Jayne Anne Phillips on her new Pulitzer Prize-winning novel

Al Majalla speaks to Phillips about her latest novel 'Night Watch' which follows a mother and daughter navigating a divided America after the Civil War in the 1860s. It all sounds eerily familiar.

Jayne Anne Phillips
Jayne Anne Phillips

Jayne Anne Phillips on her new Pulitzer Prize-winning novel

In the world of literature, accolades do not come much bigger than the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Past winners from the United States include John Steinbeck (for The Grapes of Wrath), Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), and Philip Roth (American Pastoral). Jayne Anne Phillips can now be added to that esteemed list.

Her award-winning sixth novel, Night Watch, was published in 2023 and is a moving account of the impact of the American Civil War on a mother, Eliza, and her young daughter, ConaLee, whose father had been enlisted. Their ordeal is harrowing, and few details are spared, including the violent sexual assault of Eliza as they fall prey to a sadistic Civil War veteran. Once he has had enough of them, he commits them to a lunatic asylum.

The Pulitzer is a highlight in a long and illustrious career for Philips, 71, who began earning literary prizes in 1976. Although her latest book is set in the 1860s, it has resonance today, as America is once again divided and resentful.

Fresh on the heels of her win, Philips spoke to Al Majalla about the book, her inspiration and writing process, and how she sees her books as one body of work.

What inspired you to write Night Watch, and how did you approach the subject of the Civil War?

This is a war novel, not because it’s about war but because the characters must deal with a world that is falling apart around them. The past decade in the United States parallels the Civil War era: the tribal divisions, rampant conspiracy theories, search for scarce resources, migrations in the face of conflict, families fallen apart or separated, struggling to survive.

Humans seem to repeat history rather than learn from it. We seem to be living in a slowly unfolding apocalypse: tribal divisions, scarce resources for many, migrations inspired by broken governments, and families separated for long periods.

Add to this the ongoing climate emergency, rampant online conspiracy theories, and ever-changing viruses. It can be oddly reassuring to enter a turbulent, novelistic past in which changed characters adapt, survive, and even find one another again, no matter how long it takes.

How did you write complex characters such as ConaLee and her mother, Eliza, and what challenges arose during the process?

The beginning of Night Watch occurred to me exactly as it reads. I had no idea where the book was going or what would happen to these characters, but they were utterly alive on the page, in their own voices and time. I needed to follow them and sustain the writing of the novel over years. My books teach me how to write them, just as they teach the reader how to read them.

How do you create believability and engage readers with the characters’ fates?

I can’t answer that question except to say that I am a language-oriented writer and very aware of the sensory, subconscious power of words. I write line by line, like the poet I was when I began, attuned to the rhythm of each sentence. Someone once told me that when they read my books, it’s as though they are actually inside the words rather than just reading them.

That is the power of language. I’ve always said that history tells us the facts, literature tells us the story. The story within the facts is the key to empathy. We are narrative beings. We think in narrative. Through narrative, we can feel ourselves inside the history of another time.

How does the narrative technique of shifting between different time periods and points of view affect the storytelling in Night Watch?

I begin the novel in 1874, nine years after the war, in the immediate crisis that brings Eliza and ConaLee to the asylum, as seen through ConaLee’s eyes. The middle section is set ten years earlier, in 1864, when we see what the characters have endured and what has made them into the characters we first encountered. Then we go forward.

It’s a novel about journeys, long separations, and the immense strength that human beings can possess when they are surviving and acting to protect those they love, even in the face of explosive events and very damaged individuals.

Night Watch is a novel about the immense strength human beings can possess when acting to protect those they love.

Jayne Anne Phillips, American novelist

In Night Watch, how did you handle the themes of trauma and recovery?

We don't always recover from trauma, but the hope is that we live with it in ways that benefit ourselves and others. Love, the need to protect those closest to us, particularly in a post-war chaos, can help us survive and endure.

Recovery, every aspect of it, is strength. The characters in Night Watch experience traumatic events, as does any wartime population, but I want the historical era and their voices or points of view to come through as though mainlined into the reader's mind and emotions. We think of asylums as horrors, but the irony is that the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum offered a place of refuge from the brutal world of the time.

Night Watch is not always easy to read, just as traumatic scenes aren't easy to write, but I hope the reader stays inside the experience. The depths we experience with the characters play into the triumph of survival and the drive to protect what we love.

Can you describe the research process for capturing historical details in Night Watch?

I worked on Night Watch for eight years. Part of that was pure research into the war, the Battle of the Wilderness, speech patterns, daily life, folk medicine, the preparation of food, etc, using books, photos, Ken Burns' PBS Civil War series, diaries kept from both sides of the conflict, and more.

How has your writing style evolved since earlier works like Black Tickets and Machine Dreams?

I consider my books to be a continuum; one book prepares the way for the next. Three of my novels are about civil wars: In Machine Dreams, it is the war between North & South Vietnam; in Lark and Termite, the war between North and South Korea; and the real-life tragedy of No Gun Ri and in Night Watch, America's own Civil War and the post-apocalyptic world it spawned.

I believe that material should dictate form; that is, the characters and voice of a novel emerge to dictate how the book is written. Quiet Dell, a book set during the American Depression in the early 1930s, follows the evolution of a real multiple murders in a small hamlet called Quiet Dell. The murderer was writing to over 250 women through lovelorn correspondence clubs that served as the era's match.com.

It's a book about the victimisation of women and the power of women to effect change, in which a female reporter seeks justice. My writing style adapts to the story I'm trying to tell.

Night Watch is not always easy to read, just as traumatic scenes aren't easy to write, but I hope the reader stays inside the experience. 

Jayne Anne Phillips, American novelist

Night Watch was published ten years after Quiet Dell. What do you do when you are not writing?

I'm never not writing, but I taught writers for nearly 40 years at various universities, designed and directed an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) programme for 14 years, raised two sons and helped run a family. I was a literary citizen who cares about writers, and I remain so. It all takes time.

Can you describe your writing routine and how you maintain momentum in the writing process?

That is the difficulty! Other things intervene: family, work, daily and public life, the news itself, the anguished worry about whether my grandchildren will live out their lives before a climate or political emergency drastically alters their lives.

As a writer, I must be so compelled by the book itself, the voices, the characters, that I'm drawn back again and again until I can finish the novel.

Your novels have been translated into 12 languages. How important is literary translation for writers?

Translation is paramount. It's the difference between being heard in one world or in many. The translator is really a midwife to the work. An excellent translator who captures the nuance, voice, and tone of a book is as important as the writer. It is truly a collaboration of two artists. I have had some miraculous translators who translated several of my books into their languages. It was a blessing and a privilege.

Who are your favourite writers?

I have a long list but will share only those who are not my contemporaries, who are gone now in all but their words. They include Chekhov and Katherine Anne Porter, who worked with my first publisher, Seymour Lawrence. William Faulkner, too, of course. His novel, The Sound And The Fury, was my constant companion as I wrote Lark And Termite, which also turns on the perceptions of a damaged child.

Others include Flannery O'Connor, Stephen Crane, Eudora Welty, Octavia Butler, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, James Agee—who taught me to write children as spiritual outlaws, William Burroughs—for his powerful compression of language, and the poets Elizabeth Bishop and W.S. Merwin. Finally, there is T.S. Eliot, for his Four Quartets: 'And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.'

Walk us through your emotions when you found out you won the Pulitzer Prize.

It seemed unbelievable. I live in Jamaica Plain, a diverse area of Boston, and was about to step out onto my balcony garden and transplant my peonies. I happened to check my email and saw a message about the Pulitzer from my editor's assistant. I thought perhaps he was joking but noticed other messages following his.

Then Ann Close, my editor from Knopf, phoned me incredibly excited. She had just retired after a long career, staying on an extra year to see Night Watch through to publication. We cheered one another. I'm incredibly happy for the book, which now seems totally separate from me. This book, about the journeys of children, of families, of a struggling nation, all of whom endure despite it all, might now have more readers.

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