Jayne Anne Phillips

The novelist discusses the lasting importance of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird, Symphony Space will host a celebration featuring several speakers, including Stephen Colbert, Kurt Andersen and novelist Jayne Anne Phillips. TONY caught up with Phillips (Lark and Termite) to chat about Lee's masterpiece, her own work, and the power of book banning.

How many times have you read To Kill a Mockingbird?
I've read it at different times in my life. It's a text that everyone has, and people need to look at it anew because this whole idea of adhering to a tribal culture is really relevant now when we're living in a world that in some way breaks that down, but it's still such a problem.

Do you feel an affinity with Lee as a female writer from the South?
Well, I'm from Appalachia, which is not quite the South. The South doesn't claim us as being Southern, and the North doesn't claim us as being Northern. But I feel a real identification with Harper Lee in that she wrote about a small, isolated town that's very much inside that kind of antebellum culture. I always felt very connected to Southern writers because they're outlaws. No one told them how to write; they simply invented their own way of writing. Harper Lee was also amazing because she framed the story in a child's point of view, and the point of view of a female narrator named Scout. That's a beautiful metaphor for someone who goes ahead before the rest of the culture both to warn and to lead.

That's interesting considering you've written about children in almost all of your books.
I'm fascinated by a child's point of view and not only a child who is a part of the community, but the child who is not part of the community. The child takes everything out of context and sees everything fresh. So we can challenge the world through a child's point of view in a very natural way. Connecting with associative details from our own childhoods really comes into play when you read a book like To Kill a Mockingbird. The children whose point of view I've worked with in my own work, from certain stories in Black Tickets to the brother and sister in Machine Dreams and certainly Lark in Lark and Termite, they're all very different children, but they're outlaws in the way every good kid is an outlaw. They don't jump to other's expectations—they move through life as individuals.

Many coming-of-age tales, like To Kill a Mockingbird and your own novel Shelter, depict a loss of innocence. Why do you think readers of all ages connect to these stories?
I've always believed that there's nothing so great about innocence. It's a state of being and I don't think ignorance is bliss. I think that we're constantly moving from one loss to another. But every time we move, we enter a different world, and it's a question of deepening and understanding how one meaning connects to another as we go on. Once we grow, we can't remain innocent and that is what being human is about. It's about getting bigger, and taking more responsibility and reaching out rather than pulling in to protect one's tribe. Lee's take on innocence is the injustice of it being spoiled, and Boo Radley is the perfect example of that because he has in part remained innocent. I don't think you finish To Kill a Mockingbird with a sense that something is lost in the children. You finish the book with a sense that they've gained knowledge of the real world and the world they can make, the world they can live in, a way to make a world they can live in. That's what the book really opens up to readers.

To Kill a Mockingbird was previously banned. In your opinion, has banning the book actually contributed to its success?
Probably. It does shine a light on the issues inside the book. And I love the fact that people might think a book is powerful enough to be banned. Banning books is sort of like banning parts of ourselves we don't want to face, or things about culture we don't want to discuss. It's easy to just ban the book. I think reading literature really saves lives. It prepares us for all kinds of losses and transitions that we can't imagine until we find ourselves inside them. We're entering into a consciousness that is already dealing with that issue and To Kill a Mockingbird does so in a kind of narrative arc. It's just invaluable.

Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird 50th Anniversary Celebration takes place April 28 at Symphony Space.

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