How Helen Phillips Wrote “The Doppelgangers” – Chicago Review of Books


Helen Phillips is a widely celebrated author of speculative fiction. Her new novel, The Need, published in July by Simon & Schuster, was recently long-listed for the National Book Award. The stories from her previous book, Some Possible Solutions, combine elements of science fiction, fantasy, fairy tales, and surrealism. Curious about her writing process, I asked Phillips to take me through the creation of one of her stories, “The Doppelgangers,” from initial inspiration through final revisions.

In the summer of 2012, Phillips gave birth to her first child. A few weeks later she began working on what would become her next story, finding whatever time she could between feedings and diaper changes to write Phillips remarks:

“The first draft was written in 15 minute bursts. It was the first thing I wrote after having a child. My daughter was born in June, and then in mid-July I really needed to write because of all of this experience and the intensity of it, and so this was the story that came out of it — the first words I spoke after giving birth.”

Phillips began the story with a sentence that would end up getting cut before
the final draft: “It was one thing to have a doppelganger;
it was another thing entirely to have hundreds of them.” She explains further:

“That first line was the germ of the story. When I had a newborn child, the experience felt so particular and magical and unique in my life, and also so challenging. I’d never been as physically strained as I was by childbirth. I’d never been strained with that level of sleeplessness. I’d never been strained by that intensity of love. When I’d go for a walk with my newborn, and I’d see another lady with her newborn, I would think, oh my god, she’s going through this, too. And then I’d see another lady with a newborn, and I’d say, oh my god, we’re all going through this [together.] It feels like such a solitary, private, personal, terrifying, sacred experience that you’re having, and then you realize that all around you people are having some version of that experience, and that whoever raised you also had some version of that experience So, this idea that an experience that may feel very particular to you is actually an experience that links you to other people — I don’t mean to imply that my experience is everyone’s experience, but just that some version of this happens all the time even though it can feel so unique to you — that was where I came up with the idea for ‘The Doppelgangers.’”

The story
revolves around a recent mother, Mimosa, who moves to a new town with her
husband only to discover that it’s full of other young mothers who may or may
not be doppelgangers of herself.

always been compelled by this idea of what it would be like to meet this other
version of yourself,” Phillips said. “And apparently a lot of other people [feel
this way,] given the proliferation of doppelgangers in popular culture. We
spend all of our time trapped in our own minds and bodies, and to see yourself
represented in a doppelganger [is eerie.] What would it be like to examine
yourself from outside of yourself? What might you learn about yourself? How
might that experience expand your empathy? You could even say that ‘The
Doppelgangers’ is a warm up story to The Need.

“I’m always
interested in something that’s a little bit off,” she continued. “Like, oh,
what a strange coincidence, we’re wearing the same outfit. That’s strange. Then,
if it happens again, it moves from being strange to being a little scary, and
then if it happens a few more times, you feel like you’ve entered an alternate
reality. A lot of times my writing comes from some weird little scene I’ve
observed or some weird little moment that, of course, is possible in reality,
but what would happen if we took it another step and then another and then
another? All of the horror, all of the strangeness, all of the surrealism in my
writing feels grounded in the weird little things that actually can happen, but
I take them a few more steps.”

Phillips, a turning point in “The Doppelgangers” comes when Mimosa finally
introduces herself to one of her doppelgangers and is invited to join a group
for mothers like her who’ve given birth in June.

“I feel
like in speculative stories there’s a moment where you go through the looking
glass. At first the world seems normal, whatever normal means, with some slight
interruptions or disruptions that put you on edge. And then there comes a
moment where you just feel the veil pulling back or you fall into the looking
glass, and suddenly, [everything is] reversed and you are fully in the
alternate reality.”

estimates she composed the first draft in about three weeks, writing a page or
two a day. Then she put it away for five months before going back to revise.

“I usually
write the first draft and then leave it and don’t look at it at all for [several]
months. I’m really a big believer in revisiting it later. And then, after you
have become a new person, because you’ve been alive for three months longer
than the person who wrote it, certain things will stand out that you couldn’t
have noticed without the passage of time.”

One of the main things Phillips does during her revision process is cut. The first draft was a hefty 10,000 words, but by the time she was finished revising — she estimates she did between 12 to 15 drafts — it was down to around 4,600.

I write, both stories and novels, the first draft is longer than the second
draft. The first draft is the creation of raw material and the subsequent
drafts are the sculpting of that material. I feel like it’s kind of a cliché, but every
word that’s there really has to earn its place.

In the
first draft I include things even when I know they’re bad, because I think a
lot of the time what slows us down is those voices that are critical. Embrace
those voices and find a way for them to have their say. I mean, I’ve had to
find methods for this as well, because I don’t know how you could be a writer
if you didn’t have a way to deal with those voices.”

found herself especially cutting back on the scenes of Mimosa and her husband
(named Teddy in the first draft).

“I feel
like the first draft was more about the way that having a baby affects a
marriage, and in revising the story, I realized that wasn’t so much what I was
interested in. I was more interested in the way that having a baby affected [the
protagonist’s] own relationship with herself.

In the first
draft the implication was that [the husband] had been maybe having an affair
with [one of the doppelgangers], so it was a story about infidelity. And when I
revisited the story I was really bothered by that. I was like, infidelity,
that’s not what I’m concerned about here. I’m talking about when your identity is
shaken to the core. I feel like the whole affair implication in the first draft
was me casting about for a source of drama, and thinking that the source of the
drama was the marriage, but in fact the source was in her own shifting

But even
when she cuts something, Phillips believes some essence of the cuts remain in
the story.

“If a
paragraph was in the story and then I cut it, I still feel like the thumbprint
of that missing paragraph is present. I know that sounds weird and a little
mystical, but if I cut a certain paragraph, well, the paragraphs surrounding
that paragraph were somewhat informed by that paragraph. So the ghosts of
certain cuts remain in a way that I think is powerful. To me every paragraph in
a story builds upon everything else. [We] might feel it under our skin, even if
we don’t have it clearly laid out [yet].”

change she made was in the way the doppelgangers were introduced. Phillips
realized they would have more impact if they revealed themselves slowly. But
this also meant cutting the sentence that inspired it all.

“That first
line revealed the doppelgangers were in the story. They lost their ability to
sneak up on the reader. I ended up deciding that despite liking the line, I had
to kill that darling in order for the story to have more mystery in it.” 

But the
thing that Phillips struggled with the most during revision was the ending, an
ambiguous scene in which Mimosa seems to switch places with one of her

“The ending
for this story was really hard won. I had almost everything in place and then I
just was not satisfied with the ending. Then I realized I could have an ending
where her identity and the place she belonged were suddenly on even shakier
ground than before, that she would be longing for her husband and child in
those final moments. That the ending wouldn’t be so much  about the marriage—that was the real
epiphany. The marriage is present, and it’s a meaningful part of [the ending],
but [the story’s] not about marriage. It’s about something else that’s harder
to write about. And that’s when I arrived at that very—I don’t know how to put
it—out-of-body experience she has at the end, or in-body experience, some kind
of body shifting experience.”

Phillips’ stories and novels often deal with struggles she’s had in her own life,
finding the right ending can often mean discovering a resolution for herself as

“For me, writing a story is often about coming to terms with something hard, of writing my way into, if not peace, then at least acceptance of some emotional state that I’ve just experienced. I knew there would be some kind of relief at the end of the story. I knew that was what I was writing toward. I was writing toward the heat breaking. I was writing toward the early, early days of motherhood, with all of their rashes, writing towards having more perspective on that. I knew there was sort of a cool pool of silence awaiting Mimosa at the end of the story. I would say I was very much writing towards that.”


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