In 1977, Marvel Comics created a series of superhero stories under the banner "What If...?" that allowed writers to diverge from continuity and imagine alternative possibilities for the characters in the Marvel canon. "What if Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four?," for instance.
As I read Helen Phillips' captivating new collection of short stories, "Some Possible Solutions" (Henry Holt: 224 pp., $26), I kept thinking of these stories as the "What If...?" tales of our everyday lives. There aren't superheroes here, just complicated, real people living out uncanny possibilities. Phillips plays out for us what might happen if the impossible were possible: "What if you could find out the date of your death beforehand?" or "What if you could see through everyone's skin to their organs?"
She is a master at building slightly askew worlds that resemble our own but allow for the inexplicable, the astonishing, the surreal. She drops you in these worlds with just enough of a flotation device to keep you bobbing above water, but avoids excessive explanation and exposition. With every story's final sentence, I found myself reluctant to move on. I wanted to stay in her speculative worlds, exploring alternative possibilities. We spoke to her by phone about her new book; the interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your novel "The Beautiful Bureaucrat" was a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize earlier this year. And your short story collection "Some Possible Solutions" was just released. What for you is the difference between writing a novel and writing a short story?
I feel like the process is very similar for both. I will have some image or series of images that I know are linked in some way. I create a wild first draft that incorporates all of those images and bears almost no relation to the final product. The difference is that with a novel, that first draft takes a year or two, whereas with a short story, it only takes a week or two. So the process for me is very similar — it's just a matter of scale.
You mention starting with images, but elsewhere, you've talked about how many of your stories are thought experiments. Like the fiction of Kafka or Borges, your stories can be talked about in terms of "what ifs?." How does that relate to the images that begin your process?
For me, there's not a big difference between the "what if?" and the image. For example, in "Flesh and Blood," the story with the woman who starts seeing through everyone's skin, that was an image that was delivered to me directly from the posters on the [New York] subway for the Bodies exhibition. I thought: "What if all the people on the subway next to me looked like this?" So, the "what if?" is borne from the image: "What if I lived in a world where this image that just flashed into my mind was a reality?"
The concept of the "possible" — a word in the collection's title — feels so central to your worlds: the excitement and the horror of possibility, the seriousness and the humor of it. Would you say these are "stories of possibility"?
Yeah, I think that's a cool way to think about them. A lot of my writing is borne out of anxiety and the desperate need to unpack that anxiety. But I also write these stories to comfort myself. I don't really know why I find it comforting to write a story about a woman who finds out her death date, but there's something about going down these different roads of possibility, exploring these different responses to horrifying situations, that braces me for life. My grandfather was in the Army and was a prisoner of war in Japan for four years. He almost died in the camp where he was kept. We've asked him, "Who survived the camp?" He said, "It wasn't the youngest; it wasn't the strongest; it was the optimists who survived." I have a very dark imagination, but despite that, I am an optimist, and I hope that's reflected in the stories amid their despair.
I think that definitely comes through amid the despair and the strangeness. So many surreal and uncanny things happen in these stories, and yet they're wedded to the real world, to human truth. Are there ways in which speculative fiction allows you a better possibility of approaching "truth"?
I think that what you do with speculative or magical realist fiction is that you make a metaphor literal. It's about being particularly concrete-minded in a certain sense. If I wanted to explore the idea that we love someone not for their perfections but for their imperfections, then what I have to do is present you with a life-sized perfect male sex toy who the woman falls in love with when he starts to malfunction. It feels to me a more efficient way to explore that idea, as I do in the title story, than with some "realist" story about a dissatisfying relationship.
In "The Knowers," a machine allows one to type in one's Social Security number and get a slip of paper that informs one of the day of one's death. I have to ask, if such a machine existed, would you be a "knower"?
No one has asked me that yet. I actually don't know the answer to that question. I think that probably I would not want to know. I think I wrote from the perspective of someone who is different than me in that story. I think that it's hard to live knowing the bad things that are going to happen to you. But one thing about that story is that the knowledge liberates her in some ways too.
The ending of the story was perfect for me because it left everything right where it should be — between the knowing and the not-knowing.
Yes. Though, admittedly, I do think that she dies in the next six minutes. It's actually interesting in terms of where to place that story in the collection. It's so difficult to decide on order in a story collection like this. I ended up deciding that I like having the first story end with this idea that there are six minutes remaining. It's almost as though the rest of the book is filling those six minutes. So may those final six minutes be filled with all of these flights of fancy, all of this life, all of this pain and joy — everything hovering in those last six minutes.