Author Debbi Mack interviews crime fiction author Phillip Thompson on the Crime Cafe podcast.
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Debbi: Hello everyone. This is the Crime Cafe, your podcasting source of great crime, suspense, and thriller writing. I’m your host, Debbi Mack and before I bring on my guest, may I remind you—like you have a choice—that The Crime Cafe 9 Book Set and Crime Cafe Short Story Anthology are available for sale on Amazon, Barnes & Nobel, Kobo, Apple, etc. You can find the buy links on my website, debbimack.com and also we have a Patreon campaign. If you make a $5 monthly donation, you will get access to a lot of really great content; short stories and, for an addition $5 per month, get a free copy of our Crime Cafe 9 Book Set. That’s nine novels for free. So, consider it please and you’ll get our endless gratitude as well. Okay, having said that, it’s my pleasure to introduce my guest, a Mississippi native, a Marine, a journalist and speech writer, as well as the author of four novels, Phillip Thompson. Hi Phillip, it’s great to have you on. Thanks for being here.
Phillip: Hi, Debbi. Thanks for inviting me.
Debbi: Sure thing! There is so much I could ask you, because you’ve done so many fascinating things, but let’s talk about your crime writing.
Debbi: Your first novel was, Enemy Within. Tell us about the story and that protagonist.
Phillip: Sure. That novel seems completely old now. I wrote it in the late 90’s and the protagonist is an ATF Agent named Wade Stuart, who’s investigating a white militia who is plotting to overthrow the governor of the state of Mississippi and also has a gun smuggling operation going. And Stuart who is investigating this kind of runs into a moral dilemma, but he starts to challenge his own thinking about the government that he works for, the government that he served and how that clashes with individual freedoms. And when I wrote it at the time, it was precipitated by something, an incident that I ran across on active duty and it made me start to think about, you know, what would really happen if Americans were confronted with individual freedoms, especially with gun rights? And this goes back, you know, 20 years. Back then it sort of seemed implausible if you will, but 20 years later it seems a little bit more relevant now than it did even back then.
Debbi: Yes, absolutely. It seems like a very timely issue.
Phillip: I thought it was then. It wasn’t so much then, but I think, you know years later…
Debbi: You were ahead of your time [laughs].
Phillip: Apparently it was, yeah.
Debbi: Well, I think that’s a very intriguing premise and I actually bought a copy of the story.
Phillip: Oh, okay.
Debbi: So, I’m looking forward to reading it.
Debbi: Definitely. On your blog you mention you’ve tried to turn it into a screenplay, or did you turn it into a screenplay?
Phillip: Well, I have a draft. I’m not necessarily a screenwriter. I did teach myself how to write screenplays a few years ago and I had this grand idea, oh, I’ll just turn my first novel into a screenplay, which is a lot, lot harder than it sounds. It’s a completely different form; screenwriting is. You’ve got 120 pages and you have to…there are rules that you need to comply with. So, I have a draft, but it’s very rough, and I don’t think it’s quite ready for prime time yet.
Debbi: My sympathies are with you. I know what it’s like to try to adapt one’s own novel because I’ve done it.
Phillip: Right, you’re a screenwriter yourself.
Debbi: It’s very, very tough, and I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it actually. The person who asked me, the producer said, I think you can. Go right ahead and I’m like okay [laughs]. It’s tough, it’s really, really tough. Now you have a second book with that protagonist. Tell us a little about that. The ATF agent left the agency and goes to Oahu?
Phillip: Yes, that’s the set-up of the story. The way the first novel ended, he had resigned from the ATF and just decided to go to Hawaii and get away from his former life and just sort of take some time off and got a job, well, sort of a job freelancing for the newspaper there on Oahu. And in the process of that, he comes across yet another homegrown domestic terrorist problem which that novel concerned itself with: the Hawaiian sovereignty movement that has been going on out in Hawaii.
Now, let me be very clear here, it was fiction, it was a novel. Nobody on Oahu, as far as I know, is contemplating that kind of thing, but I took the idea of, you know, the Hawaiian sovereignty movement as compared to the [whole of the] United States of America. I used to live in Hawaii. I was there for four years. When I lived there, I couldn’t help but be absorbed by the culture, studied it and came to realize that, hey, there is an issue here with the way that Hawaii became a state, and most of us today don’t even remember or don’t realize how that happened.
You know, Hawaii was a separate governing kingdom at one point and then it was annexed by the United States through a series of political and cultural events that happened and there’s still a lot of resentment, you know, within the Hawaiian culture toward the United States. So, I took all that and said, okay, what would happen if somebody was murdered aboard a Marine Corp base? You know, a United States federal property and then you take that and you throw in the politics of a sovereignty movement, you know, and then what happens?
You know, during the process of investigating this murder and trying to find out what happened, Wade finds himself, being a former Marine himself, being a man who believes in justice for all people, all these different moralities start to clash for him, and he’s aided in his investigation by a woman, an ATF agent, who’s sent from D.C. to basically clamp him down. They realize that we’ve got this former agent out there who caused us problems before and now he’s doing it again. So they send a hot shot out to Hawaii to kind of keep an eye on him, and she’s starts to see his point of view, as well.
And, in the end, they stop the plot and that book, I actually self-published that book because I had written it and I was working with an agent in New York and she liked it and we were working back and forth with it, but then September the 11th happened and there’s a scene in that book, it’s called A Simple Murder, there is a scene in that book that after September the 11th, you know she and I both agreed, nobody wants to read this, nobody wants to touch it. So, I just laid the book down for about six years, and I didn’t do anything with it. Eventually, I published it myself. But that book to me is important, because that was the last book that I wrote with Wade Stuart as a protagonist, but it was the first one with Molly McDonough who ends up kind of jumping universes into my last two novels.
Debbi: Yes, yes. Wow, you really have me intrigued. I’ve got to read all these books now [laughs].
Phillip: And tell all your friends.
Debbi: Oh, definitely. I mean your work sounds fascinating. All this stuff with jurisdictional issues and sovereignty, that kind of resonates with me as a lawyer, not to mention as a crime writer.
Phillip: Right, right.
Debbi: Yeah. That kind of stuff really is intriguing. So, one of your characters in that book has been transponded over into the series with Colt Harper?
Debbi: Does she appear in the first book in that series?
Phillip: No, she doesn’t. She shows up in the second one and the one that I’m writing now. I have these characters, as you know, they stay in your head a long time, and I wrote the first Colt Harper novel, Deep Blood, and I wanted a new universe because I’d started out writing 20 to 25 years ago thinking that, oh, I can write these kind of, you know, male thriller type novels that guys like, and I was able to write them.
But the whole time I was, it didn’t quite resonate exactly the way I wanted it to, and I took some time off from writing and went into creative writing class down here at a community college to learn to craft a little bit more to just sort of, okay just to stop trying to create this stuff and let’s learn some craft and hone that craft.
And what I did, one of the authors that I was reading at the time was Larry Brown, who’s a native Mississippian and just an unbelievable writer, or he was anyway. Unfortunately, he’s passed, and reading his work fundamentally changed the way I approach writing. So I said, I want to write this kind of Southern fiction, but I like crime, so I am always going to be a crime writer. So, I went back to that.
So the first Colt Harper novel was Deep Blood, which is a character study as much as it is a crime fiction novel, you know the publisher kind of called it “redneck noir” when he read it and I kind of liked that phrase and kind of stuck with it. That’s kind of the way I see my writing. But the first one was Deep Blood and that’s where I introduced Colt Harper and a new cast of characters that just would not leave me alone. So I wrote the second one, which is, Outside the Law, that’s the one that’s out now. That one was published by Brash Books.
Debbi: Just out of curiosity you mentioned redneck noir, have you ever read Daniel Woodrell?
Phillip: I know the name and I’ve seen his books, but I’ve not picked him up yet.
Debbi: You should. Tomato Red is the one I’ve read by him and I really loved it and I think it definitely qualifies. I think you’d enjoy it.
Debbi: Joe Lansdale?
Phillip: Yeah, yeah. I’ve read some of his.
Debbi: I love his work.
Phillip: Yeah, very good and kind of right in those lanes of what I try to do. You know, keep it local and keep it, you know, gritty. Grant Jerkins is another one that does a great job with that. Tom Franklin’s got a couple of books that I would put in that category. Steve Yarbrough, when I read, Oxygen Man by Steve Yarbrough I thought that was just brilliant because it was very local. There were probably three or four characters and it was gritty and it was real. The characters were all real, but they didn’t lose, you know, none of them lost their dignity. They were hard scrap people but they didn’t come across as a stereotype.
Debbi: Yeah. Do you like William Faulkner, speaking of Southern writers?
Phillip: Well, this is the part where I have to say because I’m from Mississippi, of course, so I like William Faulkner. I’ve read a lot of his stuff, but it’s very difficult for me to sit down and read a Faulkner novel. I’ve always loved reading his short stories and learned a lot from reading that.
That was kind of, William Faulkner was kind of thrown at me when I went to the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference and I took a short story that eventually became the novel, Deep Blood, but as I was getting critiqued at Breadloaf, one of my instructors just happened to be Tom Franklin, who was at the time was the writer in residence at Ole Miss and so I go all the way to Vermont thinking I’m going to be unique with this Southern story and I get the Southern story writer. I kind of, you know, you’ve got to be kidding me. Really, I can’t get one break here.
But he suggested, you know, you ought to take this short story and then go back and read William Faulkner, and I’m like seriously, do I have to read William Faulkner? But, yeah, I can’t say that I’m terribly influenced by his writing because it’s so damn difficult, but, yeah, I do enjoy his short stories.
Debbi: [agrees], yeah I think short stories…anybody who can write short stories amaze me. I mean I’ve done a few and I’m always amazed when I manage to pull it off [laughs].
Phillip: Yeah, I would honestly rather sit down and write a novel.
Debbi: You have more room.
Phillip: If he had more time he’d write short stories, which is kind of how I feel about it.
Debbi: Exactly! Exactly right. Let’s see, where do you picture going with your current series? Do you see that going to a third or fourth book?
Phillip: I’m currently writing the third. I’m almost finished with the first edit of it. So, yeah, when I finished Outside the Law, I kind of left it open-ended intentionally. Not because necessarily I knew I was going to write another one, the third one. But I left it open-ended because I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen with the characters when I took my hands off the keyboard and said, okay that one’s done, I just want to take a step back and see if Colt and John and Rhonda and everybody else leave me alone or they come back and say, I’ve got some more stuff to talk about. Turns out they did, so I’m writing that one now. But, yeah, I’m not done with the characters yet. I kind of like putting these guys in situations and then seeing what happens to them and see how they react to it. So I think I’ve still got a few more things to say with them.
Debbi: That’s excellent because it’s definitely…I like the book a lot. I’m reading your second now and enjoying it very much.
Debbi: Where do you see Molly going, just out of curiosity, because she’s such an interesting character [laughs].
Phillip: Everybody always asks about Molly. Well, she shows up, I don’t want to give too much away, but she does come back in the one that I’m writing now. The working title is, Dangerous Conceits, I don’t know if that will survive the editing process, but that’s the working title. And yeah, she comes back and she has been kind of interesting to me. It’s very hard for me to write a female character; kind of hard to get into a female’s head for me obviously.
But, I’ve enjoyed, you know, putting Molly into a situation and seeing what happens to her. I didn’t want to…you know right now I think anyway that there’s a trend especially on TV and the movies to have either a female protagonist with a gun or a female sidekick. Probably goes back as far as The X-Files with Mulder and Scully, but you watch Longmire and he’s got a female deputy, and you watch Broadchurch, the great BBC series; it’s a man and a woman and a lot of the shows are a man and a woman. But I wanted Molly to have her own identity and I hope I’ve done that. I didn’t want her to be restricted to somebody else’s identity.
Debbi: Okay, well I’m glad to hear that you’re looking to create a strong, independent woman and one who is actually a person as opposed to just kind of an addition.
Debbi: To the protagonist’s life.
Phillip: Right, more than a sidekick.
Debbi: More than a sidekick, exactly. And that’s what they’re looking for these days. I mean in terms of motion pictures anyway and television. But it never hurts in books either. You’ve also written a book called, Into the Storm. That was based on your experience as a soldier.
Phillip: As a Marine, yes.
Debbi: As a Marine.
Phillip: A non-fiction book that I wrote probably within a couple years after coming back from Desert Storm.
Debbi: And was it entirely based on your journals?
Phillip: Yeah, it was. Of course, I kept a journal in college for a few years and while I was in the Marine Corp. And I’d stopped because I was at school for almost a year in Oklahoma when we found out that we were going to deploy to Saudi Arabia, though, I grabbed a notebook and started scribbling down notes, and I ended up keeping that with me in my cargo pocket the whole eight months I was gone. I just took notes every day and a lot of times it was just to vent some anger or just to kind of keep up with stuff so that I could remember whenever I looked back at it again and when I got home. I had three notebooks full of notes and maps that I had drawn, you know, all kinds of stuff that you keep up with when you have a lot of time sitting around with nothing to do but write.
And, at the time, I noticed that there were a lot of coffee table books out about the war. Big pictures and airplanes and bombs and things like that … that nobody had written anything that accounted for just the individual guy on the ground. So it wasn’t a complete replication of my journals. I took selected entries and I put some context behind them, so you’d read the entry and then you’d read the context behind it and put that all together. And Farland and Company down in North Carolina decided to publish it.
Debbi: Well, that’s fantastic and I absolutely have to read it, because stuff like that really intrigues me, and I think really everybody should read things like that to get an understanding of what it’s like to actually go through those kinds of experiences.
Phillip: Right, and that was the only really … I wrote it because, of course, I obviously missed it all because I was there, but when I came home, I’d seen that most people thought they’d knew everything about it, they’d seen everything about it because it was all on CNN, which still was a relatively new way to get your news on a 24-hour news cycle back in 1990. And I kept running into people saying, yeah, yeah, yeah, we saw that on TV. Well, you saw what the media showed you and the media showed you what the military let them, and underneath all that there were these individual stories of guys who were just trying to get through another day out there in the desert.
Debbi: Yes, yes. The story that you don’t see on the news.
Phillip: Right, exactly.
Debbi: The personal story.
Debbi: And that’s very important. I think that’s about it then. Is there anything you’d like to add before we wrap up?
Phillip: No, not really. I always love to get a chance to talk with another writer about writing, so I appreciate the chance to come on the podcast.
Debbi: Same here.
Phillip: Keep reading, keep writing.
Debbi: Well, thank you! You do the same.
Phillip: Thank you. Will do.
Debbi: Awesome! Well, it was great having you on, and I’m so happy you could be here. And to all my listeners, I’d just like to say thank you for listening and check out the Crime Cafe publications on my website, debbimack.com and consider supporting the Patreon campaign where you can get access to all sorts of new, free content. And with that, I will simply say, thanks again and talk to you in two weeks.
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