For his literary work, Phillips achieved much critical acclaim and won the O. Henry Prize and appeared in Best American Short Stories. In recent years, Phillips wrote screenplays and worked as a script doctor, writing on such movies as The Brain Machine, Huckleberry Finn, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and several films (Nashville, Cookie’s Fortune, and Thieves Like Us among them) with director Robert Altman.
What follows below is an interview with Thomas Hal Phillips conducted before the publication of Red Midnight in 2002.
University Press of Mississippi: What are your writing habits when you are working on a novel? What are your habits when you are working on a screenplay?
Thomas Hal Phillips: I would begin work about nine in the morning. Usually I would work until one p.m. Then I would play golf or do something else until the evening meal. Then I would read everything I had worked on that day and probably make some revisions. I think my work habit was pretty much the same when working on a screenplay.
UPM: What writers do you read and admire? What American classics do you re-read?
THP: Larry McMurtry, Dick Francis, Gore Vidal, James Michener, and Eudora Welty. I re-read Hemingway, Wolfe, and Fitzgerald.
UPM: How did your home territory, the hill country of northern Mississippi, affect your writing?
THP: I was always told to write about what you know. If you listen very carefully you will find a great deal of difference between the hill country and other parts of the state. It is not as pronounced as it once was, but it is there all the same, and we come face to face with it at every turn. In general, I think I have written mostly about the people I knew best.
UPM: Before finishing Red Midnight you were very involved with screenplay writing. Please talk about what you’ve been doing.
THP: My first experience with a screenplay was the fortieth Tarzan picture. My novel, The Loved and the Unloved, had been bought by Philip Reed. I went out to do the screenplay and found out that a great many projects get bought but never come to life. My agent got me a job with Sol Lesser. That was my first encounter with a screenplay. I wrote the original story and the screenplay for Tarzan’s Fight for Life. Later, I met Robert Altman. I worked with him on seven pictures. The latest was a movie called Cookie’s Fortune filmed in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Twice I was Associate Producer of Robert Altman movies, and in general I did whatever needed to be done. I did a lot of locations. I wrote all of the political part in Nashville and played the part of Hal Philip Walker. After Nashville I had no problem finding work, usually as a writer.
UPM: You write with such a plain-spoken grace. Where do you find language so plain but also honed?
THP: I was attentive to the way people talked and told stories and all that. If I heard something that I thought was really good I would make a note of it in a notebook or even on the back of a letter, whatever I had in my hands to get it down exactly the way it was said. The best place was the coal-burning stove that was in the middle of the old grocery store. That was such a collection of people. You could hear something worth keeping any day. The men in their overalls, that’s a sort of world that has always fascinated me. It’s a different kind of world.
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