Interview with Gin Phillips, Author of Family Law

Family Law by Gin Phillips is set in Alabama in the early 1980s and it’s a white man’s world. Enter Lucia Gilbert, a whip-smart attorney who, by her own admission, “runs at the fight.” Lucia attracts the attention of Rachel Morris, a teenage girl whose mother sought Lucia’s help with a divorce.  Though the mother ends up with a different attorney at Lucia’s suggestion—Lucia didn’t click with her wishy-washiness—Rachel proves harder to shake. Throughout the book, the relationship between Lucia and Rachel evolves and shifts. Is Lucia a mentor? Friend? Neighbor? Substitute mom? Role model?

When threats sparked by Lucia’s legal work materialize violently close to home, rules and relationships change again. Who do you protect? How do you keep the ones you love safe from harm? From Gin Phillips, the acclaimed author of Fierce Kingdom, named one of the best books of 2017 by Publishers Weekly, Amazon, NPR and Kirkus Reviews, Family Law is a kaleidoscopic story of equality and rights and the role women play in shaping each other’s lives. The New York Journal of Books calls Family Law “a thoroughly realized, multilayered story depicting the meaning of family—those we are born to and those we create for ourselves.” We’re so honored to welcome Gin to Dead Darlings!

Susan Bernhard: Gin, congratulations on yet another incredible novel! You write with such assurance, grace, and just the right dose of humor. I was immediately smitten with Lucia and Rachel and their alternating stories. So much of Family Law is unexpected, much like Lucia’s beloved magnolia tree. If there was one seed pod to this novel, what was it? In other words, what made you want to write this story?

Gin Phillips: My last book was about motherhood, and even before I finished it, I started thinking about a different angle on mothering. My life is different because of a handful of women—unrelated to me—who gave me their time and thought and attention. They showed me a wider world. I haven’t read much fiction that looks at the mothers we choose as opposed to the mothers we’re born to, and I wanted to explore how women outside of our families shape us.

And here’s a second, separately-planted seed: Years ago, I was working as a freelancer and interviewed a lawyer in Birmingham for a magazine piece. When I started thinking about this novel, she seemed like an important piece of the puzzle. I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1980s and my world was steeped in traditional notions of what a woman should be. I wondered what a girl like me might have thought about a woman like her.

SB: One of Lucia’s clients says that her husband doesn’t really see their daughter as much as he sees a “Miranda-shaped space” that he wants to define and fill to his liking. How important was it for you to have Lucia and Rachel push the boundaries of the spaces and roles that tradition and family would have them occupy?

GP: You’re highlighting one of my favorite phrases in the book: I wanted to delve into that sense that plenty of us have –especially as teenagers—that our parents don’t really know us. Can you still love someone, even if you don’t know them? Is it a different kind of love than one based on a real understanding? As for traditions, it felt important to me for Lucia to have carved out this space for herself with virtually no role model. Intelligence and drive led her to practicing law, but the life she has was never a goal. She didn’t know it could be a goal. Then we have Rachel, who comes from a family with a very defined notion of what a woman should be—accommodating, polite, pretty, thin. Let the men do the talking and laugh at their jokes. Keep your shorts at an appropriate length. Rachel’s never quite fit her family or church’s mold, but she doesn’t know of any another option until she meets Lucia. This other way of being is a revelation. I was interested in the push and pull both women feel when it comes to their wants and needs versus the undertow of tradition—Southern culture, religious culture, and family culture, all intertwined.

SB: We get to know Lucia through a series of clients all of whom are dealing with messy, contentious divorce and custody issues. The words “family law” sound so gentle but the pain these families experience is heartbreaking. You write, “Such a weapon, intimacy.” What was your research like to get these intimate details?

GP: The lawyer I mentioned above certainly helped me with details of courtroom scenes, but much of the relationship detail comes from stories I’ve overheard from friends and family. Haven’t we all been surrounded by divorce? Child custody fights? Painful breakups? Our lives are shaped by connections made and broken. It’s one reason I picked family law as Lucia’s specialty. I like the chaos and complication of family, of love. It’s at the center of the book. These characters are always trying to get a handle on how they feel about family, but they never quite make up their minds. Do any of us?

SB: The scene where Lucia’s father is trying to get her to carry a gun was particularly telling and poignant. He says these racist things but Lucia reminds herself that he also taught her to stop and help strangers, to be empathetic, to imagine the lives people lead when you encounter them. “And so what was she supposed to do with all of it, looking at him now, scanning her cabinets for some loose knob he could tighten.” He is her father, after all. As you write, “Some things did not have a reckoning, and waiting for one would drive you crazy.” We all have racists in our lives whose thinking we must challenge. Can you talk about how setting and timeline informed or constrained how your white characters confronted race and racism?

GP: Originally, I picked the time period because the rise and fall of the Equal Rights Amendment played a bigger role, but that wound up feeling a little forced. The story still plays out as the ERA is in limbo, and I like it hanging there. It’s a nice symbol—a glimpse of a better future, a fairer future—right there! we can almost touch it!—but we can’t quite get there. During the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, we were on the cusp of change. Society still shoves people into all these clearly labeled, confining boxes—men and women, black and white, right and wrong—but the boxes are starting to shatter. Norms are in flux.

It’s the gender box that most shapes these two women’s stories. But I also wanted to convey how all those rigid boxes are a day-to-day part of Rachel and Lucia’s world. They were a part of my world growing up, along with casual, unthinking bigotry of all kinds. That notion of “it’s just a joke—lighten up.” It was pervasive. But here’s the thing that you can deal with in a novel much better than you can on, say, social media: people are complex. We contain, like Whitman said, multitudes. I suspect most of us have had to wrestle with someone we love—someone we know to be kind and generous in the right context—also showing some type of prejudice that makes us flinch. And we have to struggle with that mix of love and revulsion just as Lucia does.

SB: There is a particularly difficult section where Rachel is doing community service with an adult man, a repeat offender named Luther. On one hand, the criminal justice system has made his life incredibly onerous by requiring hundreds of hours of community service far from where he lives. You make the reader feel for him. Then you reveal his crime and we see how that same system put this young girl in the way of potential harm. Rachel didn’t want to get Luther in trouble. But Lucia didn’t see it that way. Can you talk about the dynamics of that scene?

GP: First of all, when I was sixteen, I got a speeding ticket and was sentenced to sixteen hours of community service in a zoo. I’ve been waiting decades to work that experience into a novel. Luther is based on a man I met at the zoo and much of the dialogue in those scenes is based on memory. It worked well here because the novel is in part about fear and how we respond to it. Once you realize the world has real menace—real evil—what do you do with that?

I wanted the reader to feel conflicted about Luther. Rachel is aware—without knowing the words for this—that her discomfort with him is largely about class. She doesn’t want to be like her mother and judge him for the clothes he wears or the way he speaks. She’s harder on herself than she is on him. And then, yes, he reveals his crime—his alleged crime—and everything changes for her. What felt most important in those scenes was that Rachel has no idea what to think: she fluctuates wildly between thinking she’s in immediate danger and thinking she’s vastly overreacting. I think part of being a young woman is that uncertainty over when a man is dangerous and when he’s not. What’s flirtation and what’s predatory? When do you smile and when do you push back? We’re back to that notion of fear and what you do with it. I think a lot of situations, romantic ones included, are especially fear-tinged in your teens because you don’t know when you should legitimately be afraid.

Lucia, obviously, is not afraid. Not in this scene, certainly. She has no sympathy for Luther. She sees no complexity. She handles the problem efficiently and without any apparent doubts. Do I think we can judge her for that? Absolutely. I hope it’s a scene with more questions than answers, where it’s never entirely clear who the good guys or bad guys are.

SB: This book was set 40 years ago but it feels like it could be right now and, frankly, that was maddening. As important as it is to highlight progress toward equality for women, was it frustrating to write from where we are now?

GP: I thought a lot about this question—are we really that much better off now? Here’s one thing that gives me comfort. Lucia was one of two women in law school. During her interview, an administrator asked her how she would justify taking a spot from a man. Both those details are standard fare if you talk to women lawyers who worked in the 1970s. Now women make up slightly more than half of most law school classes. That’s not to say that we don’t have a long way to go in terms of gender equality—equal pay comes to mind—but it’s a hell of a difference.

SB: On the lighter side, you have a lovely knack for dialogue and detail. Family Law evokes that ‘70s and ‘80s era so well. I particularly loved that you included Hershey’s syrup cans and what I think was the SRA reading program. (I seem to remember liking the purple cards the best!) Some writers keep notebooks of funny things they overhear, delicious bits of gossip, sensory details. Do you have a place where you store tidbits to use in your writing or do you incorporate them more organically?

GP: Thanks—I also love the memory of that slightly metallic chocolate from the Hershey cans. I wish I journaled better these days. I seem to have given it up when I had a child. But I do write down bits and pieces when it strikes me—take that wonderful woman who feeds the ducks at Lucia’s hotel. She’s based on a woman at the Embassy Suites in Memphis who came up to me as I was writing on my laptop one night. After she left, I wrote down every word she said about algae and male chauvinist ducks.

I’ve never written a story in the world of my own childhood before, and one thing I did was to write down childhood memories—pages and pages of them. Many of them didn’t fit in the novel at all, but plenty of the details I jotted down added to the texture of Lucia and Rachel’s world.

SB: Rachel writes fan mail to Stephanie Powers from the television show “Hart to Hart” hoping to land a job in some fantasy future as her personal assistant. And she’s already written to Carol Burnett. So, I have to know—who did you write fan mail to?

GP: I had a total obsession with the Benji movies, which does find its way into the novel. I desperately wanted my West Highland terrier to go to Hollywood and become a star. He was named, er, Benji. I read a book by Benji’s trainer, and I taught my dog how to do the usual tricks, plus he could crawl and climb a ladder and slide down a slide. I wrote letters to both Benji’s trainer, Frank Inn, and the director of the Benji movies, Joe Camp. Never heard back. It feels like it captures my younger self pretty well that I never wrote letters to hot guys, only to dog owners.

SB: And now you have an escape dog who climbs fences like a cat burglar!

GP: Yes. Sigh. We have a five-month-old puppy who can scale a chain link fence! Not jump it. Climb it. I promise I didn’t train him to do it. He has paws like hands, and I’m afraid he’ll be turning doorknobs soon.

SB: Family Law is your sixth published book over a ten-year career. Can you talk a little about your writing habits? What is your best piece of advice to give aspiring writers?

GP: Just write.

You write whether you feel like it or not. You write whether you’re tired or not. You write whether every sentence feels like crap or not. And, eventually, if you keep hammering out words, something good will come of it.

Most of my first novel was written after 10 p.m. because I did work that paid the bills during the daytime. Plenty of nights I didn’t feel like writing, and I’d always tell myself I had to sit and write for thirty minutes, and then I could go to bed. Most of the time, though, I found that in way less than thirty minutes, I’d fallen into the world of the story and my sleepiness had vanished. I have a more grown-up schedule now—I mostly write during the typical workday while my child is at school. (My brain doesn’t work as well late at night as it used to.) But the same thing holds—whether I feel like writing is irrelevant. I don’t believe much in inspiration. I certainly don’t believe in writer’s block. I sit and I write. This is a job. There are no inspirational fairies fluttering around. When you’re lucky, inspiration happens and you get a jolt of magic and it is glorious. But don’t waste time waiting for the magic. Just write.

SB: What are you reading? What are you writing?

I always have way too big of a stack by the bed. Lately I’ve loved Alexandra Oliva’s Forget Me Not, Jill McCorkle’s Hieroglyphics, and Susan Conley’s Landslide. I’m already counting down the days until fall when we’ll get a new Elizabeth Strout and Colson Whitehead! I’m working on my next novel, which is set in a socialist commune in early 1900s Alabama.

Gin Phillips is the author of six novels. Her work has been sold in 29 countries. Gin’s debut novel, The Well and the Mine, won the 2009 Barnes & Noble Discover Award. Her recent novel, Fierce Kingdom, was named one of the best books of 2017 by Publishers Weekly, NPR, Amazon, and Kirkus Reviews. Her novels have been named as selections for Indie Next, Book of the Month, and the Junior Library Guild. Born in Montgomery, Alabama, Gin graduated from Birmingham-Southern College with a degree in political journalism. She lives with her family in Birmingham, Alabama.

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