An Interview with Author Helen Phillips and Editor Sarah Bowlin, by Celia Johnson

With the publication of her debut novel, The Beautiful Bureaucrat, Helen Phillips has been compared to a host of literary masters: Kafka, Davis, Calvino, Atwood, Saramago, Borges, and more. Take note of the breadth of that list. Clearly, by evoking so many great writers and not just one, Phillips has created a work very much her own. The Beautiful Bureaucrat is at once surreal and familiar. It is the story of Josephine, a young woman who moves to a city with her husband. Josephine finds work at The Database, which seems, at first, as mundane as it sounds. But she soon discovers that she has become part of something more sinister than she could ever imagine. I spoke with Phillips and her editor, Sarah Bowlin, about memorable characters, the creative process, unsung heroes in the publishing industry, and more. For more from Phillips and Bowlin, check out our upcoming writers’ conference. They are both lined up to take part in panels.

bureacratHelen Phillips, Author, The Beautiful Bureaucrat

What inspired you to write this novel?

HP There were three primary sources of inspiration. Firstly, a job I had that involved some data-entry, combined with a two-month period when my husband and I were living from sublet to sublet, combined with long walks in Prospect Park. Secondly, the question, ‘Is it possible to write a “poetic thriller”? Thirdly, some of the writers I love most: Margaret Atwood, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Lydia Davis, Shirley Jackson, Franz Kafka, Kelly Link, Haruki Murakami, Kurt Vonnegut. And the Coen brothers.

Did any of your characters practically leap right onto the page? Or perhaps some resisted? I know it’s never quite that simple. Yet, take the bubbly Trishiffany, who storms right into Josephine’s office. I wondered, did she storm right onto the page, too?

HP While the plot of this book remained elusive for the six of the seven years it took to write, the characters were pretty generous to me from the get-go. As you’ve intuited, Trishiffany did storm right onto the page, as did her counterpart Hillary. The Person With Bad Breath slinks more than storms, but slunk readily enough. The trickiest to nail was Joseph—capturing the balance of likeability and mystery that surrounds him as he fades in and out over the course of the book.

The settings are stark contrasts of one another: a comfortable diner, a rundown apartment, a tiny, unadorned office. They are all integral to the story. What was your creative process building these spaces? Were any of them based on places you’ve known?

HP Each of these settings is the tweaked, nightmare version of some place that I know. I always sense a sort of dark version of reality hovering just beneath the surface—tilt your head a tad and that mark on the wall could be the handprint of someone once trapped in this room. I pull on that shadowy alternate reality in crafting my fictional settings.

Can you describe your writing space? 

HP Now that I have children, the only consistent writing space I have is my head. I do have a lovely little desk in our one-bedroom apartment, but I never get to write at home these days. I go to a shared workspace in my neighborhood, or to a café, or I jot notes after the kids are asleep, or on the subway, or anyplace at all. I used to be so precious about my writing ritual—the time, the space, the tea. No longer. I appreciated Sarah Manguso’s recent article in Harper’s, in which she writes: “I want to read books that were written in desperation, by people who are disturbed and overtaxed.”

I won’t give anything away, but this book is masterfully plotted. Did you know where you were heading from the outset?

HP Not at all; as mentioned above, the plot developed fairly late in the game, though I knew the big questions I wanted to explore. For me, writing is in large part an image-led process. Certain images (a tiny windowless office with bruised walls, a knifed pomegranate on the floor alongside shards of porcelain) take hold and I know that they are all connected, all part of the same story, but I don’t know how. I write my way toward the linkages among them. This method is very backward, to construct the story around the images. Though my process is the opposite of efficient, I hope that ultimately it makes the book feel more organic.

Sarah Bowlin, Editor, Henry Holt

What drew you to The Beautiful Bureaucrat?

SB I’m always looking for a writer who can surprise and transport me. The twisted, off-kilter reality that Helen creates feels close enough to our own to be familiarhaunting and fully realized and transporting—yet her language is so precise, so spare that she doesn’t waste a word. Even from that first read, I kept jotting little notes like “That image! How does she do that?” But if I was sucked in by the language, I kept reading for the emotional connection I felt to Josephine. I love reading surrealist fiction, and a book like The Beautiful Bureaucrat owes a huge debt to Borges and Kafka, but sometimes writers working in that vein can feel too cold or bleak for me. In Helen’s novel, we have this existential tension—she asks big questions—but there is also a truly vibrant emotional center to the book, and that felt rare and exciting. At one of Helen’s recent readings, a fan said the book read like “Kafka with a vagina.” It’s, perhaps, over simplifying it, but I laughed and laughed.

Who are your favorite characters in the novel?

SB Josephine is the character I related to the most, but I love the waitress at the Four-Star Diner, Hillary. I hope I’m not giving too much away here, but Helen lifted the language of Hillary’s fortune for Josephine from an actual an actual psychological study, one that identifies something called the Forer Effect. It’s those kinds of layered meanings and details that keep me in awe of how smart and tricky Helen is as a writer. 

The cover for this novel is at once breathtaking and disturbing. Is there a story behind the cover?

SB Glad you think so! Covers can be so difficult; there’s always a story. In this case, we had one of our terrific in-house designers, Lucy Kim, working on the cover and I think, in the end, it was a collaboration. We went through quite a few and showed Helen and her agent some early ideas that weren’t quite right. We didn’t want the cover to be too off-putting; it needed to be visually intriguing somehow, but we also all wanted to show that sense of dread or tension that hangs over the story. I think we ended up with something beautiful and weird—just right. 

As a book editor, your role involves so much more than editing. What’s an average day like in your office?

SB I wish I could say I did a lot more reading and editing at my desk, but not much of that kind of work gets done in the office. I’m in meetings a lot during the day and then I’m on the phone with authors or agents for at least an hour or so every day—sometimes a lot more.  And then there’s email. Lots of email. A few times a week I go out to lunch or have drinks after work with a writer, reviewer or agent. And then a lot of what happens during the day are little tasks that create the nuts and bolts of publishing a book—writing copy, moving a book through the production process, drafting rejection letters, talking to my colleagues about out how to get a reviewer to fall in love with a particular debut novel. I’m pretty hands-on as an editor, so I encourage writers I’m working with to send me their shorter work or non-fiction pieces. Though I don’t do this as much as I would like, I still read magazines and literary journals pretty widely, so I go looking for new voices on my own, too. And if I’m in an auction or trying to take on a new project, lots of the day’s energy goes into strategizing. There’s quite a bit of variety in my day, actually.

Who are the unsung heroes of book publishing?

The editorial assistants. Lots of toil and paper cuts for a dreadfully tiny salary. It’s a tough job, and I did it, as most editors have, but it wasn’t pretty, let me tell you…

Celia Johnson is the Creative Director of Slice. She’s also the author of two nonfiction books, most recently Odd Type Writers.

Author photo by Andy Vernon-Jones