“I’m Trying to Demonstrate in a Way That Autobiography is Impossible”: An Interview With Brad Phillips

I didn’t know what to expect when Essays and Fictions showed up in my mailbox. All I really knew was that the guy who wrote it was a really talented artist from Canada named Brad Phillips. And also Tyrant Books was publishing it. Seemed up my alley, all of their stuff usually is. This one was different, though. It seemed more serious. And it is. Addiction plays a huge role for starters. And then there is death and fear and grief and identity. There’s a lot of love, too. As soon as I started reading it, I knew I was reading something special. Brad Phillips isn’t only a great visual artist from Canada, he’s a great writer as well, and this book may well be the closest thing to an instant classic I’ve chanced to read before its release. Truly. I believe Essays and Fictions should be required reading in every high school in America. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to have the chance to talk with Brad a little bit about the book over the course of the last month or two. And though it doesn’t at times seem like we are talking about the book, I assure you we are, in a way.

Below is a transcript of our correspondence.

I’ve read that Never Forget Not to Forgive was the original title to your new book. Why did you decide on Essays and Fictions as the title? It seems like a very interesting choice, mostly because most of the stories read like essays, in fact they all read like essays, and yet there are obvious moments of fiction at play, like when Brad kills somebody in Italy. Yet, it also feels so real it’s frightening at times. It kind of feels like a direct attack on the very notion of truth in essay form while also reading like the most truthful thing I’ve ever read. Is that something you were trying to get at? The idea that “truth” is an impossible enterprise, when human ego is at play? And so by acknowledging that, “truth” comes into the picture organically?

I will say off the bat that the new title was Giancarlo’s idea entirely and it was perfect. There was a recent review in the Paris Review that said the title is ingenious in that it exempts people from having to try to guess what’s real and what’s not.

My wife knows me better than anyone honestly, and she read it and thought that what was fiction was fiction and what was true was true—in certain stories, and she was surprised to learn what was fake and was real.

There’s really no story that’s entirely autobiographical.

Maybe I did kill someone in Italy.

Maybe I’ve never used drugs.

I’m trying to demonstrate in a way that autobiography is impossible. That all memoir attempts are inherently fiction by nature of what’s amplified, what’s left out, what’s romanticized, what’s hidden.

All writing outside of technical manuals can really be seen as containing at least an element of fiction.

I’ve been reading a lot of writing by an autobiographical scholar (sort of the pre-eminent one) John Paul Eakins, and I’m very interested in his idea of building a narrative through the stories we tell ourselves.

Memories aren’t reality. Our brain has less than five seconds to decide what goes in our short term memory and what goes in our long term memory. But a life viewed by memories is also inherently fictional in that our memories are often obviously distorted and sometimes completely untrue.

Eakins, in one of his books, talks about Alzheimer’s patients. They don’t recognize their families or themselves. So, if a life is built on a personal narrative we tell ourselves, is someone who has forgotten that narrative even alive? We say with people suffering dementia or Alzheimer’s, literally, that “she wasn’t herself that day’—or, she’s “more like herself in the evening.”

But what is this ‘self’ we talk about? Theologically in relation to something like Buddhism, there is no self. It’s a construct, either one we create or one that’s foisted on us.

I don’t know who I am. We can’t know ourselves except through others, and stories. Stories, not memories. Stories, not facts.

I know that I am a VERY different person now than I was twenty years ago. Was that old version Brad Phillips? Is this the real Brad Phillips now?

There really is no Brad Phillips, so in that way it doesn’t matter what these stories imply about truth or fiction—I don’t exist as a ‘self’ per se, I exist as a vessel with six sense gates which allow me to access the world I live, but through my own preferences, in the way I want. I curate my life. We all do it.

Essentially, and I’ve said it before, via Instagram or this book or the work I make, what I want most is for people to think they have a firm idea of who I am (a persona)—but in reality it’s very far removed from the person I tell myself I am.

At the reading I did the other night someone asked me if was clean and sober. I’ve been clean seven years. It’s disheartening to some extent the laziness or if that word is too harsh, the inability of the reader to separate the author of the content. Susan Sontag warned about this LONG ago. But it seems that if you write in the first person, people inherently think you are telling them a true story. Each blurb or review of my book so far has said that I am “searingly honest” or “painfully honest”—but how do they know that? Why do they assume that? I can say with certainty sometimes I’m honest, sometimes I’m completely fictionalizing things. Read one story after another, it can be hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. I like that. What I’d prefer though is that the reader already be aware that they’re reading a BOOK, not having dinner with me. I am not what I write.

I write stories. Those are stories. I am not what I write. I am not even the WHO who writes it. I’m a vessel and I can fill this vessel I carry my organs around in with whatever I want, and it’s really a selfish venture. I fear what people will think of the book, not because I feel I’ve done anything wrong, but because I fear people will assume everything is true.

The title is good in that it fucks with people. I think good art always contains a measure of manipulation.

But yeah, these blurbs which we’ll use to sell the book and make it look appealing are already off the mark in some way when they say I’m brutally honest. Because really, only I am privy to what’s what.

That it gets confused with autobiography is satisfying and frustrating at the same time. I like eliciting that response in people who look at my artwork, so in theory I should enjoy that I give myself that feeling as well.

I totally feel all of that. And I agree, I think you hit it on the head. I had the same problem with my first book. Everyone thought it was all true. Some called it a memoir, even though I classified it as fiction. I had people ask me how this or that thing in the book affected my life and I was just like, “it didn’t, I made it up.” You do a great job of destabilizing the reader in that way.

I saw that you painted some Patricia Highsmith novels reflected in a mirror. I believe I also read somewhere that she’s an influence. What is it about Patricia Highsmith’s work that draws you in?

People seem incapable of reading with detachment or without engaging with the assumption that it all must be true. This is disappointing. It really shouldn’t be a game of guessing is this real, is this not real? It has nothing to do with the quality of the writing or the success of the book.

There are definitely stories that are not-fictional, or aspects of stories. There’s also a story where I kill someone.

Maybe that’s the true part?

Patricia Highsmith I’ve been obsessed with for a very long time. I think that she’s one of the best writers of the 20th century. Particularly as a sort of existentialist philosopher. She was a very interesting, extremely unpleasant woman.

Her books sold like crazy, but what upset her most in her life is that New Yorker or other ‘serious lit mags’ never would publish her work.

Graham Greene promoted her work relentlessly, telling everyone she was not a crime novelist, she was a genius.

And I agree.

Essentially she used the skeleton or narratives of crime novels as a hook to build her own stories about the inherent capacity for evil in all people, the aching loneliness of being alive in a modern society with televisions and radio etc.

Disconnections from community, from the self, from reality.

If you read her work and look for the subtext and don’t get hung up on all of the successfully juicy crime aspects, she reads like Schopenhauer or Sartre.

I just love the underdog and hate the winner often – Norman Mailer is taken more seriously as a writer than Highsmith, and he’s horrible

That she was a pansexual white woman writing at a time that was even more dominated by white straight men—it’s just upsetting that she wasn’t given the attention she was due, and so because her work has affected me so much, I always have tried to get people to read her work. I’ll advocate for her until I die. I was in Switzerland once and specifically went to Berne just to read all of her personal diaries, see her drawings of her cats etc. The unseen goldmine is tragic by nature.

And I love that towards the end of her career she was writing entirely about snails. Horror stories and sci-fi stories about snails.

My two favorite stories about her is that someone once saw inside her purse at a cocktail party, and it contained just a head of lettuce and dozens of snails. And that she used to smuggle her snails in her bra when she would travel throughout Europe.

She was far more interesting as an antisocial, antagonistic recluse than someone like J.D. Salinger, who I really think only succeeded at playing the role of recluse. He had his name on his mailbox.

Patricia was unfindable and sincere.

I think my advocating her work is just simply seeing the result of sexism keeping her out of the canon, but primarily that her work and Nabokov’s is my favorite writing of the last hundred years. Everyone knows how Nabokov is viewed. She should also be discussed within the same context v. content and talent and mental athleticism.

Yes. I think Highsmith is very overlooked, indeed. I haven’t read all of her work, but the few I’ve read I liked a lot. This thing, though, the idea of writing about the capacity for evil in all of us, and the crushing loneliness of the modern world, is that how you view the world and the people in it? I felt like some of those ideas were threaded throughout E&F. Though perhaps more focused on things we tend to utilize to cope with or hide from the basest realities of what it means to be human. Yet those acts, those things, those addictions are intrinsically part of being human. Embracing that is hard, yet necessary, in a way. Suffering is learning?

I don’t share her bleak worldview at all, no. I do though relate to her sense of elasticized morality, compartmentalization of emotion etc.

I’m not sure if people are more or less lonely now because of social media. I think it’s possible to be both at the same time.

I think in the book I’m fairly non-judgmental about people’s interests and predilections and stories.

My obscure religious beliefs have taught me over time that there really is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’— no right/wrong. For me everything lies in one’s intentions.

Intention is everything. What I hoped I could do in this book is sort of propose that morality, asocial behavior, atypical sexuality, drug use, addiction, ways of developing coping mechanisms through understanding of ‘self’ can all be viewed as very constructed, self-generated narratives—people have a hard time with believing people can enjoy certain things sexually/can live happy productive lives addicted to drugs. There is no wrong way to live in this world and spend our time in these vessels as long as we intend no harm and respect the needs and limits of others.

This is maybe becoming totally unrelated to your questions.

I find it hard to describe because it’s esoteric. I don’t believe that everyone has the capacity for evil primarily because all of my thinking is based on the predicate that ‘evil’ is a construct. Certainly people do evil things, but it’s because they act on intentions they know should be left unrealized. The ‘evil’ is in the doing, not the thinking.

I have a fundamental disbelief in the idea of a fixed ‘self’ as it is. I try to distance myself or dissolve what it is I think describes Brad Phillips. I don’t write about redemption or glamour. I tried very hard to write about drugs and addiction without there being any aspect of glamour or redemption. Getting sober doesn’t mean you’re a good person, it means you got sober. You’re still the same. What do you do with yourself once you take away drugs from the addict who used drugs to deal with trauma? Without the drugs you return to being the traumatized person, no you just can’t bury your feelings. I know that in sobriety my behavior in hindsight the first few years was very fucked up.

I write in the first person because I want to create a curated narrative that contributes to the image of ‘personhood’—we tell stories to make sense our lives. Without a narrative we’re uneasy and unsure of who or what we are. I’m not the same person I was at 20. So am I someone new? If you think about people who have Alzheimer’s or dementia, loved ones will often say ‘she’s just not herself today’—and comments like that are prompted by a person forgetting her son’s name or her own name or the story of her life. Once you lose the narrative and memories you’ve constructed that create a sense of personhood, are you still a person? Are you still alive without a story you can tell yourself about what happened to you while being alive?

It’s all very hard to describe. It’s why I always tried my best to avoid interviews v my artwork.

Paintings are like koans. The image is the thing. Trying to understand the image is a mistake.

If you cry in front of art or while reading, that’s the answer that can’t be given in an interview

I think people find comfort in describing things they don’t understand as “bad” or “evil.” It’s the whole inadequacy of language thing, right? Or is it just laziness? It’s like Heaven’s Gate. People said they were “evil” even though they were a functioning religious organization that didn’t hurt anybody, really. They willfully suicided. Then there is Jim Jones. People lump them together, which I think is dangerous and wrong. Do you think that this overzealous generalization is too generously applied to anything and everything nowadays?

I’ve written I think 3 essays now about Heaven’s Gate, basically stating that it was the only sincere, non-manipulative mass suicide in history. That the leader and the adherents all committed suicide, that Marshall Applewhite was the third last to die, that he was castrated in Mexico along with other men in the community. It all seems very sincere. In the video they made during the suicides, apparently Marshall is smiling and saying that ‘everyone is excited to leave!” and people can be seen in the background smiling.

Two adherents who were not meant to die at that time so they could continue to spread information about their beliefs suicided months later using the same technique.

Without going into conspiracy theory too much, Jonestown was a CIA funded experiment in mass mind control.

The word cult has very negative connotations. I don’t believe that David Koresh and the Branch Dividians were a cult. They were an offshoot of Seventh Day Adventists, and his particular offshoot had been active for seventy years or so. He was just the newest prophet.

Also massacred by the ATF and FBI.

Children of God, Solar Temple, these are cults. Cults typically are run by one of two types of men, pedophiles and con men (psychopaths) who can spot what people need and provide it for them, as long as they get to keep everyone’s money.

People are definitely frightened by what’s unusual. People with their own belief systems that do not seem rational to outsiders (Judeo-Christianity seems very unusual to me) are scary to people, so it’s easiest to demonize them, or laugh at them.

But who knows, maybe there was a spaceship behind a comet. Stranger things have happened.

Do you believe it is necessary for there to be implied meaning behind a piece of art, whether it be visual or writing? Or do you think meaning presents itself naturally to viewers/readers? Does art require a robust imagination from the viewer/reader?

I think meaning is irrelevant after two things happen.

The artists intention is her own but meaningless, once the work leaves her studio.

The viewer’s reaction is sincere and true for them, but it happens internally, so is meaningless outside private consumption.

Do you think it’s possible to use the word I and not know what the “self” is? Is it possible to separate the two? Do you think we can lose the “I/self” by being more herd oriented? Is there really such a thing as individualism? In a way, I think your book comes close to answering those questions with its absence of answers.

This is all stuff I was thinking about when I wrote the book, but also stuff that I have been thinking about and attempting to grasp since I was a teenager. Inherently there is no ‘I’—I hate to use an anecdote, but in Zen Buddhism there is a story about Bodhidharma—he gets encountered in the woods by nobleman who will kill him for sport. They ask him who he is—he says ‘don’t know’—they ask him what he is, he says, ‘don’t know’—this caused the nobleman to become enlightened, built a vast temple for Bodhidharma to teach at. He was right because he didn’t say ‘I don’t know’—he made it clear there was no I, no self. The idea of a self that we generate for ourselves to give our lives meaning is predicated entirely on a narrative we form in our minds, and that narrative is not objective, but skewed by memory and sentiment and ego/self-hatred—the self is an aggregation of moments we curate to create the narrative of our lives. Because memories etc. are so inherently unstable and unreliable, so then is the idea of  ‘self.’ There is no self. I don’t know about herds.


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