Faculty Interview: Rachael Phillips

Interview by Nathan Sturgis (PWR class of 2014)

You started writing later in life, after, according to your own words, “the church secretary demanded newsletter articles at gunpoint.” What sparked your interest in writing after that? What kept you writing?

After a year or so of writing monthly newsletter articles, I received a flyer in the mail about a writing workshop at nearby Bethel College (Mishawaka, IN). Perhaps there I’d find out whether my friends’ compliments on my writing were kind rather than accurate. I thoroughly enjoyed the workshop (which included Jim Watkins!), where we newbies were encouraged to get our work published. Less than a week later, my hometown newspaper published a blurb encouraging readers to send in local stories. I sent in a column about taking a walk in my neighborhood, and it was published with requests for more. The editor also asked if I’d ever reported the news. No, not even during high school!

“But would you like to try?”

“Sure!”

“Sure”—that became the by-word for my unplanned writing career. Soon I was taking writing classes at Bethel College and publishing my homework ☺

What was your first byline?

My first byline was a poem about a sunset that I wrote in sixth grade, placing second in a statewide poetry contest. It was published in the Columbus, Indiana, newspaper, The Evening Republican.

What is your favorite piece that you’ve written?

I have enjoyed writing for the Amish Inn series (six-going-on-seven books). Writing the first, Secrets of the Amish Diary, was especially fun. I also still laugh when I read “Dam It All, Anyway,” a short piece that won me the 2004 Erma Bombeck Global Humor Award.  

How has being a church’s music director affected your writing?

One of my romances features a classically trained church choir director who collides with a tone-deaf football coach-turned-drama-coach (novella In Tune with You in the collection Cedar Creek Seasons).

Music has always played a big part in my life, particularly in my worship, and that influence inevitably shows up in my writing. I usually lead the American Christian Fiction Writers choir at our annual conference.

In a nutshell, what knowledge or skills do you want to pass on to conference attendees?

In my humor class, I want to encourage writers to use specific techniques that will increase the humor factor in their fiction and nonfiction. And I want us to have fun!

In my cozy mystery class, I want to discuss the important elements of cozy whodunits, how to manage them, and how to keep readers turning the pages.

What tips would you give for new writers, just starting out on their own?

Be open to the adventure God has for you—a writing journey that will both test and bless you. When you run out of creativity, go to the Creator, who has more than an ample supply! I also agree with Anne Lamott: Write, even if it seems horrific. Bad writing can be edited and improved. No one can improve zero writing.  

What books have influenced and shaped your life?

First and foremost, the Bible, which I’ve studied on a regular basis since I was 18. As a child, I read Louisa May Alcott’s books, Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries, as well as the Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Trixie Belden series, all of which shaped my mystery writing. As an adult, I love Agatha Christie mysteries.

Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water, which I bought secondhand for a quarter, continues to influence me. Best quarter I ever spent!

Erma Bombeck’s and Dave Barry’s hilarious columns and books prime my humor pump! 

Please name a book, nonfiction or fiction, that is not directly about writing but has taught you something about it.

Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, the story of her spiritual journey to Christian conversion. Lamott is anything but conventional (her parents were fervent atheists), so her writing leads me in unfamiliar, provocative paths. She also taught me that humor can be profound—an important lesson for a Christian humorist.

Rachael will be teaching two sessions at the conference:
Cozying Up to the Cozy Mystery
But I’m Not Funny — Helps to Up the Humor Level in Your Writing

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