Today we sit down with author Phillip T. Stephens to learn about him and his work. Please enjoy this interview.
DM: What is the title and genre of the book you want to tell us about?
PTS: Seeing Jesus. It’s in the young adult genre, but I will be releasing an extended adult version of the book this summer.
DM: Can you summarize your book in one sentence?
PTS: Bullied by classmates and dismissed by adults, a teen girl befriends a homeless man no one else can see.
I also use the line: “How can Sara save the Christmas play and her father’s career with it?”
DM: Who is your intended audience and why should they read your book?
PTS: Bright readers who don’t fit in and parents who don’t understand why their kids won’t get with the agenda.
DM: How did you come up with the title?
PTS: An agent and I were discussing my interest in the way embedded metaphors in language influence belief and she suggested I write something similar to Gaarder’s Sophie’s World. I liked the idea but I didn’t want to write another book that just introduced readers to philosophers’ thoughts like a classroom exercise. I wanted them to see different ideas at work without worrying about who originated the idea or what its formal name might be. So I introduced my character, Sara, to Mister Fisher, a homeless man no one else believes exists. Somewhere in my thinking Mr. Fisher became a metaphor for Jesus. No one else believes in him so readers must decide whether or not he’s real.
DM: Tell me about your cover art. Who designed it? Why did you go with that particular image/artwork?
PTS: Usually I design my own cover art. I did a lot of design work to supplement my income as an adjunct community college teacher. But I asked my sister in law Peggy Cook to paint this cover and she already had a painting that fit perfectly.
DM: Who are your biggest writing influences?
PTS: Walker Percy probably influenced my writing more than any other writer, and Pynchon after him. I also recognize the influence of Flannery O’Connor and Doris Lessing.
As to Seeing Jesus, I was raised a Baptist Preacher’s Kid and I spent five years teaching experimental multi-course modules in a Charter School using multimedia and the web as a method for students to demonstrate their mastery of the materials. I witnessed first hand the kinds of disrespect and bullying exceptional students experience at the hand of parents, teachers and school administrators. (It happens in college too, but at a different level). I was also heavily influenced by my religious upbringing as well as philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Derrida and the American George Lakoff (who I do mention in the adult version’s appendices).
DM: Who is your favorite character from your book and why?
PTS: It’s hard not to bond with your heroine, since you bleed for her everyday you write. But I’m particularly fond of Delbert Thrash who I modeled after a kid I went to school with in fifth grade. My Delbert isn’t nearly as foul mouthed as the real Delbert, but both delighted in shocking kids and introducing them to disturbing topics years ahead of the maturity curve.
DM: How about your least favorite character? What makes them less appealing to you?
PTS: Mrs. Storm, the school principal. It would be hard not to dislike her since I wrote her to be dislikable. In one theory of writing you give every character redeeming characters, but she was a thematic plot device who appears in a handful of scenes. There’s a point at which you realize the rules are made as guidelines, and some guidelines you know when it’s time to move on. Mrs. Storm was one of those characters who, when I looked at the people I based her on, even though I knew their redeeming qualities, it didn’t let them off the hook. They were still truly awful people in the circumstances which I knew them.
DM: If you could change ONE thing about your novel, what would it be? Why?
PTS: I could always change things about my novels, but I typically work through five or six drafts before I even work with proofreaders. My editor did a good job too, so for now, I’m happy. I may look back in a year or two and say, “why didn’t I do that?” The beauty of being my own publisher is that I can.
DM: Can you give us a fun fact about your book?
PTS:The story builds up to Christmas climax with a Christmas pageant that could be catastrophic. This makes it the perfect Christmas book or gift.
All my books are written with a sense of humor.
DM: What other books are similar to your own? What makes them alike?
PTS: Jost Gaader’s Sophie’s World, a book about a mysterious man who writes a series of letters to a young girl, introducing her to the world of philosophy.
Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, in which the worst kids in the history of the world take over the church’s Christmas pageant.
DM: Do you have any unique talents or hobbies?
PTS: Writing was my hobby that became my passion. I used to walk several miles a day but that caused severe osteo arthritis so I can’t do that anymore. I love to write Twitter short stories and gags with that I accompany by making twisted digital memes.
DM: How can we find out more about you and your books?
Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B0091XK7HS
My blog “Wind Eggs” at www.ptstephens.com
www.gdimonday.com which is my promotional site for my novel Raising Hell
You can buy my books in paperback at:
Raising Hell: https://www.createspace.com/5646464
Cigerets, Guns & Beer: https://www.createspace.com/5372114
Seeing Jesus: https://www.createspace.com/5898812
The Worst Noel: https://www.createspace.com/5925566
DM: What can we expect from you in the future?
PTS: On March 21 I launched my Twitter Novel Doublemint Gumshoe which will be told 140 characters at a time. I don’t think anyone’s tried it before. @stephens_pt #TweetNovel
DM: What can readers who enjoy your book do to help make it successful?
PTS: Buy copies for your friends, tweet and share these links on Facebook:
But most important, review the book on Amazon and Goodreads. Make sure other readers know it’s being read.
DM: Do you have any advice for other writers trying to get published?
PTS: Write because you love it. Only write to make money if you’re one of those people with a business mind who can follow formulas well and have money to promote yourself.
Read and read writers outside your comfort zone. Read writers who write better than you. Want to know why people still read Hemingway, Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor? Or Austen, Eliot, or Joyce? Read their books and try to learn what they do well.
DM: Can you give us an excerpt from your book?
The school office and twenty-six-book library (not including encyclopedias) looked onto the school’s two sidewalks like a guard tower. Students believed the principal, Mrs. Storm, saw through walls because nothing escaped her attention.
Whether or not she could see through walls, Mrs. Storm tracked every move Sara made. She glared down her sharp nose like a hawk tracking a helpless mouse. She brushed her razor-cut black hair straight back and only wore gray or navy blouses with her black skirts. Students knew she was coming by the sound of her black horn-rimmed glasses, which dangled at the end of a gold chain and clattered against her American Eagle brooch. She balanced on her toes as though waiting to pounce.
Sara ran into Mrs. Storm by accident on the second day of school. Jana wedged the door shut in the bathroom stall, and the tardy bell rang before Sara freed herself. She slammed full steam into Mrs. Storm, who brushed her spotless skirt and said, “I see you don’t like rules, Miss.…”
“Miss Sara. That’s funny. I don’t think I’ve seen a Miss Sara on the roster.”
“Love, I mean. Miss Love,” Sara stammered.
“Love? Sara? Do you know your name or are you just making one up to keep out of trouble?”
“Sara Love. My name’s Sara Love,” Sara said.
Mrs. Storm crossed her arms and said, “You don’t have a very good attitude, Sara Love. In the time you wasted making excuses, you missed five more minutes of class.”
Sara tried to apologize, but Mrs. Storm said, “Stop stalling. Walk, don’t run, to class immediately. And no more difficulties in the future.”
At the time Sara wondered what would happen if she really did something bad. She pictured a visit to the principal’s office as the worst sort of humiliation, complete with interrogation and blocks of black ink in permanent marker scribbled across her file. She never ran afoul of the school authorities in Austin. With hundreds of students and dozens of social groups, she easily blended into the background.
Sara dragged her feet to avoid her confrontation with the principal as long as possible. She tried to picture a positive outcome, but the image of Mrs. Storm looming over her with fire in her eyes and smoke slowly rising from the neck of her dress pushed any hopeful thoughts aside. Seeing Mrs. Storm in person, with her hair cut and combed back at such sharp angles, and her glasses focusing her eyes like razor lasers, did little to dispel her fears.
Mrs. Storm fortified her battleship-sized gray desk with gray walls, gray filing cabinets and bookshelves filled with thick books in blue and gray covers. Two large diplomas were framed on the wall behind her.
A picture window filled one wall, but the blinds were closed, and the little light in the office poured out from a small lamp perched at the very edge of her desk.
A single poster of a child standing at the bottom of a mountain gazing up to the distant peak accented the wall. The slogan read: “Want to change the world? Change yourself.” The poster made Sara shiver.
“I thought I told you I didn’t want to see you in my office again, Miss Love,” Mrs. Storm said, without looking up from the memo on her desk.
Sara knew better than to point out this was her first visit. “Some of the girls said I stole a wallet,” Sara explained, stressing the word “said.”
“Why did you steal it?” Mrs. Storm demanded. Sara wondered why Mrs. Storm bothered to ask if she intended to focus more attention on her paperwork.
“I didn’t,” Sara protested.
Mrs. Storm finally looked up from her paperwork. “You’re arguing with me?”
“No, ma’am,” Sara insisted.
“So you did steal the wallet.”
Pressing her innocence would get her nowhere. “I’m taking it to the sheriff’s office this afternoon. Right after school. I promise.”
Mrs. Storm’s smile spread from ear to ear. It reminded Sara of the Cheshire Cat illustration in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “At least you admit your guilt.” She thumbed through the wallet’s pockets. “I see you left some of the money.” She laid the wallet on her calendar. “Who’d you steal this from?”
Sara shifted in her seat. It amazed her that a soft chair suddenly felt like hard wood. “A homeless man left it on the bench outside the soda shop. That’s why I’m taking it to the sheriff.”
Mrs. Storm flattened the memos on her desk as though ironing them with the palms of her hand. “Now you’re saying you didn’t steal it? You found it?” Her disapproval floated across the desk and pushed down Sara’s shoulders like the weight of the world.
“Then why’d you lie and say you stole it?”
Sara balled her hands into fists. She wanted to punch something the way her dad punched walls. “I don’t know.”
Mrs. Storm sat back and clasped her hands in front of her as though grasping a trophy. “Sometimes children think they can impress their peers with stories of criminal misadventures.” She leaned forward and locked her gaze with Sara’s. “I hope you realize now that the road to popularity is honesty and not illicit conduct.”
This is so unfair, Sara thought, but she managed to keep from saying it. “Yes, ma’am.”
Mrs. Storm opened Sara’s folder and ran her finger down the first page. “I see your parents managed to enroll you in the eighth grade even though you turned thirteen after the school year began.”
In fact Sara turned thirteen a week before. Her classmates turned fourteen this fall. Her parents enrolled her in first grade a year early because someone decided she “outranked” other kids her age. In kid terms that made her a “doofus.”
Mrs. Storm tapped her pen on the folder as though Sara should see a lesson in its contents. “Clearly, you lack the maturity of your peers. Had I been consulted you would have been held back. But since that bridge is burned, I expect you to grow up quickly because all of my students respect the law and respect each other.”
After that she stared at Sara without speaking for five minutes. Sara followed the hands on the clock behind her desk. As the second hand traversed the clock face Sara sat on her hands, crossed her feet at the ankles, locked her feet behind the chair legs and fought the urge to bite her nails. Finally, Mrs. Storm said Sara could return to class. Just as Sara reached the office door, Mrs. Storm added, “Miss Love.”
Sara turned and said, “Yes, ma’am?”
Mrs. Storm’s voice dropped very low, like a shovel dragging in gravel. “That’s two strikes.”
Sara wondered what exactly “two strikes” meant, but she doubted she wanted to find out.
About Phillip T. Stephens:
Phillip T. Stephens’ parents say he was their first child and biggest mistake. But only when he isn’t in the room to hear them. When he is, they just roll their eyes and pretend he isn’t there.