Required Reading


November 2011

This Month's Featured Title

And Yet They Were Happy

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And Yet They Were Happy
by Helen Phillips

The best writing advice that Helen Phillips ever received was from Beckett: "Fail again. Fail better." As a professor, Phillips wants to teach her students to: Show up. Have fun. Embrace rejection. Be daring. If you’re feeling bored as you’re writing, introduce a lion attack or UFO into the scene.

Creative writing students will be inspired by Phillips' treatment of language, always trying new things to keep her story fresh. After getting bogged down with a writing project, Phillips decided on a new plan. She set out to write one 340-word story every day. This constraint served as the scaffolding that allowed her to explore themes and ideas from several different angles. A central pillar to cling to amid the chaos of creation—and it set her writing free. As long as she held to the word limit, she could do absolutely anything, could draw any bizarre parallels, bringing together history and mythology in mind-bending ways.

These stories transformed into her widely acclaimed debut collection, And Yet They Were Happy. An entirely enchanting debut—this novel in the form of brilliant miniatures hovers between reality and fantasy, whimsy and darkness, and describes a universe at once outlandish and familiar. These fables chronicle the adventures of a young couple setting out to build a life together in a world haunted by monsters, plagued by natural disasters, and invaded by mysterious forces—but also a world of wonder, delight, and transformation. Surreal landscapes peopled by the likes of Noah, Bob Dylan, the Virgin Mary, Anne Frank, and many storybook creatures make for an often humorous, sometimes achingly sad read.

And Yet They Were Happy
is groundbreaking in its originality, dazzling in its apocalyptic imagination, and accurate in its evocation of day-in, day-out love. It is instructive and inspiring to any story crafter or lover of language.

About the Author

A graduate of Yale and the Brooklyn College MFA program, Helen Phillips teaches creative writing at Brooklyn College. She is the recipient of a 2009-2010 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, the 2009 Meridian Editors’ Prize, and the 2008 Italo Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction. Her work has appeared in the Mississippi Review and PEN America, among many others, and in the anthology American Fiction: The Best Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Writers. Originally from Colorado, Phillips lives in Brooklyn with her husband, artist Adam Thompson.

Praise for And Yet They Were Happy

"Brilliant miniatures … Like the fables of Italo Calvino, Steven Millhauser or W.S. Merwin, And Yet They Were Happy beautifully blends the short story and the prose poem … A gallery of marvels. [Phillips'] quietly elegant sentences are always clear as spring water, as haunting as our own childhood memories." –Michael Dirda, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic

"A deeply interesting mind is at work in these wry, lyrical stories. Helen Phillips exploits the duality of our nature to create a timeless and most engaging collection." —Amy Hempel, professor of creative writing, Brooklyn College

"Haunted and lyrical and edible all at once: these stories feel as natural and strange as if they were found inscribed on the inside of a nutshell." —Rivka Galchen, lecturer in creative writing, Columbia University

"I was impressed by its range of imaginative modes and moods, by its astonishing attention to detail (the poet in her) put to the service of often surreal, or dream-like, narrative."—Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award nominator

Other Titles in Literature
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