Zibby Owens: Hello. Thank you for joining today for my conversation with Julia Phillips who’s one of the five 2020 Young Lions Fiction Award finalists. I’m Zibby Owens. I’m the host of “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” the podcast. Each year, the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Awards champions emerging writers and recognizes innovation and excellence in contemporary fiction. This year, the award marks it’s twentieth anniversary of celebrating the next generation of outstanding fiction writers. The 2020 Young Lions Fiction Award finalists include Steph Cha, Your House Will Pay; Julia Phillips, who’s here, Disappearing Earth, congrats; Kiley Reid, Such a Fun Age; Xuan Juliana Wang, Home Remedies; and Bryan Washington, Lot. You can see interviews with all the finalists at nypl.org/ylfa. Today, I’m delighted to have the opportunity to speak with Julia Phillips who’s nominated for her novel Disappearing Earth. Welcome, Julia.

Julia Phillips: Thank you. Thank you, Zibby. It’s nice to be here with you even virtually. It’s nice to be here on this Zoom call with you.

Zibby: It’s nice to be on this Zoom call with you too. Just more one sentence of background about you for people who might not know. This is your bio, which obviously you know. Julia Phillips is the debut author of the nationally bestselling novel Disappearing Earth which is being published in twenty-three languages and was a finalist for the National Book Award. A Fulbright fellow, Julia has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review. She currently lives in Brooklyn. Okay, that’s it. Now we can just chat. Welcome. Tell me about finding out that you were nominated for the Young Lions Fiction Award. What was that like?

Julia: It was so exciting. It was so wonderful. I’m a big fan of this award and this program and the New York Public Library in general. Because of quarantine, I’m afraid I had too much time on my hands to refresh the library’s page and Twitter account and think, I wonder when they’ll be announcing that this year, just because. No particular investment or interest for myself, just because. I spent quite a few weeks sort of pestering the account before I got the wonderful, wonderful news that I was on the list. It was so exciting.

Zibby: Aw, that’s awesome. The Young Lions Fiction Award is now celebrating its twentieth anniversary. Do you feel like it means even more in the context of being part of the anniversary year? What do you think?

Julia: I would buy that, absolutely. I got very excited about the nineteenth and the eighteenth and seventeenth too. It’s hard for me to see that it would mean so much more right now, but actually, I like the way you put that. Maybe it does. It’s much more meaningful now, the twentieth. How could you resist that? That number is irresistible.

Zibby: And it’s 2020. There we go. It’s great. I want to talk a lot about your book, but I also just want to ask if you have an earliest memory of visiting a library.

Julia: Gosh. A lot of my early memories of visiting libraries blend together a little bit. A library was a big after-school staple for me of doing homework or being dropped off to do homework and not doing homework and just reading books in the aisles when I was a little kid. All of those sort of blend together in one happy homework-shirking memory that lasted many years. I recently found a newspaper clipping from when I was seven. My public library had a Write Your Own Novel program for kids. We got these blank books that we filled up with our own stories. I wrote a very, very plagiarized novel that I think was the plot of a Christopher Pike book — I don’t if you remember Christopher Pike, loved it, sort of scary teen novels — about a dead body found in a snowman. I was very supported in that by the librarians and the staff. They were really loving and let me write all sorts of wild, plagiarized, half-baked horror stories. They were wonderful.

Zibby: I feel like I will never approach a snowman in the same way again.

Julia: You never know what’s inside.

Zibby: You never know. Terrifying. It sounds like they were really supportive of your development. That’s amazing. Did they help you find books that maybe set you on this path as well, or was it more of fostering of your love of writing?

Julia: It was a fostering of all of our love of writing and a fostering of whatever creative direction we needed to go in. I think I spent a particular amount of time illustrating the cover and put most of my focus there and wrote about forty words in the rest of the book. I think I lost my steam for the story pretty quickly, probably because it had already been written by somebody else better.

Zibby: It hasn’t stopped a lot of other people. Where did you grow up, by the way? Where are we picturing this library that you were in?

Julia: I grew up in Northern New Jersey, in suburban New Jersey about fifteen miles outside New York.

Zibby: Do you remember the first time you want to the New York Public Library? I know I’m putting you on the spot.

Julia: first time I went to the New York Public Library, but I have a lot of sharp memories actually in more recent years of going to the library as a sort of celebratory event. It always feels so special every single time. Now I’ve been in New York for about fifteen years. Still, every time I go it feels like the most special thing in the world. I think it’s the lions outside. It makes it feel very, very special every single time. The architecture’s so wonderful. Every room is a mystery.

Zibby: Now that you’re about to have your first baby, you can discover the children’s room which is also really special.

Julia: Oh, my gosh, okay, that is on the bucket list for post-quarantine baby life. Taking to the children’s room, for sure.

Zibby: Now that I know you’ve been writing since you could basically hold a pencil, tell me about how you got from your first plagiarized novel to your Book Award-nominated Disappearing Earth debut actual novel here in 2020? What happened in between with all your writing and the Fulbright and all the rest that got you here?

Julia: I always wanted to be a novelist. I was a big reader as a kid. I was really lucky to be supported by some of my early teachers. I remember my second-grade teacher especially being supportive. I was trying to write a novel in a notebook about a girl who was raised by wolves. I would take up all her time reading out loud from this second-grader’s notebook. She would say, “Keep going. That’s great.” I really took that “Keep going. That’s great,” and chose to hold onto it very tightly and always dreamed of writing fiction. I ended up studying fiction in college and also studying Russian which was a big hobby of mine and a language that I love to study. I had been working on a different novel manuscript that I pictured would be my first book. I’m very lucky that it was not and that it went into the drawer it went into. As I was getting to the end of that process, which was quite a few years, I started thinking about what I imagined would be the second book. I thought maybe I can combine this interest in writing and this interest in Russia and set a novel there. With that big plan in mind, I spent a couple years applying for, as you said, a Fulbright, this grant in creative writing that would fund my living in Russia for a year and beginning to research a book of fiction. I got that after a couple years. I moved to Russia and started researching the project that became Disappearing Earth. That whole process started in 2009. The book came out in 2019. It was a really educational and challenging and wonderful decade of work on this book. I’m so glad and grateful to have had this project all this time. It’s been a really beautiful thing in my life.

Zibby: Do you think it was those words of your teacher that made you not give up? That’s a long time to persist and feel that the project was going to come to a good conclusion. I feel like giving up might have been a tempting option along the way. Instead, not only did you finish, but you crafted this award-winning beautiful novel. What made you not quit? How did you keep going?

Julia: It’s interesting to think in the context of the Young Lions award because I’ve been learning a lot and reflecting a lot about publishing and about writing and about the creative process recently and about youth and the creative process, or speed perhaps. I’ve been thinking about how in the past when I wanted to publish a novel at twenty-two and didn’t publish a novel at twenty-two, I thought, there must be something very, very magical about twenty-two-year-olds who are publishing a book. Maybe there is a magical thing or a magical thing about a thirty-year-old that published it. I’ve been thinking more and more about how integral support is in creating speed. Everyone’s writing incredible books. Everyone can write incredible books. Everyone’s doing the work. If you are supported by the people around you, it makes it a lot easier. That’s as true as it is in second grade as it is now. When you have people around you who say, “I believe you can do this,” it is motivating and really helpful. There are so many folks who do the work with an enormous lack of support. Yet when I look back on my writing ambitions, I really count my blessings in how I felt supported by that teacher or supported by my mom who didn’t think it was whacky for me to be studying creative writing. That support was really huge for me.

Zibby: That’s so important. It’s tough to not be supported in basically anything. Having a cheering squad can’t be underrated. That’s for sure, especially in writing which is much more of a solitary profession. Knowing that once you look up from the keyboard there are people rooting for you to actually finish, that’s a huge help.

Julia: It is. It’s a selfish road for me toward arriving at the realization of how important it is to support other — when you find people that you’re excited about or find people that are dreaming of a thing that you’re dreaming of or have their own dreams, how little it takes and how much it benefits to say, “Keep going. I want to support you in this. I want to do everything I can to support you in this.” That is hugely meaningful to folks. It certainly was hugely meaningful for me.

Zibby: How do you think you so accurately nailed the voice of the sisters in the beginning of the book as they’re wandering around the beach and the annoyance of the older sister? All of that was so pitch perfect as a mother of four children including two daughters. All of those dynamics, it just seemed so real. When I heard you were pregnant, I was like, she must have older kids too because she totally nailed this. Not to say you have to have your own children to write children well, but how did you do it so well? What do you think?

Julia: That’s so kind. That means so much to me that you say that. That means a lot to me that you say that. There’s so much doubt in the process. Certainly, their voices took a lot of revision and a lot of, talk about support again and community, a lot of feedback from more experienced authors and peer writers and friends who are parents and friends who said — I remember very, very well a wonderful writer named Dionne Brand who I had the good luck — she read that first chapter and said, “Why don’t you go on YouTube and listen to some kids?” The characters are eight and eleven. She said, “Why don’t you go on YouTube and listen to eight and eleven-year-olds talking and then revise?” I was like, thank you so much. Absolutely trying to channel their voices or get their voices right was a — whatever result there is, is a community effort, for sure, a community effort to ensure that I was listening closely to how kids talk and express themselves to each other and not just sitting in my own mind fantasizing about a precious eleven-year-old who is never resentful.

Zibby: I am now thinking that maybe there’s a marketplace for kids who want to get job experience helping authors who want to perfect their voices. You could search by age and just have a phone conversation with a kid. Look at that.

Julia: It honestly was, upon reflection, pretty troubling how easy it was to go on YouTube and search “eleven-year-olds uncensored.”

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. When you were actually doing the writing, obviously you did a lot of research to make sure everything was just right, did you have the whole format outlined? Did you have the different people in the community? Did you outline? Did the characters just come to you? What was the driving force of starting this story versus how it ended up? That was a lot of questions.

Julia: I love all of those questions. I tried to make as many decisions as possible about the book and the structure of the book and the arch of the book prior to starting writing. I mentioned that I’d previously been working on a manuscript. That manuscript, I kind of started with a feeling and a tone and a setting and not a story at all, really. I thought, as I work on it, I’m going to come into the story. I’m going to learn what the story is. Seven years later, I realized, not the case actually, for me. That process, at least with that project, didn’t give me clarity the more I worked on it. I kind of stayed in the same place where I had started of having a feeling and no concrete decisions around that. When I started this project, I wanted to approach it differently. I wanted to make some really strategic choices around its structure, who would be speaking and why, what information would be conveyed in each chapter, what the point was.

I wanted to have an elevator pitch, which I still practice now. I say the book is about two girls who go missing in the Russian Far East and how that affects the people around them, two girls who go missing in this remote Russian community and how that affect people around them. Over and over, I would say this to myself to try to focus on what the book is about. From the start, I thought, it’s going to be over the course a year. Each chapter is a different month. Each focused character is a woman or girl in the community. I really wanted to approach it with as many decisions made as possible. As I got to the end of the writing process, I spent the last six months outlining even more heavily. I was a couple drafts in at that point, or a few drafts in, and yet went back and re-outlined all of the chapters and the whole project to try to get more clarity. I found that every conscious decision I could make really helped the work for me. I find now as I approach new projects, as much outlining as I can do in advance helps me a lot.

Zibby: Then once you sit down to tackle the writing, where is your happy place for writing? Where do you prefer to write when you can? What do you wear? Do you have any traditions or superstitions when you’re writing? What does that process look like for you?

Julia: I don’t have a desk. I write in bed or on the couch. I handwrite my first drafts. That helps me a lot. That’s a superstition, for sure. I find writing on the computer to be a little bit more — I pay more attention to what I’m doing in some way. It is more tempting to delete or to go back. I’m a big fan of drafting over and over and over again. To just get out that first draft really fast and messy is helpful for me to do by hand. These days, especially a few months into being inside my apartment walls all the time, I’ve been thinking about what a happy writing place looks like and what a productive writing place looks like. I think how much I’ve taken from changing my setting before and being on the subway or walking around or having things pop into your head. I’ve been missing that. I wonder if it is less a specific place and maybe more a state a mind or a feeling of movement of engagement with the world that helps me a lot. I don’t know. Still figuring it out, I guess, is the answer.

Zibby: Have you been able to do any writing during the quarantine?

Julia: I’ve been doing some writing during the quarantine. I’ve been really motivated and inspired and blown away by some friends who have put together different accountability groups. Every day, morning writing session or a once a week free-writing session together or weekly check-ins. That’s been really incredible. That being said, as you mentioned, I’m pregnant. As I get more and more pregnant, I do feel that the fetus is sucking all desire to move out of me. I’ve been very, very unaccountable these days.

Zibby: I think you have every excuse in the book.

Julia: I love what you’re saying because that’s what I tell myself in my head as I get very behind on the things I should be doing.

Zibby: Your body is actually doing a zillion different things right now that you just can’t put your finger on to build another human being. I feel like if you want to take a week to just let your body do its thing, the work will follow. It’s not like you’re going to stop writing.

Julia: for the past week where I’ve done nothing.

Zibby: You’ve done a lot. It’s just you haven’t gotten it on the page.

Julia: I haven’t gotten it on the page.

Zibby: That’s okay. There’s plenty of time, maybe less time once you have a child, but who knows? Maybe not.

Julia: Different kind of time.

Zibby: Different kind of time. What was it like when you sold your book? What was that moment like after all this time and effort and work? Then you sold it. What was that feeling like? What was that experience like?

Julia: It was the most miraculous experience of my whole life. That feeling really started when I got my agent. With the previous manuscript I’d worked on, I’d queried a hundred agents. I was very focused on the agent hurdle and spent a lot of time thinking about approaching agents as I was working on this book. A lot of the strategic decisions I was making from the start were around, it’s important to me to have an elevator pitch because it’s also important to put that in a query letter. I was thinking about how I can better position myself in the future for developing a relationship with an agent, I hoped, one day. The experience of my agent taking this book on, I will never forget where I was. I’ll never forget how it felt. It was the moment when dream and reality met. I just felt like I passed out of my real life and went into the life I had fantasized about. I screamed, jumped up and down. I couldn’t handle it. Everything after that felt miraculous in such the same way. It felt like my agent had opened the door and let me into the life that I had dreamed about. It all felt like a dream. It still feels a dream. After a few months on social media as I was promoting the book as it came out, I realized that I kept using that language over and over again. I kept saying, this is like a dream. This is like a dream. This is a dream come true. This is such a dream. It started to get a bit disturbing that I was sort of saying, help me, I’m totally disconnected from any sense of reality. Certainly, a lot of dreams of my life have come true. That has been bewildering and magical and does feel impossible.

Zibby: Aw, that’s so nice. By the way, if I were your agent right now hearing this, I hope that whoever it is, he/she is listening to this. I would be swooning. That is so nice.

Julia: Suzanne Gluck, I love her tell and I tell her every second.

Zibby: I’m sure she knows. It sounds like you’re pretty expressive. Still, that’s pretty awesome. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Julia: Yeah, I do. My first advice would be to be patient with how you’ve heard this before because it’s not outrageously novel. My three go-to pieces of advice are three things that I tell myself over and over and over again and kept forgetting to act on sometimes. Upon reflection, I think if I just do those things more, things would be better. Write as much as possible. Read as much as possible. Build a community or embed yourself in a creative community. Writing as much as possible just to practice and lower your own inhibitions and un-paralyze yourself and see what works. Reading is the best possible education in writing for which there is no equivalent. Community, to me, it seems like — my book is so much about community. I keep on talking about it. To be able to connect to other people and learn from them, learn from their work, cheer them on, be in communication with them about what they’re working on, to be part of a creative team — that can be in person. It can be online. It can be on Twitter. Just to connect with other people in this pursuit of something that, as you said Zibby, can be very isolating and is so personal and so strange, this channel that you’re trying to tap into of creativity in yourself — it’s such a bizarre thing. To connect with other people through that is really the most beautiful and hopeful and inspiring activity you can do. It motivates your work and it makes it much better, in my opinion or in my experience for sure.

Zibby: That’s the only person I was asking.

Julia: The only one you’re going to hear from right now.

Zibby: The only one. Who else? Not in my little square. I actually listened to your book instead of reading it. Usually, I read. I downloaded it and listen to it over a series of trying to actually get of my house and run and walk and all the rest. When you have your baby, god willing everything is great, and you go one day on a walk with the baby when everybody’s out in the open, I want you to go back and listen to the first chapter. You are going to be filled with this sense of panic that I was filled with, and anxiety. That’s my little assignment for you post-childbirth.

Julia: In my writing group, that helped me so much with this book. I remember very well a woman in my writing group reading it. At the time, her two kids were just about the same ages as the two sisters who go missing. She came to the group and she slid the papers across the table. She was like, “I think your first chapter is pretty effective. I will not read any more of this book.” Best possible feedback, thank you.

Zibby: When you do that, you have to DM me or something. Thank you, Julia. Thanks for being a part of this conversation for the Young Lions, the New York Public Library, and all the rest. Congratulations on your nomination and all of your success. Well-deserved.

Julia: Thank you so much, Zibby. This was so wonderful to get to be in conversation with you. Thank you so much to the New York Public Library, one of the best places, if not the best place in the entire world, I think.

Zibby: Thanks.