Alabama writer earns rave reviews for new novel, 'Fierce Kingdom'

Birmingham Zoo provided inspiration for Gin Phillips's book about a mother and son trapped by gunmen.

"Fierce Kingdom" is "an expertly made new thriller," according to a review in the New York Times, but author Gin Phillips didn't set out to write a thriller.

"It's a book about motherhood, albeit a fast-paced one," Phillips said during a recent event at Page and Palette bookstore in Fairhope.

Phillips, who grew up in Montgomery and majored in political journalism at Birmingham-Southern College, now lives with her husband and their 6-year-old son in Birmingham.

Her first novel, "The Well and the Mine," won the 2009 Barnes & Noble Discover Award for first-time writers. After that, she was able to quit her job as a magazine writer and concentrate on writing books full-time. Her second novel, "Come In and Cover Me," was released in 2012. She has also published two middle-grade books, "A Little Bit of Spectacular" and "The Hidden Summer."

"Fierce Kingdom" tells the story of Joan, a mom who's approaching the exit at the zoo with her four-year-old son, Lincoln, when she hears gunshots and sees a gunman kicking in the door of the women's bathroom. Then she sees bodies on the ground. She immediately scoops up her son and runs, caught inside the confines of the zoo like one of the wild animals that inhabit it.

The book has distinct parameters of time and space: It takes place within the walls of the zoo, over a span of three hours. "I knew, basically, how it would end," she said. "I don't outline extensively. I like to think of it in terms of getting a clear handle on the characters and letting them loose."

She wrote "Fierce Kingdom" in about four months, working while her son, who was the same age as the character Lincoln in the book, was at school. One of the great pleasures of writing the book, she said, was the opportunity to capture some of her child's traits and quirks at 4 years old.

"I stole bits and pieces of him," she said. "I wanted Lincoln to feel as three-dimensional as the adults in the book, not just a placeholder."

The zoo in the book isn't supposed to be in any certain city, but it's based on her visits to the Birmingham Zoo with her son. She was inspired to write the book during one of those visits, when, while walking along and daydreaming, she thought, what if a shooter were to come in here right now?

After she came up with her premise, she did a lot of wandering around there, taking notes, paying attention to routes around the property and listening to the sounds.

"I did change some things to fictionalize it," she said. "It's striking to me how many people seem to identify it as the zoo they're familiar with."

Actress Margot Robbie's production company, LuckyChap Entertainment, bought the movie rights to "Fierce Kingdom." "I'm just upset I didn't create a role for George Clooney," Phillips joked. "It's a pretty introspective book, so it will be interesting to see how it translates."

Unlike some writers, who feel intimidated by a blank screen, Phillips said she never experiences writer's block. "I love the beginnings of stories," she said. "It's so exciting when you have the while story in front of you and anything can happen. The discovery of it is the fun part."

Her next book will be one of two manuscripts she's completed. One, set in Fairhope in the early 1900s, follows a boy and girl who grew up there. It explores the idea of utopia, "the concept of creating a perfect life," she said.

The other takes place in Birmingham and traces a friendship between two women from college to their 90s.

After her appearance in Fairhope, Phillips traveled to Scottsdale, Ariz., and California to promote "Fierce Kingdom," a literary page-turner that's keeping readers up all night to finish the book. "Everyone wants to tell me what time they went to bed," she said. "It's really a lovely compliment in this context."

Share on
Article Alabama writer earns rave reviews for new novel, 'Fierce Kingdom' compiled by www.al.com