In Praise of Pulitzer Prize-Winner Jayne Anne Phillips

Jayne Anne Phillips exploded onto the American literary landscape with Black Tickets, a short story collection that remains so compellingly singular that it ought to function as a handbook for short story writers. It was published in 1979, but I didn’t know of it or read any of its electric stories until some 25 years later.

I was in my twenties and floundering around New York City, dreaming about writing and publishing a book. I’d grown up in rural West Virginia, a gay kid who’d run away to the big city for freedom and possibility. I found myself desperate for books that felt personally instructive, that at least nodded to the kind of world I’d come from.

I searched the Internet for writers from my home state and found Phillips. I bought a used copy of the paperback of Black Tickets with yellowed, marked-up pages, and a tattered blue-and-black cover that looked to my eyes vaguely like a work of pulp. I wasn’t ready for how this book would change me.

I felt this slam reading Phillips’ work, an uncanny feeling that someone had done something new with the English language. “My mother’s ankles curve from the hem of a white suit as if the bones were water,” Phillips writes to open “Wedding Picture,” a short fiction at the front of Black Tickets. Her style emerges from an expert control of the line—a tight and often lyric arrangement of words that seems to reconfigure the possibility of a sentence. Fleshy is the word that comes to mind when I think of Phillips’ writing—bodies and action and sensory intertwined. Her taut style is effective because it serves the substance of the narrative. I feel her words and characters and yearnings viscerally.

The milieu of Phillips’ six novels and two story collections is West Virginia, family, and a fair amount of war. I never had interest in being a war writer. I was interested in battles closer to home; I’d become estranged from my family when they couldn’t accept the fact that I was gay. It turned out that reading Phillips’ stories and novels was a crash course in how the dust of conflict lands everywhere, how the reverberations from foreign battles are felt in the places we consider safe.

I sat there dripping the details that at the time filled my portrait—a blue collar, first generation college kid; I’d come from an evangelical home; I was gay.

I saw all of them in her work: my forlorn mother, my bricklaying father, the lottery-ticket scratchers dreaming of their big paydays. Her work is distinctly American, and I mean this in the sense that her characters exist within and because of the American project—that’s the economy, our empire, our morals, our dreams. We’d both grown up in small towns in the middle of West Virginia, hours from any major city. I sometimes felt growing up that I’d come from nowhere. Phillips’ writing burns so feverishly that it makes rural West Virginia feel like the center of the universe.

Phillips’ stories and novels require attention and engagement. There’s a push and pull between the drive and punch of her words and the deep meaning that underpins them. I often find myself pausing, doubling back, and rereading whole chapters of her books. I read the wild, long opening in Lark & Termite, some three times before I permitted myself to move on to the rest of the book.

On the first read, the pockmarked landscape of the Korean War washed over my skin. On the second, a character’s consciousness emerged. On the third, I might as well have been that soldier toting “a snapshot of Lola in the breast pocket of his stinking fatigues, wrapped in a cellophane encased cigarette pack against the rain: Lola in the hammock they’d strung on the third-floor porch off her room.”

The experience reminded me of the first time I picked up William Faulkner or Toni Morrison. Once you find the code to one of these books, a whole world opens up. It took me three nights to move on from that opening chapter. I read the rest of Lark & Termite in a single sitting. I’ve never forgotten those deeply human characters.

I tracked down Phillips after reading Black Tickets and had been shocked to learn that she was heading up the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark, a short PATH ride from my New York apartment. I had to go there; I had to learn what it meant to write about a place I considered home but no longer inhabited. I applied.

I was accepted with an email by the program coordinator and then a surreal phone call from Phillips herself. I have this memory of one of my first meetings with her, over a conference for the story I’d submitted for our fiction workshop. It was clear that my story wasn’t catching any kind of fire—not the way I’d told it. She put down my marked-up story and asked me to tell her about myself, about my life and past.

We’d shared West Virginia, though our backgrounds were not the same. I was a little scared and sorely lacking in confidence. I sat there dripping the details that at the time filled my portrait—a blue collar, first generation college kid that somehow got to the Ivy League for undergrad; I’d come from an evangelical home; I was gay; when my family found out…

Phillips’ stories and novels require attention and engagement. There’s a push and pull between the drive and punch of her words and the deep meaning that underpins them.

And that was when I lost the story and became a blubbering mess. Phillips was patient (God bless professors). She listened to what I had to say. She said, “I want to hear that story,” which was, I think, her way of telling me that some writing begins far from the page.

I wrote a short story collection set largely in West Virginia, and before it was published, Phillips mailed me a copy of my manuscript covered in her famous line edits. I took nearly every suggestion. The first review I received for my second book, a memoir, referred to the writing as “lyrical and uncompromisingly honest,” and I knew that the seeds of that book had been sown during that long-ago meeting in her office at Rutgers.

I live in Brooklyn now, but I was invited to teach as a guest faculty member in the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, West Virginia, Phillips’ hometown. I wrote to her last winter to let her know that I was going to be there, to tell her how full-circle it felt to go there after being her student. She sent me an email and said that it was nice to think of me there. She relayed a few details from her time growing up, and she mentioned the address of the home where her mother used to live. I went to that home on the last day of our residency and took a photo. It was a little brick thing on a quiet block. I sent the photo to her when I was in a car on my way out of town.

She wrote back within the day: “That house is so like my mother.”

I’d never met this woman, the mother of Jayne Anne Phillips, but I felt like I knew something of her. Jayne Anne’s words sing like a story, even in emails.

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