Thirty years ago, while visiting a friend in West Virginia, author Jayne Anne Phillips spotted a boy sitting in a metal chair in an alley. He stayed there for hours, holding a thin blue strip from a dry cleaning bag.
The memory of the child lingered with Phillips for decades, eventually working its way into her fiction as one of the title characters in her new novel, Lark & Termite.
Termite is a 9-year-old boy who can neither walk nor talk and who perceives the world mostly through sound. Phillips tells Weekend Edition's Liane Hansen that she didn't initially intend for the character to be a focal point of the novel, but as she got deeper into the book, she began to imagine how he saw things and started to write portions of the narrative from his point of view.
"This opened the book, because Termite knows things going on in the novel but can't communicate them," Phillips says. "[He] actually knows more than any other characters in this book know. In that way, Termite is a kind of living secret."
Lark & Termite is a book of secrets, told from multiple points of view. Phillips begins her book in the voice of Lark, Termite's older half sister. The siblings live on a grass alley in West Virginia, near a double railroad tunnel that Termite loves to visit.
Woven together with Lark and Termite's 1959 narrative is the story of Termite's father, an American soldier named Robert Leavitt who was killed in the early days of the Korean War.
Phillips says she didn't know the details of Cpl. Leavitt's death when she first began the book. But then she happened to read an article about No Gun Ri, the site of a "friendly fire" incident in which hundreds of South Korean civilians who had been trapped in a tunnel were killed by American soldiers.
"I saw this color photo ... that was exactly the shape of this double railroad tunnel that I had already written into the novel," she says. "And I looked at the picture and I realized that that was what happened to Leavitt."
With its multiple narrators and shifting timeline, Lark & Termite has drawn comparisons to The Sound and The Fury, William Faulkner's classic tale of family dysfunction. But while Phillips says she loves that novel, she points out that there's a real difference between her treatment of Termite and William Faulkner's treatment of Benjy.
"Faulkner famously said that Benjy was an animal," says Phillips, "whereas I see Termite as being almost the other end of the spectrum. In fact, he has almost a prescient, perfective conscious."
Also, while Faulkner's novel presents a portrait of a Southern family in decline, Lark & Termite features a family united against the outside world.
"This family is amazingly strong," Phillips says. "It would definitely be labeled dysfunctional by social scientists of our time. But they're not dysfunctional; they are very functional."
Phillips says that the family's strength is one of the takeaways of her book. "I think that's what we need to remember: Family has been redefined and redefined by different eras in history, and this family is not your typical nuclear family, but they are very loving and extremely protective."