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About Arthur Phillips

Photo by Andreas von Lintel

Arthur Phillips is the internationally bestselling author of Angelica, The Egyptologist, and Prague, which was a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. He lives in New York with his wife and two sons.

Posts by Arthur Phillips

The Quarantine Ends. The Detox Begins. (Guest Blogger: Arthur Phillips)

Inspired by my newest hero, Mari Malcolm, in a valedictory mood on my last day here in the Chamber prior to my release and launch back to Brooklyn, and feeling my spectacular mother deserves her own dedicated shout-out blog-entry, I hereby inscribe Ann Phillips on my list of brilliant, self-sacrificing artistes. In her case, it’s toil behind the scenes, moving people and money for a powerful act of re-creation. If you feel like doing a mitzvah in this season, look into the restoration of the synagogue in Virginia, Minnesota. And, think of it this way, music-loving non-Jews: neighborhood hero Bob Dylan’s family probably worshipped there at some point. His mom and my grandmother used to make noodle-kugel together, I’m told.

1400066468.01._MZZZZZZZ_ There’s an element of re-creation in novel writing, now and then. Nabokov mentioned that he often loaned items from his past for his characters to use--an ashtray here, some wallpaper there. They became real again on the page, even as they died a little in his own memory. I wonder what will happen to the music I love that I put in this novel. I hope I didn’t break something, or detach it from my own memory to insert it into a character’s. If I did, in exchange, I was able, like Dr. Frankenstein, to take a lifetime of music listening and loving, melt it all down, pull parts of this and that, and bring to life my own musician. Cait O’Dwyer, the singer in the story, sings fictional music in fictional locations, and yet, I’d swear I can hear it and see her. I hope she sticks around with me for a while. Dear God, five days of isolation here on the Amazon campus seems to have induced some hallucinations. (Speaking of which: poor Leslie. I was afraid something like this was going to happen at the end.)

I’m hitting the road to various points soon, with some great musicians in tow. I hope some of you might stop by and say hello in what we call “in person.” Or, please stop by my regular lodgings at www.arthurphillips.info if the mood hits, and we can maintain an appropriately virtual relationship.

Well, Tom has just opened the hatch, so I’m on my way now. Thanks for having me for the week. (At least, I think that’s Tom; they’re all wearing those bio-hazmat suits for some reason.)

Arthur's Artists Day (Guest Blogger: Arthur Phillips)

Today we open with a video. This is.... well, this deserves to be viewed without any introduction. I’ll be back after you watch. I’m reclining here in the Bezos Crystal Chamber on one of the many high-suspension hammocky things slung from the translucent girders and am viewing the video on the big screen directly overhead. You should get similarly comfortable, ignore email and voicemail and wail-mail (children) for three minutes and let this experience wash over you:

I was introduced to the music of Spottiswoode and His Enemies by a friend and I had an experience that I hadn’t had in years: love at first sound. I immediately had to have all of it (which is six astonishingly good albums). I did something I hadn’t done since college: I bought the lot and spent about two weeks with this band and nothing else looping on my iPod. I was caught short time and again, laughing in the middle of the sidewalk, grunting in approval on the subway.

1400066468.01._MZZZZZZZ_ I am a novelist, but I used to be a musician. Before that I was a child actor. I have friends who write, act, sing, play, paint, sculpt, photograph. When as a young man I rambled in bohemian Central Europe, I used to hang out in paint splattered rooms and drink while we all talked about art and listened to weirdos on a cassette player. I’m actually quite bourgeois now, and I dig my traditional middle-class security, but my heart is with the artists who don’t stop just because their work isn’t making them famous or rich. When I meet someone who makes something that feels important, that moves me, I am in awe and feel so grateful to them.

Think of our dumb, online lives: check voicemail on the cell, on the home phone, check email on the office account and the home account, update the website, update facebook, reply to strangers on facebook... all this technology to-do list. I have to admit: I hate it all, all the busywork of keeping the world at bay. But if you made a list of all the people around you who create things (who cook, who garden, who entertain kids, who put on the best parties, tell the best stories…), if you could somehow spend your days and nights in their company, a little world where we love and entertain each other and make each other think: that’s my idea of paradise.

It’s not original, I know, and it never quite lasts; I know that, too. But I have lived in it and enjoyed it in my day.

For now, from my fourth day in isolation here in the Chamber, I will pronounce Arthur’s Artists Day. Here are some people I know and love. Enjoy!

0767920384.01._MZZZZZZZ_Scrapomatic: the best blues band you don’t know
Zoltan Hajtmanszki: the photographer you should collect if you dig Brassai, Doisneau, Atget...
Dave Frishberg: my candidate for greatest living jazz pianist, and a brilliant, witty songwriter to boot.
And, what the hell, my brother, back in Afghanistan today, happy as a clam, covering the spring offensives, armed with a laptop and a sat phone. Come home soon and safe, you idealistic, thrill-addicted dumb-ass!

(Meanwhile, over at the kitchen, I’m worried about Leslie and her dough-friend).

The Shimmering Moment (Guest Blogger: Arthur Phillips)

1400066468.01._MZZZZZZZ_ Tom, the seder is lovely. Very thoughtful. Although, being alone, and in a single room--a single, round room--the chances that I will somehow be able to hide the afikoman from myself seem slim. But that’s quibbling. The gesture is fabulous. I do have to ask, are there pine nuts anywhere in all of this? Sometimes people (and especially gentiles, no offense) get a little creative with the haroset, and pine nuts are like kiwis for me, unfortunately.

B000GFLE86.01._MZZZZZZZ_ So let’s call up some nice Jewish music. How about Leonard Cohen? I am fond of him for many reasons, not least of which is that he is so literary. His songs tell stories; his language is (not surprisingly, since he’s a poet) inventive and unpredictable. And while I love his voice (especially aged, like on the album Ten New Songs), let’s hear him covered by a thematically relevant singer, Madeleine Peyroux, doing his tune, Blue Alert, inexplicably set to Harry Potter footage. Happy Passover, everyone!

Peyroux, among her many charms and talents, sounds at times uncannily like Billie Holiday (a singer I admire who plays a significant role in my new book). Here comes the thematically relevant part.

Novels start from all sorts of possible impulses, as variable as novelists themselves. In my case, it’s always something pretty small that gets me started, something small but which feels, almost mystically, like an annunciation. These moments arrive, unexpected, and I can just tell it’s happening: this will be one of those things. The idea, the image, the urge: they feel big, and I can tell that I will be happy to watch this notion (whatever it is) grow for two years. It isn’t an outline or a plan, it isn’t a goal. I don’t have philosophical or political ideas to flesh out; I don’t have childhood pain to work through. I just have these shimmering moments, exactly as many as I have published books and the one I’m working on now.

B0000047CO.01._MZZZZZZZ_ In this case, I was listening, on my iPod, to Billie Holiday on a recording from 1947, and I heard a man shout out, just before the song: “Waterfront! Waterfront!” Listen: you can hear him in the crowd.

Now, I’ve had that album for at least 15 years. I’d heard that guy a thousand times. And then, one day, it happened. I was listening, and the thought occurred to me: did that guy ever find out he was on an album? And I knew what was going to happen next.

Bossa Nova in the Crystal Chamber (Guest Blogger: Arthur Phillips)

1400066468.01._MZZZZZZZ_ Wow, Tom wasn’t kidding about that. Every hour or so, a disembodied voice announces my new book’s current Amazon.com Sales Rank: “2,899”... “3,453”... “2,732.” It’s not soothing, and there is apparently no dial in here to shut it off. Every hour. Right through the night. I’m a little frazzled this morning. Anything you all could do to, at least, shorten the number by a digit or two would really help me out.

Kakutani_Michiko This perpetually looped, life-sized holograph of a snickering Michiko Kakutani isn’t that relaxing either, frankly. But it brings up a topic which may or may not be of interest for the occasional visitor to the blog: what’s it like to read reviews of your own work? I’d be curious to hear from writers: do you read them, and what, if anything, do they do to you, or for you? And readers-who-aren’t-writers: what weight do you give them? Do you trust a particular critic (as I trust Anthony Lane for movies)? Do you trust Amazon reader-reviews? Do you trust reviews written by other novelists more  or less than those by professional critics?

Anyhow, back to the matter at hand: music. In my current book, I include a lot of music--some of it fictional, but much of it real, and of the real stuff, mostly things I like. Here’s one song that I find strangely haunting, "Aguas de Marco" ("The Waters of March"). It’s an old bossa nova duet between the titan of bossa, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and a young woman, Elis Regina. I am most interested in the apparent attack of hysteria that Regina suffers around 3:10. She seems to begin making faces or silly voices or something, and Jobim just responds by crooning more and more coolly.

As a result of this apparently unscripted and totally unique moment (and because of the song’s hypnotic melody and Jobim’s wonderfully imperfect voice), this song has been lodged in some part of my brain for years now, and it doesn’t ever fail to do its trick: at about 3:10, I get this strange buzzing sensation in my back. The song has now got a hundred memories and a hundred street scenes clinging to it, like burrs, from all the times I’ve listened to it, walking around with my beloved angel (my iPod), feeling this or that, seeing this or that, smelling this or that. And all of that stuff now replays each time I replay the tune. The next time I replay it, it will have these new memories of the Crystal Chamber and this wonderful fruit plate attached to it. Strangely, the tune remains light, not weighed down by all this (although there are some songs I almost don’t dare play anymore.)

I can’t be the only one who feels this way...

(Meanwhile, things are getting strange in the kitchen: www.fivechapters.com)

Tom, can you send over an Epipen? I accidentally just ate some kiwi. No hurry. Well, actually, yes, please.

The Amazon of the Mind (Guest Blogger: Arthur Phillips)

1400066468.01._MZZZZZZZ_ Monday morning and I arrive here at the Amazon.com complex. The Omnivoracious outbuildings, where I now take residency for the week, are extraordinary. The blog occupies eighteen architecturally unique buildings, each designed by one of the world’s great architects. I’ve just finished unpacking in the Bezos Crystal Chamber, a massive geodesic dome where I will be sleeping and working until Friday. It’s opaque from the outside but transparent from the inside, with a view of Seattle, or at a whispered command, the night sky, displaying the twinkling hemisphere of your choice. Tom, my invisible editor, communicates to me from one of the larger Omnivoracious buildings--that chrome-wrapped place shaped vaguely like a book. Gehry, I assume.

I demanded music here in my temporary digs, and the finest of Seattle technology was deployed to please me. The sound system is discreetly hidden in pillows and planters, and it is entirely voice-activated. It takes a few tries until it adjusts to my voice: for the first several attempts, I yell out “The Police” and am forced to listen to a polka. I call out, “Dexter Young,” but hear only Buster Poindexter. (I am reminded of an Amazon custom-recommendation from the store’s early days: “Readers who liked Chicken Soup for the Soul might also like Soul on Ice”). But the system’s kinks are quickly worked out. As I am a sucker for English pop from the 90s (especially Manchester stuff), I just shouted out “Happy Mondays,” and now “Step On” fills the cavernous space.

For those at home, crank it up. Now, if you turn off all the lights and spatter your ceiling with luminescent paint, you’ll get a sense of what it’s like for me in here. I find it odd that I won’t be allowed outside, nor am I permitted any contact of any sort with other people, except your comments to the blog, until I’m released on Friday evening, but if I’ve learned anything after ten years writing, it’s this: you just do what Amazon says. You just do it.

The video projection is impressive, a little derivative of IMAX, but when viewed from this king-size memory-foam mattress, sampling this excellent fruit plate [Tom--I’m allergic to kiwis--I thought I mentioned that on the intake forms], it’s really not that bad. Here’s an embed for you home viewers.  That’s Harriet Wheeler and her band The Sundays, back in 1990, when I was 21. Catchy tune, that voice, nice English girl charm: I have carried a torch for her for almost twenty years now, despite both of our marriages and whatnot, her kids, my kids.

That’s a fairly long time for a torch to blaze, considering that I never met her. And I have no idea what she looks (or sounds) like now, but she (especially her first album) filled a specific role in my life, back in those early 20s, and that experience has been much on my mind the last few years. The role of music in my life, especially the music I fell in love with back then, when the brain is somehow most susceptible to music’s permanent imprinting power, has been the focus of my fiction writing for the past two and some years.

Tomorrow I’m publishing my fourth novel, a story about a middle-aged man who becomes obsessed with a singer, a woman half his age he sees in a Brooklyn bar. I promise that it is only autobiographical in that he and I share the same taste in music, and that he and I are both headphone junkies. My feelings for my iPod are profound, and part of the fun in writing the book was thinking about all the power that beautiful little machine (and its clunkier ancestors) have had over me for the past two decades.

I am a music lover, and I intend this week to be a music-lover’s book-blog: thoughts about music, bands I love, books about music, music about books, etc. I hope you’ll chime in on the matter as the week proceeds. Especially as you will be my only human contact here.

{By the way, if music-nostalgia-midlife-obsession isn’t up your alley, you are free to go now, of course, but as a consolation, here’s a short story of mine running one chapter a day this week, and it has nothing to do with music. Visit my friend Dave over at Five Chapters.}

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