Phillips’s new novel, Quiet Dell, provides a rich account of a sordid crime that took place in West Virginia 80 years ago.
How did you first come across the facts of this grisly murder in the town of Quiet Dell?
My mother told me of holding her mother’s hand at age six, walking along a crowded dirt road in the heat and dust of August, past a “murder garage” being taken apart piece by piece by souvenir-seeking crowds. Thousands walked past the scene in the summer of 1931, attracted almost as though to a religious site. A con-man found “wealthy” middle-aged widows through matrimonial agencies and courted them in letters. He imprisoned and murdered an Illinois widow and her three children, [ages] 14, 12, and nine, and a Massachusetts divorcee. The tragedy preoccupied a Depression-era nation, which saw it as a warning and lesson to women. The scant patterns of a real history, for me, have an almost mythical power. I was drawn to the children, in whom the novel finds “the angelic core of the dark world,” and to creating lives for the women that reveal why they were vulnerable. “Women and children first” may be an honor code in shipwreck evacuations, but in life, women and children are usually last.
Your home state of West Virginia looms large in your fiction.
For me, West Virginia is composed of magical, retentive, pressured, elements: the weight of the mountainous, isolated, exploited landscape, and the depth and complexity of a culture that is largely misunderstood and stereotyped. [Having one’s] origins in a no-man’s-land, a deeply specific isolation drenched in family stories and secrets, is a huge advantage for a writer.
The New York Times suggested that your fascination with the passing of time is reflected in your hobby of “collecting old things, junk.” Do objects inspire you?
I tend to collect cast-off things and small used toys, with no sense of the meaning I might eventually attach to them. But I was given an artifact that actually appears in Quiet Dell. Years ago, a family friend gave me a small envelope he’d found in an antique dresser. It reads, across the front in pencil, “Piece of sound-proof board used in the terrible murdering, August, 1931.” The moment I held the envelope in my hand, the novel became an eventual reality. I simply needed to wait until I knew enough to write it.
How do you go about crafting a novel like this based on historical fact?
I’m a language-oriented writer who proceeds sentence by sentence. I don’t outline; I listen to a kind of whisper inside the material. Character and story are suggested by the voice in the words themselves. Quiet Dell began for me as it does for the reader: in those first lines of Annabel’s. Much is unsaid, but that sense of who she was pulled me into the book and sustained it. I needed to preserve the facts as the bones of the narrative, and yet transform them into the sensual reality of taste and sound and smell, the devastation of loss and the ecstatic shock of recognition.