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Birnbaum v.

Arthur Phillips, Redux

Our man in Boston sits down with the extremely likeable Arthur Phillips to chat about everything, including his latest novel.

My conversations with young Arthur Phillips began with his first, well-received novel, Prague, and have continued through the publication of his subsequent novels, The Egyptologist, Angelica, The Song is You, and now his latest opus, The Tragedy of Arthur.

Phillips’s growing ouevre includes both distinctive stories and diverse storytelling, delivered with graceful prose and suggesting a bemused and original sensibility at play, or work.

The thing that I have come to enjoy about both Arthur’s fiction and our conversations is his graceful manner of avoiding predictability. This is, I think, what has driven our decade-long conversation(s).

Since the Tragedy of Arthur functions as part faux memoir, part literary hoax, and wholly a Shakespearean history, it offers much grist for our conversational mill. In what follows below, we chat about books, kids, and beagles, and even his latest literary effort. And much more.


Photograph by Robert Birnbaum

Robert Birnbaum: Are you still writing?

Arthur Phillips: I do still write now and again, as a hobby; to keep my hand in the game.

RB: That’s good. I understand your wife is an heiress.

AP: Wouldn’t that be nice? Where do you get those?

RB: What?

AP: Heiresses.

RB: Hang around St. Tropez?

AP: My wife is a Pilates magnate.

RB: Ah. OK, lets get serious here. I noticed that you were, uh, “blogging” at the Powell’s website; I thought there was something corrupt about that. I can’t help thinking there was some arm-twisting in exchange for some consideration—I realize you have to be tactful here—

AP: In exchange for nothing, as it turns out.

RB: In exchange for allowing you to talk about your book as much as you could.

AP: I was allowed to blog, yeah. Yeah, you know, the publicity game is—I haven’t been in this for 50 years but I have been in books for—

RB: Half of your life.

AP: Half my life, 10 years now. And they want you to put your name somewhere; it used to be a simple task, and they did it and you didn’t really have to do anything. But now if you are going to play you have to blog, and tweet, and Facebook-keep. You have to give away a lot of writing, basically.

RB: That’s what I thought. Really, you didn’t have anything better to do with your time?

AP: I mean, it’s nice to think and to be forced to sit down and think and write something. But I would have done that anyhow, and tried to charge someone for it. So that’s what all the blogging is: You are briefly part of a conversation, which is not unpleasant; people respond to the blog and they post it and post their responses, you look at all those, and the days have flown by and you are old and it’s over.

RB: Let’s talk about me.

AP: All right.

RB: I finally set up my own weblog late last year. Partly as an experiment—to see how it might affect how I thought and wrote. But I realized that I am late to the party. There are, of course, billions of blogs, so why read mine?

AP: That’s what it feels like to be a writer of anything. Why would anyone read mine? And it’s a fair question. What would anyone read anything? There is plenty of stuff. Some of the idea that you are more relevant or culturally crucial than the next guy—

Now if you are going to play you have to blog, tweet, and Facebook-keep. You have to give away a lot of writing, basically.

RB: Well, it’s narcissism. All sorts of self-inflicted wounds.

AP: True enough.

RB: I wonder—there are so many goddamn voices out there. It may not be different than it ever was, except of course we have an awareness of that.

AP: Yeah, well, something has changed. I don’t know what it is. Sometimes I try to pinpoint what it is that has changed. When I was writing my first book I would go into bookstores and think, “Look at all these books.”

RB: Still writing?

AP: Yeah, I do still write now and again. But, “Who needs my book, there are enough books?” And now it’s the same thing, it’s just much more constant. Who needs my blog? Who needs my tweet? Who needs my book?

RB: You’ve heard of David Foster Wallace?

AP: He’s been in the news lately.

RB: The to-be-expected outpouring of commentary did produce a couple of worthwhile observations—I liked the one in GQ by John Jeremiah Sullivan, amongst which was this little gem:

“Many of Wallace’s readers (this is apparent now that every single one of them has written an appreciation of him somewhere on the Internet) believed that he was speaking to them in his work—that he was one of the few people alive who could help them navigate a new spiritual wilderness, in which every possible source of consolation had been nullified.”

AP: I read Infinite Jest with great enjoyment.

RB: Do you remember it?

AP: Some of it. Not as much as I remember many things.

RB: 100 pages of footnotes.

AP: I remember the footnotes certainly, which impressed me. I quite enjoyed that book, I didn’t have a life-changing reaction to it but I know a lot of people do. But they do to Bernard Cornwell too.

RB: I guess there was no question there—

AP: It’s Wallace season.

RB: I think I was leading to a question, which was: So there is an author who has a devoted following, and people want to write a lot about him, and I wonder if there is more writing about him than reading of him.

AP: There most certainly is.

RB: I mean exponentially more.

AP: There is. One has the impression there is more blogging and Facebooking and tweeting about writing and yet the sales numbers keep diminishing.

RB: Gross revenues? Haven’t e-books keep things afloat?

AP: I don’t run the business so I don’t know if everything has evened out.

RB: You hear publishers whining?

AP: Publishers have been whining for a long time. Certainly there are layoffs in publishing. It’s still a hard business. I see a lot of friends losing their jobs, so it’s hard to believe they are making barrels of cash. Or kettles of worms.

RB: Let it go. [Offstage I had made fun of AP for his solecism, “kettles of worms.”—RB]

AP: I will. Thank you. Soon I’ll just forget about the whole thing. We all hope that books will continue to sell. And e-books will make up the difference in profits and all the rest, but I think you are right; there are more critics and more critical outlets than ever before, and strangely the book market seems to be shrinking.

RB: There is something wrong here. I don’t think people—I think there is a constant audience, which may not be the same thing as a market. It’s not large, but it doesn’t get much bigger or smaller. The fears about the decline in literacy also are constant—

AP: Were you the person who told me the number of serious readers in the country was constant?

RB: I know I was joking around with Gary Shteyngart that there are always 400,000 readers. Maybe he was echoing Philip Roth.

AP: Roth has a number, and it’s always the same number as his last book sales.

RB: (chuckles)

AP: Shteyngart said 400,000—Jesus.

RB: I guess we are required to talk about The Tragedy of Arthur.

AP: Not required.

RB: I have to confess that since I can’t read Shakespeare—I enjoy watching the movie versions of the plays—

AP: Or the classic comic—

RB: Thus I could not read the actual play that is part of the book The Tragedy of Arthur.

AP: I take that as high praise.

RB: Why?

AP: You had the same reaction to it as you had to Shakespeare. (both laugh)

RB: How difficult was it to write an original Elizabethan drama?

AP: Hard?

RB: You are not going to keep up this conceit that this is a real play?

AP: No, no, I’m right there with you.

RB: I do love the graphics on the advance reader’s copy with all the struck-out copy. Very clever.

AP: It was good fun. Was the play hard? It took a lot of work and time and revision and rethinking, but I guess I wouldn’t use the word hard. It was the most fun I have ever had doing anything.

RB: Seriously?

AP: Oh yeah.

RB: Are there a lot of funny things buried in the text that one would encounter if one were to subject himself to a text in old Elizabethan English?

AP: OK, let’s clarify some terms here—it is not old English. Secondly, for the readers at home he is referring only to the last third of the complete novel that he is having a problem with—the first two thirds were fine. He was fine with most of it, so you should still buy it. And you are not required to read the last third. That’s why we put it in the back.

RB: A lot of people start from the back.

AP: That’s their business. Is it funny? Yes. The play is funny. The footnotes are funny, I think. The play has some amusing moments. It is trying to be a Shakespearean history play—

RB: A tragedy.

AP: Well, call it tragedy but it’s closer to the history plays, Henry VI and Richard III, so it’s not a laugh-riot. It was not hard because it was pleasurable. It certainly took a lot of labor.

RB: You did go for verisimilitude.

AP: Yes, I don’t think you can find any words out of place or phrasing that is wrong—it purports to be by Shakespeare, in his language, and on that level it works. You might still read it and think it isn’t Shakespeare but you are not going to find me out on vocabulary or syntax.

RB: Has anyone offered to produce this play?

AP: There are readings going on at a few theaters around the country, and if people like the readings then they will get to a production.

RB: Readings that you are prompting?

AP: A couple of theaters have read the play at my prompting and said, “Let’s do a reading and see what happens.” And I am working with a company in New York that is going to do a reading with the goal being to find investors for a full production.

RB: Wouldn’t that be something?

AP: Yes, that would be something.

RB: That would be a triumph of sorts, wouldn’t it?

AP: (laughs) I’m not sure what of.

RB: Of The Tragedy of Arthur. And then you could make a documentary about this unlikely happenstance.

AP: You may wonder why there is a cameraman standing behind us.

RB: This is what the book game is all about. If you had so much fun writing the play did you have fun writing the introduction, which is in fact a novel?

AP: I had a great time.

RB: The whole thing was fun.

AP: This was the happiest I’ve ever been working.

RB: Why didn’t you put parenthetically “the amusing and fun-filled…”?

I have published five books in a decade. I doubled my kids in the meantime. I had two dogs but now I have two different dogs.

AP: I don’t want to spoon-feed readers. No, it was the most fun I have ever had working in my life. Actually I have a new paranoia, which I didn’t used to have, which is that that was it; that was the high point.

RB: You have exhausted your talent?

AP: Not exhausted, but the high point.

RB: Not a bad way to go.

AP: We’ll see.

RB: I recently talked to Philip Kerr, and he has written seven Bernie Gunther novels, and he mentioned that usually writers doing a series write one or two too many. So you may go on, but this will be the one you are celebrated for.

AP: I hope to come up with one more idea before I go, but I don’t know what it is yet.

RB: You haven’t started on something new?

AP: I did start on something. I am lukewarm about it. I am going to do some TV writing to pay some bills.

RB: (loudly) What? For who?

AP: For myself, my own ideas. I am selling pilots. I am into pilot sales.

RB: What about filming one of your previous novels?

AP: I am selling HBO one of these pilots that I am writing; the other novels are all in various stages of not being made.

RB: All are optioned?

AP: Two of them are optioned. The short story is optioned. There’s talk. There’s talk about a miniseries based on The Egyptologist. One of the short stories has been four years since the first option.

RB: You haven’t published a collection of short fiction.

AP: I don’t have a collection but I have—

RB: Do you have enough to make a collection?

AP: A pretty short collection. But this story is one I happen to like. It’s called “Wenceslas Square” and got picked up by This American Life on the air and they are the producers on the film. But years roll by.

RB: Yes, years.

AP: It’s funny to watch the process, if you can call it a process.

RB: It’s been about 11 years since we talked for your first novel. Any recollection of what future you were anticipating then?

AP: Huh. I was very distracted by Rosie [my dear departed hound—RB], as I recall.

RB: Bestiality is not legal in Massachusetts.

AP: No, no, no. We just caught each other’s eye from across the room, that’s all.

RB: She was a beauty.

AP: She was. Uh, what was I thinking my future was? I had already started the next book, which is what I have been usually doing. By the time I am out shilling the last one I am writing the next one.

RB: So you don’t have a long view?

AP: The longer I am in this, the shorter my view gets, actually.

RB: (laughs) That makes sense in a number of ways.

AP: I had assumed when I started that whatever had just happened would keep happening infinitely. I would keep writing them and they would keep paying me enough and then we would keep doing this.

RB: You have been productive for a writer, in a decade.

AP: Yes, I have published five books in exactly a decade. I doubled my kids in the meantime. I had two dogs but now I have two different dogs.

RB: Something has changed.

AP: I was living in Paris when I first met you, and South Carolina.

RB: Where in South Carolina?

AP: Hilton Head.

RB: (sniffs) Hmm.

AP: You take the free house where the free house is. You don’t sniff about it.

RB: Now you are in Brooklyn.

AP: Where it’s not a free house, as it turns out.

RB: Is your life in Brooklyn writerly? Can you avoid it there?

AP: I lead a writerly life wherever I go, because I am a writer. Do you mean am I hanging out with a lot of writers?

RB: Sure. Do you bump into writers where you routinely live your life? Readings?

I remember reading when I was a younger and more impressionable person that Nabokov, who was a big hero, would stand at his writing lectern for eight hours and work. I thought, “Jesus, how does anyone do that?”

AP: I had intended never to hang out with writers but it’s very difficult in Brooklyn not to hang out with writers. We were invited to a dinner party by my younger son’s pal’s mom and dad. My wife and I went, and there were 16 of us at the table, and literally my wife was the only non-writer at the table—she is a Pilates magnate, as I mentioned. Sixteen people, and she was the only one. So it’s very hard not to be swamped in writers, but I do my best.

RB: Because?

AP: It seems silly somehow.

RB: Yeah, that and maybe it would interfere with the scrum of ideas?

AP: Yeah, there is something about that. It’s not like I lead an adventurous life of bullfighting otherwise. My routine is to go and write and then walk the dogs and hang out with the kids and make dinner, and to the extent that I have time to socialize it’s with people I have known for years and years, and they tend to be musicians and PR executives.

RB: Years and years? You’re from Minneapolis and then Harvard and then Paris. Who in Brooklyn do you know for years and years?

AP: Uh—

RB: Not that I am challenging you.

AP: No, no I am prepared to back this up with facts: people from Minneapolis, people from college.

RB: There are people from Minneapolis in Brooklyn now?

AP: (both laugh) Yes, the border controls are very relaxed.

RB: Your mother still lives in—

AP: Both my parents do.

RB: And how do they explain Michelle Bachman?

AP: (laughs) I wouldn’t give it too much concern. We have Al Franken at the same time.

RB: And Tim Pawlenty.

AP: Yes, we produce a variety of intriguing figures in our politics. Jesse Ventura, also. Michelle Bachmann will pass.

RB: She is kind of attractive—but she seems quite loony.

AP: That seems to be the new ploy—promote the foxy idiots from that party and see how they fly.

RB: Do you pay attention to politics?

AP: Very little, but I know the foxy fascists when I see them.

RB: How about the short-fingered vulgarian who is the reductio ad absurdum of American politics. You know to whom I am referring.

AP: That’s funny; I was just interviewed by Kurt Anderson, which was a highlight for me, growing up on his magazine, and “short-fingered vulgarian” is an important phrase.

RB: A wonderful contribution to the American lexicon.

AP: It has stuck very nicely. I can’t see a picture of Trump without seeing “short-fingered vulgarian,” so they did good work there. Again, rich egomaniacs have been running for office for a long time, and I am not concerned that anyone will vote for him in sufficient numbers.

RB: Are you at all tempted to write some kind of political send-up?

AP: No, they have professionals to do that sort of thing.

RB: You still do a bit of writing.

AP: Occasionally, I dabble. That doesn’t seem like something that would keep me busy for very long, or do whatever it is when I think, “Oh I think I’ll do that.”

RB: Are you bothered by the state of affairs in the United States?

AP: Uh huh.

RB: How do you relieve your anger?

AP: Through apathy and denial.

RB: (laughs) It’s good that you are so self-aware.

AP: I am confident that others will stand up.

RB: This is very good—that you are not ashamed to trot out your shortcomings. It didn’t take you much longer to write The Tragedy of Arthur than your previous novels—you’re kind of like a professional.

AP: Yeah, I think so. And I noticed myself falling behind at one point and so I bumped up the number of hours I spent working and challenged myself to sit down longer than I had been. I thought, “Maybe you are getting up to go to the bathroom too often and going for snacks too soon, so let’s see if we can do a little better.” I remember reading when I was a younger and more impressionable person that Nabokov, who was a big hero, would stand at his writing lectern for eight hours and work. I thought, “Jesus, how does anyone do that?”

RB: That’s healthier.

AP: The standing part?

RB: Yes, you actually burn more calories.

AP: The eight hours is still out of my reach. But I was hitting six sometimes.

RB: And among all the tasks that you annunciated, you have time to read?

AP: I do.

RB: You mentioned a book to me recently by Whitney Terrell and then I noticed you gave a reading with him. That book isn’t—

AP: Tomorrow on Powell’s my last mouth-off is about that book. Whitney has a very good book there, about Iraq. My brother spent a lot of time there and Whitney has—

RB: What about your brother?

AP: He is a war correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and of last week, a Pulitzer finalist.

RB: Do people ever confuse you two?

AP: Let me say that again: as of last week, a Pulitzer finalist.

RB: I heard you.

AP: My brother—

RB: Yeah, they already made the awards.

AP: Well, they don’t tell you that you are a finalist until you have lost—which softens the news a little bit. I guess my brother was a loser, last week.

RB: You haven’t won any awards, have you?

AP: Not that I recall.

RB: Not even a French award? They give out awards like water.

AP: (laughs) I got the Croix de Guerre. Twice, with red ribbon. (both laugh)

RB: No one would care in the U.S. anyway, I don’t think. Tell me some other worthwhile reading.

AP: Things I have gotten excited about? I blurbed Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson.

RB: I don’t know of her—is that a first novel?

AP: First novel which I really enjoyed. I read Ed Park’s Personal Days recently. A few years ago two separate novels came out about office politics and both [were] written in the first person plural. One of them was Personal Days. That was a wonderful book.

RB: Is he married to one of those Believer editors?

AP: I don’t know who he is married to.

RB: I look to you for some gleanings of New York book-world intelligence.

AP: What, am I Walter Winchell? The other book I liked, sort of the highlight of the year, was Cards of Identity by Nigel Dennis, which is from 1955. Ed Park recommended it to me because I had this Shakespeare play in my book. And I panicked and went out and read it and it has a new Shakespeare play in it. It is spectacular.

RB: An old book; isn’t that amazing. Who publishes it?

AP: Dalkey Archive.

RB: Oh good. Dalkey and Open Letter and Archipelago publish such wonderful books.

AP: Yup. And I’ll put in another plug for a Hungarian from the ‘20s: Gyula Krúdy, put out by the New York Review of Books. He is a unique, spectacular writer.

RB: One of my favorite proverbs is Hungarian.

AP: Oh?

RB: “Life is like licking honey from a thorn.”

AP: Nice. And of course, Under the Frog, a great novel by Tibor Fischer, the title from the Hungarian, “How are you? I am down in a coal mine under a frog’s ass.”

RB: Fischer says when he tried to get his first novel published he wrote to every publisher in Britain—there were 48—and the 48th accepted his book.

AP: I believe it.

RB: What would happen if you couldn’t for some reason write?

AP: What would I do if I didn’t write? On the one hand I would be fine; I would find something to entertain me.

RB: A five-time Jeopardy winner, of course. Would you try out for American Idol?

AP: Yeah, why not? I love writing; it’s the thing I feel most happy doing and want to keep doing it. But you know I am not a fetishist about my—the fact that I take pleasure from it doesn’t mean that I would die.

RB: You are also deriving an income.

The ups and downs of the publishing industry are only interesting to anyone who is not involved in the ups and downs of the publishing industry.

AP: And probably unlikely to continue, and I will need to figure out some other way to make an income.

RB: Why do you think that?

AP: No, it’s fine. It’s not likely that you are going to keep doing that. And you have to find some other way. That’s what the TV stuff is for, which is fine.

RB: It’s not the case that as a best-selling writer—which is what Random House claims for you—that you build a base of readers and every book at least sells a certain amount?

AP: That may be true.

RB: Is that too complicated?

AP: That may be true but that base minimum may not be enough to keep me in the style to which I have become accustomed.

RB: Well stop taking those huge advances that are sucking the life out of the book business. And of course the perks—staying in first-class accommodations.

AP: Exactly.

RB: I’m sure you raided the minibar.

AP: Boy, did I. I took the bar with me.

RB: Did you dine in the fancy eatery in the hotel?

AP: No, I just had them send up some biscuits for me.

RB: (laughs) Some meager gruel.

AP: I am a very respectable fellow when I go out on tour. But again the ups and downs of the publishing industry are only interesting to anyone who is not involved in the ups and downs of the publishing industry. I suspect that there has got to be less money for writers in a system in which fewer books are published and fewer profits are made.

RB: Plus you have vampires like Adrianna Huffington taking advantage of the so-called “attention” economy by getting writers to write gratis and then selling her property for hundreds of millions of dollars.

AP: (laughs) And why wouldn’t we write for free, because gee, it gets attention for us and maybe then readers will buy our book.

RB: Or someone else will ask you to write for free because hey, you are writing for free over there.

AP: Exactly.

RB: By the way have you seen a new online magazine called the Los Angeles Review of Books?

AP: I think I saw something about it on Twitter.

RB: Well, of course. I was impressed with a couple of pieces—one by Ben Ehrenreich, “The Death of The Book,” and David Shield’s “Life Is Short; Art Is Shorter.” Ehrenreich also alluded to a wonderful story by Bruno Schulz called “The Book.” Anyway, it made me feel better, even though I don’t derive much income from the book culture.

AP: It’s a separate question. I am sure that there is something about being in a literate culture and being a literate member of that culture and getting older and fearing that the things you value will disappear with your death—that’s natural anyhow. On top of it the upheaval of how text is moving around nowadays makes that particular fear of death more potent.

RB: It is quaint how these old media acquire a kind of fetishistic status—tube audio components, vinyl; black-and-white films are now treasured.

AP: Ten or 11 years ago the big deal was, Oh my god you can’t say anything nice about Borders and Barnes & Noble because we have to protect the independent book store. Now that’s very different.

RB: I resented the martyred stance of the independent booksellers—as if they are not merchants first. The ones I have know were pretty aggressive businesspeople and played the “chain vs. independents” very skillfully.

AP: Also these are the cycles of capitalism—you can see them coming. You feel bad when a particular store that you like closes and feel glad that Book Court, which is my neighborhood store, is prospering, as well it should. It is run by smart, nice people and it’s a great store.

Ten years ago there were a lot of little stations—you would go into Kentucky and there would be Kentucky Eye on Books. Those have either vanished or lost interest in me, one of the two.

RB: Where did you read last night?

AP: Harvard Bookstore, which used to be my neighborhood store.

RB: Except when you went to school here there were any number of bookstores, new and used, that are long gone. I am not sure I would attribute the downfall and attrition of chain bookstores to normal business cycles. What was normal about this last downturn in business? Chicanery and crime sucked money and confidence out of the economy. What can you say about that?

AP: I got nothing.

RB: Have you been interviewed on television?

AP: Ah yes. The PBS guy from McNeil/Lehrer, Jeffrey Brown. It was fine.

RB: A serious individual.

AP: Absolutely. A serious reader, and that was pleasurable. Ten years ago there were a lot of little stations—you would go into Kentucky and there would be Kentucky Eye on Books. Those have either vanished or lost interest in me, one of the two.

RB: Booknotes and Brian Lamb are not still around. Charlie Rose does authors.

AP: And Jon Stewart.

RB: Jon Stewart is not serious about books and his angle is obviously comedic. I saw Mary Roach on his show and his focus was on the scatological; it was silly, not funny.

AP: If you go on YouTube and look at those old videos of long interviews on TV—Lionel Trilling interviewing Nabokov. There is a great French one, French editor Roger Grenier interviewing Kundera in 1961, and they are sitting on these wonderfully little plastic chairs, very modern, and they can’t get comfortable. Grenier’s suit pants are up above his knees and Kundera is falling off of his chair. There was once a time in which the broadcasters thought people would be happy to sit and watch.

RB: Lewis Lapham, among others, had a show.

AP: There must come a point where the numbers that a station needs are so far beyond the numbers of that steady stream of serious readers.

RB: What was public broadcasting for?

AP: You’d think there would be public-access stuff. It’s a hard gig. You have to read the whole damn book.

RB: Read the book. Yeah. Tell me about your kids—how old?

AP: Twelve and eight. Baseball, literature.

RB: Usually one responds, “Eight and 12.”

AP: Oh all right, eight and 12.

RB: I have to do everything. What a contrarian you are.

AP: Both are serious ball players.

RB: That’s unusual.

AP: Is it?

RB: Baseball seems not to be the default sport choice it once was—soccer, lacrosse, curling; lacrosse is big.

AP: It hasn’t come up at our house. Jewish lacrosse players?

RB: In my town, which is significantly Jewish, lacrosse is snowballing into big, big, big. And actually the father of one of Cuba’s acquaintances told me as a kid there were a lot Jewish kids playing lacrosse.

AP: Is Cuba a soccer player?

RB: No, heavily baseball, which he is good at, and some basketball, which he likes and has a good feel for. But in baseball he is a good catcher, which requires—

AP: Nerves of steel.

RB: He understands the game, which is cool to watch. He could go all the way and that would be my big break. What do your kids play?

AP: The eight-year-old is quite a pitcher. He’s got an arm. That’s my plan; my long-term plan is his pitching arm.

RB: Make him throw with his left. Bind his right arm.

AP: “This is for your own good, son. Your daddy is in a dying industry and you are going to need to pitch in.”

RB: And the 12-year-old?

AP: Infielder like his old man. Better at it than his old man ever was. He’s on a travel team.

RB: Is he in it for the long haul?

AP: I think he is in it for a few more years. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the little guy going on and on and on if he wanted to.

RB: College scholarship.

AP: Exactly. I am planning this out to the last detail. But they are both good readers, which makes me very happy, and they are both funny and sweet guys.

RB: How does that happen? My son is very sweet and I am a crusty cantankerous crank.

AP: (laughs)

RB: I don’t know how that happens.

AP: I don’t either. But I am a superficially a friendly person. And they may be only superficially sweet.

RB: You would know.

AP: They may be up to something beyond my ability to sound their equal.

Photograph by Robert Birnbaum

RB: What about the mother?

AP: The Mother, as we call her around the house (both laugh), is—

RB: The Wife.

AP: The Wife, the Little Lady, is the great athlete—

RB: A Pilates magnate, if I recall.

AP: Yes, and also superficially nice. So that may have something to do with it.

RB: The dogs?

AP: Awwww, the dogs.

RB: You have trained them as attack dogs.

AP: Yeah, killer beagles. Attack beagles.

RB: I like all dogs but I find the call, the voice of the beagle grating and unnerving.

AP: They are encouraged not to call when in the house. We have an outside-only calling plan that they can use. Awww, the beagles—

RB: Why only two if you like them so much?

AP: Two seems like plenty. The training period is rough on the old man who is in charge of it.

RB: I have trained my dog in the basics but I can’t get him to refrain from jumping on people. He is quite exuberant.

AP: My brother, again, who was recently a Pulitzer finalist, wrote a great piece about border collies in the WSJ. About, in this one woman’s case, she got a border collie and then she realized he needed—you know, he is a border collie, and so she went to a place where you can play with your border collie and play with sheep. So she brings it to this park where you play with sheep—

RB: Where is this?

AP: Seattle. And then she realized, economically I can save money if I get my own sheep. Then she bought some sheep, and then started renting land to keep her sheep on. And then she realized she could be making some money by taking the wool and even the lambs to market, so she became a shepherd. And then of course to keep the coyotes away from her sheep, she needed a llama.

RB: A llama?

AP: Apparently they are great guardians of the flock. So now that she bought a border collie she has become a professional sheep farmer.

RB: Are llamas related to alpacas?

AP: Boy these are interview questions that my publicist did not prepare me for. The last thing she said was “Stay on message.”

RB: I sent a list.

AP: Okay, the alpaca and the llama are both members of the camelid order.

RB: (laughs) Dromedarius specus.

AP: Exactly

RB: What is your Pulitzer Prize-finalist brother’s name?

AP: Michael.

RB: Wasn’t he in the Mamas and Papas?

AP: It’s possibly Mackenzie Phillips you are thinking of. Isn’t she a—

RB: Drug addict?

AP: No, that’s the actress. Bijou Phillips? I can’t keep track of all my favorite relatives.

RB: Caryl Phillips, he’s a writer.

AP: Yes, I see him next to me on the bookshelves sometimes.

RB: Phillips is the literary executor of Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Which seemed odd.

AP: That’s a tough gig to take on, literary executorship.

RB: Whom have you appointed for your own?

AP: I have a committee of 10.

RB: (laughs)

AP: They will make all the decisions.

RB: Do you write letters?

AP: Once in a while. Not much anymore.

RB: When you email do you not construct them as letters—like “Dear So-and-So…”

AP: It depends on the business at hand. I wouldn’t say my correspondence is worth collecting.

RB: Poetry?

AP: Oh, little bits here and pieces there. Also, a five-act Shakespeare play in verse.

RB: A what?

AP: A five-act Shakespeare play in verse.

RB: No kidding.

AP: I’ll count that.

RB: Are you tempted to write more faux Shakespeare?

AP: Or a book of the Bible? No, for some reason it doesn’t—

RB: A new Ulysses? Any other literary hoaxes you are considering?

AP: Nothing I am thinking of.

RB: A Holocaust memoir?

AP: Oh boy that’s tempting too, just for the sales. Dogs in Occupied Paris is my next Marley.

RB: (laughs) A tearjerker. Wow, you are full of—

AP: Get-rich-quick schemes. My literary plan starts with how can I get Jennifer Aniston involved.

RB: You have a faux memoir. Some of the information is even real—a mother, a father—

AP: I do, but they don’t resemble any of those people.

RB: Your father is not a thrice-convicted felon?

AP: My father is a conservative lawyer in Minneapolis who still wears bowties and prides himself on dressing like Herbert Hoover.

RB: Amazing, what I have learned about you. This is the fourth or fifth time we have spoken. How do books get to you? Are you sent books to blurb, or—

AP: I have friends who write them and send them, but for the most part I follow the old routine.

RB: Bookstore.

AP: I bring a list of stuff I want from other sources: writers I like, what do they like. So I go read what they like. But in this case Ed Park said to read Cards of Identity by someone I had never heard of. So now I try to track down all the Nigel Dennis I can.

RB: That seems to be the way most serious readers go about reading—I can’t imagine that anyone takes book reviews seriously.

AP: Hmm. It’s hard to—if there is a critic who you do trust, who seems to have similar taste as you.

RB: Who would that be? James Wood—who is actually more than a critic; whether he likes a book or not he provides thoughtful commentary—

AP: Exactly

RB: Daniel Mendelsohn?

AP: I am interested in both of those guys and anything they’d say I would go look at, at least.

RB: Still angry with Gail Caldwell? [Caldwell wrote a less-than-positive review of Phillips’ first novel—RB]

AP: (laughs) I was never angry. I was confused.

RB: Yes, you were angry.

AP: I was confused.

RB: I have it on tape (both laugh). I can recall the venomous spouting like it was yesterday.

AP: No, no, no.

RB: Which turned to obsequious pleading.

AP: (laughs)

RB: “Please get her to like me.”

AP: Is there anyone else if they like something I will go and read it? Nobody publicly available, I think…I have to add another, I like Ron Charles of the Washington Post. He generally has an interesting take on things

RB: I actually like Jonathan Yardley and especially liked the column he did for a few years, called Second Reading, where he “reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.”

AP: I don’t understand why a lot of stuff is written. You acknowledge that reviewers have the right to do what they want and of course it’s a free country, but I often wonder why some of the more vindictive stuff is worth anyone’s time. It’s easy enough to kill a book if you want to kill it: just don’t review it. No one will hear about it.

My father is a conservative lawyer in Minneapolis who still wears bowties and prides himself on dressing like Herbert Hoover.

RB: And it’s easy enough to trash a book. Have you been victimized in that way?

AP: I don’t know about victimized but certainly—I am more bothered by the anonymous stuff online. And again, if you don’t like a book that’s one thing; if you jump from not liking a book to assumptions about the writer and explaining how they are immoral to have written that book, I do find that a puzzling way to exist in the world and why you would want to live like that.

RB: That’s right—the pompous and pretentious assumption that one can say what was in the writer’s mind—I suppose readers are free to understand that that’s crap.

AP: They are.

RB: What are the chances we’ll talk again in two years? We have to stop meeting like this. Maybe I should write a book and—

AP: Uh, chances we’ll meet in two years? I would say, let’s shoot for three and the odds are good.

RB: No pressure. Slowing in old age, are you?

AP: Forgetting words, you know.

RB: Your humility has always impressed me.

AP: (laughs) It’s my finest trait.

RB: You have some sterling qualities. A humble man, best-selling author, and he still remember his roots. Other writers might have said, “Why do I want to talk to him again? I am too big to talk to him.”

AP: (Laughs)

RB: I want to thank you for taking the time

AP: This has been very refreshing.

RB: Thank you very much. Any final words? I hate to put you on the spot.

AP: Buy my book.

RB: And the name of that book is?

AP: The Tragedy of Arthur.