Monday, 15 February 2016

An Interview with Phillip T. Stephens

Today, I'd like to welcome Phillip T. Stephens to Just Books. Phillip has taken some time out of his busy schedule to join me for an interview.

Phillip, would you like to start by telling us when and how your journey as a writer began?
I experimented with writing Laugh In scripts and a cassette tape recorder in elementary school, but I couldn’t get any of my friends to record the other parts. My only writing that received any validation was a three page parody of Miles Standish for a middle school project. My teacher laughed so hard I finished the entire story but I couldn’t sustain the magic.
My freshman year in high school my English teacher couldn’t explain why she wasn’t arbitrarily assigning meaning to the symbols in our symbols lesson. With no knowledge of Gertrude Stein, I asked why a rose simply couldn’t be a rose, to which she assured me I simply was wrong. I wrote my oral book report on the symbolism in The Cat in the Hat. The class was in stitches, but she gave me an F which I wore like hooker wears her Scarlett A. She was also the creative writing teacher and determined to prove I would never be a good writer.
In spite of her, I wrote an 80 page “novel” in high school, a real novel in college and my second novel in grad school (neither on the schedule for publication). Then, for reasons I won’t get into, my life went to shit, I became a community activist and supported myself by teaching, editing and proofreading jobs instead of writing. I wrote three of four more novels in my spare time (which are lying around somewhere).
While I was an adjunct at Austin Community College, I was offered the best job in the world. I continued to teach college writing at night, but I taught writing and multimedia to at-risk kids for a Charter school during the day. The kids were fun and the programs we built together won awards and lots of grant money, but the management at the Charter school made waterboarding feel like wish fulfillment. Dealing with management inspired the novel Raising Hell.
Twelve years and ten drafts later, I published it.



That's quite a journey.
What are the hardest and easiest parts of being a writer?
There’s nothing easy about being a writer. You have to make yourself sit at the keyboard and write even when your brain took a vacation and your body wants to play. You read constantly to master other writers’ techniques. The best writers listen to music, study art and watch film to learn how what makes this work successful where others fail. Yes, you can enjoy art but you enjoy it with a sense of professionalism. How can this make my art better? What can it teach me?
Writing involves developing an ear for nuance, dialog, rhythm. And a good story or poem involves multiple drafts, constant editing, throwing out lines you love because they interfere with the flow.
Then you have to market your work, which consumes far more time than writing (and which I have yet to figure out). You have to follow blogs, Twitter feeds, social media, keep on top of advice that may or may not pay off, and hope the iron strikes while it’s hot.



It does sound like a lot of hard work.
You said earlier that "Dealing with management inspired the novel Raising Hell", would you like to expand on that?
The worst bosses in the world. The catalyst was the charter school I worked for, but I’ve worked for a number of martinets who hired managers with terrible people skills. During an eight year period I gained a hundred pounds and went on anti-depressants even though the people I worked with were wonderful.



So did you start with an outline or just go with the flow, and see where the story took you?
Raising Hell developed organically. One scene grew out of another, and some scenes doubled back on another. I wrote Cigerets from an outline. I frequently work from outlines, although I don’t adhere to them.


Having read Raising Hell, I have to know how you came up with the names for all the different parts of hell?
I’ve always been a fan of improv comedy and poetry. As I needed a new punishment I would just riff the name until I had something I was happy with. The beauty of editing is that if it isn’t perfect, you can always go back and tweak it.



And which, if any, of your personality traits did you write into your characters?
Believe it or not, there is nothing autobiographical in Raising Hell. It would be nice to think of me as an extension of Lucifer or Pilgrim, but I’m neither of those guys. Once I sat down to write the novel I went for the comic book effect. If anyone, I’m Mephistopheles, the wise guy egging the players on. The most important thing to me was to make sure the book wasn’t a one-trick-pony repeating the Pilgrim-outwits-Lucifer motif in every scene like an endless Road Runner marathon.
So I had to craft characters for comic effect and to set up plots to accelerate a story line that would move the story forward.



What is your favourite part or scene in the novel?
It’s tough to decide, but I’ve always loved the Lenny Bruce stand-up routine. I had a lot of fun writing that. I modeled it on a film I saw of him in college, performing in the sixties just before his legal problems. But I have mp3s of a lot of his routines.



If Raising Hell was made into a movie, who would you cast as Lucifer? And The Pilgrim?
I think it would do better as an animation than a live action movie, but Russell Brand would make a good Lucifer or even Ricky Gervais. I can’t think any American comics with the range. Larry David might pull it off.
I pitched a script to Amazon and they passed, but I realized the only way to pull Pilgrim off was to reduce him to a Happy Face doll like the melting happy face on the cover. So a muppet or CGI Pilgrim with Amy Schumer or Matt Smith might work for Pilgrim.
Bottom line, they can cast who they want as long as Karen Gillan plays Mephistopheles.



An animation would be awesome, Phillip. I would love to see that!
Both Raising Hell and Cigerets, Guns & Beer are both darkly humorous, is this humour also present in your other books?
I can’t say that every book I ever write will be funny, but, yes, humor drives my narrative persona. Even my current novel, Seeing Jesus, is driven by humor.



How many books have you written?
I have four novels, with the extended edition for adults of the fourth coming out this spring, one volume of poetry and I collaborated with a group of poets to create a collective volume of another called Feeding the Crows.
The poetry publisher Susan Bright of the Plain View Press has since passed away, so the poetry is out of print, although I am working to bring my poetry book back out under my own imprint.



Can you tell us anything about any of your current work(s)-in-progress?
I published a young adult novel called Seeing Jesus just before Christmas, but I originally intended it as a novel for adults along the vein of Gaarder’s Sophie’s World. I was interested in the way people construct their belief systems and how they use them to justify selfish, bullying and abusive behavior.
Too many books that discuss spiritual and philosophical beliefs try to lead readers through the teachings of different thinkers and expose them to their ideas. I wanted to explore the kernels of thought, the metaphors, that drive the beliefs themselves. So I paired a young girl, Sara Love, who is forced by her parents to move from Austin to a small town where she meets a mysterious homeless man no one else seems to see.
He teaches her how to cope with bullying and social rejection as well as how to learn to think for herself about religion and other issues. Unfortunately, Sara misapplies the lessons and finds herself swimming in deeper water than she expected.
The beta readers all liked it, but had mixed feelings about how it would be received and should be marketed. So I created two versions—a YA version that ends with a happy Christmas story and plays down the philosophical exploration and the extended adult version which allows adults to explore further and even talk to their kids. By kids, I mean daughters, because most boys don’t read this kind of book.
I’m trying to line up some reading groups for their reaction before I release it in time for summer.



As a reader I find myself wanting to know more about the authors that write the amazing books we read, so the next few question are about you rather than your books. I hope that's ok!
For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
First, that Carol put up with my shit for more than thirty years. Second, that my readers, however few they may be so far, connect with my books. Third, that we were able to retire with enough of an income to allow me to become an indie novelist.



If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
I would rewrite my life story from scratch, which is why, when you see my biographies, they tend to be wildly imaginative in spite of what the professional advisors say. I love my family, and I recognize I share the same genetic markers, I just think my chromosomes were remixed for a different sample tape and no one in my family could cope with that.
On the other hand, if I were raised by liberal academics who encouraged my flights of fancy I might have been a boring self-centered ass.



If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
I’ve spent my entire life living with people telling me what I need to be better at, or what qualities or abilities I need to gain to become a better person in spite of the fact that I’ve spent my entire life polishing my skills and trying to mature. I look at myself every day and say, sure, I could do better at this or that, but the truth is, no matter where you improve there will always be some other area in your life where you disappoint the people you’re closest too. It’s a never ending struggle.
So, no, I think life dictates when and where you need to confront the moments to develop new strengths and trying to sculpt yourself into an image you have in your mind is ultimately self-defeating. I’m pretty happy where I am.
That and the ability to make rich people give me money with no strings attached.



I think we'd all like that ability.
Were you ever in a school play? What was your role? Did anything funny ever happen when you were on stage?
I played Wolf Beifeld in Liliom in high school, the original stage version from which Rogers and Hammerstein adapted Carousel. I only tried out for the play because I had a thing for a girl named Billie who played Mrs. Muskat. She, in turn, had a thing for Allan who got the lead role.
So I was hanging onto Billie’s every word and she was hanging onto Allan’s. In the meantime he was a senior doing folk music gigs with his girlfriend Patsy at coffee houses. But, in a cruel twist of fate, the Jewish girl Laurie who played the female lead Julie flipped for him too and flipped Allan so he dumped Patsy and started taking Hebrew classes.
I figured Billie would rebound to me, but she nailed a basketball player and I was left a virgin. Allan converted to Judaism before they graduated. I still talk to Allan and Billie on Facebook but he remarried to a reformed rabbi and she and her husband just moved to Canada.
That was my last play. But I did do a lot of performance art as an adult.



When, and where, was the last time you walked for more than an hour?
I am severely handicapped with back and knee problems so it’s been decades. I’m not bound to a wheelchair, but I can’t walk without a walker for further than twenty or thirty feet.
My three favorite places to walk when I could walk were Fenner Arboretum in East Lansing, Mi, Palmer Park along Woodward Avenue in Detroit and Town Lake in Austin.
Palmer Park was my favorite because I could walk from my apartment and walk as long as I felt like, even in winter. There was a great donut shop right off Woodward Avenue that I could afford when I was broke—which I was in those days. I worked for ACORN with a team of community activists and had to canvass for my income, which meant I often made less than a hundred dollars a week.
I ran across all types because it was a popular Gay pick-up spot, and it freaked friends out because they had visions of transvestites in make-up propositioning me. Nothing could be further from the truth. The closest I came to a pick up was a guy in a leather jacket smoking outside a copse who shook his head as I passed by. He said, “Business is slow.”
I still have a great water color of the projects I bought from an artist who managed to sell a few paintings by the Merill Fountain before the cops chased him off one Sunday evening.



If you had to move from Texas where would you go, and what would you miss the most about Texas?
I can’t imagine leaving because Carol is settled in. She bought our duplex with her parents before we married and made it clear she’s never leaving. Besides, we rescue cats for Austin Siamese Rescue and it would be tough to find someone to take care of them. However, were we to leave it would probably be to go to China to teach English. Carol has her Masters in Chinese and loves Chinese culture and I’m a huge fan of Hong Kong cinema.
My second choice would be to go back to Detroit. I loved every minute there, the cultural mix. Detroit features a huge mix of ethnic neighborhoods, Hungarian, Greek, Polish (which most Americans outside of Detroit know nothing about and many Detroit residents are unaware of too), not to mention the black and Latino arts and food. I’m just pissed that they abandoned the old Tigers stadium where I travelled by bus with my son whenever I could afford bleachers tickets.



What is the last concert you saw? How many of that band's albums do you own?
Our last opera was Gounod’s Faust.
As to pop concerts, it would be Laurie Anderson or Garrison Keillor. I have all of her albums and quite a few of his early Prairie Home Companion albums. Carol and I have been faithful fans of PHC since long before we met. I introduced her to Laurie Anderson.
If I could attend, I would go see St. Vincent. I have several of her albums and bootleg videos of her concerts in Austin.



And finally, what was the best gift you ever received and why?
I don’t get gooey over gifts. I have more shit than I care to admit to, but material stuff just doesn’t connect with me. If I have it great, if I don’t, oh well. Carol gets me the best gifts because she gets exactly what she knows I want. My family gets me nothing close to what I want even though Carol tells them exactly what she knows I will connect with. Or they get me something I was into five years ago and have no use for now.



Thank you very much for your time, Phillip. It's been great! Good luck with all your future projects.

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