not “uneasy” in the least! I’ve taught writ­ers over the past thir­ty-five years, and I do so as a writer. Part of the dia­logue in teach­ing has to do with bal­anc­ing one’s time and cre­ative ener­gy with all else, oth­er than writ­ing, that goes on in a writer’s life. When writ­ers men­tor younger writ­ers, we are mod­el­ing not only the impor­tance of writ­ing and read­ing as a writer; we mod­el how to live a ‘writer’s life’ that gives to a com­mu­ni­ty, that cel­e­brates diver­si­ty and con­tributes to a humane society.

Sab­ri­na: Let’s come back to your role as Cre­ative Writ­ing Direc­tor at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty-Newark (RU‑N). In 2007, The Atlantic named the cre­ative writ­ing pro­gram at RU‑N one of the “Five Up-and-Com­ing Pro­grams” in the U.S.; in 2015, you were award­ed a 50,000 dol­lar seed grant from the chan­cel­lor of your uni­ver­si­ty to build up your pro­gram. What changes have occurred in recent years, and what is your vision for the pro­gram and the writ­ers it produces?

Jayne Anne: I spent 13 years start­ing and build­ing an MFA pro­gram at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty-Newark, from estab­lish­ing a pro­gram where none exist­ed, to build­ing the Writers@Newark Read­ing Series as a cen­tral part of the cur­ricu­lum, to estab­lish­ing four Com­mu­ni­ty Ser­vice pro­grams, includ­ing our Newark High Schools pro­gram, to see­ing the pro­gram award­ed a town­house as a home, to final­ly tak­ing the pro­gram to Full Fund­ing three years ago. It was some­times dif­fi­cult and always sat­is­fy­ing work that offered oppor­tu­ni­ties to so many. I plan to retire and leave aca­d­e­mics soon, in the knowl­edge that the pro­gram will change and evolve. RU‑N MFA reflect­ed my con­cerns from 2005 to 2018. I wish the pro­gram all good for­tune in the years to come.

Sab­ri­na: Speak­ing of change, I’d like to now ask you a few ques­tions about poten­tial out­side influ­ences on your writ­ing. It’s no secret that we live in a rapid­ly chang­ing world. Change can pos­i­tive­ly impact people’s lives, but more often than not, peo­ple wor­ry about it. As a writer with a lyri­cal voice whose career start­ed off as a poet, does the trend to cre­ate a true lin­gua fran­ca – to uni­fy and sim­pli­fy Eng­lish – con­cern you?

Jayne Anne: Lan­guage itself is con­stant­ly chang­ing and reflects the ener­gy of ‘new’ voic­es. I find that the pletho­ra of voic­es and points of view only enrich­es lit­er­a­ture. Speak­ers and cul­tures are alive – not so the tech­nol­o­gy that has become the ‘con­tain­er’ for ideas.

Sab­ri­na: It has also been sug­gest­ed that we live in a post-lit­er­ate soci­ety. Do you agree with those who pro­pose that read­ing and writ­ing no longer occu­py a cen­tral posi­tion in Amer­i­ca? Or is that sim­ply anoth­er dooms­day scenario?

Jayne Anne: The trend against fic­tion, read­ing fic­tion, to read­ing only non­fic­tion, or mem­oir, or how-to books, is not encour­ag­ing. Pow­er­ful writ­ing is get­ting done, but the cir­cle of read­ers hold­ing books in their hands grows small­er. There’s no putting the genie back in the bot­tle, but social media is sure­ly the ‘upside-down’ of mod­ern life. Our data is used and abused, elec­tions are stolen, trib­al­ism is under­scored, dia­logue is dis­cour­aged, and con­spir­a­cies thrive. I find these aspects of moder­ni­ty far more dis­turb­ing than any fear of the trans­for­ma­tion of language.

Sab­ri­na: Final­ly, what can we expect from Jayne Anne Phillips in the future?

Jayne Anne: I’m writ­ing a nov­el that is extreme­ly com­pelling to me, and I look for­ward to the long, sur­pris­ing process of dis­cov­er­ing it.

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Jayne Anne Phillips,  born in Buck­han­non, West Vir­ginia, is the author of five nov­els, Qui­et Dell (2013), Lark And Ter­mite (2008), Moth­erKind (2000), Shel­ter (1994), Machine Dreams (1984), and two wide­ly anthol­o­gized sto­ry col­lec­tions, Fast Lanes (1987) and Black Tick­ets (1979). This high­ly acclaimed writer has accu­mu­lat­ed numer­ous awards, includ­ing the Wall Street Jour­nal Best Fic­tion of 2013 for Qui­et Dell and the Heart­land Prize for Lark And Ter­mite which was also a Final­ist for the 2009 Nation­al Book Award. Jayne Anne Phillips is cur­rent­ly Board of Gov­er­nors Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish and Direc­tor of the MFA Pro­gram at Rut­gers University-Newark.