Seven years ago, writer Helen Phillips was home alone with her baby. Naked and nursing and slightly delusional, like many new moms, she imagined hearing someone in another room. It was nothing, but the sensation of the moment stayed with her. “I just thought, Wow, what would I do, right now in this vulnerable position that I’m in, if there was an intruder in my house?” Phillips says.
Phillips’ prior works (Some Possible Solutions: Stories; The Beautiful Bureaucrat , etc.) used speculative, metaphorical questions and made them literal. Her poetically subversive new Kirkus-starred novel, The Need, solidifies Phillips as a master of literary augmented reality. Fueled by the all-too-real panic and primal anxiety of being a mother, The Need opens with a disturbing scene much like what Phillips experienced herself, though in the novel, the main character, Molly, finds a bizarre masked intruder in her living room.
Molly is an overwhelmed mother of two young children. She has a loving and supportive husband, but he’s out of town for work. She’s struggling to balance her personal and professional lives as a paleobotanist at a fossil quarry where strange artifacts have recently been found. She’s sleep deprived, burned out, and questioning her own sanity and life choices in the climactic confrontation at the beginning of the book: “When she was pregnant with Viv she had imagined having a baby, but she never imagined having a child: a child who could be a sidekick, a helpmate, a collaborator; who could follow complicated instructions. Who could fetch a weapon,” writes Phillips.
As all domestic normalcy slips away, Molly must continue with the daily toil of being a mother while also tackling a larger mysterious threat that has upended her life. Her children not only need to be kept safe, but they need to be fed, dressed, thrown birthday parties, taken to the park, rationalized with over the unrational. The story comes alive through the mundane quotidian details that have always been indirectly about survival but now have a new urgency:
The children were eating breakfast. They were having yogurt and jam. They needed things. More yogurt. More jam. Spoon flipping onto floor. Mess! Wet washcloth. But this one reeks. So: another. Laundry, soon. Hands white with yogurt. A handprint here. A handprint there. Wait. Stop. Don’t touch. Come here. Let me….
Under other circumstances, the same old thought might have crossed her mind: being a mother of two = ushering a pair of digestive tracts through each day.
But this morning she thought: tracts, intact.
I talked to Phillips while she was at home,before taking cupcakes to her daughter’s school. She describes her literary influences as a mashup between Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin with Rachel Cusk and Jenny Offill (Dept. of Speculation), an apt comparison as Phillips infuses her otherworldly premise with raw human experiences.
“Molly takes her daily grind for granted in the early part of the book, and she’s worn down by it. The reality is really challenging,” explains Phillips. “But when confronted…she comes to see the preciousness of her daily life, which is something that she had gotten overly accustomed to. So part of what I’m trying to do with the book is return to Molly her daily life in all of its glory.”
Not to give away any spoilers, but the pacing of the thriller is often escalated or interrupted by the blessings and curses of motherhood. No matter the drama of the moment, Molly’s body never forgets it’s lactating, paving a parallel battle for survival in the form of breastfeeding her baby. As her milk lets down at inconvenient times, she also pines for the bonding and intimacy with her child. This back-and-forth tension between life’s burdens and joys presses on the mother’s consciousness.
“When you have a child, you make yourself so vulnerable to the world in a new way, because if something happened to them, that is worse than something happening to you,” says Phillips. Eight weeks after giving birth to her daughter, Phillips’ older sister died. Her sister had Rett syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that was not understood by doctors at the time Phillips’ infant sister first showed signs. Her parents spent years trying to diagnose why their seemingly healthy baby stopped progressing at the age of 1. “Right as I’m falling in love with my baby, my parents were losing their baby, and I was losing my sister. It made me think a lot about different experiences of motherhood,” she says. “I felt like I was standing at this portal of life and death.”
Phillips wanted to interrogate the vulnerability of teetering on this threshold. “How do you exist when life and death are so prevalent and so close together all the time? How do you navigate that? How do you live and deal with day-to-day realities when you know the people you love could die—and will die someday? Basically, how do you live knowing that death exists?”
These of course are heavy, existential questions that The Need explores, but filtered through the lens of a family, there’s often an innocence pulling the story back from the brink of gloom. “One thing that’s interesting about kids is that for a couple of years they don’t know that death exists—and there’s something very potent about spending all this time around people who don’t know about death,” Phillips explains. “I thought about that before my children knew about death, and it was pretty refreshing to be around people who didn’t know about death, but then they come to realize it when they’re about 3, and you start to see a shift of their understanding and a new darkness.”
Molly experiences her own shift of perspective as she endures the most viscerally scary thing that could happen: “The scariest dream of all is the one that takes place in the room where you’re sleeping,” writes Phillips as Molly begins to awaken to a greater empathy for all things occupying her life.
Phillips, who sold the book to Simon & Schuster after frenzied interest from multiple publishers, thinks Molly’s journey to return to her own pleasures and humanity is what resonates most with readers. “People have said it’s a sad book. People have said it’s a scary book—and I would agree with those comments—but I also have this intention that it might provide a balm or sort of joy to, say, a mother, because it’s about not taking for granted these little moments.”
Bridgette Bates’ poetry collection, What Is Not Missing Is Light, is the recipient of the Black Box Poetry Prize.