In her debut novel, The Well and the Mine, Gin Phillips writes about a woman tossing a baby down a well and a family struggling with both the after effects of this particular event and the harsh realities during the Great Depression. Phillips, who resides in Birmingham, Ala., graduated with a degree in political journalism from Birmingham-Southern College. For years, she has done freelance writing for a variety of magazines, though with the recent success of her novel, she is now devoting herself to writing novels full-time.
Phillips will be at Park Road Books on Monday, July 13 at 7 p.m., signing copies of The Well and the Mine. For details, call 704-525-9239 or go to www.parkroadbooks.com.
Creative Loafing: Have you been surprised by the success of your debut novel?
Gin Phillips: Yeah, it's been a strange and unexpected path that the book took. It came out for the first time in March of 2008, which was two years after I sold it to Hawthorne, a Portland, Ore.-based publisher. I sold it to them in 2006 after writing it around 2004. I went through the reviews and then everything sort of tapered off; by this past winter, I felt like I was pretty much done talking about the book and it had reached that time when it disappears off the face of the earth. Then, the book won a Barnes and Noble Discover Award in March 2009, and that sort of re-opened everything. That's when Riverhead, which is an imprint of Penguin, bought the book and re-released it and then everything started over again. Right about the point when I thought the book had seen everything it was going to see, it suddenly took off in a very different way than it did the first time.
Are you from Alabama originally?
I'm from Montgomery, Ala. My grandmother and her siblings grew up in Carbon Hill, Ala., where the book is set. She was one of four siblings. Three of those four are still alive; they're between 86 years old and 92 years old and they have been a great source of detail and anecdotes. Obviously, the time period matches them as well. The book is set in a time when they were children and teenagers. The plot of the book is completely fictional. I didn't base it on any actual baby thrown down a well and the plot is all completely invented, but they were very helpful with a lot of the domestic details: the way that you go through a day, the household chores, what you eat for breakfast, what kind of underwear you wear -- those smaller details that are hard to find in the history books.
Tell me a little bit about how the book's introduction by Fannie Flagg (author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe) came about.
The college had an event for distinguished women. It had a dozen different women from different fields every other year and they picked hostesses to take around each one of these women. I begged for months to be the one to take around Fannie Flagg and so I met her in 1997. It was very brief. I think everyone would like me to say there was a deep and loving friendship that developed, but there wasn't. She was nice, we chatted a little, and I showed her around. Then, seven or eight years later, when the book had been accepted, the publisher wanted to get an introduction and she was one of the names we thought of. She was very gracious about it.
What do you hope readers will gain from the book, especially in relation to today's economic climate?
At the point that I wrote this book, I certainly was not aware of where the economy was headed and I didn't write it with a connection to the present in mind. I think publishers and book stores have seen it in a way that wasn't intended and in a way that kind of mirrors what's going on now. I'm a big believer that everybody kind of gets his or her own message out of the book. I don't know that I have a message. I think one thing that can resonate now is that the family is a positive force in these people's lives. These people are in the middle of a very harsh life where there is always a threat of economic disaster or of death, since the mines are a very dangerous place to work. There's always this sort of 'what if?' hanging out there, this dark possibility of what could happen, but in the middle of that, they have these very strong and supportive relationships with family and community. I think a really defining point of the book is the strength that can come from relationships, the positive force of them. And though this isn't particularly related to the economy, I also think the book does a lot with our sense of right and wrong, and good and evil, and how those are not always as obvious and simple as we think.