Disappearing Earth book cover

Texas Book Festival 2019: Julia Phillips

Many mystery and crime novels exist that take place in familiar settings, from urban trenches to suburban seclusions. Very few, if not any, take place in an isolated peninsula of Far-East Russia called Kamchatka. That is the landscape of the novel Disappearing Earth.

Author Julia Phillips pulls us into as she sets the stage for a crime – the kidnapping of two young sisters, Alyona (11) and Sophia (8), after spending a day by the bay in the capital city of Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka.

Summary of Disappearing Earth

Disappearing Earth book cover

As summer turns to winter and the news of the disappearance linger on like a judgemental hand affect the lives of several characters overtime. Each month reveals the story of a new character. With that, it shows a glimpse of how the passing of time equipped with the social and cultural implications of being a woman in Russia plays into a community that is as turbulent as the terrain. 

Before Julia captured the audience with both her vivid geographic imagery and engaging set of stories, she found the inspiration for her debut novel while on Fulbright to Russia and Kamchatka in 2011. Her journey to this isolated peninsula did not end there, and it was certainly nothing close to her hometown in Montclair, New Jersey. 

Read our interview

In this interview, I ask Julia some questions about Disappearing Earth, delving into her process and inspiration, as well as the motive of bringing each character’s tale to light. 

The Setting

It’s so interesting how you took the concept of two missing girls and the effects of their disappearance from what could have been any familiar setting into the vast open lands of Kamchatka in Russia. How was the setting important to plant the seeds of your story?

Kamchatka’s setting was so important to developing this story. In fact, the setting came even before the plot did. I moved to Kamchatka to write because I found the region compelling; it’s politically and geographically isolated, with a rich, tense history and stunning landscape. Once I was there, I couldn’t stop thinking about gender, violence, and community, and the narrative of this novel developed from there.

The inspiration

This book is different than other crime novels in that it does not focus on the crime itself but the people – mainly various female characters.  What was the inspiration behind writing the novel this way rather than a conventional narrative?

In this book, I wanted to widen the focus of a crime story so it’s less about a victim–perpetrator–detective triangle and more about the huge web of people impacted by an act of violence. Both in fact and in fiction, lots of people contribute to the conditions that lead up to a crime being committed, and lots of people have to come together for it to be addressed. Disappearing Earth is the story of people whose shared experiences are just as crucial as their unique qualities in moving the plot forward. To me, the argument of the book is that we survive by coming together. In our most desperate moments, we save, and are saved by, each other. 

The research

I love how this novel expose different layers of the Russian cultural and social mindset that one does not get in many other books about crime – from the xenophobic and racist perceptions between indigenous Kamchatka natives and Russian ethnic residents, to the lingering Soviet Union influences.

What kind of research went into capturing these layers of society we see throughout the story during your Fulbright there?

My research on Kamchatka consisted of talking to as many people and going to as many places as possible. That looked like everything from being a dinner guest at people’s city apartments to traveling for weeks with a group of nomadic reindeer herders. As an outsider to the region, I’m so interested in all that is particular to Kamchatka: the peninsula’s many indigenous peoples, its history of invasion and colonization, its recent place in Soviet military history as an area closed to outsiders. I’m also really interested in examining my own American perceptions of how people there interact with each other and the land.

The character motivations

Speaking of the characters in this story, the fact that the harsh geographic terrain more or less mimics the conditions of the women in the story is very poetic. We see how having a sexual preference, being vulnerable, becoming pregnant etc., can mean shame or death to a woman in a patriarchal society, whether they are from the isolated regions of the Kamchatka peninsula or the urban areas.

Can you expand on the motive behind showing these different female characters – young and old – and some things you want readers to get out of them, especially those here in the U.S. who are taking a glimpse into cultures on the other side of the world?

I structured the novel polyphonically, with every chapter focused on a different woman’s point of view, because I wanted it 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 (a difficult doctor’s appointment, a social slight). By running the range of violence in contemporary womanhood, the book, I hope, argues for how those hurts echo each other, overlap, and connect us.

I hope that when American readers meet these characters, they feel that the challenges these characters face are resonant with what readers see in their own lives. Patriarchy is not only found in Kamchatka. Being discriminated against, needing to hide your sexuality, having ambivalent feelings about motherhood, or trying to manage your own vulnerability are experiences of women the world over. They’re certainly experiences of many, many women in the US. My hope is that readers might see themselves in this book and feel more connected through that shared experience to the people around them.

The story about the tsunami that Alyona tells Sofia before they get kidnapped seems very significant. It evokes a certain fear of vanishing, of being helpless under merciless circumstances, while simultaneously hinting at how such high stakes bring people together.

Was this an intentional choice to tie in an overarching message? Did it possibly inspire the title as well?

Oh, absolutely. The title of the book is a direct reference to this story that one sister tells the other in the first chapter. In her telling, a tsunami hits Kamchatka and sweeps a whole community out to sea. Only a couple pages later in the novel, the girls meet a stranger who endangers them in a way they never anticipated and could’ve never prepared for. I want for this tsunami story to echo the girls’ kidnapping and for the title to speak to the sense of instability that pervades all the characters’ lives. Geographically, politically, and socially, these characters are on unsteady ground. They have to work together to survive.

Julia Phillips and her writing style

Julia Phillips, author of "Disappearing Earth"
Julia Phillips official author photo

Your style has a very personal and present feel to it, capturing the little details, experiences, and action in order to be fully immersed in the worlds you are portraying in real time. Who are some of your inspirations for this style of writing? Would this be a style you are accustomed to or feel was more necessary to show the various layers in your novel?

This is so kind! Thank you. You’re asking good questions, and, to be honest, I don’t know their answers––I wrote this book the only way I knew how to write it. It’s hard for me to explain style choices here other than to say they seemed right to me. My favorite, favorite authors, the people who inspire me and are my role models, include Louise Erdrich, Alice Munro, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Recent books I’ve loved are Women Talking by Miriam Toews and Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine. All those writers have their individual styles, but they have in common the fact that they’re extraordinary storytellers.

If you had to take the series of stories all connected by this crime from the geographical and social Russian environment to– let’s say – the American West or somewhere in your backyard (like New Jersey), would you have written some things differently? What universal messages do you think would remain the same?

You know, I can’t imagine how different this book would be if it took place somewhere else. I  do believe that people everywhere experience the same general things the characters in this novel do, so themes of violence and community might resonate anywhere, but setting this story elsewhere would mean every detail in it would change. So many of Kamchatka’s particular characteristics––its geographic separation from other places, its racial and ethnic composition, its post-Soviet culture, its relative lack of infrastructure––determined the book’s plot. The setting and the story feel inextricable from each other.

Other projects

What are some projects you are working on now? 

I’m working on another novel that explores some of the same themes as Disappearing Earth—the intertwining of gender and violence, the impact of social isolation, the potentially healing power of community—in ways that feel new and totally challenging to me. And it’s not set in Russia, which saves me a lot of money on plane tickets, hooray!

Julia Phillips has written articles for the Moscow Times, all from Kamchatka’s nature reserves and wildlife to challenges of nomadic reindeer herders. She has also contributed to The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, and BuzzFeed. You can find more about her debut novel and other works on her website at https://www.juliaphillipswrites.com/writing.html

Julia Phillips will be one of many authors attending the annual Texas Book Festival this weekend Oct. 26-27 in downtown Austin. You can view the full schedule and when to attend Julia’s panels here.

If you are a POC/WOC cosplayer or creator of other forms and would like to bring your voice to the table, please reach out at julisa.basak@gmail.com. You can also find me on Twitter at @jules_ba5ak. I would love to interview you!

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