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In the Palace of Repose
Holly Phillips
Prime Books, 203 pages

In the Palace of Repose
Holly Phillips
Holly Phillips has sold short fiction to a number of magazines and anthologies, and is on the editorial board of On Spec, the Canadian magazine of the fantastic. She resides in Trail, BC, and is taking a break from writing short fiction to work on a novel.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: In the Palace of Repose
Interview with Holly Phillips

Past Feature Reviews
A review and interview by Donna McMahon

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With science fiction now so embedded in mainstream culture that James Doohan's recent death made worldwide headlines and many universities offer courses in SF, it's hardly surprising that more and more writers are emerging into the gray area between genre and literature known as "slipstream."

Author Bruce Sterling coined that term in the late 80s to describe fiction with crucial fantastical or science fictional elements which is written in a literary, even edgy style. Writers crossed into slipstream from both directions -- literary figures, such as Margaret Atwood, embracing SF concepts, while genre writers experimented with new techniques of storytelling. Yet it's still an awkward hybrid, and new writers often face rejection both from literary publishers (who don't understand their "weird" ideas) and genre publishers (who want narrative-centred bestsellers).

In this climate, small presses have become a hotbed of emerging slipstream stars, such as Kootenay writer Holly Phillips, who I recently interviewed near her home in Trail, BC. Phillips first short story collection, In the Palace of Repose, has garnered glowing reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, among others. CBC Radio has already lined up Phillips for The Arts Tonight. And her publisher is so delighted by the sales of Repose that they offered her a hardcover deal for her first novel, Burning Girl, which Phillips describes as "a dark contemporary fantasy featuring three worlds in collision."

In the Palace of Repose contains nine finely crafted, atmospheric stories with settings ranging from the Russian steppes in the 20s to contemporary Vancouver. Although very realistic, Phillips' settings are just slightly sideways of reality, and she gives us a dark, complex glimpse of what might happen if dreams really did come true.

What teenager hasn't longed for freedom from the expectations and emotional pressures of their family? In "The Other Grace" a girl comes to awareness between one footstep and the next. She is walking along a street with her arms full of books and she doesn't know who she is. She can't remember anything, even her own name, and certainly not the concerned strangers who claim to be her parents.

Phillips characters are often alienated, and the decisions they must make are odd, difficult and very intense. In "One of the Hungry Ones," a teenaged runaway living rough on the streets is courted by sleazy pimps on the one hand, and glamorous vampires on the other. And in "The New Ecology," a young woman moves to Vancouver's Commercial Drive in a vain attempt to hide from a tribe of strange new life forms that inexplicably want to worship her.

"Scrapyard, trash heap, back alley beings. There was, despite the aggravation, something touching in their shyness. They were like children left too soon alone, torn between vengeful pranks and the desire to please, wanting attention and fearing it. A cautious slither of wire and springs to the left, a hesitant leap-frog bound of old shock absorbers and bicycle tires to the right, the eerie two-legged stalk of stick figures made from rebar and broken cement: the detritus of the city, gathered on Millennium's lawn. After a pause, they began to dance."
Although rooted in genre, these are stories that will appeal most to readers of literary fiction. Phillips is primarily interested in imagery, language and character, and her stories end long before they reach a resolution.

"I like writing 'moment of decision' stories," says Phillips. "I tend to be a passive person myself and I'm interested in the question: what makes a character act?"

In person, Phillips appears shy and younger than her thirty-five years. When she talks, her eyes light up with intelligence and she breaks easily into an impish giggle, but you sense a deep, thoughtful reserve.

Born in Nelson on Christmas day, 1969, Phillips grew up among books and ideas, with parents who were teachers and committed Quakers. Yet she came to writing through "desperation." In 1993 her world crumbled when she contracted fibromyalgia.

"I ran into the ground, failed all my finals, and left university," she said. "I was twenty-four and I had no idea how to manage."

After a miserable year living in her parents' Rossland basement writing a long, derivative fantasy novel, Phillips regrouped. She enrolled in a writing workshop at the Kootenay School of Arts and set herself a goal -- to get published within five years. She succeeded at selling several stories, and then received a dreamt-of opportunity.

"I sent the title story to Weird Tales, and Wildside Press editor John Betancourt saw it. He bought it and when he sent the cheque there was a post-it note on it: 'if you ever do a collection, send it to Wildside Press.'"

Phillips says she feels "very rooted in the Kootenays." She misses the ethnic and cultural diversity of Vancouver or Toronto, but Trail is cheap, and she can afford a quirky little house for herself and her cat, Savoy.

When I ask her why none of her stories take place in Trail -- a town which itself is slightly sideways of reality -- she looks thoughtful. "I think I need to maintain a distinction between my imaginary life and my real life."

Given her eerie literary vision, perhaps that's for the best.

This article appeared in The Vancouver Sun. It is reprinted with the permission of the interviewer.

Copyright © 2005 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at http://www.donna-mcmahon.com/.


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