Debbi Mack interviews crime writer Phillip Thompson on the Crime Cafe podcast.
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Debbi (00:12): Hi everyone. My guest today is a crime novelist and short story writer. His work has appeared in such literary journals as O-Dark-Thirty, Near to the Knuckle, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, a title I really love. And these are just a few. It’s a pleasure to have with me for his second appearance on the Crime Cafe, crime writer, Phillip Thompson. Hi Phillip. How are you doing today?
Phillip (02:14): Good, Debbi, how are you?
Debbi (02:16): Not bad. Thanks. All things considered. We were just talking about 2020 and what a weird year it’s been Have the holidays been good ones for you?
Phillip (02:27): They have, I mean, as good as any holiday can be in this year very low-key. It’s been pretty good though.
Debbi (02:37): That’s awesome. Do you make new year’s resolutions? I’m not a new year’s resolutions kind of person. I always believe that anytime you want to make a change, you can make it regardless of the time of the year, but in a sense this year seems like one of those years where people are really thinking about that kind of thing. How do you come out on this?
Phillip (03:00): You know, I, I don’t think I ever have I used to have the, sort of the smart-alecky “my new year’s resolution is to not make any new year’s resolutions.” But no, I don’t. I kind of, I like your philosophy. If you need to make a change, you can make it, you know, on April the third, if you need to.
Debbi (03:19): Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Or maybe even April 1st, but really mean it.
Phillip (03:28): Right.
Debbi (03:28): And everybody will think you’re kidding. I don’t know.
Phillip (03:33): Well, then you get away with it, if you don’t see it through.
Debbi (03:36): Then you have an excuse. Yeah. Wow. I didn’t even think about that. A new trend. Fantastic. Let’s see, the last time you were here, you released a second Colt Harper novel, I believe. OUTSIDE THE LAW? And now you have your third one out called OLD ANGER. What is this book about? Tell us about the story.
Phillip (04:02): Okay. It’s, like you said, it’s the third in the series and it’s, this story is really, as the title might suggest it, it brings up a couple of old issues that have been hanging around, not just, not just for the characters, but for the place, which would of course be the Deep South. All the books take place in Mississippi. And it’s really a story of, of the issues that come with Southern racism and the perceptions around that.
Debbi (04:40): Yes. What kind of a person is Colt Harper and what are your plans for him generally speaking?
Colt is kind of a guy who sees himself as a lawman. That’s you know, it’s his version of upholding the law has an awful lot to do with, with meting out justice. But I think he has a hard time seeing the difference between justice and revenge or, you know, redemption and revenge.
Phillip (04:49): Well, Colt is kind of a guy who sees himself as a lawman. That’s you know, it’s his version of upholding the law has an awful lot to do with, with meting out justice. But I think he has a hard time seeing the difference between justice and revenge or, you know, redemption and revenge. I think as much as he tries to, to think that he’s this one particular type of lawman, who’s upholding, to think that he himself is the law which we kind of get into a little bit in OLD ANGER. He’s, he’s so focused on what he thinks he is, that he’s blind to some things you know, race being one of them, you know, he, he likes to perceive himself as a person who’s color blind, but when you’re dealing with race, especially if you’ve, you know, if you’re dealing with race in a place like the Deep South, you know, you really get put to the test when you say, well, you know, I’m a color blind person, I see the law for what it is regardless of a person’s race or background. But when you really get put to the test to that, and when you really have to confront that, you start to see a different version of yourself. As far as plans for him I’m currently writing the fourth book of the series and I’m just going to continue to do that, you know, figure out ways to put this guy into a situation that might make him uncomfortable then and see what happens.
Debbi (06:23): Mmm-Hmm. Yeah. To what extent does Colt ultimately really examine his underlying assumptions about race?
Phillip (06:35): He does, well, he doesn’t have a choice In this book, he gets it put to him by the people that are closest to him. Mostly his deputy John Garver, who just happens to be black and his, the woman who is probably his best friend in his life, Rhonda Rains. It was a big part of the first book and a fairly big part of this one. She’s also black and where he, you know, he doesn’t really use it as an excuse. He’s not one of these people that says I’ve gotten, I’ve got a lot of black friends, but it turns out that here’s a white lawman in a place like Mississippi. And the two people that are closest to him are black. And now he’s in the middle of this, you know, racial situation and the mirror is held up to himself. So he gets a, he gets a fairly good chance to examine himself in this particular story.
Debbi (07:38): I think that’s a particularly timely topic right now, but it’s something like not just due, but long overdue to be discussed. As you mentioned in your guest post, you’re not the first person, of course, to ever write fiction about race relations. And you mentioned some authors and of course, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Do you think the way we write about race relations has changed?
Phillip (08:10): I think it has I think the first time I actually noticed it well, and this is just, you know, of course my perspective, but I think the first time that I noticed a sort of different way of presenting race Southern race issues was when I read Steve Yarbrough,’s book, OXYGEN MAN, and then certainly Tom Franklin’s CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER. And you know, and I think writers reflect their times. You know, when William Faulkner was writing about race, it was a completely different approach. And, you know, even TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which is one of the most beloved books in the country for good reason. But when look at it through a 2020 lens, you might read the book just a little bit differently. So yeah, I think we have changed the way we are writing about race. I hope so. Anyway, I think, I think the issue has changed and it’s changed because more people are seeing it through different lenses.
Debbi (09:19): Yeah. I, I agree with you there. It’s, it’s very it’s a little bit disturbing actually to read some of Raymond Chandler’s older stuff, because the way black people are treated or, or discussed in some of those books is really offensive by today’s standards. And yet here’s a writer who endures, you know, but we kind of overlook that part. That was not so cool. That isn’t so cool.
Phillip (09:50): Right. Right. Which I think is a danger unto itself.
Debbi (09:53): It can be, yeah. I mean, it’s just so deeply ingrained.
Phillip (09:59): I think we, we let people off the hook when we say, well, you know, that was a different time and that was a different, you know, attitudes were different. Well, that may be, but the fact is it was wrong, then and it’s wrong now. What has changed over time, I think is our, you know, as a society, has been our awareness you know, at least that’s what I’ve seen. And there are people that would argue that, well, we haven’t changed at all in, you know, 80 years. But I like to think that we have. We’re not perfect yet, but we’ve at least made some progress,
Debbi (10:36): Well, we’re certainly not perfect, but I’d like to think that we’re capable of having an honest discussion about this kind of stuff. And, you know, just trying to establish some kind of way of connecting with each other. I don’t know about you, but yeah. You currently have three books in the Colt Harper series. Do you plan to write more? And if so, how many would you like to write or do you have a plan for a number?
Phillip (11:10): I don’t have a plan for a number. You know, if you asked me what my plan is, my plan is to write until I can’t you know, as long as that is, and yes, I am going to just keep writing, you know, for as long as there are people who are willing to read the books, I’m going to stay with this particular cast of characters, because I like them now. I’ve spent, you know, a good 10, 11 years working with these characters. And I do like writing about them. I’m probably a third of the way through the next Colt Harper manuscript now. And I’m thoroughly enjoying that. That’s a great thing about knowing your characters, you know, when you, when you live in their universe, they’re talking to you more than you’re talking to them, which is pretty fun.
Debbi (12:05): Yeah, I think that’s true. Do you feel like you get to know your main character better as you write each book?
I didn’t sit down and create like this huge entire dossier or, or history of this particular character. I had a general idea of what this person was like. And then the more time you spend with the character, the more you get to know them.
Phillip (12:11): Definitely. Definitely. And I didn’t, I didn’t sit down and create like this huge entire dossier or, or history of this particular character. I had a general idea of what this person was like. And then the more time you spend with the character, the more you get to know them. It’s like, you know, this is the second time you and I have been on a podcast together and we’ve communicated in between. I know you better now than I did two years ago. It’s, it’s sort of like that, but yeah. And sometimes, you know, I have to admit, I get surprised by what I’ll, what I learn about, you know, not just the main character, but some of the other ones.
Debbi (12:57): Yeah, absolutely. Yes. And then just really have to spend time with a character to get to know them. How do you manage your time in terms of writing? Do you still write short stories? I guess I should ask that first.
Yeah. It’s completely out of context and probably not even getting the author right, but I believe it was Mark Twain that said if I had more time, I would write short stories, and that’s kind of how I feel. I used to, you know, five, six years ago, I was, for whatever reason I was sort of in this mode where I was creating short stories and I don’t do it nearly as much. Now I do have one that will appear sometime I think in April in the spring. I do still write them, but just not nearly as often as I was. And a lot of that is, you know, what you referred to there is just the amount of time I have available as much as I would love to be, you know, the full-time writer staring out a window in front of my laptop all day long, and I still have a job that I have to go to every day. And it only allows me so much time to write.
Debbi (14:12): And short stories take a lot more time, I think, than people realize,
Phillip (14:18): Oh yeah, absolutely.
Debbi (14:21): At least, for me.
Phillip (14:21): Me too. I think that’s one of the great myths of, you know, calling it a short story. People just naturally assume that, so this is something you can bang out in 20 minutes and it’s a short story. So it takes a short amount of time. And, you know, that’s far from the truth. I’ve spent weeks trying to write a short story that, you know, turned out to be 15 pages. And it seems like I agonized more writing the short story than I did writing the novel. And I kind of appreciate the big, big canvas of a novel for some reason. Trying to, you know, trying to get that short story canvas down right is, is very difficult sometimes.
I’ve spent weeks trying to write a short story that, you know, turned out to be 15 pages. And it seems like I agonized more writing the short story than I did writing the novel.
Debbi (15:07): It’s like a process of distilling, you know, it takes time to really distill it down to its essence and then end it in a way that will kind of twist and satisfy, if you will.
Phillip (15:23): Yeah. I mean, that’s the thing you’ve got the, you know, you’ve got the same basic structure, but you really have to be very mindful of how efficient your being and, you know, not go off on a big tangent, but one of the most shocking things I’ve ever learned about writing a short story was when I was at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. And one of the seminars I went to was was about, you know, writing the short story and to, to get to the conference, you, you had to submit a piece of fiction and that was generally a short story. Most of the writers, they would submit a short story and the instructor walked into the room and his name was Tom Paine of all things. And he’s a fantastic writer. I got to know him a little bit, even before I got to the conference.
Phillip (16:10): But anyway, we go into the classroom with our, you know, our hot little short stories in our hands. You know, this is all deathless prose we’ve written, this is going to last forever. And we were sitting there at our desk with our short stories and Tom walks in and introduces himself. And he says, okay, I want everybody to take your short story and flip through to page seven of your story. So we all dutifully did that. We got to page seven, he said, okay, take pages one through six and throw it away, just throw it on the floor. And we’re like, Oh my God, this is, this is my, this is my work of art here. And he says, throw it away, throw it on the floor. So we did. And he said, there’s your page one, start there. And it was, you know, it was a real shock.
Phillip (17:00): It’s like, you’ve gotta be kidding, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You haven’t even read the story. What do you know about this? It turns out he was absolutely right. That was my starting point. And it’s a technique, but I’ve learned that if I went back and looked at most of the stuff that I had written up until that point and, and looked at where the story actually began, I had wasted two or three pages. And that’s an awful lot when you’re writing a short story. Two or three pages is miles and miles of real estate in a short story. So that was, that was a really huge learning point for me right there. And I try to remember that every time I write.
Debbi (17:40): Yes. That’s a very important point. You bring up especially beginner writers will just put in too much background, too much set up, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And then you get to the real start, which is in the middle of something. Grab the person’s attention. You want to grab the reader’s attention. So.
Phillip (18:05): Right. And usually on page six or seven that’s where the action starts.
Debbi (18:09): Yep. Yep. Let’s see. So have you ever considered creating another series or writing a standalone?
Phillip (18:20): Probably yes to the second part of that question, writing a standalone. I’ve, I’ve got this idea that I’ve been knocking around for, I don’t know, two or three years, and I just haven’t really been able to sit down and work it all out. That would be sort of a standalone piece that has nothing whatsoever to do with anything that I’ve written before. And I spent a little bit of time thinking, well, maybe, you know, maybe this would be a better screenplay. And then I realized, well, that’s great. I can run a screenplay, but then it would just be the screenplay that I wrote that’s sitting in the corner of my desk. That’s a whole, as you know, that’s a whole different world to get into.
Debbi (19:03): It sure is.
Phillip (19:03): As far as starting another series probably not, not at this point. I haven’t really thought about doing that. You know, I, I wrote two novels a long time ago. They weren’t very good but they had a cast of characters. And in both of those novels, as a matter of fact, one of the characters from, from those two novels kind of jumped universes, if you will, to the Colt Harper series.
Debbi (19:33): Okay. Well I have to ask you about the Veterans Writing Project since I’m, I’m working on a series involving a female Marine veteran. Tell me a little bit about the Veterans Writing Project. How did you get involved in that and what is your involvement?
About The Veterans Writing Project: I think it’s a fantastic outlet for any vet that you know, is looking for a way to express themselves as a writer or wants to get published as a writer. It was a unique venue at the time.
Phillip (19:54): I’ve not been very involved in a couple of years with them. I’m going to say maybe seven or eight years ago is when I first heard of them. And I was doing, I was doing some research about veterans and writers online one day and came across this brand new group of people that were putting together you know, an online group for veterans. And you, you know, you think about it, it might’ve been a little bit earlier than seven or further back than seven or eight years. Because as I said that, what, what made me remember is, you know, at the time that I was, I discovered these guys was pretty much right in the middle of the Iraq war, you know, had, we had a lot of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we had had a lot more troops who had already come home.
Phillip (20:53): So there were a lot of veterans out there who were looking for artistic ways to express themselves, whether it was writing or you know, art, comedy, you know, what have you, but I’d found this group. And I recognized a couple of the names that were listed on the website. So I contacted them and just sort of said, you know, what are y’all doing? What is this all about? And they were accepting manuscripts from veteran writers about, and it didn’t have to be about their, their military experience, but it, you know, that was preferred. And it just so happened that I had already written a story and it was you know, at the time it was a, I don’t know, 20 or so page story that I’d been working on for six or seven months. And it still really didn’t, didn’t like it exactly where it was, but I kept, I kept talking with them and then eventually I submitted it and they had not even put out an issue at the time.
Phillip (21:59): They were still gathering their editorial staff. There were still gathering their writers, but they were taking submissions and I submitted this story. And and I was lucky enough to have it accepted for the inaugural issue. That Zero-Dark-Thirty is the the journal, the literary journal that they’ve put out. And, you know, since then they have, they have given voice to just a huge number of veterans. And I think it’s a fantastic outlet for any vet that you know, is looking for a way to express themselves as a writer or wants to get published as a writer. It was a unique venue at the time. There have been some since then, but I think they were one of the very first people to, to, you know, develop this outlet for veterans, because they have so much to say. And sometimes it’s very difficult to find that avenue to do that.
Debbi (22:59): And I would think it’s a great way of expressing some of the issues of being a veteran and being involved in a war such as the Iraq war, Afghanistan war, and so on. What authors have most inspired your work?
Phillip (23:20): I’m sorry.
Debbi (23:20): What authors have most inspired your work?
Phillip (23:24): Flannery O’Connor is always at the top or near the top of the list. Just reading all of her, reading the way that she approaches or approached rather the craft of writing. You know, her comments on grace and violence is always been something that just really fascinated me. These weird characters that she would create, you know, and they’re just everywhere. And I was always fascinated by it. I probably have read WISE BLOOD four times and find something new in it every time I read it The other author would be Larry Brown. He was from North Mississippi. And when I read Larry Brown it, and we use the word literally too much in today’s language, but it literally changed my whole approach to writing, you know And this is 20 years ago, I guess, but I picked up a novel, one of Larry Brown’s novels. It was either FAY or JOE. I’m not sure which. It was probably JOE. And, you know, I’d read, Faulkner, I’d read James Dickey, I’d read every Southern author that there was. And then I read this, this Larry Brown guy whom I’d never heard of, but he had grown up near Oxford where Ole Miss is, where I’d gone to college. And he wrote about, you know, rural people, people we know generally stereotypically as rednecks in a way that I had never seen anybody write about them before. And he, he did it in a way that was so authentic, but he never did it in a way that left them without their dignity. And it just grabbed me by the throat. And I said, I’ve been doing this wrong. I’ve been completely doing everything that I’ve been doing wrong, and that completely changed my approach. And that’s how I began to write in a way that I was able to put together, you know, these three books that are based in Mississippi and, you know, and have a cast of characters that I hope anyway are authentic and real.
Debbi (25:40): That’s great. Have you ever read TOMATO RED?
Phillip (25:44): I’ve not. Should I?
Debbi (25:45): Uh yeah, I would suggest reading it because you talk about rural crime and so forth. I read this a while ago and I can’t remember the author’s name [FYI, the author is Daniel Woodrell] and I feel really bad about that, but it was recommended by Reed Farrel Coleman, TOMATO RED, and I read it and I was just kind of like, whoa, this is really good. And it’s definitely country folk. It’s, you know, redneck, if you will, all that kind of stuff. I mean, give it a try. I just remember loving it when I read it years and years ago.
Phillip (26:18): I will do that then.
Debbi (26:20): Okay. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we finish up?
Phillip (26:27): No, I don’t think so. I guess I, one other writer and he’s a working writer right now today and I just feel like if nothing else, I just want to mention him, if maybe if he you know, hears this podcast, it’ll give him a smile, one of the best writers of this rural noir, whatever you want to call it. Redneck noir. Charles Dodd White, he writes the most fantastic sentences I have ever read in my life. I met him a few years ago in North Carolina and he’s just, just an incredible writer. And he writes about country folk, Appalachian. He’s from Appalachia a veteran, Marine Corps, and he just, he’s an exquisite writer. And if I could write like that It’d be a much better. I’d be a much better person. So Charles, if you’re listening hope you appreciate that.
Debbi (27:30): Well, all I can say is I know how you feel. I mean, many times I’ll think if I could only write more, like so-and-so, I’d feel a lot better about myself, but thank you so much for being here, Phillip. I really appreciate you being on and spending time with us today.
Well, I appreciate the invite. Believe me. It’s good to, it’s good to spend a few minutes talking to you.
Debbi (27:55): Thank you. And thank you so much for being here again. And as promised, there is a special offer coming up on Patreon on January 13th, and it will start along with perks that you usually get as a patron, you get to suggest a question to ask the guests on the show. In effect, you’ll become like an assistant programmer, at least for one show. Make sure that your question is neither weird nor inappropriate, please. Thank you. I get to judge these things, so but check out the Patreon page for more details on that. And again, thanks for listening to the first show of 2021, and let’s hope for the best for the coming year. As Phillip has said previously, it’s a low bar. Our next guest will be Cathi Stoler. Take care and happy reading.