Maine-born and now Massachusetts-based, Dale T. Phillips has worked as a farm laborer, bartender, blackjack dealer, factory worker, and, for the past twenty years, as a technical writer.
He is author of a number of novels, including Shadow of the Wendigo, and five installments in the Zack Taylor mystery series, most recently A Sharp Medicine.
Some of his many short stories appear in the collections Apocalypse Tango, Jumble Sale, and Crooked Paths.
David Daniel: You’re a hard man to keep up with. It seems every time I turn around you’ve published a new story or have a new novel or collection out. How do you manage to hold down a full-time job, be a devoted family man, and still stay so productive?
Dale T. Phillips: Total focus. Six years ago, when my first book was published, I knew this was my calling, my path for the rest of my life. Now I follow models of those who excel, those with a crystalline-sharp, tunnel vision for what they want. Accomplished musicians, artists, athletes, people who make a difference and who want to do great things and leave something of value behind. They don’t waste a lot of time, and spend a part of every day trying to do more, and do it better.
I have many stories to tell, and now there are tools and methods to get that done and published efficiently, as an independent author. For shorter works, as soon as a story is ready, I find a good market, and out it goes. If it comes back unsold, it goes right out to the next market. Keep that up for a few years, with steady production, and you get an astonishing body of work out.
Of course, it means dropping a lot of hobbies and not spending much time watching TV or playing video games. We all spend time on the things that are important to us. For me, it’s creating new work.
Daniel: Speaking of new work, can you talk a little about A Sharp Medicine, the new entry—number five—in your Zack Taylor mystery series? How do you see your protagonist evolving?
Phillips: In the first book, Zack came to Maine to uncover truth, and found it a healing place for his tortured soul. Over the series, he’s tried to become a better person, and build a solid, normal life, but he’s coming to realize that’s just not his fate. He’s still full of guilt, grief, and rage, and barely able to keep from completely exploding.
In A Sharp Medicine, things have fallen apart for him to the point he’s wondering if getting killed in the course of his investigations might not be such a bad thing. He’s hurting, he’s tired, and broken-hearted. It would be so easy to give up. It seems like darkness is about to fall for good, and that’s a steady decline for Zack. He has less hope than he ever did, as he comes to accept a painful reality.
What are readers saying about A Sharp Medicine?
“Zack Taylor is clever, skilled, and sharp-witted.”
“I can’t wait for the next one.”
“An excellent read.”
Daniel: I know from our previous conversations that you’re a big reader. Who are some of the writers whose work inspires you? What are you reading now?
Phillips: A big inspiration for the Zack Taylor series is the work of John D. MacDonald, author of the Travis McGee series. That’s over fifty years old, but still powerful and alive. There is the school of mystery writers all the way from Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Mickey Spillane, up to Robert B. Parker, Walter Mosley, Dennis Lehane, and James Lee Burke.
There are hundreds more great authors I could name as inspiration and influences (even leaving aside the classics)—we haven’t touched on the territory of Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Cordwainer Smith, Robert Heinlein, Spider Robinson, and Neal Stephenson, let alone Margaret Atwood, Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith, or Dorothy Parker. They have all been my teachers, along with so many more. Being an omnivorous reader exposes you to so much greatness in written works. Currently, I go to authors that never fail—Thomas Harris and Thomas Perry are masters. And you cannot do better these days than Don Winslow (The Force) and Adrian McKinty (an Irish writer).
Daniel: It’s a done-to-death question, but I have to ask: Where do you get your ideas?
Phillips: The reason it’s so often asked is because it’s fascinating for people who don’t think about this all the time. For a writer, the thinking faucet is always flowing, even when we sleep. All of life, all experience and sensory input goes into a huge subconscious sausage factory of potential ideas. Writers access that part of the brain and start churning the machine until things mix together and something good comes out. If you use a lot of basic quality ingredients and work at it often enough, you’ll get some good stuff coming out.
Daniel: What two pieces of advice would you offer to writers who might just be starting out on this curious road?
1. Read like an infomaniac to find out what works in fiction and what doesn’t.
- Always be learning, studying the craft of writing, and working to get better.
Daniel: What question do you wish I had asked—and how would you answer it?
Phillips: In these trying times of seeming despair, and outright criminal behavior by those who are supposed to be working for us, not against us, does fiction matter, or is it just mere entertainment?
Human behavior is based on what we believe, which is the stories we tell ourselves. Story is the best teaching tool we have, so we need to tell stories that matter, stories that bring us together instead of dividing us. We also need to use good stories as antidotes to the ceaseless barrage of terrible news, which convinces us to believe in stories of hopelessness. Fiction matters, for without it, we are left with little but an uneasy feeling that our civilization may be coming to an end.
David Daniel has published a dozen novels and 200 short stories. Among his books are Reunion, White Rabbit, and The Marble Kite. His latest collection of short stories, entitled Inflections & Innuendos, has received rave reviews since its publication in October, 2017.
Other recent short fiction can be found in the anthology Insanity Tales III; in Sleet; and in Zombie Logic Review .