Arthur Phillips: Inside the Mind of an Eight-Time Jeopardy! Contestant
Got a writer . . . got a writer . . .
Sometimes I feel like a junkie looking for a quick fix when I look at the KGB calendar and see that I need to book six months of authors to read for the Sunday Night Fiction Series. It puts me on the on the lookout for my next hit. One Sunday night, after Owen King read from his book We're All In This Together , I joined him and his wife, Kelly Braffet (Josie and Jack), for dinner at Curry Mahal. Over vegetable biryani I had to ask: Do you, or someone you know, know of a good writer that wants to do a reading? Owen perked up, What about my neighbor, he said, he wrote that novel Prague. Really, how great, I said. Owen continued: I don't know if he has a book out now or not, but I'll ask him if it's OK for you to contact him. I walked home blissfully buzzed. I loved Prague, and The Egyptologist, and I wanted to meet the man whose brilliant and playful prose overflowed with dazzling characters and had plots as complex as a Rubik's cube. Also, I felt a certain kinship with him in that he too had pursued several careers before settling on writing. Arthur Phillips was a child actor, a jazz musician, a speechwriter, a dismally failed entrepreneur, and a six-time Jeopardy! Champion. Okay, I was never on Jeopardy!. I never will be on Jeopardy!. In fact, if I walked around with that many facts magnified in my brain I'd avoid putting myself in direct contact with the sun for fear my head might start to smoke and then flicker into flame. But not Arthur, he competed in the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005 and won his opening round game in dramatic fashion.
Four months later, after a few exchanges of e-mail with Arthur via Owen, Arthur Phillips arrived at KGB promptly at seven o'clcok with the manuscript of his third novel Angelica in hand. If you have never met or seen Arthur Phillips in person you would instinctively be drawn to him - he is the man with the most searing and endearing blues eyes in the room. He is the man with the most intense yet playful energy. He is the man most eager to engage.
I told him about this magazine and he was happy to contribute an excerpt from Angelica, however, all the edits were not yet complete so we (all) have to wait. An e-mail interview was the next best thing.
Suzanne Dottino: Your third novel Angelica is coming out in 2007. We were lucky enough to hear you read an excerpt from it during the Sunday Night Fiction Reading Series in March. And it was very nice to have met Angelica! How (or where) did the idea for this book come to you?
Arthur Phillips: Walking the dog seems to have produced most of my books. See the attached photo for my muse. At any rate, I had an idea - they come when they come, and for no discernible reason - of a particularly creepy thing a child could tell parents the morning after the parents have sex. And that's where it started. I'm at a bit of a loss, now that I look at that reply.
SD: What do you predict the reviews to be?
AP: I will never predict that, or at least not accurately. I have been repeatedly surprised by the range of things that appear in reviews, and I think it is safe to say they can be stranger than fiction. Or just fiction.
SD: After your reading at KGB we had drinks and discussed the elements that make up a good reading, Russian publishers, getting parents to do things they don't want you to tell them to do . . . among other things, and what really struck me most was the moment when you said you wish you could convince your brother not to go to Baghdad--(he is a war correspondent for the Wall Street Journal). Could you speak more about this?
AP: My brother is the smartest and the bravest guy I know. Those are, however, somewhat contradictory traits, since he continues to go back to Iraq, after having been embedded for the invasion, even though he knew journalists who have been kidnapped and murdered. He is the author of a fantastic book on the war, The Gift of Valor, and I think he should be proud of his work, sit back on his laurels, count his blessings, and not leave the house for a good long while.
SD: In your novel, Prague, you describe the game Sincerity that your characters play. I bet you are great at games, and at calculating the odds and predicting outcomes. What about the Stock Market? Cards? Chess? Sports? Lotto? Do you play any of those?
AP: Aha! I am only a good fiction writer, since I am too lazy and inattentive for any of those pursuits. I do not invest well, bet well, bluff well, even scratch-off well.
SD: Are you a good or a bad loser?
AP: My last answer is why I am a good loser, since I avoid things I can lose at. Actually, that's not totally true. I am becoming a soccer and baseball dad, and THAT is the real test of whether you are a good loser. I am, to my astonishment, rather over-intense on the sidelines. I don't think I would ever get in a parental brawl, but you never know until the circumstances are just right.
SD: Of all your many and varied pursuits and accomplishments, which is the one your mother is most proud?
AP: I should know by now not to answer questions for third parties in interviews. They can always turn around and sue. But I will trust mom not to sue, if I claim that she is most proud of my having stayed out of prison for nearly 40 years now.
SD: You live in Brooklyn with your wife and two children, how do you spend your days now that you your novel is finished and you await its release? Are you working on something new?
AP: There is a little lull while the current book goes back and forth between me and the editor, during which you sort of catch up on things you've let slide the past couple years: house repairs, friendships, iTunes organization, etc. Then, I like to start writing the next book as soon as the mood hits. I think it's probably wise to be well underway with the next book before you get into publicity, touring, and all that for the previous one. I want my brain working on the next thing before it gets bogged down in the business side of the last one. Managing the two aspects of the job--writing and selling--is generally a joy for me, but they do each require different skills and different mindsets, and I feel a little endangered if the writing is not underway before the selling. By the way, they say of Trollope that he finished one book, and immediately--sometimes at the same time--picked up his notebook and started writing the next.
SD: I've read in an interview that you didn't think writing (or music) could be taught. You are gifted and successful at both, what (or who) has been your best teacher?
AP: I apparently will say any damn thing in an interview, so let's try this. Music can, of course, be taught, absolutely, and I can't believe I ever said otherwise. Writing can be taught to a degree, and it usually is taught by 10th grade, in a proper high school. By then, you should have your grammar, spelling, outlining, planning, paragraphing, and thinking under control. My tenth grade English teacher, Lee Woolman, drilled all that into me, and I think he taught me how to write as well as anyone.
Of course, the more romantic question is, "Can you teach someone to write fiction?" and there I think the answer is pretty equivocal. I generally believe that the only way to learn to be a novelist is to read novels in vast quantities and to work at it, with or without someone's advice from time to time. Classes, workshops, programs, etc, maybe will provide the opportunity/time/interlude for someone who could have done it without that program anyhow. I think writers coming out of those programs would have been writers anyhow. And, I think that some of them may be weakened or delayed by what happens in those classrooms. Whereas musicians without training generally don't become musicians.
SD: What was the question, rather the "answer," that stumped you on Jeopardy!?
AP: I am 6-2 on Jeopardy! now, after a couple tournaments. So here is one of my stumpers: "A capital in the West Indies is named for this family name of William of Orange."
Arthur Phillips was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His first novel, Prague, was a national bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book, recipient of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and has been translated into seven languages. The Egyptologist was published in 2004 and was on not eleven but twelve 2004 Best Fiction Lists. His novel Angelica is coming out in 2007.
Suzanne Dottino received her MFA from Columbia. Her work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Brooklyn Review, Portable Muse, AAA Worldwide and other journals. Her plays have been produced by The Culture Project, Artists for Tomorrow Festival and was a finalist for the Samuel French Short Play Contest. She is the Literary Director for the Sunday Night Fiction Series at KGB Bar and the editor of the forthcoming KGB BAR Fiction Anthology. She is at work on her book, Despite Herself.