Interview: Julie Phillips
By Matthew Cheney
20 November 2006
Julie Phillips is the author of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, recently released by St. Martins Press to tremendous acclaim not only from within the science fiction community, but from such diverse publications as Entertainment Weekly, BookForum, and The New York Times Book Review, where it received front page notice. It is an extraordinarily well-crafted study of an extraordinary life—the life of a woman who traveled to Africa as a child with her high-society parents, worked for the U.S. government during World War II, published a story in The New Yorker, analyzed intelligence for the CIA in its early days, earned a Ph.D. in experimental psychology, and then wrote science fiction stories under the name "James Tiptree, Jr.," an identity she would keep secret from the world at large for years, even as she gained more and more notice as a significant writer.
I have been a reader of Tiptree's stories for many years, and read Phillips's biography at first with fear that it would not do justice to the richness of Sheldon's life, and then with joy that it revealed riches few of us had ever known, and did so with grace, style, wit, and judiciousness. I wanted to know more about Julie Phillips and her research, and we corresponded throughout the fall of 2006, while she was on a busy book tour across the U.S. and then when she returned home to Amsterdam, where she lives with her husband and two children. Phillips has written previously about society and culture for such publications as The Village Voice, Ms., Newsday, Mademoiselle, and Interview.
Matthew Cheney: How did you first discover the story of James Tiptree and Alice Sheldon?
Julie Phillips: Like many people, I read science fiction in high school, pretty indiscriminately. Then in college I discovered Literature, loud music, and feminism and more or less moved on. Later I read the biographies of "unknown" women that came out in the 1980s, particularly Frida Kahlo and Jane Bowles; I found those stories fascinating.
So one day in 1994, when I was living in New York and freelancing for the Village Voice, I read an article about the Tiptree Award in the Women's Review of Books, and I thought, wow, what has science fiction been up to while I've been gone? I want to know more. I did a long article about the award for Ms., and in the course of researching that I read Tiptree's stories and got interested in her life. So I wrote an article for the Voice about Tiptree's life and work, and that became the basis for the book. What interested me most was not even the female-male switch but the way she had to become someone else in order to write. I thought that said a lot about what writing is and how it works.
MC: Do you think aspects of Alice Sheldon's life or Tiptree's writing get overlooked because of the immediate interest of the female-male switch?
JP: Do you think so? I don't know. The minute you start reading Tiptree you know the gender switch is not just a gimmick; those stories are the real thing. But her work can be difficult, and for a long time maybe the gender switch was the only key to it that readers had.
MC: What were your thoughts when you first read Tiptree's fiction?
JP: They're such rich, contradictory stories. I could feel the energy in them, but I didn't know what they meant. I wanted to see if I could find my way in that forest.
It took a long time. It took about three years before I thought I understood "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," and five or six before I had anything at all to say about "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?"—and what I did end up saying in the book is certainly not the last word. I hope there will be more readings, that people are going to go back and explore those stories again.
MC: Rudyard Kipling and Philip K. Dick seem to have been, from what Alice Sheldon said, important influences on Tiptree's fiction. Did you discover much about Alli's reading life as an adult before she created the Tiptree persona? How do you think she learned to write such confident, unique stories?
JP: Well, Dostoyevsky was her model for a great writer, and she loved certain poets, particularly Yeats. She was very widely read, both in science fiction and out of it. She read Conrad as a kid; later on, Ibsen's Peer Gynt and Virginia Woolf's Orlando were important to her. She loved philosophy, especially Spinoza; she got a lot of her feminism from a book by Rebecca West called Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. She loathed Hemingway.
She had been writing for a long time and none of it was ever any good until that moment when she got her Ph.D. I think finishing her thesis gave her the confidence to take control of her material. And then becoming Tiptree gave her even more assurance.
Gary K. Wolfe in Locus said I didn't look deeply enough into her past as a science fiction reader, or try to trace the origins of her stories, which I admit is true. But I wonder if her work and classic science fiction didn't have common roots in the kind of popular fiction that was published in the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's in the 1920s and '30s, and that everybody read, including Alice, and probably including the "Golden Age" science fiction writers, too. In other words, the stuff Mary Bradley wrote.
MC: What did you think of Mary Bradley's writings when you encountered them?
JP: I had a difficult time with Mary Bradley's work, because Alice Sheldon praised it so effusively that my expectations were very high. I wanted her travel books, especially, to be works of undiscovered genius. I found her to be charming and appealing but not as thoughtful or questioning as I had hoped she would be.
MC: When you were organizing the book, how did you choose what, among all the material you had collected and studied, to emphasize? For instance, the last eight years of Alli's (and Tiptree's) life are covered in only 20 pages of the book, while some whole years get nearly that many pages. Did you feel that the years after the revelation of Tiptree's identity were uneventful in comparison to some of the early ones, or that they were a coda to the story you wanted to tell?
JP: The periods that got more emphasis were the ones for which I had more material. It worked backward from the way you might expect: if I had really interesting or revealing letters or journal entries for a particular period, then I wrote a chapter around them.
In Alli's last years, she spoke more on the phone, and wrote only brief letters, so I simply had less information to work with. But I did feel those years were largely a coda to her science fiction career, and because Alli was often depressed during that time (though not as a direct result of the unmasking), I didn't like writing those chapters. So I kept them short.
Some parts of the book have more background material than others. In the chapters in the 1930s, where I didn't know much, the butter is spread very thin, while in the science fiction era I had lots to choose from.
MC: Are there things you had to leave out that, had you had unlimited time, resources, and pages, you would have liked to have explored in the book?
JP: What, you don't think the book is long enough?
MC: No no no—I enjoyed it tremendously, and so, being greedy, would have loved more!
JP: If I'd had unlimited time and resources for research, I would have gone to Africa—I know Carl Akeley's biographer was able to interview trackers who had worked for him on his expeditions to the Virungas. Though I sometimes wonder how much I would have learned. For Mary Bradley, I suspect, much of the point of being in Africa was not Africa itself but the way it allowed her to "pass"—to evade gender restrictions—while she was there. What she came back with were mostly myths about herself.
I could also have speculated more on the possibility that Alli might have been transgendered. (Farah Mendlesohn recently brought this up.) I wouldn't have wanted to go beyond speculation, though, because I honestly don't know. I never called her a lesbian, either, because Alli gave conflicting statements about her sexuality and I didn't think that was for me to decide.
Other than that, everything I thought was really important got in. I originally expected the book to be a lot shorter than it is, maybe 350 pages instead of 480, but when I arrived at the length it is now, it seemed right, and to my amazement, my editor, Gordon Van Gelder, agreed.
MC: Are there biographies you looked to as models for your own, or biographies you think are particularly well created?
JP: There are lots of biographies I admire. Hermione Lee's Virginia Woolf has been at the top of the list for a while now. When I was writing my book I used to read bits of hers and hope her style would rub off on me. City Poet, Brad Gooch's life of Frank O'Hara, is a great portrait of a writer in the midst of a group of writers and artists. I also like Judy Oppenheimer's biography of Shirley Jackson [Private Demons, Ed.], Diane Middlebrook on Billy Tipton [Suits Me, Ed.], and, of course, Hayden Herrera's Frida.
It's not a biography, but I got a lot of ideas from Ellen Moers's Literary Women, which is an accessible, insightful, and wildly entertaining history of women's writing.
MC: Tiptree's letters are extraordinary (and the selection of Tiptree/LeGuin letters in F&SF this month is magnificent, by the way)—is there any possibility, do you think, of a collection of selected letters being published?
JP: I'd love it. I guess I'm waiting to see what the market for it is. It would be such an enormous book, if it were up to me.
MC: You've devoted so much time and energy to this book and subject—what kept you going?
JP: It wasn't a hardship. I enjoyed writing the book, and getting to spend so much time in Alli's company. And I was off in the Netherlands, so I didn't have a lot of career temptations, and fortunately the Dutch have a housing system that keeps the rents low, and subsidized day care, so I could more or less afford to do this thing and not get paid for years, and live off of part-time day jobs. I treated it as a job, and I was sorry when I had to quit, because the book was done.
MC: What's next for you?
JP: Rest, I hope. I have ideas for at least two other biographies, but right now I'm a little scared to commit. What if I don't like my next subject as much as I do Alli?