Today, the Dames are pleased to welcome multi-genre author, Phillip Depoy. Tell us about your latest book, DECEMBER’S THORN.
DECEMBER’S THORN is the 8th novel in the Fever Devilin series. In this particular one Fever is awakened late at night toward the end of December by a woman claiming to be his wife, though he’s never been married and, in fact, has a very lovely fiancé. There ensues, as they say, a fairly bizarre story filled, as are all the Fever Devilin books, with folklore and traditional stories. This one is quite related to the Tristan mythology from Wales. The Tristan stories, with King Mark and Iseult, predate the Arthurian romances, and are, as it turns out, the basis for the Guinevere, Lancelot, and Arthur love triangle. Which gives us a bit of a hint as to the storyline for DECEMBER’S THORN. Complicating the issue is the fact that none of Fever’s friends believe that the mysterious “ghost wife” exists anywhere outside of Fever’s troubled, hallucinatory imagination.
Wow, that sounds intriguing. I’m definitely going to have to check out your series. Can you share a little bit about what you’re working on now or what’s coming next?
I’m working on several things, actually. I’m about half-way through the next Fever Devilin (tentatively called MURDER’S HARP). I’m working on a thriller concerning ancient documents. A non-fiction book called FAMOUS UNKNOWN is in the works. And as a playwright, I’ve got a twisted Appalachian version of OEDIPUS set during the Depression scheduled soon, and a theatrical version of the aforementioned TRISTAN AND ISEULT mythology.
Lots of irons in your fire and all of them, like your aforementioned December’s Thorn, sound intriguing. When you’re writing, who’s in control, you or the characters?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure anyone’s in control. It’s chaos in here. But having been involved in the so-called professional theatre world for 40 years, I do have a fairly easy time assuming characters and letting those people work themselves out, especially in dialog. They have lives of their own, I just watch. I mean, when the writing is at its best, I don’t have the feeling I’m writing at all. I have the sensation that I’m—I don’t know—just taking dictation. No idea where it comes from.
Oh, I love it when I get in the zone like that and hardly notice what I’m typing, much less where it’s coming from. Who are your favorite authors, the ones you read when you should be doing something else? Why do they appeal to you?
I don’t read as much fiction as I used to, because if it’s really good I find myself wanting to imitate it, and if it’s not very good, I find myself irritated by it. Either way its distracting. But I like John Fowles a lot. Of course I liked THE MAGUS and THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN, but recently I finally read one that I didn’t like when I was younger and now believe to be one of his greatest works, a book with the unappetizing title A MAGGOT. In the non-fiction arena, I’ve been enjoying John Macintyre’s books, AGENT ZIG ZAG and OPERATION MINCEMEAT. I also read poetry. I’m still amazed by Emily Dickenson, and I saw Richard Wilbur read live four or five years ago and I still can’t over his poetry.
Emily Dickenson was the first poet I remember reading and loving back when I was in junior high school and first beginning to develop a love for poetry. How long have you been writing?
I started writing in the late spring of 1965 and I’ve written something every day since then. Seriously, every day. I mean, you’d think I’d be better than I am by now, after all that. My 10th grade English teacher, Marilyn May, encouraged me to write more after a fiction exercise in her class. There are only three things in the world I like doing better than sitting and writing.
Every day? Wow, I wish I had your drive! What are major themes or motifs in your work? Do your readers ever surprise you by seeing something else in your stories than you think you wrote?
In the Fever Devilin series, traditional literature, folklore, and mythology are very important. I was a folklore minor in undergraduate school had the fantastic opportunity of doing field research in Appalachia as part of my course of study. I collected songs and jokes and stories on tape. I documented, on video, a traditional chair maker, the last of his kind in the state, as it turned out. I made a lot of friends and have continued to use that material over the years. Because of that I sometimes get really great notes from readers who’re fans of Joseph Campbell (whom I met in 1979 in Atlanta). I’m also interested in Taoist thought, and occasionally people who understand those philosophies better than I do send me really interesting commentary.
Having grown up in east Tennessee and now living in western North Carolina, I can tell you this area is rich in folklore, be it from the mountain people or from the Cherokee. If you could talk for thirty minutes with any author (or person), living or dead, who would it be?
I would talk with Jorge Luis Borges—and a really good translator, because while my Spanish is fair, I’d really want to understand everything. It’s actually a travesty that he was never awarded the Nobel Prize. I have long believed him to be the greatest writer of the 20th Century. I would like to discuss the nature of Time, the concept of the Aleph, and hear any story he wanted to tell me.
I generally write for most of the morning. I have an office in my home; it’s exceedingly eclectic, which is a very much nicer way of saying messy to the point of chaos. I usually have a goal of a number of pages. That number depends on the urgency of a deadline or the project itself—theatre, fiction, or non-fiction. After lunch I usually read and edit. Since I write every day no matter what, the specific circumstances of the day, my so-called life, health, psychology, even sobriety, never enter into the process one way or the other.
Like I said before, I wish I had your drive. Mornings are the worst time for me to try to write—my brain simply refuses to function until around noon!—and unlike you, I often can’t put aside the interruptions life throws my way on some days. Besides “writer,” what else are you; what is your “day job”?
I have, in the past, played in a jazz band, been the composer in residence for a theatre, been the artistic director of another theatre, been the head of several university theatre programs, served as a writer in residence for the Georgia Council for the Arts, and, for a short time when I was very much younger, enjoyed the title of “television writer” for a public television enterprise.
A very eclectic life and a very creative one, too. Any teachers who influenced you…encouraged you or discouraged?
I’ve mentioned Marilyn May, my 10th grade English teacher, she really was the first person to encourage my writing. The Shakespeare scholar at Antioch College, Dr. Milton Goldberg, was very instructive about my poetry in the late 1960s. Dr. John Burrison was my folklore professor, and he introduced me to the writing of Joseph Campbell, as well as the conjunction of Carl Jung and world mythology. And Dr. Charlie Thompson, long after he was my graduate professor in Philosophy of Education, continued to write me little notes when he’d read something of mine that he liked. I’m really glad that I get a chance to mention their names.
Oh, those English teachers, for me it was Mrs. Robbins in 7th grade. Did the classics have any effect on you in your formative years? (Shakespeare? Alice in Wonderland? Gulliver’s Travels?)
I was more influenced by poetry at a younger age: first Robert Frost and Emily Dickenson, then Wallace Stevens and Borges. I liked GREAT EXPECTATIONS when I was in high school, and my mother read LAMB’S TALES FROM SHAKESPEARE to me and my brother when we were in elementary school. I also read Edith Hamilton’s MYTHOLOGY about a million times. Put them all together and they spell, I think, many of the ideas in most of my work.
How wonderful to have such a rich literary background. How do your characters “come” to you? Are they based loosely or closely on people you know?
I have been fortunate to encounter, over the years, such an impossibly surreal array of actual human oddities that I can scarcely take credit for any characters in my books. I actually met the Albino dwarf who is a hit man in one of the Fever Devilin Novels. I know the Shakespeare scholar in those books as well. I’m able to count among my good friends an amalgam of famous singers, well-known actors, carnie folk, junkies, and, worst of all, theatre critics. Seriously, when the Universe presents you with such a human panoply, it would actually be a sin not to use those characters in a book, right?
Thanks for joining us today, Phillip. I enjoyed “talking” with you. Readers, if you’d like to learn more about Phillip and his work, check his website at http://www.phillipdepoy.com.