Author talks about inspiration for book

Published 8:14 pm Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Like many Alabamians, Gin Phillips grew up at the feet of some of the greatest storytellers in the world. They were grandmothers and uncles, coal miners and farmers. She listened to them talk and learned. Then, Phillips would walk past the places she heard about, dreaming of telling her own stories one day.

When that time came, the words practically fell onto the page.

“I grew up not only listening to their stories but going to the family where the book is set,” Phillips said.

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Phillips read passages and spoke about her debut novel “The Well and the Mine” as part of the Lunch at the Library series Wednesday. Phillips was recently honored with Barnes & Nobles 16th Discover Great Writers Award, and her novel reached as high as No. 6 on the bookstore’s best sellers list.

The novel is set in Depression-era Carbon Hill, Ala. The plot centers on a tragic event, and how a family wrestles with defining good and evil as a result. While most of the story is fictional, Phillips said she plucked bits and pieces from the lives of her grandmother and siblings.

“The real life comes in the domestic details,” she said.

From what kind of underwear people wore to how people gathered chicken eggs, Phillips quizzed her family for hours about every minute detail of life during the Depression. Phillips, who grew up in Montgomery, learned more than she ever could have imagined about her grandmother’s hometown while researching for the book. She wrote the first draft in about 10 months while freelancing for magazines to pay the bills. Phillips did not realize she could make a living writing fiction until she finished this draft.

“It took me a long time to actually realize that could be a career,” she said.

While Phillips picked her family’s brains, a non-fiction book about Theodore Roosevelt and the Depression actually sparked the idea for “The Well and the Mine.” In this book, Phillips read actual letters written by Pennsylvania miners during a coal strike. She said she was shocked by the contrast of simple beauty and brutality in the letters.

“These are men who a lot of them quit work when they were six or seven and went down into the mines,” she said of the letters. “The moments of beauty and love were all the more striking because of it. But there’s a real wisdom there.”

After reading the letters, Phillips decided it would make more sense to write about a place she knew and could easily access for research. So, she set out for the mining town of Carbon Hill in northwest Alabama. She researched while she squeezed in a little bit of writing each night.

“If nothing came after 30 minutes, then I could do something else or go to bed,” Phillips said. “But usually something would come.”

Everyone who squeezed into the Selma-Dallas County Public Library Wednesday, copies in hand, loved what came, too. Reference librarian Mary Morrow discovered “The Well and the Mine” in April 2008 at the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery. She read it and immediately asked library director Becky Nichols to purchase the novel for the collection.

“I thought it was great,” Morrow said. “It’s such a wonderful story.”

Nichols said the buzz generated by Morrow and other local folks who read “The Well and the Mine” made this Lunch at the Library particularly special.

“I think people came to this event because they just read and loved this book,” Nichols said. “People wanted to come and hear her tell her story.”