Philip Jason has been a Wall Street options trader (briefly), a stand-up comedian (for a few years) and a “house music” composer (for a little longer). Now he’s a graduate student in the University of Virginia’s Creative Writing Program, focusing on another field he had been stepping into for almost 20 years.
This plan seems to be paying off: Jason won this year’s Henfield Prize for his story, “Heart Safe.”
The Henfield Prize, established in 1980, is one of the most prestigious individual prizes available to promising writers. Through the Joseph F. McCrindle Foundation, the University of Virginia is one of five schools since 2011 to offer an annual $10,000 Henfield Prize in fiction writing to one of its graduate students in creative writing.
Sitting down in a local coffee shop after an afternoon of teaching precocious 5th and 6th graders in UVA’s Summer Enrichment Program, Jason unwinds as he talks about writing and the other professions he’s worked in.
Although Jason, who grew up on Long Island, started writing stories in college at the University of Pennsylvania, he majored in business. Soon he realized that was not his passion. Only in the past few years has he gotten serious about writing fiction. He’s already had several stories and poems published in literary journals. Having worked mostly on his own, he thought it would help to get into a graduate program to concentrate his efforts and have the opportunity to teach.
Having finished his first year of the two-year program, he’s taken workshops with writer and English professor Christopher Tilghman and with two poets on the faculty, Lisa Russ Spaar and Paul Guest.
Jason said Tilghman brings “an enormous amount of passion about the craft” into the classroom, teaching without preaching. “He encourages fruitful conversation. He’s not afraid of challenging ideas that might be getting in the writer’s way,” Jason said.
In addition to the summer class with children, Jason recently finished teaching a workshop at WriterHouse, a nonprofit group that offers courses, readings and space to support the active writing community that surrounds UVA. What’s important as a teacher, he said, is taking students through a place of doubt inside themselves beyond which a creative discovery is waiting for them, leading them to find rooms of imagination they didn’t know were there.
“You want to create a universe that distinguishes itself from all the others,” he said.
When the email announcing the Henfield winner dinged his inbox, he was driving and had to hand his phone to a friend to read it. “I was totally surprised,” he said.
The judge this year was British author Helen Oyeyemi, whose most recent novel, “What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours,” was named a best book on many 2016 lists.
About Jason’s story, she said: “The hyperactive comedy of ‘Heart Safe’ almost permits declarations like ‘Your heart isn’t safe from this story!’ – which would be all wrong when it comes to describing a piece of writing that has such solid underpinnings craft-wise. There are boomerang effects at work here: initially I was carried along by the sheer (and expert) narrative velocity. Afterwards, thanks to the audacious patience with which pathos is folded into both dialogue and prose, different emotional and linguistic notes are struck with each reread.”
Jason takes this metaphor of losing your heart and trying to find it – he thinks he stumbled upon it while meditating – into a new universe where everything is familiar but is recombined in fantastical ways and absurd events.
“Phil Jason combines a touch of the fantastical, a very sly humor, and above all, a sharp intellect in stories that tease us and test us,” said Tilghman, who is Jason’s MFA adviser. “They insist on their own sense of the real. After reading one of his stories, our world can seem slightly out of kilter. It’s wonderful fun, with a very serious purpose.”
This phrase “I can’t find my heart” stayed in his mind, along with the question, “Where would you put it?”
Whereas in the past he liked to spend a lot of time devising plots and mapping out details, more recently he’s been trying to let go and see where the story takes him, he said. He’s interested in exploring problems that originate in our psyches, using primal symbols, in pursuit of understanding why people do things, even if they don’t want to do them.
“As a central metaphor [misplacing your heart], it’s kind of in your face, but where you take it makes the difference. I wanted the story to be surprising,” he said.
Here’s the beginning of “Heart Safe”:
I can’t find my heart. I’ve checked most of the usual places:
- the cubbies at work where I put it every morning before I head to my office. It wasn’t there. It’s possible that someone took it by accident, but I think they’d have returned it by now on account of all the weird looking scars. My heart has a scar that looks like two Pac Mans fornicating. My heart has a scar that looks like a defecating bird. My heart has a scar that looks like Michael Jordan missing the game winning shot.
- next to the candy dish in which I lay my car keys, where I put it before I go on a date. I haven’t gone on a date in months, which means that maybe I left it...
- in the drying machine, where I put it when I’m extremely lonely. I throw some sneakers in with it and set the machine to its most gentle heat setting. An hour or so usually does me some good. But, it’s not there.
I’ve also checked the fridge (in case I left it there while making a sandwich), all my pants pockets, the backyard (I tore up the soil. Sometimes my dog buries it out there. He’s very protective of me. Thankfully, it’s a small plot of land) and under the seats in my car.
The one place left is the vault in my basement where I put it whenever my parents come to visit…