Cultivating Creativity

jayne_anne_phillips

Jayne Anne Phillips is passionate about contributing to a literary rebirth in Newark through her graduate writing program at Rutgers.

Jayne Anne Phillips’s most recent novel, Lark & Termite (Knopf), deposits readers into the psyche of a ’50s-era West Virginia girl tasked with caring for a brother who doesn’t speak. As critics universally pointed out when the book, her sixth, was released last year, it speaks volumes about its author’s understanding of familial grief and love. And it does so with such skill and sure-handedness that it earned a 2009 National Book Award nomination.

Phillips is the director of the master of fine arts in creative writing program at Rutgers University in Newark, which makes her a New Jersey literary celebrity in addition to being one of the country’s most respected writers of fiction. Since the release of her critically acclaimed debut short-story collection, Black Tickets, in 1979, her star has risen steadily; she has picked up two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and a Guggenheim fellowship.

But if you want to get Phillips talking, don’t ask about how it felt to be nominated for a National Book Award for the first time—“I [was] just very pleased, of course.” Nor is she effusive about her writing regimen—“I write in the summer, when I’m not concentrating on school.”

The way to engage the very private Phillips—who does not disclose her age other than to say she’s in her 50s and will also only offer hints about which northern New Jersey town she calls home (it’s not far from campus is all she will say)—is to direct the conversation toward what brought her to New Jersey.

Unlikely as it seems coming from a West Virginia native known for crafting deeply felt lost souls on the page, when she signed on to create the Rutgers program in 2005, Phillips was looking at Newark as a place to connect. Or at least a place where she might help other writers connect.

“In some ways, there’s a less supportive environment now” for writers of fiction and poetry than when Phillips started writing 40 years ago, she says from a swivel chair in her small, book-crammed office. A flyer pinned to her office door advertising her program’s Writers at Newark series, a free, open-to-the-public monthly reading that has attracted luminaries including Jeffrey Eugenides and Chang-Rae Lee, is among the only hints that she, herself, is a luminary; her photo and a brief bio are included among fifteen other writers on the flyer.

Lrk & Termite

From her critically lauded debut in 1979, to her latest novel, a 2009 National Book Award nominee, Jayne Anne Phillips is a seasoned literary star.

“People—especially young people—are more invested in cyberspace images and fast communication than the written word. Which is why I think an MFA program was important. Not only to provide a community for a generation of writers, but also a community of readers,” she says.

That the launch pad she was offered on which to build those communities was Newark only makes the 24-month program—which she spent roughly two years cobbling together before it welcomed its first students in 2007—more worth her while, she says.

“Newark is an historic city that I think is coming back into its own,” says Phillips, who moved to New Jersey four years ago from the Boston area, where she spent years teaching at Harvard as well as Brandeis and Boston universities. “[Newark] is a wonderful place to teach because the students are very invested in their community.”

They are also reflective of their community, she says. Which is a point of pride.

“It’s very unusual for an MFA program to be diverse. Usually you’ll find three of four people of color. But half of our students”—21 out of 42—“are students of color, and that’s important. Because I think we’re just beginning to get a name as a program with a new approach to things,” she says.

That approach includes making the most of Newark’s proximity to New York City; students gather there regularly for readings during “Rutgers night” at the KGB Bar in the Village, which also hosts readings by established Manhattan poets and novelists.

“There are also plenty of other venues for our students to read in Manhattan,” says Phillips. But in addition to Newark’s history and its reputation as a city on the cusp of an artistic revival, there are practical reasons why her handcrafted Rutgers program is attractive to up-and-coming writers.

“This program presents them with a much more affordable, much more mentored experience than they could get in Manhattan. We have a very artist-mentored setup, in that the instructors are not only wonderful, prominent writers, they’re good teachers who care about teaching,” she says. Among them are the novelist and short-story writer Alice Elliott Dark of Montclair and novelist Tayari Jones, an Atlanta native who now lives in Jersey City.

Phillips cares so much about teaching, and about her part in laying the groundwork for a literary rebirth in Newark, that an attempt to determine the boundary between her personal and professional lives stumps her.

“Leisure? What leisure?” she asks when prompted to describe where, and how, she spends her free time since moving to New Jersey. Phillips is married to a physician, Mark Stockman; she has two sons and two step-sons with Stockman. Three of them live in New York, one in Boston.

Her lack of non-literary hobbies, though, is no reflection on New Jersey. In a sense, it’s a reflection of her enthusiasm for her adopted state.

“I’ve always been interested in so-called outsiders,” she says, drawing a parallel between Newark and West Virginia. “I feel as though West Virginia is a place very few people actually know anything about, and the strength and the power of that place are what I try to reflect and work with in my writing. And I’m really interested in community and diversity. Because of that, I found the idea of coming here and creating something a challenge I couldn’t turn down.”


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