Enjoy the following interview with a creative writer.
When did you first discover your creativity? What were you doing?
I’ve always been an internal kind of person, so I don’t know if my creativity was a discovery or just a fact of life. It was always the outlet for me when I felt like I wasn’t fitting in with the people around me, which was often. If I had to pick a particularly vivid moment of early creative expression it would be a time, probably in my early teens, when I was at the beach with my family. There had been a fight between my aunt and my father, with me in the middle, and so I fled to the beach for a walk. A storm came and I hid out under a fishing pier watching the thunderclouds move in over the water. When I finally returned to my room I picked up a pad and pen (this was pre-computers) and wrote for hours, inspired by the visuals of the storm over the water and by the pain my family’s argument had caused. The next day I showed the story I had written to my aunt and she was very supportive—contrary to how I felt she was acting with me the previous evening. Her response, even when she was probably still angry with me, made me realize I could make people feel things with my writing, could sort of bring them back to me, no matter what was going on.
How does your creativity manifest?
I suppose writing is the primary manifestation of my creativity. I try to produce a few pages of something—anything—every day, even if it’s crap! Other than that, I feel like my take on life, the way I see things, the way I interact with the people around me, is shaped by the openness that my creativity gives me and demands from me.
How did you become interested in writing?
I was never particularly good at sports or cars or people, early on anyway (the people and sports got a little better over time; the cars never did), so I kind of naturally gravitated to outlets where I could create and thrive on my own. Writing quickly became the place where I could live inside myself and create worlds that my slightly awkward external self could never do.
Where do you “find” ideas?
Many of my ideas come from visuals or other sense impressions, from nature mostly or travel. I am not a particularly adept student of people, so when I go to a café to write, it’s not the sound or look of the people around me that triggers my ideas. It’s more like the pattern of the breeze blowing through the place or a bug landing on a table or the sound of grease frying, or something even more subtle. Kind of impressionistic triggers…
Do you expressly read authors who write the same genre of material as you do or do you find inspiration in other ways? How?
I definitely read as much as I can in the genre I’m writing. Other than that, I seek inspiration in travel or in public places like cafés or airports where the thrum of sensation can reach into me and activate that inspiration.
Would life be different if you didn’t act on your creativity? How?
This is a tricky question. I don’t think my life would feel fulfilled if I didn’t at least try to write. Writing, to me, is the perfect creative expression. Not many tools are required, and even in the moments when I’m not clicking away on a keyboard, I feel like I am writing or gathering inspiration for it. This puts me in mind of Pramoedya Toer. His life might have been different if he didn’t act on his creativity, but even in a jail cell he found a way. Creativity—writing—is the blood that beats. It’s impossible to conceive of a time when I wouldn’t act on my creativity, and if that time ever came, I wouldn’t be me.
What is your favorite Pramoedya Toer book?
Of course, I love his classic, The Buru Quartet, but I also love The Mute’s Soliloquy, the record of his time in prison. It’s special to me because he signed it for me after a reading in D.C.—the first time he was allowed outside Indonesia in decades.
Do you ever collaborate with other authors or creative people? Do you enjoy it?
I’ve been collaborating with Heather (my wife) lately on my latest novel. She’s helped me shape and edit the manuscript down from an unwieldy number of pages. We have certainly clashed over her surgical (and almost always correct) excising of what doesn’t serve the story. I can’t say I always enjoy the changes she suggests, but she has helped me learn how to view my story from the point of view of the audience.
Does society or do your friends and family support your creative practice?
Friends and family for sure on this one. Society…maybe not so much, yet! I haven’t quite found a way to exist in the world solely through my art, so I have to negotiate the exigencies of living in a way that allows me to continue writing freely. The goal would be to achieve that social success (read: financial) through my creativity. Although I’m not there yet, I’m working toward it. Meanwhile, if I can study, travel, teach, and write, I’m good.
How do you decide if an idea is viable? Do you act on all your creative ideas? What do you do if something isn’t coming together?
I don’t spend a lot of time worrying if my ideas are viable. I tend to follow my stories/characters where they lead. Of course, by doing so I end up with drawers/files full of unpublished material, but everything has value in the end.
What are you working on currently?
I’ve just finished a novel about two sisters, a slightly fantastical thing that’s a mixture of family drama/fairy tale/YA. I’m in the process of working on the synopses and query letters necessary to get this read by an agent.
How do we stay up-to-date about your current projects?
Stayed tuned! There might be a KS Phillips book on the bookshelves soon.
How have you made it financially possible to focus on writing?
I’ve just finished up 7 years of university teaching in the United Arab Emirates, which gave me the means to work (sort of) in the realms of my interest while giving me the freedom to write on the side.
How have your surroundings or living situation(s) influenced your writing?
Living overseas tends to inspire my writing, since being out of my element and being surrounded by new things offers rewards and challenges that living in the US doesn’t. The expat experience has always helped me tap into something deeper in myself. Conversely, living in a place I don’t like, like Washington DC, for example, has tended to muffle my writing a bit. I think I definitely need to live in extreme or heightened environments, whether I love them (Indonesia) or like them (UAE), to find my best work.
Do you consider yourself an artist and do you think artists should starve?
I always hesitate to call myself an artist, since I’m not self-sufficient in it. I feel like I’m artistic and would only feel comfortable with that artist designation if I could make it my primary occupation. Clearly I’m still conflicted over what society demands of people like me. I don’t think artists should starve, necessarily, but I do think there needs to be some kind of resistance or struggle for any creative person to react against. The path to apathy might be laid with complacency.
What challenges have you faced in your creative work?
The main challenge for me is finding the balance between working to live and writing to really live. It’s not always easy to spend 8 or 10 hours a day doing something that pays the bills and then squeezing in a few extra to do the thing I really love, especially when I feel like it should be the other way around!
Have you ever reached an impasse where you thought your work had become impossible? What changed your mind?
I’ve never run into these kind of blocks. I have to write, so I write. The world gets in the way sometimes, but I always use that tension to create something. Until now I’ve found a way to keep writing, no matter what’s going on in my life.
The Girl who Pulled Down the Sun
by KS Phillips
Soft as a snowflake
A feather in my bed
Soft as a snowflake
The skin of the dead
Once upon a—
“Wait! You can’t just start like that and move on. You’ve got to explain yourself.”
It’s only a nursery rhyme.
“If it’s only a nursery rhyme, why haven’t I ever heard it?”
It’s an old one, before your time. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
“Nursery rhymes aren’t true. That’s why they’re nursery rhymes. And anyway, how do you know how soft dead skin is?”
“Yes, how do you know? Have you touched it? Where? When?”
It touched me. It touched all of us. Are you going to let me tell my story? It deserves to be told.
“So you admit it’s a story?”
It’s God’s honest truth.
“I don’t think God has anything to do with it.”
“Just let him tell it. I’m in the mood for a good story.”
“Fine. Tell on, old man. But I reserve the right to stop you when you’ve gone too far.”
Once upon a tower there was a girl who pulled down the sun.
“The Roxbury Tower?”
The Tower. Trust me this will all make sense before the end. Her name was Ellie, and she was the first beautiful girl in the world.
This was seventy years ago, a time of ash pits and quarries. A time of toil and dust, and a coldly distant sun. The Turning Eye of God, the old timers then called it. As in turning away from us. All the seasons were winter, our skies as pale as ice. We had no love—at least not in the way you young people understand it, with its sweaty thumping passion—we had no beauty. We had our work.
And that was enough for us.
But then she was born. Elena Shepaug. Ellie, to her family. The Black Hand, to the rest of us.
“The Black Hand?”
The Black Hand of the Devil. It was what we called her then, for that was what she was. Of course that was before she pulled down the sun. That was before we understood what beautiful things the Devil’s hand could grow in God’s hard earth.
But until we understood, we despised her. And because we despised her, she had to die.
And how our world would suffer if she hadn’t.
She was born backwards and upside down. I know, for I was there. It was a cold winter’s day, and all the men were at work. Lydia Shepaug, my mother, lay beside the fire, panting her prayers up the chimney. The midwives were tending to others, and I, well, I was a boy. What good was I?
I stood in the vine-covered doorway, open-mouthed and useless, as the heels of the newborn pushed out, like two round potatoes, like the meal I’d eaten just last night.
By the time my father had returned, my mother had grown two twitching feet between her thighs, a pair of delicate ankles, and shins so brittle I could snap them with a glance. At once he grabbed the child’s feet and pulled, but his hands, oily from the pumps and slick with birth, could find no purchase. He hollered for me to fetch help, and it was only when I was out the door, into the cool hard stone of the day, that I wondered if there was a reason the baby was being difficult. I couldn’t help but think it was ashamed to show its face.
Are there any ideas you wish you had time to act on but haven’t yet? Do you think those ideas will become possible in the future?
I have several finished projects kind of languishing in a drawer. If I had more time to shape them and get them out there, to agents and publishers, I would. I am already hard at work on my next novel. One thing I wished I spent more time doing was writing short stories, since my long form fiction projects don’t have the immediate satisfaction of completion and publication, at least not as immediately so. If I had the time, I’d devote much more to the business/promotion side of things.
Tell us something we don’t know about you yet:
The best job I ever had involved working with live porcupines, falcons, alligators, and one ornery, wonderful, strong-biting Macaw.
Okay, now you have to tell us a little more about that:
I was a Zoomobile instructor for a while at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. I was responsible for taking an assortment of “animal ambassadors” to local, mostly inner city schools, to teach kids about the wonders of animals and science. Seeing their amazement at having carpet pythons, or owls, or fennec foxes in their classrooms was quite satisfying. But maybe the best part of the job was spending time with the animals behind the scenes—interacting with them, working on their diets, taking care of them. Paco, the macaw, was my biggest success story. His bite was dangerous and he hated everyone except my friend and supervisor, Ellen. I worked with Paco for six months, gradually building up his trust, until one day he climbed up my leg and sat in my lap, preening himself and allowing me to stroke his feathers, as if we’d been the best of friends for years. It was awesome! Building up the alligators’ trust, however, was another story…
Kevin Phillips has an MA in Ancient History from the University of Minnesota and an MFA in Fiction from Louisiana State University. He is commencing work on his PhD in English/Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota. His MFA thesis novel, Hosni and the Lamb, won best MFA thesis and his current novel, The Mother of Dust, was finalist at the Words and Music Literary Festival in New Orleans, novel-in-progress category. His fiction and essays have been published in various literary magazines, the latest, Honorary Sister, earning a finalist position in the narrative non-fiction category, in Hippocampus Magazine.
Other Creative Interviews in the series: