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Q&A with Julia Phillips - Bear

By Leah Wingenroth

We are thrilled to welcome Julia Phillips to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release, Bear,  released on the 25th June 2024.

They were sisters and they would last past the end of time.

Sam and her sister, Elena, dream of another life. On the island off the coast of Washington where they were born and raised, they and their mother struggle to survive. Sam works long days on the ferry that delivers wealthy mainlanders to their vacation homes while Elena bartends at the local golf club, but even together they can’t earn enough to get by, stirring their frustration about the limits that shape their existence.

Then one night on the boat, Sam spots a bear swimming the dark waters of the channel. Where is it going? What does it want? When the bear turns up by their home, Sam, terrified, is more convinced than ever that it’s time to leave the island. But Elena responds differently to the massive beast. Enchanted by its presence, she throws into doubt the plan to escape and puts their long-held dream in danger.

A story about the bonds of sisterhood and the mysteries of the animals that live among us — and within us — Bear is a propulsive, mythical, rich novel from one of the most acclaimed young writers in America.

Congratulations on your new novel - Bear! It was a truly thrilling read from cover to cover and I so enjoyed it. The relationships in this story between mother and daughters and between sisters are so real and so crucial. Did your own familial relationships inspire this story, or inform it in any way?

Thank you so much for reading. I loved working on this wild story about two sisters’ lives interrupted by a bear, and it thrills me to think of it landing in readers’ hands. Yes, the book’s main character, Sam, was definitely informed by my position as the little sister in my own family. The sibling relationship is so beautiful and foundational. Sam is going through that tough, necessary transition when the person you grew up with starts to grow away from you.

When writing about the real world around us, I guess it’s now an inevitability that we include

pandemic-related experiences, as you did. I definitely feel it’s been deeply and inextricably

ingrained into our psyche. Do you think there is a contemporary realistic or literary fiction that can be written without addressing the pandemic and the way it’s shaped so many of us for years to come?

If there’s a way to write about life in the 2020s without in some way involving the pandemic, I

haven’t found it yet. It feels necessary to include in our realistic texts for exactly the reasons you mention here: that experience shaped us all, it’s deep within us now, its ripple effects are

continuing. It’s part of the background of this book because it’s a recent and meaningful part of these characters’ lives.

As you may or may not be aware, there is a current online discourse (mostly amongst women) about whether they would rather meet a man or a bear while alone in the woods.

Overwhelmingly, people are choosing the bear for a variety of reasons. Reading this novel

knowing that conversation was happening online was so fascinating. The sisters’ relationships with both men and the bear are so fraught, dangerous, and complex. Do you see this discourse as cogent to your novel? Do you see either of the sisters’ actions at the end of the story as choices?

I’m absolutely aware of the discourse, and fascinated by its relevance to this novel! I do think Elena, the older sister in the novel, chooses to be with the bear throughout in great part because she is tired of the world of people: the rules, the responsibilities, the many duties she feels obligated to perform. She isn’t scared of meeting a man in the woods because men frighten her, but she is exhausted, perhaps, by the notion of meeting one more person who wants her to do one more thing. The bear doesn’t have those human expectations of her. It is meeting her on very different terms.

I felt like the family’s house was in some ways its own character. It structures the intimacy and poverty that the family experiences and tethers them in their circumstances. It’s also interesting that the bear never attempts to breach the house. When ideating and writing the setting, did you find the house taking on a life of its own as it reads on the page? How do you feel it plays into the narrative?

Oh gosh, yes, I loved being inside this house with these characters. It means so much to them and this story—it is a hugely valuable asset, an object that anchors them out of poverty, yet also a burden, a terrible weight around all their necks. I loved watching them move through its rooms.

The novel is rife with generational curses. Do you see either Sam or Elena as escaping those


What a great question. I suppose I see them as still living with those legacies of violence and struggle and longing, but with each sister grappling with their effects in her own particular way.

The death of Sam and Elena’s mother versus their mother describing her own mother’s last

moments were so different. Sam and Elena’s mom was with her mother as she took her final

breath, but she herself died alone in the middle of the night. Did you intentionally juxtapose those experiences? If so, what did you want to communicate to readers in those moments?

Yes, I definitely wanted to juxtapose those experiences, to show the contrast between their

mother’s time with her grandmother and the sisters’ time with their mother. Sam and Elena are deeply dissatisfied with their present moment. Both of them spend a lot of their time looking for ways to escape, whether through ambitions or sex or hanging out with a bear. That eagerness to peel away from their day-to-day lives has real consequences—they grow untethered from what’s actually with them, they lose track of their own mom.

And finally, where can readers get their hands on your new novel Bear?

You can find it anywhere in the United States that books are sold, as well as international editions published or forthcoming in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain and Latin America, and Turkey. Happy reading!

Julia Phillips is the bestselling author of the novels Bear and Disappearing Earth, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and one of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year.

Julia's work has been translated into twenty-six languages. A 2024 Guggenheim Fellow, she has written for The New York Times, ​The Atlantic, and The Paris Review. She is on the board of the Crime Victims Treatment Center, a nonprofit that helps people heal from violence. She teaches at the Randolph College MFA program and lives with her family in Brooklyn.


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