Get to Know Michael Phillips
by Anecia Ascalon
Michael Phillips is one of the most versatile and beloved authors of our time. His widely diverse novels and fiction series are set in Scotland, England, Wales, Germany, Russia, and the United States. Though primarily known for his sweeping historical sagas, he has also written many contemporary novels, four fantasies, and even one murder mystery. In addition to his reputation as a best-selling novelist, he has penned many devotional and theological titles that illuminate biblical and personal themes with insight, clarity, and wisdom. He describes his life’s vision as the desire to use the genres of both fiction and non-fiction to help readers toward greater intimacy with their Creator through a deeper understanding of God’s nature, character, and forgiving Fatherhood.
CKN: How did you get your start writing?
Michael Phillips: I never thought of being a writer. My worse subject in school was English. Whenever we studied literature, it was a great mystery to me. In college I majored in Physics and minored in math and took only one English class because it was required. My aspiration was to work as a physicist in the NASA space program. However, in my early twenties as my spiritual life deepened and I began writing letters to friends about spiritual things, sharing about my walk with the Lord, the idea of “writing” began to creep around the edges of my brain as something to think about. So in my final year of college I took a beginning creative writing class. It was then that I received the only ‘F’ I have ever received, on my first paper for the class. I wish I still had that paper now! But I kept writing letters and began writing other things, especially inspired by the writings of George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, and Francis Schaffer to write non-fiction. By that time I was dreaming of writing a book some day. So I found books on writing and taught myself the rudiments of writing craft that I had never learned in school. My first attempt at a novel was on the life of gospel writer Mark and never went anywhere. I never dreamed of being a novelist because I had no idea how to do it. I gradually learned to write non-fiction and began to get a number of non-fiction books published. But I did not write a novel for almost fifteen years after that first attempt.
Fiction writing remained a mystery to me. Yet gradually I read and studied on the techniques of novel writing and taught myself that process, too, just as I had taught myself to write non-fiction. I am an example that anyone can learn to write. Talent is not nearly so important as hard work and learning the fundamentals of good writing. I doubt I have much innate writing talent. But I studied, read, practiced, and learned how to write…then learned how to edit my writing and make it better.
CKN: Who are authors you admire and why?
MP: George MacDonald, obviously, as the man essentially responsible for my writing career stands above all the rest. Thomas Kempis, author of The Imitation of Christ, along with MacDonald is truly one of my spiritual mentors. These two men, more than any others, inform everything about who I am as a Christian. Quaker Thomas Kelly has also been hugely influential in my spiritual growth and development. Novelist James Michener has helped me refine and focus my own fictional priorities.
CKN: What kinds of books/genres do you like to read?
MP: Reading can be difficult for one who writes all day. Words and sentences and ideas and chapters and books and paragraphs and syntax and grammar…I’m immersed in all that stuff six or eight or ten hours a day, so reading it not necessarily what I do to “relax” and take a break from my work. So most of my reading is either for research or because something is really interesting to me. I love new ideas that I haven’t thought of before. So I will read anything that challenges me to think more expansively—science, theology, a book about writing. One of my favorite authors that I didn’t mention above is the English humorist P.G. Wodehouse. His books are pure nonsense, farce…and fun. I read them over and over and laugh out loud even though I’ve read something six times before. Wodehouse is a change of pace because his writing is so very different from what I do. And I have learned more about the craft and technique of good writing from Wodehouse than anyone other than MacDonald. He is the world’s premier wordsmith.
CKN: How do you feel that God inspires your writing?
MP: That’s a hard question. I don’t know. I hope that God’s spirit suffuses my writing in unseen and subtle ways. But there’s nothing I can point to and say, “God inspired that.” Sometimes I am aware that it’s really flowing, that some good ideas are coming out on the page almost in spite of me, and I quietly say, “Thank you.” At the same time, God works through the people we are, through the wisdom and talents we have allowed him to build into us over a lifetime. Is that “inspiration” or is that the way God matures and speaks through his people? I also believe in the old adage 2% inspiration, 98% perspiration. When a writer practices his craft and is always seeking to improve and learn and grow, what emerges may be the result of that process, which I believe God uses as well. What some people might call inspiration, I tend to look as the blossom on a stalk that has been fed by many, many roots drawing nourishment from diverse sources—all taken together given life and color and fragrance by God.
CKN: What has been your favorite book/series to work on?
MP: Rift in Time and Hidden in Time. I love those two books! I bit off probably a little more than I could chew—the discovery of the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark! But what a challenge, to try to figure out where they might really be and how they could be discovered. I’m convinced that they’re still there!
CKN: What about the most challenging book/series?
MP: The Caledonia series, Legend of the Celtic Stone and An Ancient Strife, a fictionalized history of Scotland. The project was too hugely daunting and the research so involved, I despaired of ever pulling everything together I could see in my head that I wanted the books to accomplish. But once they were done, I was very pleased with the result and it was worth the work.
CKN: How do you come up with new characters and storylines?
MP: I don’t. They come or they don’t come. I never outline. I just start writing with a general idea of where I am going. The storylines and characters seem to find me. Two weeks ago I thought I was done with the book I am working on at the moment. Then suddenly after months of writing, a whole new character and story tangent popped into my head and I had to follow it. Then just yesterday it happened again! I now am in the process of going back to work those new characters into previous parts of the book. There are also times when I have a character or a plot scenario in place, but they are bland and need more development. If I can’t think of elements that work, I ask my wife Judy to help me. I explain the situation, then we brainstorm together. She will often come up with ideas I hadn’t thought of. All my books have her input on every page. Once a character is in the story, then I try to develop him or her, adding more and more complexity to the back story. That is a fun process and continues throughout the writing. The characters grow and deepen as I get to know them better. I love psychoanalyzing my characters!
CKN: How do you handle writer’s block?
MP: Same answer—I don’t. I just have to wait it out and eventually things will start to come. But you can always keep writing…something. Forge ahead no matter how bad it is. In that sense, writer’s block is partially imaginary. All it means is that you’re not writing. You’re not writing because you have writer’s block, you’re not writing because you’re not writing. So the cure is to write. What you write may be rubbish, but it’s still writing that you can go over later and improve.
Writing is all about turning the spigot so that the water will flow. If you don’t turn on the spigot, water will not flow. Call it writer’s block. But you haven’t turned on the spigot. I suppose the way I handle it is by keeping multiple hoses. If fiction isn’t working and I’m in a idea-draught, I’ll switch to non-fiction and try to turn on that hose. Or if one storyline isn’t working, try another. Start a new book. Write a letter. The only cure is to keep writing…something.