August 14, 2017 | Charlotte Donlon
Gin Phillips and I hung out on her back porch recently and talked about her new book, writing, and motherhood. Here’s some of what we discussed:
When did you start writing?
I’ve always written but it didn’t occur to me as a career path until college. That’s when I realized writing fiction could be a living. I understood it could be a craft and a skill that I could work on and hone. I had a couple of professors who suggested I look at short story contests. During my senior year I entered a contest in Seventeen magazine and I placed third out of maybe 4000 submissions. When the judges sent nice feedback about that story, I realized writing might be something that could work.
Which authors did you love in college when you recognized you could write as a career?
Toni Morrison was the author in college who I was taken with the beauty of her prose and every individual sentence was so lovely. I also loved Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen.
Your characters are what jump out at me in your books including Fierce Kingdom. Do you focus on the characters first as you write?
Having interesting characters is one mark of literary fiction as opposed to more genre fiction. I didn’t think of Fierce Kingdom as a thriller until editors started calling it that. I thought of it as a book about motherhood, about parenthood and about relationships with children and what do you owe those you love and what do you owe complete strangers. The ways these ideas come out of character are so much more interesting to me than the plot points. Plot is important to get some momentum, but then I like to slow it down a bit so the characters can take center stage without it feeling flat. In Fierce Kingdom, it’s not finding out who’s going to live and who’s going to die that pulls me into the story—it’s the characters and the choices they make that interests me. That’s always the fun part of writing—seeing the characters become three dimensional and come to exist separately on some level apart from the writer. I love when it gets to the point where I’m not pulling the strings to make things happen. The characters have autonomy and make choices within this world I created for them.
What surprised you about Fierce Kingdom when you finished it?
I was quite surprised that it is a thriller. I get that now, but it just wasn’t how I saw it when I was writing it even though I was aware that it was a book that should move quickly. The comments from the advance reader copies that have gone out are very much about how it makes people nervous and how it’s hard to put down. That’s not something I expected.
How do you respond to others’ appraisals of your work? Has that changed over the years?
You just can’t take rejections too seriously or you will never get anywhere. Some people will love your book and some people won’t. Some reviews will be great and some won’t. You can’t put too much stock in any of it. You will drive yourself crazy if you read every review on Goodreads.
You have to get used to the fact that a lot of people are going to say no. You also have to keep submitting. I don’t know anyone who has been published who didn’t get dozens or hundreds of rejections. You have to have tough skin to write books. You’ve got to have faith and confidence in what you’ve done and know it’s worth something. You also need to accept advice that will make your book better. You can’t have too much ego.
How has your writing changed since you wrote The Well and the Mine?
I hope my writing is tighter now. I don’t re-read books after they’ve been published, but if I were to read The Well and the Mine, I hope I would find some things in it that I would write better. I hope my prose is purer now. I cut more out now than I used to. I like to think that I’ve improved as a writer over time.
How has motherhood changed you?
I think you don’t know how you’re going to feel about motherhood until you’re a mother. Are you going to feel trapped or impatient? Is it going to be exhausting? It can be all those things. For me, I really love all of it. I loved the infant stage. I loved the toddler stage. Every stage has had immense joy. There’s no relationship like the relationship with your child. There’s nothing that can fully prepare you for how fascinating they are and the kind of love you feel for them. Before I had my son, when I was very much pregnant, I said to my husband, “I hope I love the baby as much as I love the dog.” He told me I would. Then after my son was born I followed up on that and let my husband know I love my son way more than I love the dog. My love for my son was immediate. It happened in a split second. The intensity of that love is so interesting to me as a mother and as a writer.
In terms of writing, as for every parent, I have a lot less time that is my own. Suddenly you have to try to snag five minutes here or there. But I’m more efficient and productive now. If I’m at my computer, I’m not going to waste my time there. I have a real consciousness of the time available to me to write. I’ve also gotten better at writing in my head. I can think through scenes and add bits and pieces to it without a screen in front of me. Also, I think it’s impossible to have kids and not be more aware of time passing. I watch my kid go from zero to five years old and it’s like a blink of an eye. Being more aware of time helps me slow down and appreciate him and my time with him. That makes me want to pay attention to him and be present to him when we’re playing at the park and not be thinking about writing.
What are some of your favorite children’s books?
Well, when I was a kid I loved C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the whole Chronicles of Narnia series. I also loved anything about a girl and a dog or a girl and a dolphin. I loved books with magic. I read all of the time as a kid and can’t list all of the books I loved. Now it’s fun to rediscover things with my child. Recently I’ve read some middle grade books. I really like the Inkspell books by Cornelia Funke. I love The City of Ember books by Jeanne DuPrau. My favorite all time children’s book is The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex which is a hilarious story about alien invasion. I love kids’ books that are both funny and moving. It’s pretty perfect when someone can pull off both of those things.
One thing I appreciate about Fierce Kingdom is Joan’s honesty with Lincoln about good and evil. Is this a reflection of how you approach good and evil as a mother?
I think it’s impossible to raise a child and not realize how much of their books and shows and movies usually have a clear-cut bad guy and good guy. It’s very comforting for kids to have those strong delineations. I have a child who really wants to be good and gets very upset if someone thinks he has broken a rule. His first question to me whenever we watch a new show is “Are they good or bad?” He wants to know who the villains and heroes are. So thank you Cat Woman in Batman for giving me the opportunity to talk about how sometimes you’re a little bit of both. Part of parenting is how you try to deal with good and evil in the real world. In terms of self image I want my child to know he’s a good boy but sometimes makes mistakes. And I want him to know that the kid who knocked him down on the playground doesn’t have to be a bad boy. Yeah, he shouldn’t have knocked you down, but that doesn’t make him bad. It wasn’t a nice thing to do. Sometimes good people do things that aren’t nice. We just read Arabian Knights where the good guys aren’t always good, and that was nice to contemplate with my son. Our super hero culture puts things in such stark terms that don’t always apply in real life. Why do good people do things that aren’t nice? That’s where it gets trickier.
Charlotte lives in Homewood with her husband and their two children. She’s earning an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University, and she does freelance writing and copywriting. You can find her online at www.charlottedonlon.com and on Twitter at @charlottedonlon. You can sign up for her newsletter about books and writing here.