For his fourth novel, The Song is You, Arthur Phillips has penned a 254-page ode to the iPod and its ability to elicit, with the press of a button, nostalgic inklings and transporting tunes that burrow into the heart. Its main player is Julian Donahue, an advertising impresario and music enthusiast who grapples with the loss of his son and the subsequent collapse of his marriage. His genius brother Aidan, meanwhile, wallows depressed on his couch, having never recovered from his narrow loss on Jeopardy. A chance encounter with a fiery, Irish rock star on the rise galvanizes Julian, and sets him on a whirlwind path of self-discovery.
The Brooklyn-based author of bestsellers Prague, The Egyptologist, Angelica and a memorable essay about his dogs fills his most recent tale with delectable metaphors that portray human interactions and our interior lives with astounding emotional accuracy and wit. Phillips shared his thoughts with BB on his book, the iPod, and one of the silent and beloved characters in The Song is You, Brooklyn. He reads at BookCourt tonight at 7, with live music by Jonathan Spottiswoode.
You’re a five-time Jeopardy champion. Was your description of Aidan’s Jeopardy championship close to the bone? Are you an “incorrigible know-it-all” like him?
I am a know-it-all. I have gotten better at hiding it, but it still bursts out obnoxiously at times. Give me a drink or two and start talking about the War of the Roses and you’ll see. That said, I had a great time on Jeopardy and feel nothing but fondness for it. I did, later, wonder what was the worst thing I could have done on the show, and I think a dreadful, high-pressure slip of the tongue, such as Aidan’s, would be pretty damn bad.
Your earlier novel, Prague, seems to owe much to your personal experiences there. To what extent is The Song Is You informed by your life in Brooklyn? Do any of the places we see in the narrative have real-life analogues, like “Tea Putz” or “The Rat”?
This is a much better twist on the usual assumption about a novelist who has written a book set in a place he or she lived. Usually the question is: isn’t it really about you? I much prefer this: isn’t it really about your place? The answer to the first is NO, but to this it’s definitely YES. That said, some of the places are fictional. Tea Putz is not Two for the Pot on Clinton Street. Two for the Pot is much nicer; I love that place. The Rat is somehow grubbier than anything that is actually on Atlantic Avenue, not the old Magnetic Field, not Floyd. But I like(d) those places. The dog parks — the run on State Street and Hillside Park towards Dumbo — are quite real and are reproduced accurately in the novel.
Much of your narrative pivots around the iPod. What’s on your playlist?
The music I fell in love with in my early 20s seems to me the music written by gods. I know probably everyone feels that way. So, in my case: I feel that what happened in Manchester in the late 80s and early 90s was a unique and magical thing: The Smiths, New Order, Happy Mondays… [Ed. Note: There’s also a playlist for the book, here.]
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Do you think the introspective culture of music listening spawned by the iPod has helped or harmed music?
I have been a headphone addict since I was 12. Julian, like me, uses headphones to illuminate those parts of his life spent alone: walking, sitting, etc. Memories and feelings attach even more quickly to music when you take it with you out into the world. I think introspective music listening is great for music and for fans. The shift from CDs to iTunes, though, is perhaps a mixed blessing. I love my iTunes and my iPod, but I used to listen to, for example, one entire album and nothing else for weeks. The wonderful freedom of being able to listen to everything may make it harder for some people to deeply appreciate any one thing. The economic picture is a whole other question.
What’s the significance of the title?
It’s an old standard tune, by Hammerstein and Kern, about someone who closely associates the beloved with a piece of music. That’s pretty much the novel right there. I also used to play that tune when I was a jazz musician.
Some of the witty repartee between Cait and her many male admirers is incredibly smart and, for lack of a better word, cool. Are you a natural flirt, like Cait?
I am a writer. I sit alone for hours trying to come up with repartee. Then I edit it over a course of months. This is not, as I understand things, the way it works in real time.
Much of your story contemplates what it means to be an artist, and how easy it is to lose artistic integrity. How do you maintain your authenticity as a writer?
I don’t know if I have my authenticity, or ever did. I might be the last to know if it’s gone. All I know is that I like to write and I am still able, despite various pressures, to write what I like. I am able to sort good advice that improves my work from bad advice that would not improve it but might make it sell better. Liking what you do is the only, the only, the only way to know you’re doing the right thing.
Who are you listening to these days, and who are you reading?
As I type this, I am listening to Spottiswoode and His Enemies, a New York treasure. In the last few months, I have read and very much enjoyed Lush Life and Netherland. That was two living writers in a row for me, pretty rare. I am reading The Recognitions right now.
Any Brooklyn haunts BB readers can find you, to get their copy of The Song is You signed? Or, more importantly, where have you found a truly great coffee?
I tend to be with the beagles in Hillside Park once a day [Ed. Note: That’s Hamish, one of said beagles, above]. That’s my favorite Brooklyn haunt, usually with a coffee to go from either Tazza up on Clark Street, or from the new and brilliant Cafe Pedlar on Court.
Sent by Nicole. Text by Jocelyn Miller. Top photo by Andreas von Lintel, bottom photo courtesy Arthur Phillips.