Arthur Phillips is the author of five novels, including Prague and (my favorite) Angelica. His most recent novel, The Tragedy of Arthur, revolves around the discovery of what is said to be a lost Shakespeare play. It’s hard not to see parallels between The Tragedy of Arthur and Pale Fire. Like Nabokov’s masterpiece, Phillips’ novel mixes serious questions about authenticity and art with playfulness and pastiche. The play, a surprisingly convincing “early work” similar to Henry VI and Richard II, is preceded by a lengthy faux-memoir written by the novel’s protagonist — also named Arthur Phillips. In what serves as an introduction to the play, Arthur lays his life story before the reader — a life, it should be added, that has many, many parallels to Shakespeare’s plays. He also argues that the play (which was discovered by his father, a convicted forger) is a fake. Full Stop spoke to Arthur Phillips about fiction and forgery, the importance of autobiography in art, and the deification of the Bard.
When I saw you read from The Tragedy of Arthur, you read as “Arthur Phillips,” the novel’s protagonist. Do you typically read from the novel in character? How have people responded?
Yeah, it sort of depends on if I recognize anyone in the audience. But generally, I’ll start to play along. Most of the time it breaks down pretty quickly, which is fine — it breaking down is part of the fun of the show. A lot of the places half of the audiences is friends and family, and half is strangers. [Sometimes] I’ll get to the end and a lot of the people won’t realize it was a joke. Someone will say, ‘How did you know it wasn’t a real Shakespeare play?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, I think the first tip off was that I wrote it.’
When I saw you read, you faced a barrage of “fact or fiction” questions after you told the audience that you, not Shakespeare, had written the play. What do you think about that hunger to know what came from the author’s life and what didn’t?
It’s very natural for a reader to want to know how much of a piece of fiction is “true.” When I read a piece of fiction that really gets to me, I think, ‘How could they do such a thing? How could somebody have made all that up?’ And then when I look back at books I have written, after they’re long gone, I think, ‘How did I ever make that up?’ I can hardly believe it.
Fiction is a wonderful, magical event. If you go to a magic show you want to see what’s behind the curtain. It’s hard not to believe that there isn’t some autobiography in all of it. That was very much on my mind when I wrote [The Tragedy of Arthur] and is very much on my mind when I read, sometimes.
So what do I think about that impulse? …. I think it’s better to believe (because it’s often true) that there isn’t anything there except someone’s ability to make something up and to synthesize and compose — out of fragments and bits and pieces — imagination.
You’ve played around with the tropes of historical fiction in a number of your books. How does that compare to playing with the details of your own life?
It’s kind of similar, actually. [laughs] With the historical fiction that I’ve written, there’s this historical framework that I have to work within. I know that on this date, for example, Howard Carter really was in Thebes. So I’m going to work with that known fact. However, we don’t know what he did for lunch that day. In my world, he’s going to grab a bite with the main character and they’re going to get in an argument or something.
[In The Tragedy of Arthur] I did something similar with my own life. It is a matter of public record that I am from Minneapolis. Now, within that… [laughs] There’s a lot of leeway. It’s fun. I enjoy squeezing my imagination into the cracks of history and that seems to now include my own life.
Has any of the stuff you made up about “Arthur Phillips” ended up on your Wikipedia page?
Well, it started from Wikipedia, to a certain extent. A couple of years ago, my brother-in-law went in and added a bunch of stuff. So I used it — some of the stuff he put in my Wikipedia entry I turned around and put in my novel. He put in something about my years spent in a Hungarian flamenco dancing troupe. …. I think he was just drunk. [laughs] I noticed it one day and thought, ‘Well, this is interesting.’ So in the novel I join a Hungarian flamenco troupe.
In the novel, Arthur’s sister becomes an anti-Stratfordian and creates a pretty stunning — if completely batty — counter-history for Shakespeare. You write:
“Her complete project was a strange and beautiful hybrid of historical research, literary interpretation, parody and outright fiction. She cast her anger into ammunition and—never denying that she loved the plays—she opened a withering barrage of ordnance upon the mancredited with writing them and the convict who stood next to him,claiming special friendship.”
Does that excerpt also describe what you’re up to in The Tragedy of Arthur?
I think there are a couple things in [the novel] that at least describe parts of the project, and that’s one of them. There’s an extended quote from a Milan Kundera essay early in the book …. in which he talked about if someone could write a Beethoven sonata right now, no matter how good it was — even if it was as good as the best Beethoven sonata — it can only be a joke.
That’s certainly one description of the project — or at least a question to ask of the project.
What do you think of Kundera’s argument?
My instinct is to strongly disagree with Kundera. …. Whatever it is that you’re writing is not Beethoven because only Beethoven gets to write Beethoven. And I don’t mean that as a statement of quality, just as a statement of singular personality. If it isn’t him, then it isn’t him.
But if you could produce something that makes somebody feel what they feel when they listen to him, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It seems only to add to our treasure chest of great art. So, the only reason you would say to yourself, ‘this is inauthentic or kitschy or whatever,’ is if you sat there thinking the whole time ‘I know who wrote this, I know who wrote this, I know who wrote this.’ And yet if the art’s any good at all you’re not supposed to be thinking ‘I know who wrote this.’
As far as the play goes, I happen to like the play. We just did a staged reading with a theater company [in New York City] and we’re trying to get it produced. We’re not trying to get it produced so you can look at it and go, ‘How odd and object that is,’ but because it would simply tell a story and move and entertain and intrigue on its own merits which, considering that it’s written entirely in 16th century vocabulary and blank verse, is asking a lot of an audience. And yet, for some people, it works.
I had two reactions to the play, to speak pretty generally. One was to say, as a kind of mantra: ‘This is not real and I will use all of my intelligence to prove that it is not real.’ The other was to be so engrossed in what was happening that that part of me switched off. I was amazed at how difficult it was to simply be present. I had to really fight to keep that first response cornered.
‘I will not be fooled by art. I am going to prove that this isn’t Shakespeare. And since I know it isn’t Shakespeare I will be able to prove, furthermore, why it isn’t as good as Shakespeare and why whoever has put this in front of me has done something arrogant and foolish.’ Right? That’s a very natural reaction and it does take an act of will to turn that off and say, ‘Hold on a second. This thing does exist. I’m holding it. What is it capable of doing without me having to say it can’t be done?’ That’s an interesting psychological feature that we all have. I have the same thing. I’ve read other fake Shakespearian stuff and I’m immediately like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no. He wouldn’t do that,’ instead of just letting whatever’s going to happen, happen.
Is there a lot of other fake Shakespearian stuff? Like Shakespeare fan fiction?
I did a reading the night before last in D.C. and someone came up to me, sort of shyly, afterwards and handed me a Quarto-sized play that he had written. He had set it entirely in period spelling and period font and printed it on nice, thick paper so it would look like a 16th century Quarto. So [laughs] there seems to be a crowd of people who do this sort of thing.
What was the process of writing the book like? Did you work on the play first, the “memoir” first, or both simultaneously?
Every draft started with the play.
I don’t really know. I guess because I tried to write the story chronologically. The first thing that happens is that the play exists.
Since I know that the frame had to be a description of the play, I had to have a play to describe. It was easier to write a play, then describe it, than to describe a play and then write it.
A lot of reading went into writing the play — the Complete Works (which you read aloud); a number of biographies; anti-Stratfordian stuff. How did you sort all of that out?
I didn’t. I’m not a scholar or a non-fiction writer, so I didn’t have to sort it out. I just sort of absorbed the stuff that mattered to me. You can start to smell the things that matter. And little tidbits here or there [stuck out] — things I recognized as the seeds of jokes, or seeds of a scene, or seeds of a thesis. But no, not a lot of sorting out.
And then I started analyzing the plays — not to sort them out, but as a kind of model. I started looking for his patterns. What did he tend to do in Act I early in his career? What did the verse look like early in his career? Why do people say that these plays are similar to each other and different from Hamlet and Macbeth?
“Arthur Phillips” seems to be cursed by Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence. Here’s this guy who hates Shakespeare, but there’s a parallel between pretty much everything that happens in his life and one of Shakespeare’s plays.
[laughs] Exactly. Here’s someone who’s going to deny Shakespeare top to bottom, but can’t help himself. There were other versions where he had 3 daughters. It had to be cut back a little bit.
There are a lot of “Easter eggs” in the novel — little scenes that subtly (or not so subtly) riff on famous scenes in the plays. When you were reading the Complete Works were you keeping track of those moments?
No, that was mostly things that stuck in memory. The thing that I was more likely to pick up, as I was working through the plays, was vocabulary. I didn’t know what the play [The Tragedy of Arthur] was going to be when I started reading his plays. …. I write at one point about a forger trying to figure out what [the author whose works were being forged] would have done, but did not do. So I was trying to sort out what play he would have gotten to if he had the time. What else was I picking out from the plays? I guess there were some things I would come back to, for parallels, or stuff that struck me as amusing lines that could be reused — like a sonnet that seemed like it could have been an ad for a sperm bank. Things like that.
Are there parallels between the novelist and the forger?
Well, I don’t know if there are necessarily such strong parallels. I’m in the business of making things up that are not true and did not happen, and hoping people will read them and think, ‘Oh, that seems so true. That seems like the kind of thing that would happen, or did happen, or happened to me or somebody I know.’ I’ve often gotten people who say, ‘That passage about the Hungarian publisher in Prague is very much like my family’s story.’ I’ve had people say to me — as I have felt about other people’s novels — “That really spoke to me. I really identified with that. That seemed like something that happened to me.’
Fiction writing is a healthy and wholesome and socially valuable con game. And it is a forgery — I’m forging events and emotional situations out of bits and pieces of other things that have happened or that I have felt or that I heard about which are completely changed into making this item that people believe in. So, there’s the parallel. Obviously, it’s not a bad one.
You’re probably not going to go to prison for writing this novel.
I’m not going to go to prison, and I shouldn’t go to prison. People take from fiction the same comfort and soothing feeling of being understood that, I think, also powers a lot of con and forgery. One reason you would answer the Nigerian email is that you want the money. The other reason is because, wow, this is a story I could be a part of: I helped this poor widow of the assassinated oil minister.
Here’s a question I clearly meant to flesh out, but didn’t — it’s not even a question. I just wrote “fun!” because, well, your novels are a lot of fun. They’re fun to read, and one gets a sense that they’re fun to write as well. And there’s an intoxicating sense of playfulness that manages to co-exist with serious themes.
It’s very hard to make a living doing this. And if you are lucky enough to make a living, there’s no guarantee it will last. It would be very hard to aim at a particular target and say, ‘I’m going to hit that and make a lot of money. I’m going to write a vampire book that happens to score before vampire books are passé, or whatever.’ Given that, if you’re going to spend several hours a day writing, you should probably have a pretty good reason. You should probably have something that will make you want to come back and do it again the next day. For me, it’s always been fun. The process — even when what I write isn’t funny or lighthearted — the process of sorting out a story is fun for me. Fifteen years ago I found that I’m good at it and it makes me very happy to do it and I get kind of addicted to it.
If you’re not enjoying it, I don’t know why anyone would want to read it and I don’t really know why you’d want to do it. Although I say that you can’t find a writer’s autobiography or beliefs in a work of fiction, I do think that you can get a sense of what engages them with the world. And what makes them feel like they’re having fun. So I think if you write “fun!” after reading my books, than I think you’ve got it. The important part, at least.
Not to get back on the autobiography track, but while reading I got the sense that my attention was being held by someone very familiar, even if what they were doing, formally, was unfamiliar.
When I read stories by writers that I really like, I feel like I’m being told a story by someone that I like. Even if I find out something biographically that makes me say, ‘Uh, I’m not sure I would like them.’ It doesn’t matter on the page. Nabokov’s a good example. I’m not entirely sure I would have liked Nabokov as a person to hang around with. But when I read him, I do feel like I’m in the presence of a friend of mine who is telling me a story and engaging me on his own terms, and his own sense of what’s funny or sad or dramatic or expositional or stylish. And I like all of those things about him. As a result, I like him. I grew to feel the same way about Shakespeare while working on this book, in a way that I hadn’t previously. I was feeling like I had found Shakespeare’s sense of fun.
How did your opinion of Shakespeare’s work change while you were writing The Tragedy of Arthur, and poring over his plays?
He’s now included in my list of writers that I really love. He hadn’t been before this. It was much more of something I thought I was supposed to admire, or it was taught to me but it hadn’t hit me yet. Like a number of reasonably well-educated people, I’ve read a fair amount and had basically given up hope that it would ever really get to me. But now it really does get me, for the same reasons I was just describing about Nabokov. This now seems like a guy I recognize. I recognize his sense of humor and his sense of character and his sense of storytelling. And I like it. And I like hearing him tell me stories.
It also was a process of projecting myself backwards into his world and imagining myself alongside him. How did he put a play together? How did he put a story together? And then, what did he do all day?
I know this is all projection, as most things are when we think historically, but he seemed like me. He seemed like a guy who went out and made things up for a living. He had deadlines and collaborated on some parts of it and worked alone on other parts of it. He did his research and thought about it and then changed it to fit his imagination and sense of humor. He had tax issues and a mortgage and all of that stuff. He came down to earth and sat next to me where we worked, and we seemed like colleagues. Someone’s delusional in there — probably me — but it was a very pleasant delusion.
You wrote a terrific essay about the pleasures of reading Pale Fire. Is that a book you come back to often?
It’s been a few years since I last reread it. I’m sure I’ll read it again soon. The thing that got me most about it — besides what I wrote in that essay — was that it was the first time I had read something where I realized, ‘Oh my god. There are no rules at all. You sit down and you can do anything. You don’t have to start with ‘Once upon a time’ and end up with ‘happily ever after’ or, for that matter, ‘sadly ever after.’ You can do anything! Pale Fire was the book that made me realize that, for obvious reasons. After that point I really got into looking for other things that messed around with form and opened up, so that every story could be a reinvention of the very thing you’re holding. For me that was Pale Fire, though it doesn’t have to be Pale Fire for other people, and I’m sure other people who feel the same way that I do read something else, or will read something else in the future, that makes them realize ‘Oh my god, fiction is limitless.’ It’s not as if I didn’t love writers before that who were much more traditional, and I’ve loved writers since then who were much more traditional. I don’t need everything to be Pale Fire.
With the rise of the “electronic book,” the adaptability of form is something I’ve been thinking about a lot.
There’s something about ebooks and new media in literature that worries me because it seems so ephemeral — somehow it’s harder to hold, harder to preserve, harder to keep, harder to pass on to another person without it somehow corrupting or transforming into something else. I’m still fetishitic about covers around paper. But that’s probably something I should get over. I marvel at what Pale Fire can do between covers, there must be something unbelievable that can happen outside of covers as well. I just don’t know what it is yet.
The Tragedy of Arthur is also a kind of coming of age story. A lot of the book’s most moving passages question whether our capacity for wonder and awe diminish with age.
I won’t know the answer for a few more decades. It’s clearly something that I fear — something a lot of people that I fear — is that when you get older you get more bored. Or that the things that lit you on fire when you were 23 don’t anymore. And that if you’re somehow smart and healthy and engaged and wise you’ll somehow find new things when you’re 60 and 70 and 80. And you’ll die with half a smile on your face. That would be great. But I don’t know all the answers on that yet. [laughs]
I’m 42. How old are you?
I’m 23. So my fires are still lit.
Thattaboy! Keep it going. Mine are too, but they’re different. Everything changes. It is one of the challenges of one’s middle years to find out if you can hold on to the passion of youth and while holding on to something feasible for a stable life. [But you still] want to have room in your life where your jaw drops and you’re still amazed. I have a lot of confidence in fiction to do that.
You’ve written fairly extensively about Shakespeare’s effect on mere mortals. In one essay you wrote, ‘He is in his own category, a god, the greatest not just of his time but of eternity, objectively more important, more wise, more influential, more far-sighted, more eloquent, than any other human who ever lived. We take him to be basically flawless as a writer, a philosopher, a thinker. He is, as his first blurber wrote of him, “for all time.”‘ What do you think about the deification of Shakespeare?
To be honest, I don’t agree with that assessment of him. To be honest, I think that that assessment makes people not want to read him. And when they do read him it makes them enter into that private space of reading him — they enter into a place that’s insecure or abased in some way. And do not leave themselves open to wonder and do not allow themselves to be charmed by a guy who’s trying to tell a story in the way that he likes to tell a story. I’m assuming that there are more people out there who have had experiences like that, because I have. I’ve heard enough people talk about Shakespeare with either scorn or despair or washing their hands of it or frustration or insecurity that it has to be a common event. And I think it’s a common event because we’re told over and over and over again — before we even get a chance to experience it — what it’s supposed to do to us, and why he’s so wondrous. But that seems like a recipe for people to have a lousy time.
In a strange way, the impulse to deify and the impulse to cast down ultimately seem pretty similar.
One of the causes of anti-Stratfordism is the wholesale injestion of him as a superpower and as a god. Which didn’t exist during his lifetime or for two centuries afterwards. That split between our belief now that he was a god and the way he was treated and the way he worked and the way he lived back when he was still a human, there’s a huge gap between those ideas. The anti-Stratfordian says ‘We have to explain this distance.’ And the only way to explain this distance is to say ‘we have made a mistake in figuring out which human it was that we started with.’ Whereas, if you realize that the distance is there because the god idea is so wrong, then there’s no problem explaining how he wrote the plays from his background. There’s no need for the delusion.
On the other hand, there’s Harold Bloom who says Shakespeare is the father of Western literature, if not contemporary Western civilization.
Bardologers on one side who say he is your father and you’ve got anti-Stratfordians on the other side saying ‘he can’t possibly be my father. I had a much better father. My father was an Earl.’ And between the two of them, it’s lunacy. It turns out he’s actually not your father [laughs], he’s just a guy inclined to tell stories. That’s why the deification gets in the way of what he’s actually good at.