Author Caryl Phillips knows what makes a novel.
“It doesn’t mean anything until it has character,” Phillips said at an Ezra Stiles College Master’s Tea Monday afternoon.
Phillips, a nominee for the 2003 National Book Critics Circle award, spoke to a crowd of about 20 in the Ezra Stiles Master’s House. Rather than giving a prepared speech, Phillips answered student and faculty questions.
One of the primary themes of the talk was Phillips’ explanation of his writing style. In his various works, Phillips said, he tends to diverge from the mold of a straight-forward, chronological narrative. He is unconcerned with exact time and setting, and often prefers to concentrate on the human aspect of his stories.
“I begin everything thinking that there will be narrative continuity — beginning, middle, end,” Phillips said. “It almost never works out that way. I tend to follow whatever seems to be the emotional line of the story and not worry as much about the narrative timeline.”
Another major topic of Phillips’ talk was his unique stance on nationality. Phillips said his life and work have been heavily influenced by displacement. He has moved from St. Kitts in the Caribbean to England to Massachusetts. Phillips said that constantly moving around has caused him to feel that he has no nationality, and moreover that nationality in the strict sense is unnecessary and hindering.
“I can understand people’s need to belong, but it doesn’t necessarily have to do with a flag and an anthem,” Phillips said. “I’m distrustful of nationality, having to belong — it’s too exclusive.”
Phillips also shared some of his more amusing experiences with writing. He spoke about the potential for disaster when an author’s works are translated into other languages.
“My worst experience was with my first German publisher,” Phillips said. “The book was called ‘The Final Passage’; I really liked the title — a play on the middle passage — I was a little perturbed when I was handed the book and there was a parrot on the cover. The book had been renamed ‘Leaving a Tropical Island.'”
Several students said they were excited to listen to an unconventional writer.
“I had heard of his writing,” Laura Greer ’07 said. “I thought it would be interesting to hear someone who’s a little off the beaten track of literature.”
Aaron Goldhamer ’04 said Phillips’ confessions of various setbacks he has encountered in the writing business were enlightening.
“As a young writer, I have more than my fair share of frustrations,” Goldhamer said. “It’s nice to hear that an accomplished writer is not free of those frustrations.”
Phillips was born on St. Kitts in 1958. He and his family later moved to England, where he attended Oxford University. He taught at Amherst College from 1990 to 1998 and has since taught at Barnard College. He has published 17 works in multiple genres: fiction, non-fiction, drama, screenplay and anthology.
Phillips is nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award for his 2003 novel “A Distant Shore.”