Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

  • Lark and Termite
  • Written by Jayne Anne Phillips
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780375701931
  • Our Price: $14.95
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Lark and Termite

Buy now from Random House

  • Lark and Termite
  • Written by Jayne Anne Phillips
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780307271273
  • Our Price: $11.99
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Lark and Termite

Lark and Termite

    Select a Format:
  • Book
  • eBook

Written by Jayne Anne PhillipsAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jayne Anne Phillips


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: January 06, 2009
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-307-27127-3
Published by : Vintage Knopf
Lark and Termite Cover

Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - Lark and Termite
  • Email this page - Lark and Termite
  • Print this page - Lark and Termite
Tags for this book (powered by Library Thing)
fiction (73) korean war (33) west virginia (25) korea (15) 1950s (14)
» see more tags


National Bestseller
New York Times Notable Book
Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year

Lark and Termite
is a rich, wonderfully alive novel about seventeen year old Lark and her brother, Termite, living in West Virginia in the 1950s. Their mother, Lola, is absent, while their aunt, Nonie, raises them as her own, and Termite’s father, Corporal Robert Leavitt, is caught up in the early days of the Korean War. Award-winning author Jayne Anne Phillips intertwines family secrets, dreams, and ghosts in a story about the love that unites us all.


Winfield, West Virginia
July 26, 1959


I move his chair into the yard under the tree and then Nonie carries him out. The tree is getting all full of seeds and the pods hang down. Soon enough the seeds will fly through the air and Nonie will have hay fever and want all the windows shut to keep the white puffs out. Termite will want to be outside in the chair all the time then, and he’ll go on and on at me if I try to keep him indoors so I can do the ironing or clean up the dishes. Sun or rain, he wants to be out, early mornings especially. “OK, you’re out,” Nonie will say, and he starts his sounds, quiet and satisfied, before she even puts him down. She has on her white uniform to go to work at Charlie’s and she holds Termite out from her a ways, not to get her stockings run with his long toenails or her skirt stained with his fingers because he always has jam on them after breakfast.

“There’s Termite.” Nonie puts him in the chair with his legs under him like he always sits. Anybody else’s legs would go to sleep, all day like that. “You keep an eye on him, Lark,” Nonie tells me, “and give him some lemonade when it gets warmer. You can put the radio in the kitchen window. That way he can hear it from out here too.” Nonie straightens Termite. “Get him one of those cleaner-bag ribbons from inside. I got to go, Charlie will have my ass.”

A car horn blares in the alley. Termite blares too then, trying to sound like the horn. “Elise is here,” Nonie says. “Don’t forget to wash the dishes, and wipe off his hands.” She’s already walking off across the grass, but Termite is outside so he doesn’t mind her going. Elise waves at me from inside her Ford. She’s a little shape in the shine of glare on the window, then the gravel crunches and they’re moving off fast, like they’re going somewhere important. “Termite,” I say to him, and he says it back to me. He always gets the notes right, without saying the words. His sounds are like a one-toned song, and the day is still and flat. It’s seven in the morning and here and there a little bit of air moves, in pieces, like a tease, like things are getting full so slow no one notices. On the kitchen wall we have one of those glass vials with blue water in it, and the water rises if it’s going to storm. The water is all the way to the top and it’s like a test now to wait and see if the thing works, or if it’s so cheap it’s already broken. “Termite,” I tell him, “I’ll fix the radio. Don’t worry.” He’s got to have something to listen to.
He moves his fingers the way he does, with his hands up and all his fingers pointing, then curving, each in a separate motion, fast or careful. He never looks at his fingers but I always think he hears or knows something through them, like he does it for some reason.
Charlie says he’s just spastic, that’s a spastic motion; Nonie says he’s fidgety, with whatever he has that he can’t put to anything. His fingers never stop moving unless we give him something to hold, then he holds on so tight we have to pry whatever it is away from him. Nonie says that’s just cussedness. I think when he holds something his fingers rest. He doesn’t always want to keep hearing things.

My nightgown is so thin I shouldn’t be standing out here, though it’s not like it matters. Houses on both sides of the alley have seen about everything of one another from their secondfloor windows. No one drives back here but the people who live here, who park their cars in the gravel driveways that run off the alley. We don’t have a car, but the others do, and the Tuccis have three—two that run and one that doesn’t. It’s early summer and the alley has a berm of plush grass straight up the center. All us kids—Joey and Solly and Zeke and me—walked the grass barefoot in summer, back and forth to one another’s houses. I pulled Termite in the wagon and the wheels fit perfectly in the narrow tire tracks of the alley. Nick Tucci still calls his boys thugs, proud they’re quick and tough. He credits Nonie with being the only mother his kids really remember, back when we were small.

Today is Sunday. Nick Tucci will run his push mower along the berm of the alley, to keep the weeds down. He does it after dusk, when he gets home from weekend overtime at the factory and he’s had supper and beer, and the grass smells like one sharp green thread sliced open. I bring Termite out. He loves the sound of that mower and he listens for it, once all the way down, once back. He makes a low murmur like r’s strung together, and he has to listen hard over the sounds of other things, electric fans in windows, radio sounds, and he sits still and I give him my sandals to hold. He looks to the side like he does, his hands fit into my shoes. Hiseyes stay still, and he hears. If I stand behind his chair I can feel the blade of the mower too; I feel it roll and turn way down low in me, making a whirl and a cutting.

Sundays seem as long as a year. Sundays I don’t walk up Kanawha Hill to Main Street to Barker Secretarial. I’m nearly through second semester, Typing and Basic Skills, but I’m First of Class and Miss Barker lets me sit in on Steno with the second-year girls. Miss Barker is not young. She’s a never-married lady who lives in her dead father’s house and took over the school for him when he died of a heart attack about ten years ago. The school is up above the Five & Ten, on the second floor of the long building with the long red sign that says in gold letters murphy’s five and ten cent store. It’s a really old sign, Nonie says, it was there when she and my mother were growing up, but the store was both floors then. Now Barker Secretarial has filled the big upstairs room with lines of Formica-topped desks, each with a pullout shelf where we keep our typing books (Look to the right, not to the keyboard, look to the right—). We have to be on time because the drills are timed and we turn on our machines all at once; there’s a ratchety click and a rumble, like the whole room surges, then it hums. The typewriters hum one note: it’s a note Termite could do, but what would he do with the sound of us typing. We all work at one speed for practice drills. We’re like a chorus and the clacking of the keys sounds measured, all together. Then at personal best we go for speed and all the rates are different. The machines explode with noise, running over themselves. Up near the big windows, for half the room, there’s a lowered fake ceiling with long fluorescent lights. The tops of the windows disappear in that ceiling and I hate it and I sit in the back. Barker Secretarial stopped with the ceiling halfway when they realized they didn’t have the money for air-conditioning, and they brought in big fans that roll on wheels like the wheels on Termite’s chair. Miss Barker gets those fans going and we all have to wear scarves to keep our hair from flying around. With the noise and the motion I can think I’m high up, moving fast above the town and the trees and the river and the bridges, and as long as I’m typing I won’t crash.

I tell Termite, “It’s not going to rain yet. He’ll still mow the alley. There’s not going to be stars though. It’s going to be hot and white, and the white sky will go gray. Then really late we might have that big storm they talk about.”

Big storm they talk about, Termite says back to me, in sounds like my words.

“That’s right,” I tell him. “But you’ll have to watch from the window. Don’t think you’re going to sit out here in the rain with lightning flashing all around you.”

He doesn’t say anything to that. He might be thinking how great it would be, wind and rain, real hard rain, not like the summer rain we let him sit out in sometimes. He likes motion. He likes things on his skin. He’s alive all over that way. Nonie says I put thoughts in his head, he might not be thinking anything. Maybe he doesn’t have to think, I tell her. Just don’t you be thinking a lot of things about him that aren’t true, she’ll say.

But no one can tell what’s true about him.

Termite was pretty when he was a baby. People would coo over him when we walked him in the big carriage. His forehead was real broad and he had blond curls and those blue eyes that move more than normal, like he’s watching something we don’t see. He was so small for his age that Nonie called him a mite, then Termite, because even then he moved his fingers, feeling the air. I think he’s in himself like a termite’s in a wall.

I remember when Termite came. Nonie is his guardian and his aunt, but I’m his sister. In a way he’s more mine than anyone else’s. He’ll be mine for longer, is what Nonie says. Nonie isn’t old but she always says to me about when she’ll be gone. She looks so strong, like a block or a rectangle, strong in her shoulders and her back and her wide hips, even in her legs and their blue veins that she covers up with her stockings. Your mother didn’t bring him, is what Nonie told me, someone brought him for her. Not his father. Nonie says Termite’s father was only married to my mother for a year. He was a baby, Nonie says, twenty-one when my mother was nearly thirty, and those bastards left him over there in Korea. No one even got his body back and they had to have the service around a flag that was folded up. Nonie says it was wrong and it will never be right. But I don’t know how Termite got here because Nonie sent me away that week to church camp. I was nine and had my birthday at camp, and when I came home Termite was here. He was nearly a year old but he couldn’t sit up by
himself, and Nonie had him a baby bed and clothes and a high chair with cushions and straps, and she had papers that were signed. She never got a birth certificate though, so we count the day he came his birthday, but I make him a birthday whenever it suits me.

“Today could be a birthday,” I tell him. “One with a blue cake, yellow inside, and a lemon taste. You like that kind, with whipped cream in the center, to celebrate the storm coming, and Nick Tucci will get some with his ice tea tonight, and I’ll help you put the candles in. You come inside with me while I mix it and you can hold the radio. You can turn the dials around, OK?”

Dials around OK. I can almost answer for him. But I don’t. And he doesn’t, because he doesn’t want to come inside. I can feel him holding still; he wants to sit here. He puts his hand up to his face, to his forehead, as though he’s holding one of the strips of blue plastic Nonie calls ribbons: that’s what he wants. “There’s no wind, Termite, no air at all,” I tell him. He blows with his lips, short sighs.

So I move his chair back from the alley a bit and I go inside and get the ribbon, a strip of a blue plastic dry-cleaner bag about four inches wide and two feet long. It’s too small to get tangled and anyway we watch him; I take it out to him and wrap it around his hand twice and he holds it with his fingers curled, up to his forehead. “I’ll get dressed and clean up the kitchen,” I tell him, “but when I make the cake you’re going to have to come inside, OK?”

He casts his eyes sideways at me. That means he agrees, but he’s thinking about the blue, that strip of space he can move.

“You ring the bell if you want anything,” I say.

The bell on his chair was my idea; it’s really a bell for a hotel desk, flat, and he can press the knob with his wrist. That bell was mounted on a piece of metal with holes, maybe so no one would steal it once upon a time, or so it wouldn’t get misplaced. A lot of years ago, I sewed it to the arm of Termite’s chair with thick linen cord. His bell has a high, nice sound, not a bad sound. He presses it twice if he has to go to the bathroom, or a lot if something is wrong, or sometimes just once, now and then in the quiet, like a thought.

“Termite,” I tell him, “I’m going back in.”

Back in, back in, back in. I hear him as I walk away, and now he’ll be silent as a breather, quiet as long as I let him be.

I stand at the kitchen sink where I can see him, put the stopper in the sink, run the water as hot as it can get. The smell of the heat comes up at my face. The dishes sink into suds, and I watch Termite. His chair is turned a little to the side, and I can see him blowing on the ribbon, blowing and blowing it, not too fast. The little bit of air that stirs in the yard catches the length of that scrap and moves it. Termite likes the blue of the plastic and he likes to see through it. He blows it out from his face and he watches it move, and it barely touches him, and he blows it away. He’ll do
that for thirty minutes, for an hour, till you take it away from him. In my dreams he does it for days, for years, like he’s keeping time, like he’s a clock or a watch. I draw him that way, fast, with pencil in my notebook. Head up like he holds himself then, wrist raised, moving blue with his breath.

People who see him from their second-story windows see a boy in a chair across the alley. They know his name and who he is. They know Noreen and how she’s worked at Charlie Fitzgibbon’s all these years, running the restaurant with Charlie while Gladdy Fitzgibbon owns it all and parcels out the money. How Nonie is raising kids alone that aren’t hers because Charlie has never told his mother to shove it, never walked off and made himself some other work and gone ahead and married a twice-divorced woman with a daughter and another kid who can’t walk and doesn’t talk.

Nonie is like my mother. When she introduces me, she says,

“This is my daughter, Lark.”

Nonie would be raising us anyway, whether Charlie ever did the right thing or not. And I don’t know if she even wants him to, anymore. It’s just Nonie should own part of that restaurant, hard as she works. Charlie does the cooking and runs the kitchen, and Nonie does everything else, always has, ever since she came back here when she left the second husband. She came back and there was Charlie right where she’d left him, living with his mother and going to Mass, and they fell right back into their old ways, and Gladdy fell into hers. Except the Fitzgibbons had just about nothing after the Depression. When Nonie came back, they’d barely held on to their house and the business. They would have lost the restaurant if Nonie hadn’t saved it for them,

From the Hardcover edition.
Jayne Anne Phillips|Author Q&A

About Jayne Anne Phillips

Jayne Anne Phillips - Lark and Termite

Photo © Elena Seibert

Jayne Anne Phillips was born in Buckhannon, West Virginia. She is the author of four novels, Lark and Termite (2008), MotherKind (2000), Shelter (1994) and Machine Dreams (1984), and two collections of widely anthologized stories, Fast Lanes (1987) and Black Tickets (1979). She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and a Bunting Fellowship. She has been awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction (1980) and an Academy Award in Literature (1997) by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her work has been translated into twelve languages, and has appeared in Granta, Harper’s, DoubleTake, and The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. She is currently Professor of English and Director of the MFA Program at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.

Author Q&A

Q: Was there a particular event or idea that gave birth to this novel?
I was in my hometown perhaps thirty years ago, visiting a high school friend. She was living in a second floor apartment over a detached garage behind a house and her window looked out onto a lush grass alley with white gravel tire tracks. One-story, tin-roofed houses faced the alley. From her window, I saw a boy sitting in a 1950’s aluminum lawn chair facing the alley, his legs folded up under him as though he couldn’t feel them. He was holding a narrow strip of blue dry cleaner bag up to his forehead, continually blowing on it so that it moved in front of his eyes. He seemed to be watching the blue or looking through it. I asked my friend, “Who is that? What is he doing?” “I don’t know,” she said, “but he sits that way for hours.” The image burned itself into my consciousness.

Years later, on my birthday, a talented artist named Mary Sherman gave me a drawing I admired in her sketchbook. She’d written some words around the edge that were almost illegible, Termite, something, something, something. She ripped out the page and gave it to me. The drawing became the image of Termite, because my actual memory of the real boy was almost a spiritual impression. I wasn’t aware at the time of the merging of the real image and the created image. Mary’s drawing, strangely, suggests a boy in profile, holding something we don’t quite see. And strangely too, or fittingly, his face and expression resemble what I imagine as the older face of a child I knew in the early 70’s, the child of a friend, born with severe problems, a baby who was nearly silent, whose aspect and unfocused gaze were open and beautiful, who smiled at his mother’s voice, and at motion, when he was lifted and swung. In Lark And Termite, Mary’s long ago gift to me becomes Lark’s drawing of Termite, and my sense of Termite is informed by children I’ve known whose perceptions, altered by disability, seemed very intense.

My books come together slowly, in elemental ways, long before I begin writing them and one book opens into the next.

Q: Lark and Termite begins in July, 1950, on the day of Termite’s birth and his father’s death during the Korean War. These two characters never meet and yet their intuitive sense of each other is so beautifully captured. It seems you are exploring the idea of the ever mysterious and powerful ways families are linked together across time and generations. Is that an accurate assessment?
Generational bonds are mysterious and powerful; love does imply a spiritual dimension. I believe that love, in its strongest, most primal forms can endure beyond death – in memory, in forms of perception, and that story or literature can redeem what is otherwise lost, unknown, forgotten. In Lark And Termite, relationships of great yearning and power are interrupted by war, by a catastrophic event no one can escape. The story told again and again, in all cultures and religions, tells us that we can find our way home within a spiritual dimension we cannot fully imagine. Leavitt begins to intuit that dimension, those enlarged perceptions, through the Korean children with whom he is trapped; they become his family. The reader begins to enter Termite’s perceptions, his sense of adjacent dimensions, his apprehension of time and space not obvious to others.

Q: Are the portions of this novel that take place in Korea based on actual events during that war? What sort of research went into this aspect of the novel? And what drew you, as a writer, to the Korean War?
The event in which Leavitt and the South Korean refugees are involved is based on an event at No Gun Ri. North Korea invaded South Korea on June 26, 1950. U.S. troops retreated seventy miles in the first weeks of the war, decimated by North Korean forces backed by the Red Chinese. There was confusion and chaos. No Gun Ri took place on July 26th, when several hundred civilians and the American troops evacuating them were mistakenly strafed by friendly fire. The Koreans who survived took shelter in a double railroad tunnel near the hamlet of No Gun Ri. American forces were told they were enemy, and not to let anyone out.

The picture of the double railroad tunnel appeared on the front pages of newspapers when American reporters broke the story, a story suppressed for almost fifty years. I saw the photograph and recognized the tunnel as almost identical in look and structure to the tunnel I’d already written into the world of Lark and Termite. I began to research the beginning of the war and to write Leavitt’s section of the book, which became the first section of the novel. I read all I could find on No Gun Ri, including eye witness accounts from children, now middle-aged, who survived because they hid behind the bodies of their dead mothers. Some US veterans also broke their silence. There was a report on a second lieutenant who carried a young Korean boy into the tunnel, thinking he’d be safe there. In Lark and Termite, Leavitt is with the Koreans in the tunnel, and becomes their witness. The Korean boy he tries to save is a counterpart to Termite, the son Leavitt knows is about to be born in West Virginia.

As a writer, I am preoccupied by war itself, by the generational cost of war, by war’s spiritual devastation. Atrocities occur in all wars; war, once unleashed, is atrocity. Korea was in many ways a rehearsal for Vietnam, a never declared civil war in an Asian country. We find ourselves now, globally, in a state of constant war. Leavitt, speaking in 1950 from a battlefield, says “It’s all one war.” I’m asking if that’s true. Certainly the ramifications of war remain timeless – the generational inheritance of loss and damage.

Q: Tell us a little more about Termite. How did you go about capturing his voice and imagination with such visceral effect?
I tried to find my way into him through language itself, in the syllables of the words and the layering of images. I knew Termite was fascinated by big sounds and loved to hear trains go through a double railroad tunnel where the kids played. I set the book in the 50’s partially so that he occupies a world in which no one can really name what’s “wrong” with him, in a time when family, a family like his, who are very specific, would care for him.

I see Termite as extremely perceptive, a trapped intelligence and awareness shaped by sensory deprivation, by poor eyesight and muscle control, by stasis and by sensory overload. He has extremely acute hearing, and fugue states in which he sees images he doesn’t recognize, except that he knows he’s seen them before, and the images, unlike what he physically sees, are visually clear and defined.

Termite is trapped in his body, in a sense, but, like many disabled people, has learned to compensate in specific ways. Unable to move, he “throws” his consciousness as a ventriloquist might “throw” his voice; he locates himself in the ragged orange cat, for instance, inside an animal consciousness that moves at will. Termite doesn’t communicate in normal ways; he doesn’t even think in those terms. Strangers view him as insensate, unaware, while Lark sees him as having his own type of awareness. She feels that in some ways he knows more than she does. Termite’s perceptions are patterns of images, information, sensory associations. He does apprehend, in scrambled fashion, what goes on around him, and more. He clearly has a prescient quality that he does not comprehend or even consider, yet, it is partially through Termite that the reader understands secrets never revealed to the other characters in the novel. In that sense, the reader becomes a character in Lark and Termite. Termite is a living secret told only to the reader.

Q: Lark is an amazing young woman, a 17 year-old girl caring with such love and strength for her disabled brother while trying to find her own place in the world. In fact many incredibly strong women who are in essence the ones who hold together their families—financially and spiritually--during a time, the 1950s, when women were not expected to take that role, populate this novel. Where did the inspiration for all these amazing women come from?
I think they are patterned on women in my own family, women from my place of origin. Appalachia was a pioneer culture that drew independent, resourceful people who worked for what they had. I didn’t grow up knowing pampered women. Men were defined by their jobs, while the family, regardless of whether they worked outside the home, defined women. Strengths in families shift and move. Those who take up the burden often get stronger and stronger, and many women, raising children, responsible for children, all over the world, simply never give up, as long as there is breath in their bodies. The Korean girl who reaches out to Leavitt for help is such a woman, as well.

Q: Lark and Termite takes place in West Virginia where you were born and raised. How much has that place shaped you as a writer?
My family, on both sides, had been in Western Virginia since the 1700’s, pre-dating states and nations, when the land was territory. The sounds and smells and feel of that world, the mountains, the small towns, the fields around the house my father built, where I grew up with my brothers, are the ground of my imagination. It was where I became aware, became myself. West Virginia was an excellent beginning for a writer because there was such strong natural tension between the fact that it was a story teller’s world, a place of oral tradition, yet there were so many secrets, so much that you weren’t supposed to talk about, so much knowledge of which no one spoke. Everyone just knew. That culture, its isolation and way of being, seemed a manifestation of the land itself, so green and mountainous, the only state enclosed completely in Appalachia, a world inside a world.

Q: This novel, like your previous books, explores the bonds between family members and especially between siblings—Lark and Termite and Nonie and Lola. What is it about sibling relationships that so interest you as a novelist?
The family, our family of origin, is a genetic and psychic map to who we are. We move inside that map all our lives and we inherit our parent’s unresolved emotional dilemmas as well as their physical characteristics or traits. We may learn to “read” the map, or we may not. Sibling relationships are a deep blood bond; siblings, wholly different, reflect one another. The power of that bond, truly realized, can rival the strength of the parent/child bond. I’ve always wanted to pick up a newspaper and read the headline Love Conquers Death in big bold letters. I suppose I’m trying to write that headline, create that meaning.

Q: There seems to be the hint of a ghost story in this novel—in the form of a character who appears and then vanishes in a way that makes the reader speculate as to who or what he may have been. What made you decide to include this character in the novel?
There are “hints of ghost stories” everywhere, it seems to me, in the repeated patterning of events, circumstances, realities, history. All the great religions of the world, and literature is one of them, center on stories of supernatural dimension: on visitations and revelations. The Annunciation, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is the story of a visitation. Christians speak of “the Holy Ghost,” and other traditions present their own versions of a spiritual force or dimension. In our own lives, dreams, fantasies, memory, perception itself, exist outside the usual continuum of time and space.

Q: Was it difficult to write from the point of view of many different characters?
One point of view inspired another. I’m a very voice/language oriented writer, and this novel began with Lark’s line: I move his chair into the yard under the tree and then Nonie carries him out. I knew who Nonie was carrying, I knew Lark by her voice; Lark told me what she knew of Termite and their mother, Lola. Lark told me what she didn’t know, as well. The world of the town, the alley, the train yard, the river, the double railroad bridge, her knowledge that Termite’s father was killed early in the Korean War, that they “never got his body back” and “had to have the service around a flag that was folded up,” were all established in Lark’s voice. Nonie’s no-nonsense voice speaks directly to the reader: It was wrong and it will never be right. Leavitt’s third person point-ofview is needed to tell his story, and Lola’s story, to a point, yet pull the reader inside the feel and smell and reality of the war, just as he is inside it. I didn’t originally intend to represent Termite’s point of view, but to revolve the novel around him. Writing often knows more than the writer knows, or the truth is inside the image. Termite’s voice begins with the words He sees inside the blue, but I didn’t know what that phrase truly meant until I wrote the end of the novel.

Q: There is a flood in this novel—both literal and figurative—that forever changes the future and also bring to life the past for all of the book’s main characters. Was this image of the flood as a kind of biblical event in your mind while writing?
The flood, and the consciousness of approaching storm, corresponds to Leavitt’s sense and experience of the war. War obliterates, like devastating, overwhelming, man-made weather. And weather, now, can seem an expression of injured consciousness, the “voice” of the planet, so to speak. There is an inevitability to the war, and to the storm and flood, in the novel -- a patterning between one world and another. From the moment Leavitt wades into that crowd of refugees and takes the Korean boy in his arms, he senses, with the boy, what is coming, just as Termite senses the flood. Catharsis, in the original dramatic sense, devastates and redeems.

Q: Tell us a little about your writing process—how you write, when etc?
Fiction is the slow apprehension of meaning through the elements of story and language. For me, writing is the creation or apprehension of meaning, understood from the world, and then impressed upon it, opening into it. I see into the story through language itself: the novel presents itself as a mystery, inside the lines I write. I follow language into the heart or core of the book.

I like to work early in the day, and I need to work all day, really, to make much progress. It's exhausting, meditative, slow work, work that I usually have to balance with doing many other things. It’s good, in a sense, because the novel I’m writing has to be so compelling to me that I can put it down, and re-enter it when I find time to work. I live in the work, even when I’m not writing it.

Q: You teach creative writing, and currently direct the MFA Program at Rutgers Newark. What advice can you offer for aspiring writers?
Read, widely and deeply, and understand that writing is hard, demanding work in which we must constantly overcome our own resistance to the material that is most risky and important to us.

From the Hardcover edition.

Praise | Awards


“Powerful and emotionally piercing. . . . A novel that conjures with poetic ferocity the… unconscious, almost magical bonds shared by people who are connected by blood or love or memory.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Anyone, male or female, who seriously cares about reading novels will find Lark and Termite to be intricately and beautifully composed.” —The New York Review of Books 
“Phillips . . . [knows] how to bypass the reader’s brain and inject her words directly into the bloodstream.” —Los Angeles Times
“There are books you recommend to everybody, and then there are books you share cautiously, even protectively. Jayne Anne Phillips’s Lark and Termite is that second kind, a mysterious, affecting novel you’ll want to talk about only with others who have fallen under its spell.” —The Washington Post Book World
“This novel is cut like a diamond, with such sharp authenticity and bursts of light.” —Alice Munro
Lark and Termite is a category of story unto itself: mythical without being gooey; wry and terribly moving; as ornately contrived as Dickens, as poetic as Morrison, yet unselfconscious in tone and peopled with vivid, salt-of-the-earth characters who mostly accept the limits on life’s possibilities with a shrug and another cup of coffee.” —Maureen Corrigan, “Fresh Air”
“A stylistic tour de force. . . . Pure, rapt poetry.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Fever-dreamy.” —Entertainment Weekly 
“A jewel of a book.” —St. Petersburg Times

“Phillips returns to working-class lives in what may be her most tender, most compassionate book to date. . . . Extraordinary.” —The Plain Dealer
“Jayne Anne Phillips renders what is realistically impossible with such authority that the reader never questions its truth. . . . The fantastic dream that’s created in Lark and Termite is one the reader enters without ever looking back.” —The New York Times Book Review
Lark and Termite is extraordinary and it is luminous. . . . It is the best novel I've read this year.” —Junot Díaz 

“Electrifying. . . . Gorgeous, stunning.” —Newsday 
“A narrative that is consistently inventive, evocative and uncompromising. . . . Haunting is a word much overused but Lark And Termite is exactly that: a novel whose elegant, lingering images are hard to shake from memory.” —The Independent  (London)
“Remarkable . . . swings from spare to sumptuous. . . . An intricate, affecting portrait of a darker corner of the American ‘50s.”—USA Today
“Extraordinary and brilliant. . . . With its echoes of William Faulkner and its almost mystical exploration of love in all its forms, but particularly between siblings, the novel is a powerful and tender portrayal of a family that in the end proves literally unsinkable.” —The Sunday Times (London) 
“Evocative. . . . Lark and Termite offers substantial rewards for readers who value passages of gorgeous, intelligent writing.” —The Boston Globe

“What a beautiful, beautiful novel this is–so rich and intricate in its drama, so elegantly written, so tender, so convincing, so penetrating, so incredibly moving.” —Tim O’Brien
“A richly textured novel with a wondrous story at its heart about the many permutations of love and the complexities it engenders.” —Sunday Herald  (London)
“Acute and elegant.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Moving and suspenseful. . . . Phillips weaves the characters’ stories masterfully, touching on betrayal and forgiveness, war’s horror, natural disaster, secrets of the past, the love and dedication of an extended family of friends, mystery and death.” —The Miami Herald
“Luminous and haunting and singular. . . . Because [Lark and Termite] deals with issues over which people have been arguing for centuries—family and war—the novel’s raw immediacy is really quite spectacular. . . . Phillips serves it all up with a prose that sparkles and startles.” —Chicago Tribune
“Phillips reinvigorates and transforms the Faulknerian infrastructure. . . . Exquisitely explored.” —Bookforum

“Sharply lyrical. . . . Once you open [Lark and Termite’s] hypnotic pages you will find yourself pulled like metal to a magnet.” —Dallas Morning News
Lark And Termite is about Big Themes: love, death, war, time, consciousness, perception, especially sound, and language itself. . . . Its belief in redemption and hope are not the least of Lark And Termite's blessings.” —The Observer (London)
“A tale with a Southern Gothic flair, startlingly alive language and the intensity of four narrators. . . . It’s easy to fall into the world Phillips has created and inside the heartache of the well-rendered characters.” —The Oregonian
“Riveting and moving. . . . Lark’s pragmatism, clear-eyed love and determination to hold on to her brother are strikingly fresh and heroic.” —The Seattle Times
“Strange and beautiful at every turn as Phillips taps into powerful magic with a tale that surprises to its last page.” —St. Petersburg Times 
“Exquisite. . . . The story’s rich symbols and parallels are carried along by the sounds, images and rhythms of Phillips’ wordcraft. This is Phillips writing at her best.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Jayne Anne Phillips . . . is at the height of her powers in Lark and Termite. . . . This is a major novel from one of America’s finest writers.”—Robert Olen Butler
“Sinuous and evocative.” —Salon 
“A celebration of language. . . . There’s joy here, and the bold confidence of a mature talent at full stretch.” —New York Observer
“For all its apparent focus on style and technique, Lark and Termite is a book of ideas, a thoughtful contemplation on the nature of human goodness. . . . Remarkable.”  —The Irish Times
“A tour de force of history, imagination and invention. It is resonant and profound, a masterpiece worth waiting for.” —More

 “You finish Lark and Termite wanting to turn back to the first page and start over, making sure not to miss a single note.” —San Francisco Chronicle


FINALIST 2009 National Book Awards
FINALIST 2009 National Book Critics Circle Awards
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

"Powerful and emotionally piercing. . . . A novel that conjures with goetic ferocity the . . . unconscious almost magical bonds shared by people who are connected by blood or love or memory." —The New York Times

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of Jayne Anne Phillips's richly layered new novel, Lark and Termite.

About the Guide

A glowing, wonderfully alive novel from one of our most admired and best-loved writers, her first book in nine years. Lark and Termite is set during the 1950s in West Virginia and Korea. It is a story of the power of loss and love, the echoing ramifications of war, family secrets, dreams and ghosts, and the unseen, almost magical bonds that unite and sustain us.

At its center, two children: Lark, on the verge of adulthood, and her brother, Termite, a child unable to walk and talk but filled with radiance. Around them, their mother, Lola, a haunting but absent presence; their aunt Nonie, a matronly, vibrant woman in her fifties, who raises them; and Termite's father, Corporal Robert Leavitt, who finds himself caught up in the chaotic early months of the Korean War.

Told with deep feeling, the novel invites us to enter into the hearts and thoughts of the leading characters, even into Termite's intricate, shuttered consciousness. We are with Leavitt, trapped by friendly fire alongside the Korean children he tries to rescue. We see Lark's dreams for Termite and her own future, and how, with the aid of a childhood love and a spectral social worker, she makes them happen. We learn of Lola's love for her soldier husband and her children, and unravel the mystery of her relationship with Nonie. We discover the lasting connections between past and future on the night the town experiences an overwhelming flood, and we follow Lark and Termite as their lives are changed forever.

About the Author

Jayne Anne Phillips is the author of three previous novels, MotherKind, Shelter, and Machine Dreams; and two collections of widely anthologized stories, Fast Lanes and Black Tickets. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Bunting Fellowship, a Howard Foundation Fellowship, and an Academy Award in Literature (1997) from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She is currently professor of English and director of the MFA Program at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.

Discussion Guides

1. Have you read any of Jayne Anne Phillips's other books? If so, in what ways is Lark and Termite similar to her earlier work, and how is it different?

2. Reread the quotations in the epigraph. Now that you've read the novel, what does each one mean to you?

3. On page 6, Leavitt thinks, "The war makes ghosts of them all." In what ways does this prove true? Which ghosts are literal, and which metaphorical?

4. Who is the strongest person in the novel? The weakest?

5. Mothers, and substitute mothers, play a substantial role in the novel. What do you think Jayne Anne Phillips is trying to say about motherhood?

6. Compare and contrast the sibling relationships in the novel: Lark and Termite, Nonie and Lola, and the nameless Korean pair.

7. Discuss the sense of sound as it relates to each of the main characters. In what ways does sound function differently for Termite than for Nonie or Lark? What about Leavitt and Lola? What does the sense of sound say about the importance of language?

8. Two different tunnels are the settings for major developments in the novel. What do they signify?

9. On page 27, Lola says of Lark, "I gave her a bird's name. Maybe she'll grow up safe and fly away." And on page 37 Lark discusses Termite’s nickname: "I think he's in himself like a termite's in a wall." What other names in the novel carry metaphorical weight?

10. Why does Charlie take care of Lola? What about Onslow?

11. "Termite can only tell the truth," Lark says on page 94. Who else tells the truth? Who lies? What are the ramifications?

12. What role does Solly play? What about his father, Nick?

13. Throughout the novel, we revisit events from different perspectives. How do the multiple takes change your understanding of what's happening?

14. On page 158, Lark says, "It's almost as though Stamble and Termite are related versions of something, but Stamble walks around in the world and Termite doesn't." Who is Robert Stamble? Why does Lark see him?

15. Where do you think Termite's new wheelchair really came from?

16. Discuss the flood. How is each character's life affected?

17. Reread and discuss the final Termite passages, on pages 276-277. What is revealed there?

18. Does the novel have a happy ending?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

Suggested Readings

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury; Charles J. Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe, and Martha Mendoza, The Bridge at No Gun Ri: A Hidden Nightmare from the Korean War; Kent Haruf, Plainsong; Bobbie Ann Mason, In Country; Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter; Alice McDermott, Charming Billy.

Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: