Helen Phillips



by Marae Hart

Inspired by the “seven deadly sins,” SLICE + VICE is an exposition of the underbelly of craft. With vice in mind, SLICE asks writers and industry professionals seven short answer questions to illuminate the darker side of creativity and the publishing process. To kick it off, we chatted with Helen Phillips, whose most recent book, The Need, was just released. You’ll find Helen at the upcoming Slice Literary Writers’ Conference, too.

Pride/Vanity: What are you most proud of accomplishing?

I sent my novel The Beautiful Bureaucratto my literary hero Ursula K. Le Guin, not expecting any response. Four months later, there was an email from her in my inbox. She loved the book enough to blurb it. I miss her now.

Envy/Jealousy: How do you (or have you) overcome jealousy?

When I experience writerly jealousy, I read the work of the writer in question. If I find it brilliant, my jealousy fades away in light of my gratitude for the courage I know it takes to write a great book. And if I find it overrated, I can be quietly smug.

Wrath/Anger: What do you dislike most about writing/editing/agenting?

The very last gasp of finishing the very final draft of a book, when one starts to question every comma and adjective. The stakes feel painfully high, because this is the draft that people will actually read. I clenched my toes so much during that stage of the revision process for my novel The Need that I developed a numb spot from nerve damage on my foot.

Sloth/Laziness: What is your favorite way to be lazy?

Old-lady restorative yoga, where you barely move for 75 minutes.

Greed: How are you greedy?

>70% dark chocolate.

Gluttony: How do you overindulge?

See above. And also: I love carrots so much that I started to turn orange last summer. Seriously.

Lust: What about reading is sexiest?

In Annie Murphy Paul’s article “Your Brain on Fiction” in the New York Times( March 17, 2012), she writes: “The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.” So, reading about good sex is probably the sexiest part of reading. But also reading is sexy, period.

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Helen Phillips is the author of five books, including, most recently, the novel The Need. Her collection Some Possible Solutions received the 2017 John Gardner Fiction Book Award. Her novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat, a New York TimesNotable Book of 2015, was a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award and the Los Angeles TimesBook Prize. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and the Italo Calvino Prize. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Times,and Tin House, and on Selected Shorts. She is an associate professor at Brooklyn College and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, artist Adam Douglas Thompson, and their children.


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.