Read Philip's full Writers' Rooms interview here...
Where are you?
Not so much a room as a nook – or is it a cranny? – between the kitchen and living-room which doubles as my “office” where life in lockdown and otherwise has mostly been spent. This is my Zoom, Teams, Skype and FaceTime salon, as it were, and just looking at the photo I realise I need to do a bit of a tidy.
What are you working on?
I’m not a writer writer, though I do write things: academic stuff for the most part. I’ve just sent off the draft of a new edition of The Great Gatsby for Penguin in the US and the next thing I will turn my hand to will be revisions on a chapter for a composite biography of Fitzgerald coming out next year. For that, twenty-two Fitzgerald scholars have all chosen a specific two-year period of Fitzgerald’s life to write about: I chose 1900-01, when Fitzgerald was four, five, then six years old. After that, and with a sabbatical coming up, I’ll be going back to some other ideas about Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry.
What’s that over there?
You mean the fishtank? Or that there? [points]: that’s Lila, a now four-year-old rescue dog who right now is snoring lightly in her bed after chasing up and down the beach at Helen’s Bay earlier on.
What’s that sound?
Apart from the snoring and the hum from the fishtank? Probably the kettle which has seen more use in the last 6 months than nearly any other device in this house. Otherwise, it’s pretty quiet here. And now the 12th has passed, the helicopters have been returned to their helisheds.
How does isolation help or hinder you?
If you’ve had the misfortune of reading any of my tortured critical prose you will quickly realise it takes a great deal of silence and time to be able to pull that stuff out of the ether. I’m easily distracted – please, distract me – so I can only make headway with anything when I have solid blocks of time to concentrate on it. So, in some ways, lockdown hasn’t changed that much of how I go about things. The Gatsby edition and revisions on an essay on Bishop – sorry, again, Jonathan and Angus for taking THAT long – these aside I have found it almost impossible to write anything during these months. Partly that has been due to a pretty regular stream of online meetings and partly the daily need just to survive to the end of the day during a global pandemic…
Time for a break…?
It’s July in Belfast, so obviously it’s raining – a turn in the garden is therefore out as an option. It would just mean throwing a tennis ball for Lila to fetch and drop expectantly by my feet for another throw-and-fetch round. I’ve phd work from students looking at me from my inbox, so I should really turn my hand to that. Maybe after another tea though.
What are you [reading/watching/listening to] these days?
I’m keeping Richard Ford’s new story collection Sorry For Your Trouble for a few days’ holiday in Galway. Otherwise, I’ve been working back through Bishop’s letters in the One Art selection – she is so dry and on point in almost every single letter. It’s taken me years to pluck up the courage to write about her poetry: I doubt I would ever have said hello to her if I’d had the chance to meet her in real life. I’ve also just finished reading Bernard Sumner’s autobiography Chapter & Verse which I’ve been meaning to get to for years – fine, dry laconicism occupies every page. I can’t believe he turned 64 this year…
TV-wise, last night I got to the final episode of Schitt’s Creek. Slow to gather momentum but then it was just everything you’d want from a situation comedy: sharp, funny, empathetic, perfectly judged.
As for music, I put shuffle on at the start of writing these responses: currently The Organ is playing ‘Basement Band Song’ and that feels oddly appropriate. Otherwise, when walking Lila, I’ve developed a lockdown habit of listening to podcasts – anything from the Wicked Game series about every US Presidential election since Washington, old episodes of Desert Island Discs, analyses of Søren Kierkegaard’s writings, and podcasts dedicated to the glory that is Leeds United, risen again to our rightful place having just won the English Championship under the brilliant enigma that is Marcelo Bielsa. (I had to get Leeds in somewhere.)
What might you revisit in times of crisis or uncertainty?
When I want to read something that leaves me brimful but consoled I either go to Marilynne Robinson’s novels Gilead or Home – I can’t wait until the fourth Gilead novel Jack comes out in the autumn – or William Maxwell, whose They Came Like Swallows is a thinly veiled fictionalisation of his mother’s death in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. (You can maybe just make out a picture of Maxwell and his wife, the painter Emily Noyes, on the wall above my fishtank; Maxwell died twenty years ago on 31 July 2000, eight days after his wife had passed.) Not enough people read Maxwell these days, which is very disappointing – and, also, their loss. And, of course, there’s always Wallace Stevens to turn to for anything that’s needed at any time.
As for movies to get lost in, North By Northwest, or Vertigo, do it every single time.
Best advice for writers?
Don’t do it! But, if you have to – and if you are a writer, you have to – find a way to say something real about what this life, your life, is. My advice is more for phd students starting their ascent, and I remind each of mine of the following on a fairly regular basis: if you’re climbing Everest, or any mountain for that matter, you only need to climb one side. You can’t, nor do you need to, climb each and every side.