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Science Intersecting Art: Helen Phillips on The Need with Paleobotanist Dr. Sarah E. Allen

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Wednesday, 7:30 pm EST July 1, 2020

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When writing her novel The Need—which would go on to become a National Book Award nominee and a New York Times Notable Book of 2019—Helen Phillips knew that her protagonist Molly was a scientist who worked at an excavation site where strange artifacts had begun to emerge from the earth. But she couldn’t quite figure out how to evoke Molly’s professional life and make the different strands of the narrative fit together until, almost by chance, she started talking with paleobotanist Dr. Sarah E. Allen. Their initial two-hour phone conversation about paleobotany (the study of plant fossils) provided critical insights that transformed the concept of the book, and these insights were refined and deepened in subsequent conversations over the course of more than a year.

On the eve of the publication of the paperback edition of The Need, Helen and Sarah will discuss the ways that paleobotany shaped the book; paleobotanical mysteries; alternate realities in fossils, and in fiction; creativity and research in both of their fields; and the power of interdisciplinary conversation.

“Thrillingly disturbing, frighteningly insightful about motherhood and love, and spilling over with offhand invention, The Need is one of this year’s most necessary novels.” —The Guardian


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In Conversation

  • Helen Phillips c. David Barry

    Helen Phillips

    Helen Phillips

    Helen Phillips is the author of five books, including, most recently, the novel The Need, a nominee for the 2019 National Book Award, a New York Times Notable Book of 2019, and a TIME magazine Top 10 Book of 2019. Her collection Some Possible Solutions received the 2017 John Gardner Fiction Book Award. Her novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat, a New York Times Notable Book of 2015, was a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her collection And Yet They Were Happy was named a notable collection by The Story Prize. She is the recipient of a 2020 Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, and the Italo Calvino Prize. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, and Tin House, and on Selected Shorts. She is an associate professor at Brooklyn College.

  • allen-sarah

    Sarah E. Allen, Ph.D.

    Sarah E. Allen, Ph.D.

    Sarah Allen’s research is focused on Cenozoic fossil floras from western North America. Her broader research interests include: paleobotany, paleoclimatology, paleoecology, plant systematics, plant anatomy, and plant morphology.

    Dr. Allen teaches many of the botany courses at Penn State Altoona.