Southern writer crafts success story – her own and her first novel

Thursday, July 9, 2009 at 12:00am
Gin Phillips' award-winning novel

Author Gin Phillips had modest expectations for her debut novel The Well and the Mine, a story set in a small Alabama coal-mining town during the ‘30s.

“Most first novels sell less than 2,000 copies,” Phillips said. “I would have been happy if mine had sold 5,000. We got some good reviews early, and then I thought after a couple of appearances that it would fizzle out and that would be the end of it.”

Instead Phillips wound up winning the prestigious Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, and the original novel was picked for re-distribution by Riverhead Press, the home of such publishing sensations as The Kite Runner and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Phillips is back on the road making appearances again, and she’ll stop in Nashville Thursday night for a signing and reading at Davis-Kidd Booksellers.

While she acknowledges being thrilled by the praise and comparisons with some legendary Southern writers, Phillips quickly downplays any link between her novel and the work of respected authors that she’s admired her entire life.

“Of course it is an honor to be even mentioned, let alone compared with people like Harper Lee, Willa Cather or William Faulkner, all of whom I’ve certainly read and admired,” she said. “I think that sometimes reviewers see a book set in the Jim Crow South, know I’m from Alabama and make the quick leap to start the comparisons. It’s flattering but not entirely accurate.”

But The Well and the Mine presents both a gripping story and a captivating account of small town Southern life during a tough time.

Set in 1931 Carbon Hill, Ala., and partly told from the viewpoint of a child, Phillips’ book revolves around what 9-year-old Tess Moore sees one day while sitting on her back porch.

Tess observes a shocking act that spurs a domino effect of other situations and ultimately brings plenty of publicity and pain to an otherwise isolated place, while forcing its citizens to explore their hearts and souls.

“My grandmother and her siblings grew up in Carbon Hill,” Phillips said. “A lot of the things in the book in terms of everyday life came from my conversations with them. Everything from what type of underwear did they wear then, when did they wear shoes, what kind of food they had, those were things that you can’t always get from a book. The plot points were fictional, but the atmosphere and other elements came from them. Plus, I went to the house in Carbon Hill where the book is set and wrote a lot of it there, something that also greatly helped me.”

Now that she’s won the B&N award, Phillips is on to another challenge. Her next book is done in contemporary times and covers a totally different subject.

“This is one is about two archaeologists who go on a dig and make a great discovery that involves someone from the 12th century,” Phillips said. “I’ve been on a dig, which was great fun, and this book will definitely be different in terms of direction. It’s part love story and part mystery.”

What: Author Gin Phillips reads from and signs copies of her award-winning debut novel The Well and the Mine
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Davis-Kidd Booksellers, 2121 Green Hills Village Drive
Cost: Free and open to the public
Info: 385-2645,