Interview: Caryl Phillips , Author Of 'The Lost Child' | 'I Needed To Know Where I Came From' "A part of me was beneath the surface and I had to discover it if I wanted to write with any clarity about myself," says Phillips. His novel The Lost Child brings Wuthering Heights into modern times.
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'Lost Child' Author Caryl Phillips: 'I Needed To Know Where I Came From'

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'Lost Child' Author Caryl Phillips: 'I Needed To Know Where I Came From'

'Lost Child' Author Caryl Phillips: 'I Needed To Know Where I Came From'

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Caryl Phillips has written a new novel that brings Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" into more modern times. Monica Johnson, a young woman growing up in north England, leaves school - Oxford no less - to marry a Caribbean man and winds up as a single mother with two young boys, Ben and Tommy, one popular, one moody over his origins - kind of like Heathcliff. Caryl Phillips is one of the most admired British writers, including the novel "A Distant Shore." He's taught in the Caribbean, Asia, Ghana, the U.K. and the U.S., where he's currently a professor of English at Yale. His new novel is "The Lost Child." He joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

CARYL PHILLIPS: Thank you.

SIMON: And what made you decide to weave scenes from "Wuthering Heights" or transpose "Wuthering Heights" into Monica Johnson's more contemporary story?

PHILLIPS: Well, the Bronte factor, I should say, came into view because I grew up in a city that is 10-15 miles away from where the Brontes were. You know, there's always been a mystery about the relationship of this fictional character Heathcliff to the family that eventually took him in. So the question of parentage, the question of belonging, is very central to "Wuthering Heights." And some of those echoes in that novel obviously began to resonate with me when I was thinking about the more contemporary story.

SIMON: And how did you come up Monica Johnson?

PHILLIPS: Well, I began to think about a young woman who perhaps felt somewhat disaffected with her belonging where she was. And, in many ways, her story echoed that of Emily Bronte, who was a young woman who felt very at odds with her upbringing and her background. So I was, in a sense, looking for a more contemporary version of an Emily Bronte figure.

SIMON: She falls in love with a man named Julius. Their son Tommy begins school in this northern English town. It's quite a scene. If I could get you to read that - Tommy is bidden by the schoolmaster to introduce himself.

PHILLIPS: (Reading) Every head in the classroom turned and 30 pairs of eyes are suddenly trained upon him. He pushes himself back from the desk and he climbs to his feet, aware of how bizarre he must look in his oversized school uniform. My name's Tommy Wilson. And where are you from, Thomas? I'm from England. His fellow pupils release a volley of scornful cackling that threatens to swell into hysteria. All right, all right. Well, Thomas, we were hoping for something a little more specific, but for now England will suffice. But every one of the 30 boys, who continued to stifle their laughter, feels sure that the queer apparition standing behind the desk has nothing whatsoever to do with their world.

SIMON: Do you know what it's like to feel like that, Mr. Phillips?

PHILLIPS: I think like many people who grew up in Britain, who came from a background that suggested that they had newly arrived or they didn't quite belong either because of their ethnicity. You know, I think that feeling of feeling as though you're an outsider - I think that's very commonplace in British life. And I certainly, as a child of migrants to Britain, felt that at times.

SIMON: You were - we will explain - born in St. Kitts, but came to Britain when you were 4 months old.

PHILLIPS: Yes, I came when I was very small. And obviously I had no memory of the Caribbean and grew up in a Britain that was really accustoming itself to the end of empire, and the subsequent migration of people from those countries into Britain, transforming Britain into what it is now, which is the most multicultural, most multiracial city - country in Europe.

SIMON: And you didn't go to St. Kitts until you were how old?

PHILLIPS: I was 22 because it became increasingly clear to me that if I was going to write, I needed to know who I was. I needed to know where I came from. And although I'd only spent the first four months of my life in St. Kitts, I was forever filling in official forms that said place of birth. And I was forever having to explain at Immigration and various other places that I actually wasn't born in England. So a part of me was beneath the surface and I had to discover it if I wanted to write with any degree of clarity about myself.

SIMON: And when you got to St. Kitts, did it feel familiar or foreign?

PHILLIPS: It felt uncomfortably foreign, I would say. Obviously it was the first time I'd been in a country where everybody looked like me, but obviously, culturally, it was completely alien. And I found people in the street in St. Kitts actually were calling me English. You know, they'd walk down the street, hey, English, how're you? And I wondered how they knew I was English until my cousin said to me, you know, basically you walk too quickly. Yeah, there was all sorts of signs that I didn't belong.

SIMON: And when you're a novelist, do the characters give voice to you or do you give voice to the characters?

PHILLIPS: Well, it's a bit of push and it's a bit of pull. You know, in my own case, I think I'm a sort of quite old-fashioned novelist in the idea that I want to be offstage. I want to hide in the wings and look at what's going on. I don't want to be visible. So for me, a novel is very character-driven piece of work, and the novelist hid offstage. And so I'm really waiting for some characters to show up and to, in a sense, trust me with their stories. So I'm waiting for their voices, but if I don't do a little teasing I kind of feel they're not going to show up at all. So it's a bit of push and a bit of pull.

SIMON: Caryl Phillips's new novel - "The Lost Child." Thank you so much for being with us.

PHILLIPS: Thank you.

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