ABR author discusses inspiration for her latest novel


Jan. 27, 2011 at 10:03 p.m.
Updated Jan. 26, 2011 at 7:27 p.m.

Jayne Anne Phillips, author of six works of fiction, was the first featured speaker for the 2011 spring American Book Review reading series.

Jayne Anne Phillips, author of six works of fiction, was the first featured speaker for the 2011 spring American Book Review reading series.

For a writer, inspiration comes in many forms and can hit at the oddest of moments. For author Jayne Anne Phillips, the inspiration for her most recent novel, "Lark and Termite," came in the form of a glance out a window.

"My new novel is not so new. It began about 25 years ago in my hometown when I looked out a friend's second story window and saw a boy sitting in a 50's-style aluminum lawn chair, facing a deserted grass alley," Phillips said on Thursday as the first speaker of the American Book Review spring reading series. "He sat with his legs folded under him blowing on a long, blue strip of plastic dry cleaner bag that he held to his forehead, moving it with his breath. He seemed to be looking through it. 'Who is that?' I said to my friend. 'And what is he doing?' 'I don't know,' my friend said. 'But he sits that way for hours.'"

That boy she saw all those years ago eventually became Termite, the 9-year-old character in Phillips' book that lives in West Virginia in a grass alley in 1959. Termite doesn't walk or talk but loves the sound of storms and trains passing overhead, she added.

Phillips was also inspired by the series of newspaper articles she read on the No Gun Ri massacre that happened during the Korean War where civilians were killed by U.S. soldiers. The novel begins with the story of Cpl. Robert Leavitt who dies in the massacre just as his son, Termite, is being born in the U.S.

"I think writers are people with very poor psychological boundaries. We are always in two worlds at once," Phillips said, explaining how she wrote about an event and place she had never been to. "I also think writers tend to be very empathic. I've never been to Korea, but have seen photos and films. I think that catastrophic sense of being in a war on the ground is very similar no matter what war you are in. The trick was to be inside Robert."

"Termite and Lark" is also a novel about parallels, she added, with some being planned and some she didn't intend but wrote herself into. Outside the book, there were also unintended parallels. After the book was published, Phillips ended up meeting one of the reporters who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1999 investigative articles on No Gun Ri.

"One of the G.I.'s the reporter talked to didn't want to use their last name in the article but she told me that he was probably going to think she outed him. The reason? His last name was Leavitt, only spelled with one letter different," Phillips said.



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