Educated at San Diego State University and California State University – Long Beach, Tony Phillips is a lifelong student of language and literature. From his home in San Diego he has written for Huffington Post, Salon, inMotion, and Amplitude. Phillips has recently expanded his writing into the world of fiction; his most recent book being The Fires of Orc. Wanting to learn more about his career and his novel, I was able to interview Phillips for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: When you were a kid, what were the stories you loved experiencing? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?
Tony Phillips: My very first favorite book was Z for Zacharia, Robert C. O’Brien’s masterpiece. I was 13 when I first read it and I’ve read it many times since. I also quite enjoyed the 2015 film version with Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Chris Pine, but I’m in scarce company. A bit later I discovered the works of Ben Bova, Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein and still later I got around to Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin, Isaac Asimov and so many other great sci-fi authors of the past century. As a young adult I fell in love with literary fiction, especially the great American modernists – Steinbeck, Wolfe and Fitzgerald above all others. I’ve read those authors time and again. I read them still. I recently read The Grapes of Wrath for probably the tenth time. I’ve probably read To Kill a Mockingbird just as often.
Yanes: In addition to being a fiction author, you have had several jobs as a journalist. How do you think being a journalist has impacted how you write fiction?
Phillips: I’ve thought a lot about how a journalism base affects my fiction writing and vice-versa and one thing I hope is true is that each one opens up possibilities for the other. Because I love and explore fiction prose, I hope it lends some style and flourish to my editorial and feature writing. Likewise, because I respect the tenets of good journalism, I hope it makes me more attentive to authenticity as a fiction author. In fact, it’s that, probably more than anything else, that comes over from journalism into fiction – the importance of accuracy. Fiction, for me, is just hypothetical non-fiction. It might not be fact, but it should be credible. That means research, analysis and getting the real bits straight so the imagined bits aren’t unbelievable.
Yanes: You live in San Diego. What are your thoughts about the writing community in this area? Given how expensive it is to live in San Diego, do you see it as a great destination for aspiring writers?
Phillips: There’s not a better place in America than my beloved city and boy howdy do we pay for it! If you can stand to be poor, by all means, bring yourself out here and join the club. No – it’s not the easiest place to settle into a bohemian lifestyle and get by just fine. Writers with full-time jobs have trouble making ends meet in my corner of Eden. Still, if you’re going to be poor, do it in San Diego.
We do have a strong, thriving writing community, dozens of independent book stores, three public and multiple private universities, and several newsweeklies. The blend of cultures and influences here, our binational connection to Tijuana, our tendency to abstain from controversy and reject convention, all these things make us a fertile place for new ideas. We have our conservative gated suburbs, but the neighborhoods that really shape us are multi-cultural, vibrant places where art and thought thrive.
Yanes: You have taught at China’s Hunan First Normal University and Mexico’s Instituto Tecnológico de San Juan del Río. How did working with international students allow you to rethink your understanding of English?
Phillips: I can’t overstate how much teaching my language strengthens both my understanding and my appreciation of the language. I love English. I’m using the word “love” here. I love its phonology, its morphology, its syntax, its semantics and its pragmatics. I consider this a mild perversion and I only speak of it in adult company. In all seriousness, seeing how the language works by framing it for a non-native adds immensely to my grasp of its elements, the fine and the clumsy alike. Teaching has also allowed me to see through different language lenses and to imagine through different cultural perspectives. Spanish says certain things better than English. So does Mandarin. Being able to bring those different means of expression back into my language and play with its own abilities keeps my love of this ridiculous mongrel tongue fresh and engaging.
Yanes: You’ve recently published The Fires of Orc. What was the inspiration for this story?
Phillips: I’ve spent a quarter-century of my professional life on the periphery of and sometimes immersed in local politics and public policy. On top of that, I’ve been a lifetime political junky, with an unhealthy attention to national and international processes. So in a sense, The Fires of Orc was inspired by decades of experience that led me to one conclusion, which is that there are some of us who will stop at nothing to win. I started writing the book in 2015 when, against that backdrop, I had spent quite a bit of time thinking about the impending confluence of internet marketing and quantum computing. Knowing how effective micro-targeting of advertising, search engine optimization and other forces can be in affecting our opinions and beliefs, I wondered how much more powerful those forces will be when they’re back by computing technology that exceeds current limits a thousand-fold or more.
With all that, given the perversity of American electoral politics, in which losers can win and the other way around, I imagined what would happen if the right message for the right candidate filtered through the right web algorithms targeting the right communities ended in a result no conventional model could predict. It turns out that one particular candidate actually beat me to my prediction by many years. I hope, however, that the fallout of our present aberration is less dystopian than the future envisioned in the book!
Yanes: While doing research for The Fires of Orc, what developing technologies did you become most concerned about?
Phillips: With so much of the story set in San Diego, I was interested in how the city’s current commitment to green building and technology would be manifest in the near future. I imagined smart buildings and carbon-free neighborhoods, all of which are part of the longest-range comprehensive plans already on the table for San Diego urban planners. I also considered the good and bad prospects for quantum computing – the former being an exponential leap in access to unlimited information and the ability to build accurate, predictive models of all manner of macro-phenomena, the latter being the ability to use that predictive power to manipulate public opinion, consumption and belief.
Yanes: The Fires of Orc has a unique structure to its narrative. How did this impact the way you told this story?
Phillips: The narrative has two timelines. The story’s major events occur during the 2032 U.S. Presidential election and culminate on Inauguration Day, but they are recalled by a narrator looking back on those events from 50 years later. I found that the gap in time was essential for thematic reasons, but it meant I had to have a narrator speaking about his own recollections in the past tense, then periodically engaging with his current environment in the present tense. I won’t pretend like that was easy trick. I had the idea of the structure long before its execution. There are entire chapters that were re-ordered and even once I had the temporal flow worked out, I still found that I had to add some fairly long asides to allow the narrator to emerge through his own thoughts as the conflicted character that he is. In a sense, The Fires of Orc is a fictional autobiography. I had to indulge the narrator’s voice as part of my story structure. I’m thrilled with how it all worked out and I’m glad I didn’t talk myself out of the challenge. I wouldn’t want the book to have a simplistic structure. It’s not a simple story.
Yanes: Your previous book was a political analysis of Trumping winning the presidency called How He Won: What Happens Now & What to Do Next. How did your view and understanding of politics shape The Fires of Orc?
Phillips: History has yet to render its final verdict on the current President, but one thing is already beyond dispute: no human being has ever gotten more publicity in a shorter period of time than Donald Trump. Nobody. Not Elvis, not Beyoncé, not JFK. Not all of them put together. That has partly to do with Trump’s egomania and apparent belief that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. But it has even more to do with the contemporary mainstream and alternative media’s inability to refrain from talking about the smut and smears of the day.
The candidate in The Fires of Orc bears no resemblance to Donald Trump. But the campaign around him functioned in a media universe that looks very much like our real present day. Fact is less and less relevant in a world where truth is measured by number of clicks. What people want to believe trumps (pun intended) what they ought to believe. This might always have been the case, but it is certainly amplified today and there are no signs yet that we’ll steer a different course anytime soon.
Yanes: When people finish reading The Fires of Orc, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Phillips: As a writer, I hope more than anything readers think it was well-written. That’s vanity, I suppose. I consider writing the performance art of the physically untalented. Any writer, being honest, would admit they hope people read their words and think, “Wow. That author has real talent.”
Beyond the superficial, I sincerely hope readers think about this rabbit hole we find ourselves diving deeper into each day. I hope they think about how the once unthinkable has become the normal. I hope they think about where we will end up if we remain stuck in our own echo chambers, or worse, if we give up on meaningful discourse entirely and amuse ourselves to death in a Huxleyan world where, as Neil Postman wrote, there is no need to burn books because there is nobody left who’s willing to read one.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Phillips: I recently finished a coming-of-age historical novel. The story is set in West Texas in 1934 and follows events and characters in the life of a 15-year-old boy in a single day. It’s a story I’ve been wanting to write for many years, told in the vernacular of a people I knew and loved as a child. There’s more than a bit of the author as a youth in the protagonist. The story is two generations older than me, but it’s a part of me.
Look for The Prince of Piedra Plana in 2019.