Guernica Magazine

Helen Phillips: “Living with the awareness of the abyss is probably a good thing.”

The writer discusses why motherhood lends itself perfectly for speculative fiction—and the album that helped her during writing and labor.

When I sat down with Helen Phillips in her Brooklyn apartment, I told her that I related to her latest novel, The Need, not only as a potential mother, but as a human being who has the tendency to interpret minor events as signs of impending disaster. That’s certainly the way Molly, the novel’s protagonist, navigates the world. As she raises her young children, Molly starts to mistake tangled threads for giant bugs, and believes the rumblings of the garbage truck to be the onset of an earthquake. Though she is a skilled professional—a paleobotanist—she’s less certain of her instincts when it comes to her children. When a light bulb explodes into splinters of glass, she tells her children not to move, consciously “quoting what she remembered adults saying in such situations when she was a child.”

Despite the subject matter, our conversation was lively, profound, and filled with laughter. This is in part because we discussed how imagining errant possibilities isn’t just the idiosyncrasy of an anxious mother, but also the aspiration of the novelist and the responsibility of art-making itself. The other part is our joint understanding—and perhaps commiseration—that moments of great grief in our lives have often been accompanied by particular joys. This applies to Molly too. When she encounters an intruder in her house, she fears for the lives of her children—but it’s precisely this event that leads her to understand the beauty of the repetitive, mundane movements of her mothering.

Like Phillips’s previous novel, in which a woman takes an administrative job at a mysterious database that’s as big as the universe itself, nimbly maneuvers between the real and the speculative, leading us to

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