Helen Phillips is a widely celebrated author of speculative fiction. Her new novel, The Need, published in July by Simon & Schuster, was recently long-listed for the National Book Award. The stories from her previous book, Some Possible Solutions, combine elements of science fiction, fantasy, fairy tales, and surrealism. Curious about her writing process, I asked Phillips to take me through the creation of one of her stories, “The Doppelgangers,” from initial inspiration through final revisions.
In the summer of 2012, Phillips gave birth to her first child. A few weeks later she began working on what would become her next story, finding whatever time she could between feedings and diaper changes to write. Phillips remarks:
“The first draft was written in 15 minute bursts. It was the first thing I wrote after having a child. My daughter was born in June, and then in mid-July I really needed to write because of all of this experience and the intensity of it, and so this was the story that came out of it — the first words I spoke after giving birth.”
Ironically, Phillips began the story with a sentence that would end up getting cut before the final draft: “It was one thing to have a doppelganger; it was another thing entirely to have hundreds of them.” She explains further:
“That first line was the germ of the story. When I had a newborn child, the experience felt so particular and magical and unique in my life, and also so challenging. I’d never been as physically strained as I was by childbirth. I’d never been strained with that level of sleeplessness. I’d never been strained by that intensity of love. When I’d go for a walk with my newborn, and I’d see another lady with her newborn, I would think, oh my god, she’s going through this, too. And then I’d see another lady with a newborn, and I’d say, oh my god, we’re all going through this [together.] It feels like such a solitary, private, personal, terrifying, sacred experience that you’re having, and then you realize that all around you people are having some version of that experience, and that whoever raised you also had some version of that experience So, this idea that an experience that may feel very particular to you is actually an experience that links you to other people — I don’t mean to imply that my experience is everyone’s experience, but just that some version of this happens all the time even though it can feel so unique to you — that was where I came up with the idea for ‘The Doppelgangers.’”
The story revolves around a recent mother, Mimosa, who moves to a new town with her husband only to discover that it’s full of other young mothers who may or may not be doppelgangers of herself.
“I’ve always been compelled by this idea of what it would be like to meet this other version of yourself,” Phillips said. “And apparently a lot of other people [feel this way,] given the proliferation of doppelgangers in popular culture. We spend all of our time trapped in our own minds and bodies, and to see yourself represented in a doppelganger [is eerie.] What would it be like to examine yourself from outside of yourself? What might you learn about yourself? How might that experience expand your empathy? You could even say that ‘The Doppelgangers’ is a warm up story to The Need.
“I’m always interested in something that’s a little bit off,” she continued. “Like, oh, what a strange coincidence, we’re wearing the same outfit. That’s strange. Then, if it happens again, it moves from being strange to being a little scary, and then if it happens a few more times, you feel like you’ve entered an alternate reality. A lot of times my writing comes from some weird little scene I’ve observed or some weird little moment that, of course, is possible in reality, but what would happen if we took it another step and then another and then another? All of the horror, all of the strangeness, all of the surrealism in my writing feels grounded in the weird little things that actually can happen, but I take them a few more steps.”
For Phillips, a turning point in “The Doppelgangers” comes when Mimosa finally introduces herself to one of her doppelgangers and is invited to join a group for mothers like her who’ve given birth in June.
“I feel like in speculative stories there’s a moment where you go through the looking glass. At first the world seems normal, whatever normal means, with some slight interruptions or disruptions that put you on edge. And then there comes a moment where you just feel the veil pulling back or you fall into the looking glass, and suddenly, [everything is] reversed and you are fully in the alternate reality.”
Phillips estimates she composed the first draft in about three weeks, writing a page or two a day. Then she put it away for five months before going back to revise.
“I usually write the first draft and then leave it and don’t look at it at all for [several] months. I’m really a big believer in revisiting it later. And then, after you have become a new person, because you’ve been alive for three months longer than the person who wrote it, certain things will stand out that you couldn’t have noticed without the passage of time.”
One of the main things Phillips does during her revision process is cut. The first draft was a hefty 10,000 words, but by the time she was finished revising — she estimates she did between 12 to 15 drafts — it was down to around 4,600.
“Everything I write, both stories and novels, the first draft is longer than the second draft. The first draft is the creation of raw material and the subsequent drafts are the sculpting of that material. I feel like it’s kind of a cliché, but every word that’s there really has to earn its place.
In the first draft I include things even when I know they’re bad, because I think a lot of the time what slows us down is those voices that are critical. Embrace those voices and find a way for them to have their say. I mean, I’ve had to find methods for this as well, because I don’t know how you could be a writer if you didn’t have a way to deal with those voices.”
Phillips found herself especially cutting back on the scenes of Mimosa and her husband (named Teddy in the first draft).
“I feel like the first draft was more about the way that having a baby affects a marriage, and in revising the story, I realized that wasn’t so much what I was interested in. I was more interested in the way that having a baby affected [the protagonist’s] own relationship with herself.
In the first draft the implication was that [the husband] had been maybe having an affair with [one of the doppelgangers], so it was a story about infidelity. And when I revisited the story I was really bothered by that. I was like, infidelity, that’s not what I’m concerned about here. I’m talking about when your identity is shaken to the core. I feel like the whole affair implication in the first draft was me casting about for a source of drama, and thinking that the source of the drama was the marriage, but in fact the source was in her own shifting identity.”
But even when she cuts something, Phillips believes some essence of the cuts remain in the story.
“If a paragraph was in the story and then I cut it, I still feel like the thumbprint of that missing paragraph is present. I know that sounds weird and a little mystical, but if I cut a certain paragraph, well, the paragraphs surrounding that paragraph were somewhat informed by that paragraph. So the ghosts of certain cuts remain in a way that I think is powerful. To me every paragraph in a story builds upon everything else. [We] might feel it under our skin, even if we don’t have it clearly laid out [yet].”
Another change she made was in the way the doppelgangers were introduced. Phillips realized they would have more impact if they revealed themselves slowly. But this also meant cutting the sentence that inspired it all.
“That first line revealed the doppelgangers were in the story. They lost their ability to sneak up on the reader. I ended up deciding that despite liking the line, I had to kill that darling in order for the story to have more mystery in it.”
But the thing that Phillips struggled with the most during revision was the ending, an ambiguous scene in which Mimosa seems to switch places with one of her doppelgangers.
“The ending for this story was really hard won. I had almost everything in place and then I just was not satisfied with the ending. Then I realized I could have an ending where her identity and the place she belonged were suddenly on even shakier ground than before, that she would be longing for her husband and child in those final moments. That the ending wouldn’t be so much about the marriage—that was the real epiphany. The marriage is present, and it’s a meaningful part of [the ending], but [the story’s] not about marriage. It’s about something else that’s harder to write about. And that’s when I arrived at that very—I don’t know how to put it—out-of-body experience she has at the end, or in-body experience, some kind of body shifting experience.”
Since Phillips’ stories and novels often deal with struggles she’s had in her own life, finding the right ending can often mean discovering a resolution for herself as well.
“For me, writing a story is often about coming to terms with something hard, of writing my way into, if not peace, then at least acceptance of some emotional state that I’ve just experienced. I knew there would be some kind of relief at the end of the story. I knew that was what I was writing toward. I was writing toward the heat breaking. I was writing toward the early, early days of motherhood, with all of their rashes, writing towards having more perspective on that. I knew there was sort of a cool pool of silence awaiting Mimosa at the end of the story. I would say I was very much writing towards that.”