Jayne Anne Phillips was born in Buckhannon, West Virginia, a pleasant middle-class town, on July 19, 1952, the middle child, between brothers, of Russell R. Phillips, a contractor, and Martha Jane Thornhill, a teacher. Phillips attended West Virginia University, where she earned a B.A. degree, and graduated in 1974 magna cum laude. Four years later, she earned a master of fine arts degree from the University of Iowa’s renowned writer’s program. Phillips taught briefly at Humboldt State University and then held the Fanny Howe Chair of Letters at Brandeis University and the post of adjunct associate professor of English at Boston University. In 1985, she married Mark Brian Stockman, a physician.
Phillips began writing poetry in high school. Her childhood ended abruptly in the early 1970’s, when her parents were divorced and she moved away from her hometown to begin college nearby. Her poetry was published while she still attended the University of West Virginia as an undergraduate. Only after graduation did she begin writing fiction, creating highly compressed stories in which her poetic discipline shone through. Phillips has continued in this vein, using carefully chosen words and images to their potential. She has tended to write not from an outline, as novelists often do, but line by line, as do poets.
In 1978, Phillips made the most of an opportunity when she gave Delacorte editor Seymour Lawrence a copy of Sweethearts (1976), one of her early chapbooks. Lawrence, within weeks, wrote Phillips a postcard with the career-launching message, “Bring your stories to Boston.” This contact led to Phillips’s first publication, Black Tickets (1979), which met with widespread praise and critical acclaim. In this collection of twenty-seven works, ranging in length from single-paragraph vignettes to well-developed short stories, Phillips displayed her talent at giving characters from all walks of life, including the unsavory, an empathetic voice, while managing to avoid any traces of sentimentality.
Phillips gathered much of her sharp insight into the underworld in 1972, when she and a girlfriend hitchhiked from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to California and back again. The writer once remarked in an interview how during that odyssey she “learned what it meant to be afraid,” as the twenty-year-old girls narrowly escaped physical violence several times.
In the novel Machine Dreams (1984), her second major publication, Phillips continued to create empathetic characters and again received largely favorable criticism. The film rights to her novel were purchased by actress Jessica Lange.
Phillips has won numerous awards for both her trade publications and chapbook stories. In 1977, 1979, and 1983, she was awarded the Pushcart Prize for four short stories. The Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines gave Phillips the Fels Award in fiction in 1978; she received National Endowment for the Arts fellowships in 1978 and 1985, and in 1979, she was awarded the St. Lawrence Award for fiction. A milestone was reached in her career in 1980 when she received the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, followed in that same year by the O. Henry Award. In 1981, Phillips won a Bunting Institute fellowship from Radcliffe College. Upon publication of her first novel, Machine Dreams, in 1984, Phillips won a National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, an American Library Association Notable Book citation, and The New York Times Best Books of 1984 citation. Shelter, her 1994 novel, won an Academy Award in Literature by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and was chosen one of the Best Books of the Year by Publishers Weekly.
A poet become short-story writer become novelist, Phillips has combined the disciplines of all three fields to create compact prose filled with imagery and with sometimes familiar, sometimes strange, yet always distinctive voices. Her stories of family life smell of...
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