Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Conversation with Julie Phillips

Last summer I spent a couple of hours talking with Julie Phillips about her compelling and illuminating biography of the feminist sf writer, Alice Sheldon. The biography, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, which more than a few people have characterized as being a page-turner, has won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Locus Award, the Washington State Book Award, and the Hugo Award. Julie had just spent several hours talking to the screenwriter who’s working on a film of Alice Sheldon’s life, so the pump was well primed before we even began talking. Perhaps that’s why I failed to notice that I pressed PLAY rather than RECORD on my tape recorder? Only later, as Julie was preparing to leave, did I discover that the tape meant to record our fabulous conversation was blank. But all was not lost! Julie kindly essayed a reconstruction of the salient points of the conversation on tape for me, which I then transcribed. The reconstruction is a bit dryer and more focused than our live conversation; nevertheless it has much to offer anyone interested in the issues Julie tackles in her book.

Timmi: Although literary biography is a recognizable genre, in some sense it is still a hybrid of biography and literary criticism. I’m interested in what your take on the balance and interaction of these two foci were for your biography of Tiptree/Sheldon. Did you have a clear sense of it when you began the work, and did your sense of it change over the course of the decade in which you carried it out? Did you read all of Tiptree’s fiction before you began, or later? Did your understanding of the Sheldon’s life change your reading of the fiction? Did your reading of the fiction ever change what you made of Sheldon’s life?

Julie: The book started as a piece of criticism, a book review. So I had read almost all of Tiptree’s stories while I was writing that first review, andyou know there’s a lot to say about them, but when I started writing the biography, to me the stories were very subordinate to the story of her life. And I tried as much as I could to put them at the service of Alli’s life.

I had to include the stories to some extent if only just to show that she was going to become a writer, to foreshadow that a little bit. I would have liked to mix the stories through the book more, I would have liked to give it a more unconventional structure, but nobody knew anything about Alli’s life; I didn’t think I could pull it off. I thought it would be too frustrating narratively not to make it a straight story. You could get away with that, the way Hermione Lee does in her biography of Virginia Woolf, if it was a life-story where the outlines were known, but not where people didn’t really know anything about her life.

Obviously the stories aren’t autobiographical, and I didn’t see the fiction as a reliable guide to her life. But I do think that knowing something about Alice’s life helped me in reading the fiction. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” didn’t make much sense to me at first, because I kept trying to read it as an ugly duckling story. It was only when I knew more about Alli’s life that I began to feel that it was about the opposite experience, of growing up in a beautiful body that doesn’t feel like it matches the mind inside.

I did include some literary criticism. I had to do that, to explain to readers what Tiptree’s literary achievement was. And in some places I put in bits of literary criticism where I felt like I had come up with something that hadn’t been said before and I was just pleased with it.

But to me the book was primarily a story. And I don’t think that I would go back and write more about her fiction. I think actually that I’m a better storyteller than a critic, which surprised me, because I had thought of myself the other way around. I struggled with the lit-crit parts of it. They were very hard for me to write. I felt like they were some of the most boring parts of the book. I hope that there will be more criticism of Tiptree written because of my book, and I hope that other people will do it and not me.

Timmi: By the time I finished reading your book, I had formed the distinct impression that for all that Alli admired her mother and was anxious to establish professional friendships with women as well as men writers, at bottom, she was a male-identified woman. Do you think this is a faulty conclusion on my part?

Julie: I think that’s absolutely true, that she was a male-identified woman. I think that almost every woman of her period who had any talent was male-identified, because there weren’t that many opportunities for talented women. You can say “Oh well, you know but look at her mother,” but her mother’s only one example, and when she needed to separate from her mother in order to get her own life, there weren’t any other examples, there wasn’t anyone else that she could model herself on or attach herself to.

She wanted to like women and she was dying to find women with whom she could identify. They just weren’t there. She was very politically minded, very technically minded, and even now there aren’t that many women who are like that. There are still very few women engineers, for instance, or women computer scientists. Women aren’t necessarily encouraged to think that way, and women who do think that way are not believed and not given credit, and it was easier just to think of oneself as a man. Besides, Alli liked men and felt very comfortable in their company.

I think that Alli was very good—I said in the book somewhere—at defining women so as to exclude herself. I think that it was frightening to her to identify with women because if you were too womanly, that was a kind of a trap; but if you fell in love with women, that was also a kind of trap. To identify with men was very much off limits for Alli. As much as she wanted to be a man at some moments of her life, she was terrified of that desire and spent a lot of time trying not to feel that, and I think that probably had to do with her closeted sexuality. The more she admitted to herself that she wanted to be a man, the more it must have made her think of her generation’s image of a lesbian, and that must have been scary.

Alli was ambivalent about feminism too. She believed in it but, like a lot of women of her generation, felt uncomfortable with consciousness-raising. It was too emotional for her, too personal. And she thought younger women, like Joanna Russ, were naïve to think that they could get away with being so angry.

One of the interesting things about her looking back on having been Tiptreebecause I don’t think she thought through why she had become Tiptree, and what it meant to her to be Tiptree, very much until after it was over. Charles Platt interviewed her, and he later told me that it was very hard for him to get her to admit that she had wanted to be a man. He thought that’s what the deception was about, and she didn’t want to say that. And I wondered why? To me it seemed like the most obvious thing in the world to admit that she had wanted to be a man, because of course who doesn’t want a man’s privilege and a man’s literary opportunity? And in her journal, for instance, just after Tiptree was unmasked, she said that she had wanted to be a man. It’s possible that she had revised her opinion by the time she talked to Charles Platt. But I wondered if her sexuality, and her fear of not just of admitting but giving in to her sexuality, didn’t play a part in that reluctance.

(I think we rambled on quite a bit about this question when we talked and I’m not sure I’m including all of the important bits. I know we were talking about women’s intellectual life and how women didn’t get much of it.) Alli wasn’t exposed to much of it. Maybe if she had gone to Vassar where the women were more intellectual she would have had an easier time, but she really deliberately turned her back on that, too. To please her mother, maybe? To spite her mother, maybe? To try to fulfill this promise of glamour that she had at an early age? To try to turn her back on the precocious child-prodigy-genius expectations that her parents had of her? I don’t know. Her choice not to explore her intellectual side until very late in her life was always a really strange one to me, because I started out with a very strong intellectual side and I couldn’t imagine anyone as brilliant as Alice who didn’t want to study, who didn’t want to learn. I came to feel that I understood it, or could accept it anyway, but that took awhile.

Timmi: In her review of your book, Elizabeth Hand characterizes Alice Sheldon as “a woman tragically born a half-century too soon.” She doesn’t say precisely what she means by this, although I think we are meant to infer that if Alice Sheldon had been born in 1965, she would have been able to have come out as a lesbian or else had gender reassignment therapy. (Quote: “Later, after Alli’s identity was revealed, [Harry Harrison] concluded that his friend had not been ‘nuts’ but ‘a woman was just being very female about it.’ Phillips refrains from commenting on Harrison’s observation, but I won’t. Why is behavior that would be considered ‘nuts’ for a man considered normal for a female? This is the crux of Alice Sheldon’s often tormented life, the disconnect between her projected voiceher storiesand her everyday self. She sometimes seems like a prime candidate for gender-reassignment therapy; at other times, a lesbian so deeply closeted that one’s instinct is to drag her into daylight and shout, ‘See? IT’S NOT SO BAD AFTER ALL.’”) & yet Hand also acknowledges that Alice’s childhood had a great deal to do with her problems as an adult. Is there any sense in which you would be able to agree with Hand’s characterization?

Julie: I certainly think she would have approached her sexuality and her sense of her gendered self very differently. But I could not possibly say how she would have done it. She’s so very much a person of her own time; who am I to say what she might have done in a different time? There’s no way I can know whether she would have been transgendered, whether she would have chosen for women or for men. The opportunities would have been so different for her. And the way she saw herself I think would have been really different.

Timmi: Hand ends her review by talking about the essential scariness of the human being who wrote could write that “finish[ing] the series with one about a man who kills EVERYBODY, that will make me feel better” and claiming that the reader encountering “The Screwfly Solution” or “The Last Voyage of Dr. Ain” or “The Women Men Don’t See” for the first time will feel “the same emotion, perhaps, that gripped that physical education teacher in For Des Moines, or Alice Sheldon’s husband when he realized, as Phillips suggests, that his wife was going to kill him: pure fear.” One person I recently talked to said that when they’d received a fan letter from Tiptree, they were wary and so did not respond. Another person who had a correspondence with Tiptree said that there was something “creepy” about certain questions Tiptree sometimes pressed on her. Do these responses surprise you? Or do they resonate with your own reading of Sheldon’s life?

Julie: Finishing the series about a man who kills everybody. Elizabeth Hand thought that was frightening. I don’t. There’s something to me very liberating about Alice Sheldon’s anger. I don’t think it was necessarily liberating for her—it certainly didn’t make her happy—but I’m always cheering her on when she’s angry, and wanting her to explore her anger and use it and use it to pry open the parts of her life that were hidden to herself. In the story Hand is referring to, “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain,” there’s also a promise at the end that killing off people will save the world, and that life will begin again. What I think Alli’s doing in that story is tipping over the chessboard, an act I find childish, unsatisfying, and exhilarating all at once.

Besides, some of Tiptree’s friends and fans, Mark Siegel in particular, saw her as this wise, compassionate figure, concerned with the world’s problems. Whereas I thought she used worrying about the world as an escape from her own problems, and that she ought to save some of her compassion for herself. So I was pleased whenever I got a chance to contradict that limited and, I thought, damaging, image of kindness and concern.

At the same time it disappoints me that Alli wasn’t able to finish her stories except by killing everybody. She was often able to explore more satisfying futures for women or imagine more satisfying futures for women, but she was never able to resolve those stories in any positive way. Instead she shut everything down. She didn’t dare, maybe, to allow herself to imagine a future in which she could be herself. No, I don’t think that her anger is frightening. I have mixed feelings about it, but I think it needs to be there.

I don’t think Alli murdered Ting, by the way. I don’t think he was very happy about the pact, but I think he went along with it. Peter Sheldon thought the same; I remember he told me (though I didn’t put it in the book because I couldn’t confirm it) that they had been found in the guest bed, not in their own. Rightly or not, he took that as a sign that Ting had lain down willingly in that bed.

People shouldn’t go too far the other way and make a scary monster out of Alli, either.

Timmi: What in your opinion is her best work?

Julie: I would say her performance as Tiptree in the letters she wrote as Tiptree. Other than that, of course, there are lots of stories I love. “The Women Men Don’t See” is one. “A Momentary Taste of Being” is another; it’s funny, it’s very gloomy, it’s incredibly psychologically rich, and I still don’t feel like I’ve got to the bottom of it. I just admire it incredibly for its depth.

Timmi: In an essay in Asimov’s SF reviewing your book, Paul di Filippo writes:

It seems to me that a cabin in Yucatan and a lodge in Wisconsin, among other perks, were necessary prerequisites for the exfoliation of Tiptree’s odd and extravagant personality, in a way that, say, having to support oneself scrubbing toilets would have precluded. I hesitate to call Tiptree a “drama queen,” since she was so often stoic and silent in her suffering, but perhaps you’ll take my meaning if I say that had Tiptree been born equally talented, but black and poor, or even white and lower middle-class, it’s hard to imagine she could have afforded such self-indulgence and often morbid introspection as she exhibited and was permitted. And although such counterfactual speculations are really beyond the pale of a biography, still it would have been nice to see more acknowledgment of the role Tiptree’s above-average economic freedom played in allowing her character to become so involuted.

Would you care to comment?

Julie: Paul di Filippo is not the only one who has wondered why a woman with all Alli’s privilege had such a hard time. He gives some of the answers himself: her brain chemistry and her relationship to her parents, which made it particularly hard for her to break out of their mold. (A book I drew on a lot in thinking about Alli was The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller, which talks about how children who are enlisted in the project of comforting their parents can end up constructing a “false self,” which makes their own desires and emotions inaccessible to them.) To your point, that introspection and unhappiness are absolutely not limited by class, I would add that daughters of privilege, in Alice’s generation, led terrifically constricted lives. Don’t forget what happened to Alice’s talented, rich friends: they were married off or became alcoholics. If Alli had “economic freedom,” then it was of a very limited and contingent kind. The “economic freedom” of marriage, same story.

Besides, a lot of her free time to think and write came as the result of her not being able to have children. So it wasn’t exactly an unmixed blessing. *

I’m not quite sure what Di Filippo wants me to say. That she was spoiled and privileged? That her money allowed her to be arrogant about, for instance, not looking for a teaching job after she got her Ph.D.? I kind of thought I made that clear.

Timmi: I suspect he’s missing a context largely invisible to a lot of men. Perhaps he ought to read a few more biographies of twentieth-century women writers to get a clearer sense of what creative women have been (and to some extent continue to be) up against.

Thank you, Julie, for taking the pains to recreate our discussion. It’s always a pleasure talking with you.
* Would Alice have been happy having children? I wonder. But that’s another story.

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