Julia Phillips’ debut novel Disappearing Earth was a finalist for last year’s National Book Award. But Phillips explains that her first book was actually a project she made at her local public library as a child, through a four-week “make your own book” course for elementary school students.
Nowadays, Phillips reads mostly via library e-books and finds that she tries out new authors and genres thanks to the options offered through the library. The first-time author says that being nominated for the National Book Award “was the most extraordinary honor of my whole life! I still can hardly believe it really happened. The award ceremony was so glamorous. A bucket list experience for me for sure.”
Disappearing Earth takes place on Kamchatka, a remote Russian peninsula where two sisters go missing. Phillips went to Kamchatka on a Fulbright fellowship knowing that she wanted to set a book there, in part because, as she explains, “the peninsula really clearly illustrates the effects of Russia’s shift from socialism to capitalism.”
While it was a closed military zone before 1990 that Phillips describes as “an isolated area of an already insular state,” it was “suddenly globalized, radically changed” after the Soviet Union collapsed due to its undeveloped land, rich natural resources, and distance from the government’s seat in Moscow.
Phillips hoped that by going to the region, which is the size of California, she could “meet many people, hear their stories, collect the details that underpin convincing fiction.” But beyond this, its natural beauty, including volcanoes and geysers, attracted her: “I wanted to go there because I loved what it looked like.”
She first started developing the project that became Disappearing Earth in 2009, and while her writing process varied, she tried to work on the manuscript at least a little every day; she describes having support from peers in writing workshops as “meaning everything.” Over the decade between the book’s conception and its publication, she read many histories of Kamchatka and lots of memoirs by parents whose children had gone missing and by children who had been abducted. “I read the former for better understanding of my setting and the latter to get first-person accounts of the kind of rare, terrifying event that begins my novel,” she says.
For the last decade, Phillips also volunteered and later worked at the nonprofit Crime Victims Treatment Center. Phillips says, “Getting the opportunity to listen to people who had just been through trauma taught me so much about the randomness of harm and the resilience of humanity.”
Phillips studied Russian literature in college and lists Tolstoy and Chekov as her favorites among Russian classics while she loves the contemporary Russian writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Phillips, who is now working on a second novel, which explores similar themes of violence, identity, and community set closer to home, says there is so much excellent fiction being written today. “I am a huge fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who is a master, the best there is, and who just seems to get better with every single book.” Some of her recent favorites are Women Talking by Miriam Toews, Putney by Sofka Zinovieff, Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, and Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh.
“We are all connected to everyone else around us,” says the novelist, reflecting on what life lesson she would convey to her readers. “Our actions affect everyone else, from those closest to us to absolute strangers, and we are affected in turn by the choices others make. Because of that, we have great potential to hurt others as well as to help them. We have to do our best to do good.”