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Jayne Anne Phillips

May 3, 2000


8:00 p.m. Reading

Recital Hall, PAC
UAlbany, Uptown Campus

4:00 Informal Seminar
Humanities B-39

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(Photo Credit: Jerry Bauer)

Jayne Anne Phillips grew up in West Virginia, a locale to which she has returned time and again in the settings of her stories. While she attended West Virginia University as an undergraduate she began writing the stories that would make up her first volume of fiction, Sweathearts (1976), which was published and awarded a Pushcart Prize even before she entered the Iowa Writers workshop as a student in 1977.

Since then Phillips has published four more collections of short stories, Counting (1978), Black Tickets (1979), How Mickey Made It (1981) and Fast Lanes (1984), and two novels, Machine Dreams (1984) and Shelter (1994). Her third novel, MotherKind (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, ISBN 0-375-40194-6), is scheduled to be released on Mother's Day.

MotherKind explores the spiritual education involved in the most fundamental transition most people ever have to face--that of the child becoming the caretaker of the parent. The novel's protagonist, Kate, finds herself caring for her terminally ill mother during the early months of a young marriage and just after she has given birth to her first child. In a single year Kate must come to terms with this intersection of radiant beginnings and profound loss. Phillips tells Kate's story in a delicately layered narrative in which the daily details of life resonate with import and meaning.

Phillips first attracted widespread notice for her eclectic collection of short fiction, Black Tickets, which included a mixture of stylistically daring short pieces resembling prose poems, interior monologues from disenfranchised characters on the fringes of society, and longer stories exploring the complexities of family life. The stories in Black Tickets provide excursions into the sordid side of life--into worlds of violence, loneliness, mental illness, sex and lovelessness--preoccupations, according to James Baker of Newsweek, drawn from "her rootless days on the road" in the mid-1970s. As Raymond Carver noted: "These stories of America's disenfranchised--men and women light-years away from the American dream--are unlike any in our literature. [Phillips] is an original, and this book of hers is a crooked beauty."

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The family-centered stories of Black Tickets fed naturally, if not directly, into Phillips first novel, Machine Dreams, which tells the sweeping story of the Hampson family in the years between World War II and Vietnam. Through the experiences and points of view of Mitch, Jean, Danner and Billy Hampson, Phillips explores in miniature the pervasive cultural disillusionment that attend a slowly disintegrating system of values based on the mythical American dream. The result is what Nadine Gordimer called a penetrating portrayal of "the definitive experience of her generation." As a novelist Anne Tayler adds: "The novel's shocks arise from small, ordinary moments, patiently developed, that suddenly burst out with far more meaning than we had expected. And each of these moments owes its impact to an assured and gifted writer."

Like Machine Dreams, Phillips' second novel Shelter continues to explore family ties and generational complexities through the perspectives of a full range of characters, including children caught up in unexpected rites of passage. Set in a West Virginia Girls' Camp in July, 1963, the novel's subtle handling of issues like abuse and incest betray its deeper preoccupation with the nature of human evil, its causes and effects. Phillips, writes one critic in the New Stateman & Society, "has shown herself capable of mixing the banal and the transcendent, the ugly and the beautiful, until they become one reality. . .no one writing fiction in the U.S. today comes near her for linguistic beauty and atavistic, almost reluctant, wisdom."

Phillips has won three additional Pushcart Prizes and one O. Henry Award for individual stories and she was the first writer to receive the Sue Kaufman Award for first fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. She was selected as a finalist for the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction, for Machine Dreams which also received the New York Times citation for one of the best books of the year. A two-time recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Phillips is Writer in Residence at Brandeis University and lives in Boston with her husband and children.

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Writers Online Magazine Article
Jayne Anne Phillips' Home Page
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