Gin Phillips is the author of several novels for adults and younger readers, including The Well and the Mine and Come in and Cover Me. Her new literary thriller, Fierce Kingdom, which was just published by Random House Canada, is about a mother and her four-year-old son trapped in a zoo with a gunman on the loose. Phillips lives in Birmingham, Ala.
Whose sentences are your favourite?
I almost never love a book if I don't love individual sentences. So all of my favourite authors write sentences that blow me away – I always read with a pen, and my books are filled with underlining and smiley faces and exclamation marks. But to single out a few: Elizabeth Strout for purity; Ann Patchett for lyricism and texture; Toni Morrison for power.
Which fictional character do you wish you'd created?
Newland Archer. In recent years, Age of Innocence has nudged itself into position as, depending on the day, my favourite novel. I love Newland – his curiosity and perception and his occasional brutal honesty with himself. He's compelling and struggling and well-meaning. I love his mind. (It does not hurt to picture him as Daniel Day-Lewis.) Also – on a completely different note – Beryl Peoples in Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool. I have a soft spot for English teachers, and she's my most-loved fictional one. I find goodness much more interesting than evil, and any character I really fall in love with is someone who is at least trying to do the right thing.
Which book do you think is underappreciated?
Anything by Penelope Lively – to name a few, How It All Began, Moon Tiger and Making It Up (which is a brilliant "anti-memoir.") I find her astonishing, and I don't understand why she's not a household name outside of England. I love her sentences and her immense empathy and generosity towards her characters.
Which books have you reread most in your life?
Jane Eyre wins by a mile. I didn't read it until college, and I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning for several nights, completely captivated. I reread some books because they're brilliant and I want to dissect how they work, but I reread Jane Eyre because it makes me happy. My favourite scenes leave a whisky-ish feeling in my chest. I have a vivid memory of a girl in my college class arguing that Rochester was a misogynist and reprehensible because of locking his wife in the attic, and I believe I said, possibly too emphatically, "He ran through a fire to save her! He lost his freakin' hand and his eyes! He paid for his mistakes!" Something to that effect. I've also reread the Harry Potter series more than once, and I keep coming back to the beautiful Empire Falls by Richard Russo. Both of them make me happy, too.
What's the best romance in literature?
Well, not to harp on the whole Jane Eyre thing, but Jane and Rochester. I do enjoy a happy ending. But also Fenno and Malachy in Julia Glass's Three Junes. I found their story incredibly moving – and also funny and smart and complex. I thought of them long after I finished the book and feel a real-life fondness of them both, which is always the sign of great characters.
What's more important: The beginning of a book or the end?
I'm going to vote for the end. I think constructing a great beginning is much easier. Anyone can do a catchy beginning. But the ending – that has to bring together all the threads that have been hanging loose. It has to be satisfying and yet not too tidy. It has to feel a bit surprising and yet also feel like there was no other possible ending. There are far fewer books where I love the ending than where I love the beginning.