Interview by Anupama Krishnakumar
How would you describe Philip John, the writer?
Thank you for speaking with me. As a writer I am drawn to the undercurrents of life. What lies hidden or goes unexpressed, and why. I think some of my recurring themes in that space are identity, human relationships, secular spirituality, feminine psychology, and everyday urban life. My preferred form seems to be the fragment. Within the space of a fragment, I like to create a sense of a whole, using precise details, and some sense of narrative. But though I exercise the craft of a short story writer, I think I have the sensibility of a poet. That’s probably why I am drawn to writing about “moments of being” as Virginia Woolf termed them, instead of long-form stories. Epic stories don’t interest me. I am drawn to the micro, inner world. If you took me back to 18th century France, I’d probably be less interested in charting the rise of the French revolution as it unfolded in castles and battlefields, and more interested in what a court poet or a carpenter or a housewife was thinking about at the time. I am interested in what history forgets, what history doesn’t think is important, what society prefers not to talk about. A character in a Michael Ondaatje book says, “What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power.” I love that line. I think we have literature to compensate for what history forgets and for what society says is forbidden. That’s where I like to operate.
Writing is my life. I’m an obsessive writer. I am always writing or thinking about what I want to write next. I have a Word document that’s always open. It contains thoughts and ideas. Snatches of dialogue. Half-stories, awaiting completion. I like to build something out of very little. The other day, over dinner, my wife told me she liked the smell that came off of a candle that had just been snuffed out. That stuck to me. I immediately started to find the language to describe that smell. An acrid, mysterious smell. And I thought, “There could be a story there.”
Tell us about your page Labyrinths. Why the name? How did it all begin?
Even as a child I was deeply interested in language and books. As an adult, writing got swallowed up by other things and for a long time I didn’t write. Then, when I was at the crossroads, personally and professionally, I started writing again. I decided to write one paragraph a day, to clarify what I was thinking and feeling. This gradually evolved into Labyrinths. My readers slowly grew. I never expected it to reach this far. I consider myself blessed to have found an audience that wants to read what I write every day. It’s a huge privilege. I chose the name ‘Labyrinths’ because a labyrinth is a beautiful but demanding space. That’s how I think life is. Many of my characters find themselves in beautiful, demanding emotional predicaments. I also like the way the word sounds, of course. Something sacred and dark about it, at once. I am drawn to opposites and how they can or cannot be reconciled.
Every day there’s a flash piece or a poem awaiting a reader on the page. What does it take to make this happen? What inspires you to keep going?
Well, I enjoy it. It’s my practice, in a sense. Doing it every day makes it better, makes me better. My inspiration comes from many, small things all the time: something someone said, a bird, a cracked pane of glass, a difficult emotion, a woman sitting alone in a car outside a departmental store, waiting for her family to return. Isolated, under-the-radar moments speak to me. They seem to contain volumes. I think many of these ideas probably don’t even come from me alone. They could be coming from sources I don’t recognize or understand. I don’t mean to sound very mystical about it. But who knows the complete reality of collective consciousness?
What does it take? It’s mostly discipline and love. I love writing and I love rewriting till I get it right. It’s an interesting, energizing process.
There’s a strong emphasis on conversations in your fiction and they usually form the heart of the story. How do you go about crafting them in a way that they sound realistic?
The conversation pieces usually begin with an idea that enters my mind and then another competing idea will enter the scene. This starts a debate in my own head. I then project the debate on to two people, with strong identities. Then I just let them go at it, back and forth, till they get to the crux of the situation. It is like a treasure hunt. You don’t know what you’re going to find. That’s thrilling.
If the conversations sound realistic it’s only because of practice maybe. Over time, you learn the tricks of making the conversation sound real. A good conversation should seem organic. It should be moving towards something but also be spontaneous. It should reveal the people behind the dialogues – their hopes and fears. It should use recurring words or symbols and make them accumulate and grow. These are some of the things I have learnt from reading good writers.
A good number of stories/poems that you write are women-centric. Is that a conscious decision?
It’s not a conscious decision. Maybe the themes I am interested in – the questions, the ideas – spring more from the feminine side of the mind than the masculine side, or the feminine side engages with these themes more readily and in more depth than the masculine side. I say “feminine/masculine” and not “female” and “male” because I think both men and women contain the feminine and the masculine in them. It’s just that genes and social conditioning make us favour one kind of intelligence over the other. In my case I think my brain is around 50% feminine and 50% masculine, to put it loosely, or maybe it’s even 60: 40. So I find it easier, even natural, to project my ideas and perceptions on to a woman ‘actor’ in my stories. That’s probably why sometimes it seems like a woman is writing Labyrinths – because people are not used to seeing men think and feel that way. But in truth, a lot of male writers, past and present, write about complex emotions and they frequently feature women narrators, or male narrators who are sensitive. The second reason I use a lot of women characters is I am interested in feminine psychology. And I like women. Most of my close friends are women.
The visual element is an integral part of your flash fiction/poetry. What according to you is the role of photographs with respect to your writing? Does the story inspire the choice of picture or is it the other way around?
I used to write just the stories. When I started posting them on Facebook I thought it would be interesting and eye-catching for every story to be accompanied by a picture. I started to enjoy this process of linking stories with all kinds of pictures from culture, society and history. I still do. I like the inter-textuality of it. I like to create relationships between seemingly unrelated things across time and geography. I guess I was also trying to break out of accepted forms that were not working for me and create something that fit my voice; so a photo-story or a photo-poem if you like.
Ultimately, though, the pictures are meant to complement the story or accompany the story. For me the story is king. I mostly write first and then look for a picture to go with it. Sometimes a picture is so interesting I base my story on it but that’s rare.
Who is your best critic? How has that person changed your perspective on your own writing?
My wife has a good ear for what works and doesn’t work with the audience. When I am doubtful about a story I show it to her and we talk about how to make the story more real and relatable. She reminds me about some of the important things from time to time: relatable stories, emotional connect, honesty, simplicity.
How do you think you have evolved as a writer through this journey? How has the experience of Labyrinths changed you as a person?
‘Labyrinths’ has made me a better writer. I pay more attention to theme, language and dialogue. I try to be unpredictable. I try to draw strong characters. As a result of writing every day for almost four years, I think I have also managed to understand myself, life and other people better. It has made me feel less weird and it has also made me feel less special. So many people are exactly like us; they simply lack the words to convey what they’re feeling. Writing ‘Labyrinths’ and having people read it and connect with it continues to be one of the greatest privileges and pleasures of my life. Sometimes I feel like I am writing a long, fragmented letter to myself and to the world as well. Perhaps, speaking and being understood are strong needs for me. And writing builds bridges of understanding, both inside and outside. I think everyone who can write should write a little every day. It can surprise you.