SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Gin Phillips' novel about motherhood comes wrapped in the guise of a terror. "Fierce Kingdom" is a thriller, begins at 4:55 late afternoon at the zoo. Just before closing time, Joan and her 4-year-old son Lincoln hear what might be fireworks or a car backfiring or gunshots. What Joan sees at the exit gates sends her running and running. "Fierce Kingdom" is the title of Gin Phillips' new book. She joins us now from the studios of WBHM in Birmingham. Thanks so much for being with us.
GIN PHILLIPS: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: Let's get your nightmare setup out of the way. Can you tell us what Joan sees at that gate?
PHILLIPS: Sure. Well, after having an inkling that something might be wrong from merely the sounds she's hearing, she has nonetheless assumed it can't possibly be gunshots. And she gets just a glimpse of a man with a rifle and then starts running with her son. So for much of the book, she is not entirely sure what she's seen - one gunman, two gunmen, where they are, why they're there. And that's certainly part of the terror is the lack of knowing.
SIMON: You know, often, I have to or I will ask novelists what put this story in your mind. I'm afraid we're living in times when I don't have to ask that.
PHILLIPS: No, I think that's right. I will say I had been wanting to write about motherhood really almost since my son was born. He's 6 now. And I'd looked at a few different ways to do that. And then one day, we were at the zoo, where we were spending a lot of time at that stage. And you have a lot of time to think when you're staring at the flamingos for the 879th time.
And yeah, I found myself thinking - surely because of something that had been on the news - what would we do if someone came in here right now? Where would we go? And if he were with me, what difference would that make? And then it started to feel like maybe that's an interesting way to explore what motherhood is, through this really intense focus and this literal life-or-death situation.
SIMON: Yeah. I - we want to ask you to read from a section of your book because what Joan has to figure out in, really, a split second is familiar to any parent who both contends with and loves to pieces a 4-year-old.
PHILLIPS: Sure. And so yeah, this is Lincoln and Joan. (Running) The wind has picked up again. She is cold, but not miserably so. She does not want to ask him if he is cold because it might plant the idea in his head. It won't be long, she whispers to Lincoln. I'm still hungry, he says. She wonders for the thousandth time where the police could be. She might be able to pacify him for a while, but his blood sugar will keep dropping, and he will become a little more like a wild animal with every passing minute. And there will be a breaking point.
SIMON: A lot of us who are parents have nightmares like this, but we get to wake up. You, in writing this book, kind of willingly put yourself through that nightmare over and over again.
PHILLIPS: Yeah. You know, I think what you say there and sort of outside of this sort of extreme circumstance, parenthood is all about this balance of fear and joy. You know. I do think even when you're not talking about this situation, to let your kid out of the house in the morning. You have to push back the terror of the thousands of things that could happen to this person that's so precious to you. So, you know, that's underlying.
I think the whole book is a broader sense of parenthood. And as far as sort of reliving that terror, you know, I will say I think it's a little different for the author. I - you know, I get to be in complete control, so that does reduce the panic a little bit in the writing of it compared to the reading, I think.
SIMON: There's a baby at the zoo as well who's been abandoned for what might be safety reasons and then a teenager who works there, Kaylen (ph). Tell us about her.
PHILLIPS: Originally, this book started as a book about motherhood very specifically. It sort of expanded to a book that looks not only at what do we owe our own children, but what do we owe someone else's child? What do we owe strangers? And so Kaylen is one of the characters we meet in the zoo, other survivors who Joan meets and has to decide, how much does she want to be involved with this girl? How much should she care? And how much should she protect her own child at any cost?
SIMON: And without giving anything away, in the end, Joan's cleverness plays a role, but there's that invisible thread between her and her son.
PHILLIPS: Right. I liked from the beginning - and I didn't want to have this - it's not "Die Hard" in a zoo. I didn't want Joan to suddenly...
SIMON: (Laughter) You mean the Bruce Willis film, yes.
PHILLIPS: Yes. No. Yeah, I didn't want her suddenly to have this Navy SEAL training or a black belt in karate, that her power is more subtle. And it does come from being smart, but it also comes from knowing her son. But there is this invisible thread that connects them and all the things she knows, all the ways she can read him, of what look means I'm about to start crying, what means I can be settled and what means I've got to do something now. These things that are part of everyday parenting play a really huge role in the way the book plays out. But the ways she knows her son are her greatest strength.
SIMON: Ever go to the zoo?
PHILLIPS: (Laughter) Funny that you're not the first person to ask. I have to say, I still love the zoo. I don't have any problem with it. I feel like one of the reasons for the setting is it is such a - it's a beautiful and yet disturbing place. There are a lot of feelings going on. And I still, you know, that's still true for me. My child has outgrown it and seems to be completely uninterested, but I don't think that has anything to do with me or this book.
SIMON: Gin Phillips. Her novel is "Fierce Kingdom." Thanks so much for being with us.
PHILLIPS: Thank you so much for having me.
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