By Phillip Wilcox “Our Movie Demon”
● For those who aren't yet familiar with you or your work as an author, what compelled you to start writing, when did you know that this was what you wanted to do?
I’ve always written for fun in some form or another, but things got focused when I went to school at The University of Texas in Austin. I was pre-med for a year and on the fast track to becoming the worst doctor ever – Well, that wraps up the heart surgery. Anyone seen my watch? – when I saw a project a friend was working on. It looked like a lot of fun and turned out to be for an advertising class. Who knew they even had those?
As luck would have it, UT’s advertising program was considered one of the best in the country at the time. I dropped pre-med and changed my major to advertising and (to the good fortune of my future patients) never looked back. A couple of years later, a few New York agencies sent some people down to Austin to scout minimum wage talent and I was offered a job as a junior copywriter at a place called DMB&B. I came to Manhattan thinking Aww shucks, I’m just going to get some big city experience and then go back to Texas like a boss. About thirty seconds after arriving here I realized I am never leaving this miraculous wonderland. So I stuck around and discovered that not only did I like working in advertising very much (despite what Formerly Fingerman might lead you to believe) but also that I was what we in the business refer to as “not terrible” at it. Advertising turned out to be an amazing place to really learn how to write. Thanks to the ridiculous timelines and even more ridiculously abusive bosses I quickly figured out how to fight through any block and get to writing. Turns out the secret is If you don’t you’ll lose your apartment.
While all that was going on, I was also doing some stand up comedy on the side. Stand up lead to an improv troupe which lead to sketch comedy which lead to selling a TV show to NBC (you never saw it because it never ran). It seems that copywriting skills can translate to other mediums. I quit advertising and jumped into entertainment full-time. And, yes, I even moved to LA to fully round out the stereotype. In a few years, I had made millions of dollars and won a closet full of Oscars so-Oop, no, wait. That didn’t happen. I did make a couple of movies, but somehow the money and Academy awards got left out of the picture.
Movies and TV are good fun but they involve a tremendous amount of collaboration and, inevitably, compromise. I found myself wanting to do something creatively pure and undeniably mine. So I started writing a novel (what eventually became Formerly Fingerman). I had no idea what I was doing but started writing anyway. A few thousand words in, I was hooked. I decided I would finish the book and, if nothing else, I would self-publish a copy and put it on my living room shelf for those special nights when I’d had just enough scotch to tell visitors (or my wife, for the zillionth time) Look what I did! And for years, that's exactly how it worked out. A lulu.com version of Fingerman in the bookcase. Tipsy author smiling smugly by the mantel. Wife rolling her eyes. Ta-da!
That’s the long version. The short version is that some time just before I turned 40 I thought to myself Well, you’re going to be dead soon. So if you’re ever going to write a book, now would be a pretty good time to do it. So I did it.
● What do you love most/least about writing?
What I like most about writing that it offers control, accomplishment, and connection. I say control because my books are all mine. Every clever sentence. Every dumb metaphor. Every single letter. I live or die by the choices I make. For better or worse, what ends up on the page is one hundred percent mine. Please see above regarding my views on the joy of collaboration.
Accomplishment is in there because when I write books I actually get something done. After spending a career in advertising and entertainment, I can safely say that ninety-nine percent of the work I’ve generated has been thrown away. Tossed. Gone. Forgotten. Some deservedly so. Some I’m still proud of. That’s the business. But telling the story I want to tell and seeing it come to life in a book is sooooo satisfying.
I mention connection because I pour so much of myself into each book. When The Last Time I Died came out, I heard from several friends and even some strangers who identified heavily with Christian Franco and his deep, dark struggles. It’s a profound moment each and every time someone pulls me aside and said I’ve been there. I get it.
● How does one go about getting published?
*sigh* All I can tell you is be patient. It took me two years and one hundred seven query letters to get signed by an agent, and then another three years for her to sell the book. Write a great book. Craft a great query letter. Keep going. Be patient. I wish there was more to it, but if there is, I don’t know it.
● For you, what are some ups and downs of writing books?
The worst part for me is working in a vacuum. I try to do something different with each book and it’s so hard to know if what I’m doing even makes sense. Last Time’s structure was non-traditional and experimental, but it was the only way I could see it. Fingerman was more straightforward, but it was my first book and I hadn’t the slightest idea if I knew what I was doing. And I never show anyone anything until I feel like it’s done done done. So, there’s always that moment in time when you’re letting your inner circle read this new thing for the first time and hoping to god that they like it and preparing to squint your eyes just enough to see if they’re lying when they tell you they do.
Also, one of the hardest things for me is scraping enough literary meat off the story bone. I spent twenty years trying to get huge concepts across to a mass audience in seven words or less. With that much muscle memory, I tend to find myself at the end of the first page of a novel about to type The End and think “Umm, I think there might be more to say here.”
● In your personal experience, what are some lessons that you took away after each book you've written?
It’s always funny to me to look back on what I’ve written with the benefit of time and perspective and realize what I was really trying to say with each book. Last Time was sort of a howl of self-pity that was desperate to get out any way it could. Fingerman’s wordy, almost stream of consciousness account of the cowardly scrabbling of an anxious ad guy turned out to be a bit of an apology for a career that probably should have been more impressive. I think the lesson for me is to be as open and honest as I can. Except when I’m making stuff up. Then I lie a lot.
● What was the inspiration for your first novel The Last Time I Died, where did that story come from?
The basic idea of discovering repressed memories while watching your life flash in front of your eyes as you die just popped into my head one day. Sort of an interesting byproduct of some random daydreaming. That was the easy part. The inspiration for Christian Franco and his broken soul came from the dark period of my life in which Last Time was written. Among other things, I was unemployed for two years (yay advertising!) and kind of spiraled downward into a dark hole of my own making. Christian was born out my own self-pity/resentment and a lot of what he felt came straight from my own inner thoughts at the time. It helped to put them on paper and I used those feelings to shape the story. I suppose “inspiration” might not be the right word for it. Pressure relief? Cry for help? Either way, half of the book is true. I just won’t tell you which half.
PS, things are way better now. I may currently be working on a book about a guy who wins Lotto the same day his male pattern baldness reverses itself. Keep your fingers crossed.
● Where do you personally draw inspiration from as a literary artist?
Everywhere. I’m ridiculously curious, a voracious reader, and utterly fascinated by the inner workings of humans. I love to fill my head with as much as I can from as many different sources as possible, let it sit in my head for a while, mash it up with my own past experience, and then spit it out in whatever form makes the most sense.
● Are you a big movie fan? If so, what are some of your favorite Dark Comedies over time?
I’m a huge movie fan. And I love dark comedies. I’m fascinated with the dark side of human behavior and our reaction to it. It’s often the most truthful story to tell and the most fun to watch because it puts us, as an audience, in such an uncomfortable position. My favorites are movies like Fargo, Shaun of the Dead, and Pulp Fiction, but I’d have to say I think the smartest dark comedy I’ve seen in a long while isIdiocracy. God bless Mike Judge for making it.
● Lastly, if there is a key piece of wisdom, motto or philosophy you've held onto through this whole journey of being a writer that you could share with all those budding, aspiring future writers out there, what would it be?
Write everyday. Rewrite until your bulletproof. And if someone says you’re no good, tell them to go fuck themselves where it hurts most.