Julia Phillips is a Fulbright fellow whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review. Her nationally bestselling debut novel, Disappearing Earth, has been longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and named one of the best books of 2019 so far by Vanity Fair, USA Today, and Entertainment Weekly. She lives in Brooklyn.
In Disappearing Earth, the debut novel from Fulbright Fellow Julia Phillips, two young girls go missing in the vast Kamchatka peninsula. Over the next year, we hear from different characters around Kamchatka, all of whom are connected by the crime and the social and ethnic tensions gripping the region.
In a far-ranging conversation with the author, we talked about the wild and fascinating region of Russia where she based her novel, the challenges of creating a work with a wide cast of characters, and how writing about a distant land illuminates some of our own, very American, issues.
Amy Lee Lillard: In reading a few of your previous interviews, it sounds like you’ve had a long-standing love and fascination for Russia. Why did you decide to write this particular story in Kamchatka, one that centers around disappearance? What is it about Kamchatka that lent itself well to that specific story?
Julia Phillips: I lived in Kamchatka for a year. I was fascinated by Kamchatka, because it’s an enormous, geographically isolated peninsula, with no roads connecting it to the mainland. Most of its population is concentrated in a single city. After decades as a closed military territory under Soviet rule, the region is now grappling with where it fits in a new Russia. Its changing identity, limited infrastructure, and imposing landscape all make it a place where it could be easy to vanish.
AL: Kamchatka also might be beyond many readers’ personal experience—yet each of these stories feel somewhat familiar, too. Much of this seems to come from the beautiful descriptions of the social and ethnic tensions, things we as Americans grapple with. This book felt like it could be in isolated communities in the Midwest, or reservations in Oklahoma. Was that a deliberate effort on your part, to universalize some of these stories and people?
JP: My biggest hope for this book is that readers both are grounded in the specificities of Kamchatka and feel that these stories are resonant with their own personal experiences. The conflicts between these fictional characters stem from sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia, which are present in communities around the world. Because of that, a story set in Kamchatka can be particularly Kamchatkan, particularly Russian, and yet relatable in its themes and tensions to readers from outside the peninsula. (I hope!)
AL: That was absolutely my experience! So in this novel you start with two white girls who disappear. What’s so interesting to me is that scenario is often the starting point for crime novels, or true crime stories. But here, the crime and the mystery isn’t necessarily the real story. Instead the story is about everything else, and what a disappearance means to a community. Were you in some way taking on this motif of crime involving young girls?
JP: Yes, I absolutely wanted to look at how one crime impacts an entire community. This novel is structured polyphonically, with every chapter focused on a different woman’s point of view, because it is intended to explore the spectrum of harm in women’s lives—from the rare and highly publicized (an abduction by a stranger) to the mundane and hardly spoken about (an abusive relationship, a medical trauma). I wrote Disappearing Earth to run the range of violence in contemporary womanhood, because I’m fascinated by how those hurts echo each other, overlap, and connect us.
AL: I’ve never before seen the story of indigenous peoples in a Russian setting. Disappearing Earth felt so unique in that way. Was that a challenge, to yourself and to readers, to dig into this experience?
JP: This whole project was a huge challenge for me. If you’re interested in reading stories by and about indigenous Russians, I really, really recommend Yuri Rytkheu’s A Dream in Polar Fog and The Chukchi Bible, as well as The Way of Kinship: An Anthology of Native Siberian Literature edited by Alexander Vaschenko and Claude Clayton Smith.
AL: This novel comes at a very interesting time in the American-Russian relationship. I was a kid during the 1980s, when Russians were the enemy, but simultaneously they were so deeply fascinating and exotic. Then the 1990s and 2000s changed our relationship fundamentally, in politics and art. Now, yet again, we’re in a more antagonistic time. During your years of working on this novel, did you see that evolution? Did that change anything about your process and the final work?
JP: Watching that changing cross-cultural relationship has been fascinating. I moved to Kamchatka in 2011, as the optimism of the 2009 “reset” in Russia-U.S. relations began to fade. This was toward the end of Dmitry Medvedev’s one term as Russian president. Medvedev, who came to the role the same year as Obama in the U.S., had been positioned as Putin’s younger, more modern successor, but he and Putin announced in 2011 that the latter would return to the presidency in 2012. Massive anti-corruption protests broke out across Russia.
I left the country in 2012; by the time I returned to Kamchatka in 2015, Putin was solidly in power, mass protests had been outlawed, and Trump was campaigning in the U.S. Optimism was long gone. These political shifts absolutely shaped the way I moved in the country and how people responded to my presence there. My foreignness, my Americanness, was top of mind.
AL: You’ve written several essays about your time in Russia. In your Jezebel essay in particular, you describe how you ran directly into some very retrograde gender roles. How did this influence your work in this novel?
JP: It makes me so happy that you read this essay, because it circles around many of the same obsessions that shaped this book: gender, microcosms, and the Soviet to post-Soviet transition. I was so interested as a foreigner in what gender roles looked like in Kamchatka, because I obsess over gender roles generally. I wouldn’t describe them as retrograde there; they’re slightly different from what I’m used to, formed in a different cultural context, but rooted in the same patriarchy that exists in so many places across the world.
AL: A key theme seems to be emptiness—of the land, of lives, of answers to crimes. Was that something you were looking to explore? Why?
JP: I love that perspective on the book. In writing it, I definitely wanted to explore what loss looks like in many different people’s lives. The girls are lost, and in the months that follow, characters lose friends, partners, pets, homes. They have to grapple with those losses and figure out together how to survive.
And I love Kamchatka so much. I wanted to put every bit of that love into the manuscript.
AL: What went into your decision to make this a novel, rather than a connected story collection or disparate vignettes? How do you conceptualize the novel, and this cast of characters?
JP: When I started drafting this manuscript, I thought of it as a linked story collection. But once I had a finished draft in hand, it looked to me more like a novel. It’s one linear story told in twelve voices over the course of a year. That updated conception shaped my revisions and helped the project so much.
AL: What was your process in creating this sprawling piece? And how did you envision and then create all the connections?
JP: I drafted each chapter individually then repeatedly revised the manuscript as a whole. To keep the web of characters clear, there were lots of lists and drawings and conspiracy-theory-inspired yarn boards.
Disappearing Earth is the story of a group of people, a whole community affected by a single event, so I tried in every chapter to draw out the connections between characters. Their shared experiences were just as crucial as their unique qualities in moving the plot forward. To me, the moral argument of the book is that we survive by coming together. In our most desperate moments, we save, and are saved by, each other.
AL: How do you go about creating character, knowing that this voice may only exist for a handful of pages, but has to be memorable enough to help us connect the dots to other characters?
JP: Ha, I have this same question! This is a constant challenge. While working on this manuscript, I kept thinking about a character’s clarity of purpose: that they want one thing, have one goal, and try a variety of methods to achieve it. That single-mindedness shapes their voice and propels us forward as readers. Whenever a character felt muddy or undifferentiated, I tried to revise toward a sharper understanding of their own goal.
AL: You’re starting your tour very soon, which goes through the fall! What is your hope for your appearances? What are you looking forward to?
JP: Oh man, would you believe that much of the tour is already past? While I’m lucky to have lots of exciting events still ahead, I’ve done 27 events in 17 cities since the book came out in May. Touring with the book has been a joy. My hope for any event is that I get to genuinely connect with someone, enjoy and learn from someone’s company, and that hope has been realized at every event so far. Getting to meet so many book-loving people—readers, writers, booksellers—is a dream come true. I’m looking forward to lots more of that in the coming months.
AL: In your final column for The Moscow Times, where you wrote a “Kamchatka Observer” column, you said: “Kamchatka’s nature brings you here and its people will pull you back.” Has that view changed at all? Will you go back, either in person or in writing?
JP: How funny to read that sentence now. I wrote those words in 2012, reflecting on a year spent on a peninsula where I’d arrived knowing no one. By the time I left, I’d made friends for life. Kamchatka did, indeed, pull me back; I returned in 2015 with a rough draft of this manuscript. Now I wonder if and when I’ll return again.
When I was working on Disappearing Earth, my love for Kamchatka felt feverish, obsessive, but finishing the book let the fever run its course. I miss seeing my friends there and I’d love to see parts of the region I haven’t visited yet, but I’m not as sure now as I was then that another trip to Kamchatka is in my future.