"Some early readers have said, 'Your book is so disgusting! In a good way, but so disgusting,'" said Helen Phillips, laughing at the visceral reactions her latest novel, The Need, has inspired—laughing too at the fact that so many people get profoundly disturbed when their sanitized, Instagram-friendly vision of motherhood is shattered, intruded upon by things like anxiety, instability, and, like, so many bodily fluids.
Phillips is a writer who is unafraid to confront the sublime; to demystify its capacity to inspire terror and ecstasy, both. Her first novel, the truly strange and provocative The Beautiful Bureaucrat, and her exquisite short story collections, And Yet They Were Happy and Some Possible Solutions, similarly breach the boundaries of the sublime, by probing our most deeply felt fears, and delving into what exists on the other side of our understanding of things like death, envy, anxiety, and love.
With The Need, Phillips explores all of this through the lens of motherhood—and specifically through the character of Molly, a mother of two young children, who is balancing her home life with her work as a paleobotanist, and struggling to give everything to everyone. The novel opens like a nightmare, and feels almost surreal in its pure terror. Molly is alone one night with her children—her husband is away on a business trip—and realizes there is an intruder in her house; she has already been feeling like the world has decided to open up its mysteries to her, thanks to some strange discoveries at the dig site at work, like a Coca-Cola bottle whose font slants left instead of right, and a Bible in which God is referred to as a woman. Still, nothing quite prepares Molly for what she's about to confront in her own home, and what follows is a story as sticky and hot as a burst blister, as relentless and full of ache as breasts filling with milk.
Below, I talk with Phillips about The Need, and about motherhood, duality, breast pumps, Laura Dern in Jurassic Park, and, like, so many bodily fluids.
The Need has stayed with me in every possible way; I still feel it in my body. So I wanted to start off by asking you about the genesis of this story, how you knew that it was eating its way out of you?
It's interesting you say you felt it in your body, because I really conceive of it as being a book about the body, and so much is just that bodily feeling of your baby's body, your children's bodies, and how they spring from your body, and that whole process—which, when I went through it myself, just made me feel more appreciative and more awe and also intense fear of what it's like to have a body, and the possibility of something harming the body of your children, and the way that being pregnant and bearing a child and breastfeeding a child ties you to the fact that you are an animal in a different kind of way—in a way that we can sometimes ignore our bodies, but you can't ignore your body in that time.
No, you really can't at all.
There was one moment when my daughter was newborn, and my husband was out for a night—and he was not even gone for the night, just for a few hours—and I was home alone nursing her and naked, and in that sleep-deprived state—and I heard a sound in the other room. Of course, it was nothing, but I just had this flash, What would you do?
So much of that time in one's life—well, at least for me—felt very vulnerable. You're doing things you've never done before, and you're loving someone like you've never loved before, and you're also taking responsibility for keeping someone else alive, so all of those anxieties were present and then just hearing something in the other room. So, I had a flash, like, I have to write about this feeling, I have to write about this feeling of being alone with your child, and there being a threat. It's just the most primal thing.
And then also when my daughter was newborn—when my daughter was eight weeks old—my sister died. So right as I was falling in love with my daughter and experiencing this new life, my parents were losing their first-born daughter, and I was losing my sister and grieving that, and so this feeling of the simultaneity of birth and death and just feeling like I was standing at this cosmic doorway, that's just a lot to hold.
There's that dichotomy where you've just brought life into this world and you're feeding it—I mean literally, obviously—but also in every other way. I mean you're doing everything you can to support this growth, but then, it almost feels like too much power in this other sense, like, what gives you the right to have such power over life and death? It's intoxicating and inhibiting all at once.
You are your infant's ecosystem. You are building them and nurturing them in every way, and for me that was a very direct path toward feeling wonderful at times—also thanks to the oxytocin—but it is also just a crunching anxiety and overwhelming experience to feel like you need to keep someone else alive and to you know that if anything were to happen to them, it would be worse than losing your own life.
I used to jaywalk, and I don't jaywalk anymore since having kids. I'm like, I will wait for the walk signal. If I'm on an airplane and there's bumpy air, I never think, you know, Oh, how tragic my poor life cut short! But I think, Who will raise the kids? Their lives are more important to me than my own, and that's a big shift to me. Up until that point in your life, it's your own life, and if you squander it in some way, you're the only one who's affected by that. But then you have children, and then you just have this beautiful and terrifying responsibility to them. That fear is... I mean, it's inhibiting. It's motivating. I certainly wrote the book as a way of processing my fears and coming to terms with them and trying to look them straight in the eye.
"[This] feeling like I was standing at this cosmic doorway, that's just a lot to hold."
This book speaks to such visceral fears, and to the singular experience of the solitude of motherhood, specifically, of the way in which—particularly if you are a mother who gave birth and who is breastfeeding, even though that's not the case with all mothers—motherhood feels unbalanced, like you're always on your own. Like, maybe things should be more balanced, but they never are, and you realize there's actually no balance unless you...
Unless you clone yourself.
Right! And I don't want to spoil the book, mostly because I feel protective about it, not because I care that much inherently about spoilers. I just feel like I want people to experience it fresh, but...
I actually could comment on that spoiler thing: It is really hard in this book, and, like you said, I feel really protective in terms of the surprises in the book because a lot of what I'm trying to do... it's not just that I want to hold back surprises because it's fun to read a thriller—which, I don't really think the book is a thriller—but because I really think the reader gets the full experience if they can go on the journey that Molly goes on.
Molly enters the situation at the beginning of the book with an assumption about who this intruder is, and we, too, bring the same assumptions. And over the course of the book, those assumptions get challenged and peeled away until the person who seemed to be such a threat is proven to be, perhaps, an ally. And I think there's something in that, like the assumptions that we make about who we think is the other, and who we think is the threat, might actually end up being a lot closer to us than we initially assumed. So the spoilers, I want them to be withheld just because I feel like [they're important] in the ethical journey of the book.
This book is very bodily oriented—obviously, there's lots of breast milk, but there's also lots of vomit. There's blood. It's so rooted in the body. How important was it for you to explore that?
It's interesting to me because some early readers have said, "Your book is so disgusting! In a good way, but so disgusting." Which, I mean, of course, I'm taken aback a little bit by that, but I think that also we aren't accustomed to seeing things like this, like lactation written about frankly, and I was hungry for fictional representations of a woman using a breast pump. I would love to read more books about that! I haven't been able to find them, and I don't know if it's just because I've been reading the wrong books, but... I mean a breast pump is from like science fiction, and it's also this symbolic thing, bridging the gap between a working identity and a mothering identity via a machine, so it feels like this metaphor for what motherhood is like right now. I wanted to evoke using a breast pump, because I think it's a really weird and interesting experience, and until I was literally there after my first baby was born with my sister being like, "Wait, how does this thing work?" I knew nothing about it, just a little bit of representation of that. So I definitely wanted to write frankly about the body and about women's bodies, but also that was just my reality in that time, so it felt very natural. It came easily to me to be like, This is what it feels like, and you're out on an outing, and then the diaper is full of poop, and... that's there.
"Some early readers have said, 'Your book is so disgusting! In a good way, but so disgusting.'"
It's also another really interesting duality of parenthood because there is this aspect where we're trying to create, if not sterile, at least clean and, like, safe, environments for our kids, and maintain a semblance of order. But once the stomach flu hits and vomit starts flying, you just get reduced so quickly to this state of primal existence.
Yes, yes. And this is probably true always for life, right? You could get hit by a car any day, or you could get a terrible sickness, things can happen, but there's something about having young children that makes the veneer of tranquility and control... you realize how thin that veneer is, and everything can be going along fine and you feel somewhat balanced, and then everybody gets stuck in a plot twist, and you're just down in the ground, like reduced to your most basic self. You know, you can't even be scared anymore, you're too messy to even be scared.
And I think that that's like being in labor too, I feel like labor totally does that. I mean, you get to a point in labor where you're just like, in an alternate reality and your reactions to things... it's beyond fear or anger, it's just a different state of being, and I find that state really interesting.
I'm interested in what you are when everything is stripped away and there are no more niceties, when you're too tired and too drained to be anything except exactly what you are in that moment. So I think it's a really interesting place, and it's terrifying! I'm someone who, all my life, I've enjoyed being in control, and I'm really schedule-oriented, I'm organized, and having children just smashes what little plan you have. [There's a saying,] "Humans make plans while God laughs." That's what it's like to have children. You make a plan while your children laugh.
Absolutely. They're little tyrannical gods, honestly, over your entire life. There are so many dualities in this book, and one of them is, of course, Molly's reality as a working mother, and the disorientation that comes along with that.
There's a lot of role-switching and code-switching that you do as a working parent. Also, she loves her work, and I really wanted that to be a part of it. You know, it was important for me that her work was a source of great joy, and her children were a source of great joy, and, in a sense, there's a similarity, like something that you're passionate about, something that you don't understand, something that you're in awe of, something that's mysterious to you. I feel like both identities compromise the other identity—like, you go to work, and you're exhausted because you've been up all night, or you're with your kids, and you're thinking about work—so they compromise each other, but they also enhance each other.
It's because she had children she started to notice the weird objects that she might've just thrown away. [Motherhood] makes you more aware in a way and more sensitive to the world. At the same time, it is her discoveries that put her children at risk in a really concrete way.
My in-laws happen to have a friend whose daughter is a paleobotanist, and I got on the phone with her, and I was like, "I don't really know what paleobotany is! Apparently, it's the study of plant fossils!" And she was amazing, this woman. One thing she said to me that ended up being the critical linchpin was that it is not uncommon to find fossils that you can't place in the fossil record. That's just because you don't know the whole fossil record, right? But there are a lot of mysterious things that happen. So you could find a new fossil, and it almost indicates another world, or at least a different understanding of our world.
So when paleobotanists find a fossil they don't understand, they just realize they have to change their conception of things. In the book, the reason they're finding fossils they don't understand is because they're coming from alternate realities, but it's believable.
I guess my only real knowledge of paleobotany beforehand was from Laura Dern in Jurassic Park.
Yeah, that's basically me too!
It is so fascinating to think about this kind of discovery, because, of course, there is so much that we can't contextualize and so we make sense of it by expanding our context, but also what if we're not expanding it actually as far as it can go?
Yeah, exactly. I was even corresponding with a paleobotanist this week, and she said, "The fossil record will never be complete." I mean, some species were lost completely, and there's no record of them. So, I'd really like the book to be gesturing towards that sense of possibility; there are theories that there are billions of parallel universes. It sounds kind of out there, but we know so little. We used to think the Earth is flat. I'm sure there are equivalent misapprehensions that we hold now, you know, and it's weird to think of.
"When you become a parent, it's like, I'm me, but not me."
It is weird and, you know, it's that lovely mixture of expansiveness and terror and all of those things, which are so related to motherhood, where the context of your life changes dramatically. Like, you actually don't know what you thought you knew, because you added something—a child—that just exponentially expands reality.
And it expands and it limits it in certain ways. It expands so much, and then also you're bound by this responsibility. When you become a parent, it's like, I'm me, but not me. There's this feeling of, yes, you look the same, in a way, but there's just a shift inside you; and many other major events in one's life aside from being a parent could do that to you, where it's like, I'm me, but not me, and I find that a compelling idea.
Even when I was a kid, I remember having the feeling of, Oh! That truck hit a stop sign, but it didn't actually hit our car, and imagining two lives branching off of that moment. I feel like this must be a common fantasy, right? Like if some split-second difference then this would have been the reality, and if there had been some split-second difference then this would have been the reality. I am really interested in that Jorge Luis Borges story, "The Library of Babel," which is a way of describing infinity by talking about all the possible different books that could exist if there were just one letter different in an 800-page book, and then in another version one other letter different. Just the sense that every single different moment has all these forking possibilities, and each word I say is a choice I'm making, and I could have made a different choice, and sometimes I'm overwhelmed by that. Like, think of the more than trillions of small decisions being made every instant on Earth.
It's overwhelming, but also so important to sit in that sometimes. Because that's the only way that you're ever able to make decisions, is if you're really acknowledging how important it is to be conscious, to be awake as you're going through all of the potential chaos.
But it's also like, I mean privilege is a word that is really overused I feel like, but it also reminds you of what a privilege it is to get to make choices at some points, because sometimes you can't. Sometimes the truck does hit you, you know? So when you do get to make the choices, it's such a quietly powerful thing.
It is, and I mean I do think privilege is a real aspect of this book, because Molly, like most people, takes her day-to-day daily life for granted, and finds it cumbersome at times. And then you have someone enter your life in this terrifying way, who's like, "Wait this is you with another reality, where this life that you take for granted could be ripped away from you at any time."
So there definitely is an aspect of the book that's cherishing your day-to-day reality. Yes, your day-to-day reality feels like a grind, but it's precious, and when Molly's day-to-day reality is potentially taken away from her, she comes to see it in a new state/light, and I think that's an awareness that I want to bring to my life and I want to bring to being a mother: These mundane little things you do, or the mess you clean up, or the meal you have, it's easy to take it for granted. I want to not take it for granted.
Because I lost my sister when I was a mother, my parenthood has really been informed by deliberately not trying to take it for granted. Things can happen at any time. Even the most annoying moments or the hardest moments, when you're in it and your kid is having a tantrum in the grocery store, just be in it. This is life. This is it.
The Need is available for purchase, here.
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