Birmingham-based author Gin Phillips is living the life most writers dream of. After the success of her debut novel, The Well and the Mine, winner of the 2009 Barnes & Noble Discover Award, she was able to quit her day job as a freelance magazine journalist and become a full-time fiction writer. Gin wants emerging writers to know, however, that writing fiction is still a job that requires a consistent commitment to hard work. She is also committed to helping her community and in 2009 founded Wordsmiths, an after-school creative writing program for middle and high school students in the Birmingham area. Gin balances all this with being a mother to her 6-year-old son. Her latest novel, Fierce Kingdom, explores motherhood in a unique way as it follows a woman trying to protect her son after a shooting breaks out in a local zoo. We had a talk with Gin about her writing process, Wordsmiths and her new novel. Welcome today’s FACE of Birmingham, Gin Phillips.
What was your inspiration for your new novel, Fierce Kingdom?
I had been wanting to write about motherhood since my son was born. Around the time when he was 4, I had a couple different story ideas, but they weren’t quite coming together and then one day we were at the zoo and — I’m sure based on something that had happened recently in the news, the kind of stories that are all too common now — I found myself thinking, “What would we do if someone came in here with a gun right now?” At first, it just seemed like a strange and unpleasant daydream, but it stuck with me, and I started to think maybe that’s the way to do a book about motherhood. What if the book takes place in this really intense situation and the lens is even sharper because it all takes place within these geographic walls — everything is within the zoo and everything takes place within three hours. I liked the idea of what if you explore the mother-son relationship in this really unimaginable scenario but in a way that taps into everyday parenting, what everyone feels with their child. And then it worked! I started writing and started feeling like this could be an actual book.
The Well and the Mine, which is set in 1931 in a small Alabama coal-mining town, follows 9-year-old Tess Moore who sees an unknown woman toss a baby into a well and tries to unravel the mystery behind this act. The novel has been compared to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Was that book part of your inspiration for your debut novel?
That feels a little over the top, but that’s a lovely comparison. I certainly did not start out to write Southern fiction, much less to write a book that fit any particular mold or was an echo of any particular book. I had this huge build up of stories and knowledge from when I was a child listening to my grandmother and her siblings talk. Certainly as an 8-year-old I wasn’t thinking, “I’d like to use this in a book one day.” But once I grew up, I wound up finding it really interesting that in Alabama, coal mining was the only integrated workforce in the state. Obviously, a lot of Southern fiction deals with race, and I thought that was an interesting way to come at it — how your perspective might be different in that particular time period if you actually worked with people of a different skin color. The kind of stories I got from my family don’t have anything to do with the plot of The Well and the Mine, but they are all about the world and about the texture those characters live in.
What’s your writing process like?
I don’t know that you can ever decide in advance what kind of story you want to write. I think some seed of it comes to you and you start to figure out which direction that might take and, maybe against your will, you realize, “Oh! This is what this book is about!” After The Well and the Mine came out, there was sort of an assumption that the next book would also be set in the South and maybe in the Depression era. But it’s not like putting in an order at McDonald’s. I can’t just decide. It is a year or two of your life to write a novel, so what comes to the surface comes to the surface; it’s not always predictable.
Do you write every day and at a certain time of the day?
Yes. I used to love writing at night. And surely 90 percent of The Well and the Mine was written after 10 p.m. And part of that is I had a real job to do to actually pay bills during the real working hours. But I love that time at night when everyone else is in bed and the house is quiet and the phone won’t ring. It is the closest to something mystical that there is about writing. Since having a child, I found that my brain does not work after 10 p.m. And so now, I tend to write in a much more grown-up fashion — from 8 or 8:30 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon when I pick up my son. And I will occasionally work at night or carve out 30 minutes on the weekends.
What advice would you give to writers hoping to one day accomplish the things that you have?
I do really strongly believe that inspiration is highly overrated with writing. It’s a job. Make yourself write. Don’t wait to be struck by inspiration. Don’t wait until the stars align. Sit down at your computer, open it up, tell yourself how long you’re going to write and do it. And maybe it’s not good. Maybe you get one sentence out of an hour’s worth of work. But you got one sentence. I don’t know any writers who are successful who don’t know how to sit down and make themselves write regularly whether they feel like it or not. And I also find usually, even if you’re not in the mood, you sit down and you fall into your story and suddenly you’re there.
What inspired you to start Wordsmiths?
When I lived in Washington, D.C., I did some work in a housing project, where I started doing creative writing with kids in elementary school and middle school. I really loved that and loved how the kids seemed to like it. And I was really struck by how a lot of them didn’t get to do much that was fun in school. Writing was all about grammar and punctuation. To open it up and do something where you got to make things up was really fun for them. When I came back to Birmingham, I really liked the idea of doing something that let kids be creative, especially in schools where they might not have as many options for extracurriculars, and also just taking the chance for kids who wanted to push themselves further or could use an additional challenge. That evolved into something that is now part creative writing and part college prep.
What do you like to do for fun when you’re not writing?
Like any writer, I spend a lot of time reading. I like to run. My family loves to eat, so we do a lot of eating out, and I love to cook as well.
What are some of your favorite local restaurants?
Do you have any personality quirks readers might be surprised to learn?
I can hold a headstand for a really long time. I love all forms of costume parties and like to have them as often as possible. And I’ve had multiple friends tell me that I have the television viewing habits of an 80-year-old woman. I really like “Murder She Wrote”!
What’s the best advice you have to offer?
Do something you love. Your job takes up around 75 percent of your life. That’s too much time to spend doing something that’s a chore.
Name three things you can’t live without.
Doughnuts, travel and books
Thank you, Gin! Learn more about Gin’s work by visiting ginphillips.com.
Thank you to Eric and Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography for today’s beautiful photography of Gin Phillips in her home office.