Kamchatka is a beautiful, remote place on the northeast end of Russia, with limited access by land. Two little girls disappear off the face of the earth one day after they get into the car with a man who claims he has an injured leg. The community is deeply concerned and affected. In Disappearing Earth, Julia Phillips tells us month by month, from a different female character perspective, what life is like and how the sorrow and sense of loss impacted their relationships and decisions.
With fear and underlying despair due to the girls’ disappearance and the changes in Soviet government over time, we hear about people’s everyday existence. Beginning with young lovers on a camping trip, little girls who are forbidden to see each other, a woman with a scary medical issue, a mourning nurse, the wife of a policeman, a student who leaves her small town for an education…each story is separate but part of an intricate web of characters that are all connected. Women’s reaction to violence brings some people together and pushes others apart.
Several years prior, a different girl had disappeared from a smaller town close by and the search for her quickly fizzled. The attention the police gave was disappointing and discouraging to many, and after the more recent disappearances, concerns bubble up amongst a few people in and around the area. When the women who have lost their children meet each other at a festival, they join forces and the focus turns to the missing girls.
With bits of information and perspective from everyone, we finally get the satisfaction of knowledge about the girls who disappeared, as well as a deeper understanding of the Russian communities on this far away sliver of the earth. Through a combination of deeply affected characters and a hint of sadness, and with vivid portrayal of volcanic topography and untouched nature in this pristine part of the earth, Julia Phillips does a stellar job of creating the setting and telling her story, Disappearing Earth.
I enjoyed the telling of Disappearing Earth and appreciate the exposure to this area of Russia and the ethnic diversity amongst its people. Thank you to Julia Phillips for including the cast of characters list at the front of the book. I referred to it during each chapter to verify relationships as it provided a greater understanding of the community and how everyone was connected.
Q & A With Julia Phillips
Q: Disappearing Earth has an unusual structure (reminiscent of There, There by Tommy Orange) that I really enjoyed. The first chapter describes the disappearance of two young girls and each chapter after that is a short story unto itself with the missing girls as the thread that weaves all the characters and each of the stories together. How and why did you decide to present the story in this way?
A: This novel is structured polyphonically, with every chapter focused on a different woman’s point of view, because it is intended to explore the spectrum of harm in women’s lives—from the rare and highly publicized (an abduction by a stranger) to the mundane and hardly spoken about (a difficult doctor’s appointment, a social slight). I wrote Disappearing Earth to run the range of violence in contemporary womanhood, because I’m fascinated by how those hurts echo each other, overlap, and connect us.
Q: How long did it take you to write Disappearing Earth?
A: The whole project took ten years from conception to publication, but that decade involved lots of different phases, from research to drafting to editing after the book was acquired by a publisher. The period where I was writing the manuscript without a contract was about two and a half years.
Q: The setting is the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia and it felt like the most remote place, sometimes bleak, sometimes lush yet detached from major civilization. How did you know about this part of the world?
A: I studied Russian in college, and “Kamchatka” was a word that came up a lot in class – if we sat in the back row of seats in our classroom, our professor would say, “Speak up! I can’t hear you all the way from Kamchatka!” The name stood for the most distant place you could possibly be. As I learned more about the actual peninsula, I came to understand that it’s much more than the farthest seat in a room. It’s a spectacular and special place in the world.
Q: Author Jean Kwok wrote a fantastic mystery, Searching For Sylvie Lee, about a missing person, and the idea was based on her own brother who had tragically gone missing. Is there anything in Disappearing Earth that comes from your personal story? How did you tap into the fears and anxiety surrounding the missing sisters from Kamchatka and the missing girl from Esso?
A: I love Searching for Sylvie Lee – I’m so glad you brought it up! For me, fiction absolutely draws on emotions I’ve felt and experiences I’ve had, but it pushes those much, much further into an imagined world. There are elements in this novel that overlap with things in my life or in the lives of people I know, but the characters and stories themselves are all made up. I think we’ve all felt fears and anxieties before, no matter who we are. Those are common human emotions. And from those we can imagine what other people’s experiences with them might be like.
Q: You mention several different indigenous people of the Russian Far East (ex. Even, Chukchi, Koryak, Aleut); how did you research these minority groups? In order to help us understand the social tensions and the different cultures, can you tell us anything more about them?
A: I spent about a year and a half living in Kamchatka, interviewing people including indigenous Kamchatkans and indigenous Siberians, and learning from the experiences they were generous enough to share with me. I also read a lot of history and news about the region in order to try to understand the dynamics in place there. I highly recommend that folks interested in learning more about indigenous peoples of the Russian Far East turn to primary texts written by people there, such as those by author Yuri Rytkheu.
Q: The women in the novel all seem to have disappointment in their lives.
two girls disappear and their mother is left alone
a woman has to get something removed from her skin
a young woman is being overprotected by her boyfriend
a girl is not allowed to see her friend
a woman wishes she could leave her daughter with the grandparents and disappear
a woman’s first husband died and then second husband died
There is a contrast between the beauty of nature and the sadness and dissatisfaction of the women. For so many, their joie de vivre has disappeared. Why? Is this a true reflection of women in this part of the world?
A: That’s a good question. In my view, some disappointment is part of everyone’s lives, whether we’re talking about women or men or about life in any part of the world. Part of growing up is the struggle to reconcile how you’ve imagined things might be with how they actually are. I’m interested in that process of reconciliation, and I like meeting characters in moments when what they hoped for butts up against reality. Those are fascinating times to follow.
Q: The novel begins with a story one sister tells the other about a tsunami. What is the significance?
A: Yes, that tsunami story is really significant to the events and themes of the book, and even inspired the book’s title. In that sister’s telling, a chunk of Kamchatka is literally washed away by a natural disaster. It’s a thrilling and terrifying story to imagine. Then only a couple pages later, the sisters are swept away, too, by something unanticipated and out of their control. I wanted readers to keep that in mind – how our imagined fears can so easily slip into real horror, and how, more generally, all the characters in this book are grappling with a sense of instability and dread. Everyone here is building their lives on unsteady ground, geographically, politically, and socially. They don’t know what they might lose next.
Q: I held my breath reading the oh so satisfying last chapter, even though it was clear what the ending would be. Did you ever consider writing an epilogue? I really want to know what things looked like several months later!
A: I’m so glad it was satisfying! I didn’t consider writing an epilogue, but I think you should imagine whatever you like for what happens after the book ends. It’s so fun to make up our own fictions as readers.
Q: Have you thought about your next book yet? Where will it take place?
A: Yes, I’m working on another novel now. It explores some of the same themes as Disappearing Earth—the intertwining of gender and violence, the impact of social isolation, the potentially healing power of community—in ways that feel new and totally challenging to me. And it doesn’t take place in Russia!
Q: What have you read lately that you recommend?
A: Ooh, I absolutely loved Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson. It is so strange and fun.
About the Author
Julia Phillips is the debut author of the nationally bestselling novel Disappearing Earth, which is being published in twenty-one languages and was a finalist for the National Book Award. A Fulbright fellow, Julia has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review. She lives in Brooklyn.