Interview: Helen Phillips


It came swift and sudden up the row, moving fast against the cool dirt, a snake three feet long and as large around the middle as Roo’s arm, greenish scales glimmering poisonously. A scattering of strawberries, an overturned pail, we ran, not looking back, crushing strawberries, leaping over rows, down toward the stream where the thin man strolled with his murderous knife, we landed in the thin man’s arms, pressed ourselves into his chest so hard that if he’d not had his uncanny sturdiness surely we’d have knocked him to the ground. But as it was he held us and smiled upon us with red teeth. He murmured things, I forgot to mention the snakes, my apologies, Roo, my apologies, Rose, they’re harmless, overgrown garter snakes, a byproduct of the experimental strawberry plants, don’t worry, they’re everywhere, you’ll get used to them, all the while holding the half-moon knife in his left hand. I backed out of his embrace a few seconds before Roo. When I turned and looked back at the strawberry field, I saw that it was alive with snakes. It was shocking we hadn’t noticed them before. The whole field undulated, dull green bodies slithering among bright red strawberries.

Finally we returned to the strawberry field, our stomachs taut with cold water from the stream. We picked strawberries, filled pails. I attributed my stomachache to the snakes that slid by with repulsive frequency; only much later would I attribute it to the sight of the thin man stroking my sister’s hair extensions. Late in the day, when almost all the pails were full, a snake slid by yet again. Roo reached out and let the snake slip beneath her fingertips. She grinned and giggled. My nausea swelled and overflowed. I vomited red water onto a strawberry plant.

     —from “R” (Unstuck #1)

Helen Phillips is the author of the collection And Yet They Were Happy and the children’s books Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green and Upside Down in the Jungle. Her work has been featured in BOMB, Iowa Review, PEN America, Brooklyn Magazine, Mississippi Review, and Sonora Review, among other publications, and in the anthology American Fiction: The Best Previously Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Authors. Her story “The Messy Joy of the Final Throes of the Dinner Party” will be featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts this fall. She received her MFA from Brooklyn College, where she now teaches undergraduate creative writing and administers the MFA program.

Interview by Allie Werner

UNSTUCK:  "R" follows Rose and Roo, a pair of identical sisters who begin to falter in their identities after they are moved from the city to an isolated farm. Do you feel like the relationship between siblings is distinct from the relationship between very close friends? Have you had any sibling-like friends, or friend-like siblings?

HELEN PHILLIPS:  My younger sister is very much in the friend-like sibling category for me; I consider her my closest friend. I do think there's something unique about the sibling relationship that can't quite be achieved in any friendship; your siblings understand as no outsider ever can the inner dynamics of your upbringing. When you're close with a sibling, it's a closeness that is born of a deep understanding.

UNSTUCK:  Rose and Roo are initially so close in this story that they function like a single unit. What made you decide to write from Rose's point of view instead of Roo's?

HELEN PHILLIPS:  Rose's journey in the story is a dark one, a journey toward solitude, while Roo's journey is a bright one, a journey toward love. I suppose it's always more interesting to explore the darker journey.

UNSTUCK:  "R" has a few science-fictional elements to it (climate-controlled parks, giant garter snakes), and your collection And Yet They Were Happy draws from fairy tales. In "R", the fantastic elements are fairly subtle, but they still make the sisters' world feel different from our own. Do you think about the world you're building before you begin constructing a story, or do you let the world develop as you write about it?

HELEN PHILLIPS:  Yes, much of my work is set in a slightly alternate reality, one which resembles our world in many ways but contains elements of science fiction. In a sense the setting of "R" is one that I've been developing in other works over the course of many years. I find that this science fiction quality gives me permission to make metaphors literal. The climate-controlled park reveals their lack of freedom; the crazy snakes are the first thing that divides them.

UNSTUCK:  I loved those crazy snakes. I actually think garter snakes are quite cute, but the description of the giant ones really repulsed me.

HELEN PHILLIPS:  Oh, good—I'm always happy to repulse!

UNSTUCK:  Which animal would you least like to see a giant version of?

HELEN PHILLIPS:  Hmm . . . I believe it would have to be an insect. Probably a cockroach. But then again, I do love Gregor Samsa, even when he's a large insect, and I recently wrote a story that's essentially a love letter to the first cockroach my husband and I ever saw in our apartment. I write about animals a lot.

UNSTUCK:  What do you think it is about giant animals that makes us nervous? I'm more likely to spare tiny spiders than large spiders when I find them inside my house.

HELEN PHILLIPS:  I think oversized animals, like the snakes in the story, make us feel out of whack in terms of our place on the power pyramid.

UNSTUCK:  That makes sense. I have a pet lizard, and I'm very aware of the fact that he would probably eat me if I was tiny or he was truck-sized.

HELEN PHILLIPS:  Yes, and house cats always seems just like lions to me! They'd kill us if they could.

UNSTUCK:  I think dogs would maybe spare us. Depending on the dog.

HELEN PHILLIPS: Yes, that's what makes dogs so charming.

UNSTUCK:  Here's another question relating to “R.” Have you ever encountered a doppelganger, or been mistaken for someone else?

HELEN PHILLIPS:  Well, that's an interesting question in my case, as I'm a rather unusual looking person—I've been bald since the age of 11, when I lost my hair due to the autoimmune condition alopecia areata.

That said, there is a certain similarity among all bald women, though there aren't so many of us, and I've had people swear they saw me in a neighborhood I've never even been to. I'm sure they just saw their local bald woman and assumed it was me. It's striking me now that there's something of a preoccupation with hair, and with artificial hair, in "R."

UNSTUCK:  Yes—the sisters' artificial hair extensions are an important element in the story.

HELEN PHILLIPS:  I wore wigs for many years, then graduated to scarves, and now I go bald all the time, so I spent a good bit of time dealing with the logistics of fake hair! I still sometimes wear wigs to parties or for fun—it's very interesting how much one's appearance changes based on hair. I do think I might act a little differently when I wear a blonde wig.

UNSTUCK:  Interesting! I dyed my hair some unnatural colors in high school, but I'm fascinated by how wigs make hair like clothing—something you can change at a whim, or in the middle of the day.

HELEN PHILLIPS:  Yes, wigs are delightful that way! The girls' loss of their hair extensions marks a change in them.

UNSTUCK:  It also emphasizes the growing differences between them.

HELEN PHILLIPS:  Yes, the loss of the doppelganger!

UNSTUCK:  What are you reading right now?

HELEN PHILLIPS:  I'm reading Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which is delightful. For someone who uses many science fiction elements, I'm under-read in the genre.

UNSTUCK:  Where can we find more of your work?

HELEN PHILLIPS:  My website,, has many links to publications. My book And Yet They Were Happy is available from Amazon/B&N or (better yet!) your local indie bookstore. And my children's adventure novel Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green is forthcoming from Random House/Delacorte Press in November.

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Allie Werner is a graduate of Reed College. Before joining Unstuck as an Assistant Editor, she read slush for Tin House and interned with American Short Fiction. Her first published story appeared in Storyglossia last summer. She can be found online at A. is A. In her spare time she enjoys coffee and comic books, preferably simultaneously.