Interview – Heather Phillips

heather

When did it dawn upon you that you wanted to be a writer? You started with acting, right?

Yes I started acting when I was 12, I stopped around the age of 32. I wanted to be an actor since I was 5, so it was difficult to let go of the dream. But I realised I was hijacking a younger version of myself, though on the odd occasion I still miss it. I actually started writing in my early teens, journaling and poetry, as a way to express myself. But because my goal was to act, I never took it seriously. Not until much later in life.

It dawned on me that I wanted to be a writer after my first divorce, it felt the most comfortable chair to sit in. I’d acted and I’d produced and I’d written a lot during my first marriage and in my second year at film school. When I took some time and stepped back from everything, it made the most sense. 

What inspires you to write? What are the things which catch your attention?

Often my inspiration comes from a question or an idea that keeps popping up. I might have even had the idea years before but for some reason, usually something to do with what’s happening in my life, that question returns. My annoying unconscious inspires me!

I’m drawn to real life stories or stories that at their core explore the unique relationships human beings have with each other or themselves. Why people do what they do, say what they say, screw it up for themselves or others, or who are generous or have somehow found the magic key that makes sense to them…I like stories that depict vulnerable, indefinable relationships because that’s what so many of us have. I recently watched “The Queen’s Gambit” (TV series) and was messaging with a friend on fb about the step-mother-protagonist relationship. He’d mentioned how this relationship was one of the best crafted he’d seen (on screen). I felt the same way. These depictions inspire me as well. 

Do you have a set schedule for writing, or are you one of those who write only when they feel inspired?

I have a schedule for writing when I’m writing. I’m a single mother to two teenagers so my schedule is fairly malleable. But one exists. If I wrote only when I felt inspired, I wouldn’t get much writing done. Not because I don’t feel inspired, rather it’s not as simple as that. Also writing in general, for me anyway, requires a great deal of self-discipline. I’m a huge procrastinator and easily distracted.

In your opinion, what is the main thing that living in different countries has taught you?

Living is the word. I’ve traveled a bit but it’s not the same thing as living in a different country. People make assumptions based on having spent a week somewhere. I lived in the UK as a child for a few years and for seven years in Los Angeles in the 90s and now I’ve been in France nearly ten years.

Probably the two main things I’ve learned about living in different countries is we’re all shaped in some way from where we came. Our early years impact the rest of our lives. I have seen this in my children as well as in myself. I now have close friends in France and I love them dearly but nothing gets me laughing harder than talking for half an hour with an Australian friend. The sense of humour is a part of our collective unconscious.

Perhaps if I was born and raised in France, and moved to Australia in my forties, this wouldn’t be the case. It’s not just humour, that’s just an example of how our early lives shape us. The other distinction is how a country’s social policies impact citizens. These things influence how an individual sees the world. Language also plays a role. How people communicate says a lot about what’s important to them. It’s well known the French like to strike, I’m not an advocate for strikes (or how often they should occur!) but the French certainly know their rights. Even in lockdown, it’s permissible for a manisfestation to take place if it’s an organised one. Living in a different country opens your mind to how others see the world and as a result makes you question how you see it.

Is it important for you as a writer to have the concentrated space and time away from the day-to-day thinking and routine? Is this the reason to come to Belgrade?

Yes definitely, to both questions.

Did you find your inspiration? 

I did! I wanted to write down an idea for a TV series that I’ve had in my head a while so I did that early on and now I’m developing it as I go. I read a book on memoir writing called, “The Art of Memoir” by Mary Karr which was helpful (and hilarious). I then did a preparation-style course designed by an Australian author and writing coach, Louisa Deasey. The prompts in her course help the writer start writing. An obvious success because I started on Friday. I have no idea how far I’ll get before I need to leave in 5 days but I started and that was my rough plan.

Tell me something about your plan to write memoirs. How did the idea strike you?

I’ve never written a memoir before. It’s an all together different medium to screenwriting. But over the years, a few close friends have suggested I write down some of the stories I’ve told them about living in France. I had two major thoughts, no one would believe me and I don’t want to re-live a lot of it. But around Christmas last year, my children and I were on our way to Yorkshire to stay with my cousin and I came across a book that was given to me in the late 90s when I was living in LA. It was on the bookshelf in the cafe at Manchester train station, it’s called “The Artists Way” by Julia Cameron. We had some time to kill so I started reading it. I think my copy is still in LA. I saw for the first time the validity in writing my story. I made a promise to myself that I’d start writing it this year and see what happens.

Do you think you will ever live in your home country again?

I have no clue at this point in time.

Any other plans…

To try and travel more and try to see my friends and family in Australia next year. 

Your message to future artists coming to Belgrade…

The best experiences I’ve had since coming to Belgrade has to do with the people I’ve met here. I spent an hour in a souvenir shop listening to a woman tell me what it was like to be living here when NATO bombed the country for 78 consecutive days in 1999. I spent two hours on Saturday chatting with a woman who owns an art shop which she inherited from her father. I bought a print off her for my daughter. She told me about the artist (Mersad Berber) and then told me what it was like growing up in Belgrade. A man I met in a local coffee shop walked me around the city and shared some of its history. Such generosity of spirit. I think you understand the city better when you take the time to get to know the people who live in it. Also, there are so many great and affordable places to eat, I found some in the centre of town of course but also getting lost in side streets. Those were the best finds.