LIANE HANSEN, host: Jayne Anne Phillips' new novel lark in "Lark & Termite" was inspired by an image the author carried around for 30 years. While visiting a friend in West Virginia, she saw a boy sitting in a metal chair in an alley. He sat there for hours holding a thin blue strip from a dry cleaning bag. Using her considerable narrative gifts, Phillips created the character of Termite, a nine-year old boy who can neither walk nor talk but perceives the world mostly through sound. The character Lark is his 17-year-old half sister. The novel is set in the 1950s and is told from multiple points of view, including Termite's father, a soldier who was killed in the early days of the Korean War. Jayne Anne Phillips is in the studio. Welcome. It's so nice to meet you.
Ms. JAYNE ANNE PHILLIPS (Author, "Lark and Termite"): Nice to meet you, Liane.
HANSEN: The novel is divided into different narratives in different voices, and for Termite, you're actually writing what's going on inside his head. Was he the hardest character to realize?
Ms. PHILLIPS: When I started working on the book I was not going to try to represent his point of view. I envisioned a short, tight book that just included the voices of Noni(ph) and Lark.
HANSEN: And Noni is...
Ms. PHILLIPS: Their maternal aunt who is raising them. Anyway, I was going to sort of use Termite as the focal point of the novel, but he would never actually be heard from. But as I got more deeply into writing the book, I simply was pulled into trying to imagine the way he saw things. And of course that really opened the novel for me, because Termite actually knows things that no one else in the novel knows and he can't communicate these things, but because it's a third person point of view, the reader enters these secrets with Termite and actually knows more than any of the other characters in the book know. And in that sense Termite is a kind of living secret, and the reader is inside that secret with him.
HANSEN: Yeah. I mean he actually, you know, reveals - he's almost a device in some ways by revealing, you know, some plot lines. But then each of them do, because you'll...
Ms. PHILLIPS: Mm hmm.
HANSEN: It's like kind of a Rashomon scene. You'll have scene from Lark's point of view and a scene from Termite's point of view.
Ms. PHILLIPS: Mm hmm.
HANSEN: Corporal Leavitt is caught up in, you know, the first moments of the Korean War and was inspired if not - if I'm not mistaken by the incident at No Gun Ri in Korea. Why don't you tell us a little bit about it and how you came to the, to bring Corporal Leavitt into the story which was originally about, you know, a girl and her aunt.
Ms. PHILLIPS: Well, I began writing as a poet, so a book, a story begins for me in a first line of language. And the first line of this book for me was Lark's line, I move his chair into the yard under the tree and then Noni carries him out. Lark's voice really introduced the children's world to me. I mean, they live on this grass alley. Termite is fascinated by the sounds of the train and the sounds of the river and the sounds of storms, he loves this double railroad tunnel sort of a double trestle that's down by the river and they go there. And Lark says early in the book that, I mean, this is 1959, I wanted a time when people wouldn't necessarily label Termite too specifically. And I had Lark had said that she only knew that his father was killed early in the Korean War around the time, probably before just after Termite was born. She doesn't actually know who her father is, one of the mysteries in the book.
HANSEN: Mm hmm.
Ms. PHILLIPS: But I had written that part of the novel about, you know, Lark says, we never got his body back and we had to have the service, they had the service around the flag that was folded up. Noni says it was wrong and it would never be right. And then Martha Mendoza and her group of reporters for the AP broke the story of No Gun Ri, which had been hidden for 50 years. It was 1999, September 30th to be exact. And I saw this photograph, color photograph on the cover of the Times that was exactly the shape of this double railroad tunnel that I had already written into the novel, and I looked at the picture and realized that that was happened to Leavitt, and I began researching the beginning of the war and the No Gun Ri incident in particular.
HANSEN: We should remind people what happened. It was the beginning of the war, and refugees were being led and they were strafed by friendly fire trapped in a tunnel and could not get out and were killed.
Ms. PHILLIPS: The American soldiers were told not to let any refugees out of the tunnel.
Ms. PHILLIPS: It was a very confused, panic stricken time. The Americans were really being slaughtered. But my point is more that all wars are atrocity.
HANSEN: It's interesting, your grew up in West Virginia where much of the book is set. How did your own experiences contribute to this work? Because I've read you said that West Virginia, it was a place of secrets and there are plenty of secrets in this book.
Ms. PHILLIPS: Mm hmm. Well, West Virginia is also a place of strong oral tradition and strong story-telling tradition. It's a place where at least small towns in West Virginia like small towns all over the country, where people know generations back. They know each other's stories, yet they don't tend to really talk about them, especially within the primal family.
HANSEN: Parallels have been drawn between your novel "Lark & Termite," Jayne Anne Phillips, and William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury." You actually used a few sentences of his book as epigraphs. Is there an apt comparison to be made? Was that in your mind? I mean, this isn't bleak the way that "The Sound and the Fury" is but...
Ms. PHYLLIPS: Well, I love "The Sound and the Fury." I mean it's one of my favorite books. And I also love James Agee's "A Death in the Family," and - but there's a real difference in that - and Faulkner famously said that Benjy was an animal, and that if Caddy walked in front of him he wouldn't recognize her. Whereas I see Termite as being almost in the opposite end of the spectrum, that in fact he has an almost prescient, perceptive consciousness.
HANSEN: There is also a sense of about these characters as family, that they're united against the outside world, that the bonds of family and love in family can sustain and withstand whatever comes from the outside world. I mean, there's scenes where some of the town's people are saying, you know, just put him in an institution. You don't know how to take care of him at all. But, what are you saying about the family?
Ms. PHILLIPS: Well, whereas the Compsons were sort of the symbols of the decaying South and the falling apart of an old order, this family is amazingly strong.
HANSEN: Even though it's scattered, you know?
Mr. PHILLIPS: It's scattered - it would definitely be labeled dysfunctional by some social scientists of our time. But they're not dysfunctional. They're very functional. And I think that's what we kind of need to remember, that family has been redefined and redefined by different eras in history. And this family - it's not your typical nuclear family but they're a very loving and extremely protective family. And the women in particular just don't give up.
HANSEN: How much time do you have to write? I mean, you teach, you know, I mean, do you have a lot of time to your side?
Ms. PHILLIPS: I don't have a lot of time to write. I mean, about four years ago I took on a sort of a big job which was the establishment of a new masters of fine arts program for creative writing at Rutgers-Newark. And it was just a job I couldn't pass up because it was a chance to sort of invent the curriculum and put together the program and a lot of community outreach in Newark based on that. Newark is such a great interesting place. So I knew I was sort of giving up two years to sort of do that.
HANSEN: When you're teaching students particularly new ones, I mean, that are trying to write, what's the most common mistake they make?
Ms. PHILLIPS: They haven't read enough. Thank God for MFA programs because they are educating the next generation of readers. Many times people begin to write and then they realize how much they haven't been read and they kind of start over. I mean, I tell students to just read widely and deeply and never stop reading, and begin to read as writers. I think that's really important.
HANSEN: Jayne Anne Phillips, her new novel "Lark & Termite" is published by Knopf. Thanks so much for coming in.
Ms. PHILLIPS: Thank you for having me, Liane.
HANSEN: Reviewer Maureen Corrigan calls "Lark & Termite" wry and terribly moving. You can read her full review and an excerpt of the book on our Web site, npr.org. This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.