Julia Phillips is the author of the new novel Disappearing Earth. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Glimmer Train and The Atlantic. She lives in Brooklyn.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Disappearing Earth, and how was the book's title chosen?
A: Disappearing Earth is about two young sisters who go missing in a remote Russian peninsula and how their disappearance affects their community. It really is the result of putting one of my obsessions (stories of young women in peril) inside another (contemporary Russia). I had studied both writing and Russian separately for years, and this project was the best way I could imagine to combine the two and explore how each informs the other.
The novel gets its title from a story about a tsunami that one sister tells the other in the opening chapter. In her telling, a huge wave literally pulls a piece of the peninsula away.
But more metaphorically, the title speaks to the instability, upheaval, and dread experienced by the girls' community in the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. They've lost a political system, a nation, and funding for the formerly well-supported military region where they live. For many of the peninsula's residents, the world they knew has vanished, and what comes next is unknown.
Q: The novel takes place on Russia's Kamchatka peninsula. How important is setting to you in your writing, and what type of research did you need to do to write the novel?
A: Setting is fundamental to this novel. Kamchatka is huge, beautiful, and isolated – it's effectively an island, only reachable by air or sea. Its remoteness makes it a particularly compelling place to set the story of a disappearance. Thanks to that unique geography, Disappearing Earth is a locked-room mystery, only the room is the size of California.
I spent about a year from 2011 to 2012 living in Kamchatka to research this book, then returned in summer 2015 with an early draft to gather more details.
Q: The book's chapters focus on a variety of characters who are connected to one another in different ways. Did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you move some of the chapters around?
A: No and yes. The book's chapters take us month by month through a year in Kamchatka, with each chapter focusing on a different character related in some way to the sisters.
I wrote the chapters out of order; the May chapter was written first, then November, then...maybe February? But who each person was in each month never changed. Their individual stories are shaped by their place in the larger sequence, so they couldn't be shifted around.
Q: Did you always know how the novel would end, or did you make changes along the way?
A: I always knew the general shape of the book – that is, with which characters it would start and finish – but my original idea for what exactly would happen in its conclusion was much more pessimistic. As I became more invested in this fictional world through the writing process, though, it didn't feel right to wrap it up in a desolate way. I shifted my expectations for the ending about halfway through the project. I'm so glad I did.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on a second novel that explores similar themes to Disappearing Earth in ways that feel new and totally challenging to me. I remain obsessed with identity, violence, what our authority figures do or don't do for us, and how we might connect to help each other. I expect those ideas will keep driving my stories forward for a long time yet.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb