This interview was originally published in November 2019 on the Vital Narrative Press blog. -DPC
Mr. Peter Philipps is quite the character. He’s a Holocaust survivor, a retired journalist who worked for The New York Times, Businessweek, and McGraw Hill, as well as a US Army veteran and former volunteer for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He was born in 1931 in Essen, Germany, but was forced to flee his hometown after Hitler came into power. He has lived in Prague, Czechoslovakia, Genoa, Italy, Quito, Ecuador, New York City, and finally Bethesda, Maryland, where he has settled down. When he arrived in the United States in the early 1940s, he didn’t speak a word of English, but he taught himself so well that he eventually became a professional editor (and he’s VERY strict about grammar). We met in person earlier this year and we have been in touch since late 2018 because I stumbled upon his history while doing research for my fourth novel. He creates his fiction with meticulous skills and outstanding brilliance. I had the honor of interviewing the incredible Mr. Philipps about his writing career. This is what we discussed:
Peter Philipps: So, you’re interviewing me because I made Time magazine’s Man of the Year, is that right?
Darlene P. Campos: Yes, that’s exactly why.
PP: Excellent. I’m ready for you.
DPC: Number 1 – Describe your writing style and your preferred genres.
PP: My writing style is lousy.
DPC: (laughs) That’s not true.
PP: My preferred genre is nonfiction since I was a journalist, but I started writing fiction after I retired. I just never had the time to earlier.
DPC: Number 2 – What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
PP: I like to read, cook, and I build. I build bookshelves and cabinets and other things. I built the book cabinet and bar combination in my house that takes up a whole wall. I built a cedar closet in my basement and a pantry, too. In my living room, I built two walls of shelves for my books and stereo equipment. Those are the major things I’ve done, but I wouldn’t call myself a good craftsman.
DPC: From what I remember about your house, the cabinets and shelves looked fine to me, so give yourself some credit.
PP: You didn’t look closely. But, anyway, I really do enjoy working with my hands.
DPC: Number 3 – In your opinion, what is the best piece you’ve ever written and why?
PP: Oh, probably my short story titled “In the Time Remaining.” It’s my best piece because everybody likes it.
DPC: Number 4 – In your opinion, what is the worst piece you’ve ever written and why?
PP: I’m thinking, I’m thinking. I think all my pieces are the worst.
DPC: All of them? I wouldn’t say all of them.
PP: I don’t have my book in front of me, it’s upstairs.
DPC: I have your book right next to me, let me read you the titles.
PP: Oh, well, I think those are all pretty good.
DPC: Told you. What about the articles you wrote during your journalism years? Was there one you hated?
PP: Those were all crap.
DPC: All crap?! Really?
PP: There was a series of financial planning articles I wrote for Businessweek. I won a National Press Club journalism award for that.
DPC: That means it wasn’t the worst thing you ever wrote then.
PP: Well, no. I guess I don’t have an answer.
DPC: Number 5 – When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
PP: About in the 1960s. I have always loved reading and wanted to make a living out of my writing, but I didn’t write any fiction until much later in life. Life interfered with my ambition to become a writer like marriage and children, and I couldn’t afford to quit my day job to write full time. Besides, I didn’t think I had any talent and I don’t.
DPC: What makes you think you don’t have any talent?
PP: If I had any talent, I would’ve been successful. Lots of people totally ignored my book. A few people paid me some compliments, but that’s about it. The book never really went anywhere, I think I sold three copies.
DPC: From personal experience, I can tell you it’s very tough to be a writer.
PP: Yes, it is. But you are very persistent. I stopped counting rejections when I reached 400 and that’s when I thought, well, maybe I’m not a writer. I also don’t like most stories that are written these days, particularly in the exalted New Yorker magazine.
DPC: When you talk about your rejections, do you mean for your book or do you mean something else?
PP: Four hundred rejections for my short stories.
DPC: Oh, I see. If it makes you feel better, I’ve received around 600 rejections for my short stories.
PP: (laughs) Wow! You are persistent. If anyone deserves some success, it’s you because of the way you persist and don’t give up.
Mr. Philipps in 1950
DPC: Number 6 – Imagine you’re stranded in a busy city and you don’t have a way to get home – which one of your characters would you call for a ride?
PP: (laughs heartily) They’d all leave me stranded because I’m an old grouch!
DPC: There has to be at least one who’d pick you up.
PP: Hmm, Jakob Herz from “In the Time Remaining,” because he’s such a nice guy.
DPC: Number 7 – You are in dire need of a home repair that you can’t fix yourself, so which one of your characters is coming to your rescue?
PP: What? Who made up these questions?
DPC: I did.
PP: (laughs again) You’re a Spitze (German word for great, cool, wild, etc.).
DPC: I like fun questions. Nobody likes a boring interview.
PP: Right. Hmm, which character…hmmm, the character from “Lady in Blue.” She’d call a good repairman for me.
DPC: She’d probably call [my husband] David.
PP: Hah! I imagine she would.
DPC: Number 8 – When you are experiencing writer’s block, what do you do to get the inspiration rolling?
PP: Have another drink! Vodka on the rocks, specifically Tito’s Vodka. It sometimes works for me, or I just shut down the computer and take a rest for a day or two.
DPC: Number 9 – Do you use any real-life experiences in your fiction?
PP: Of course. “Lady in Blue” is based on my neighbor. “Schadenfreude” is based on someone I knew long ago and “Can We Talk” is based on another person I know. “History Lesson” is based on real events, too.
DPC: Number 10 – If you could have dinner with any writer, living or dead, who would you pick?
PP: Hmm, that’s a good question. I’m looking at my bookshelf. I would say…Winston Churchill, for sure.
DPC: Winston Churchill wrote books?
PP: Oh, many books. He’s my hero, I think he’s fascinating. He saved us from being conquered by the Nazis.
Mr. Philipps in Germany during his service with the US Army
DPC: Number 11 – What is your favorite book and why?
PP: John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga. It’s about a family named Forsyte living in the 1800s and I just get right into it, as if I’m part of it. It speaks to me. Another writer I love is Bernard Malamud. He wrote wonderful short stories and a book called The Fixer. My favorite short story writer is Irwin Shaw.
DPC: Number 12 – What advice do you have for amateur writers?
PP: To stick the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.
DPC: That’s a funny way to put it.
PP: It’s not original, I didn’t make it up.
DPC: Number 13 – Do you write in other languages or would you consider it?
PP: Nope. Too difficult.
DPC: Number 14 – Writers live forever through their works, so which work would you like to be remembered for?
PP: I guess my book.
DPC: Not your journalism work?
PP: When you’re a journalist, you write stories every day, but for me, nothing sticks out. I’ve thrown everything away as well.
DPC: Number 15 – Tell me your best joke.
PP: I don’t have any, I don’t remember jokes.
DPC: Number 16 – If you could go back in time, would you have started writing fiction sooner?
PP: Yes. I was busy earning a living and raising a family when I was younger. Actually, I originally planned to be an engineer, but I got kicked out of school because I’m very poor at math and physics, so I flunked every single course. I made a poor decision. That’s how I got into journalism and writing. I’m a real dope when it comes to math.
DPC: Number 17 – Who would you say is your biggest inspiration?
PP: Richard Yates, Irwin Shaw, Bernard Malamud, and John Cheever.
DPC: Number 18 – If you could not write, say, if you were to write something, you’d go to prison, what would you do?
PP: I’d go to prison.
DPC: What if you had to share your cell with a serial killer?
PP: (laughs) I’m not afraid of cereal, I have cereal for breakfast every morning.
DPC: See? You have jokes!
PP: That’s the best I could do.
DPC: Number 19 – What are you working on right now?
PP: I haven’t written in a while, I’ve been very discouraged. I’ve been thinking about writing some autobiographical pieces.
DPC: Oh! I’d read that!
PP: You might be the only one who does.
DPC: Then you’ve got an audience.
DPC: Number 20 – Last question. Is there a story that you want to tell but you haven’t written it yet?
PP: Yes, somewhere in my head lurks a story I want to write.
DPC: When will you start writing it then?
PP: Before I die, I guess.
DPC: Well, that’d be the best time to do it. Those were all the questions I had for you. Did you have fun?
PP: (laughs) I had fun. Let’s stay in touch, Darlene.
I hope you enjoyed this interview with the talented Peter Philipps as much as I enjoyed interviewing him.
Mr. Philipps and I, 2019
For more information about Peter Philipps, please visit his profile page on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website here: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/id-card/peter-philipps
Read “In the Time Remaining” at: https://www.ushmm.org/remember/holocaust-reflections-testimonies/echoes-of-memory/in-the-time-remaining
Read “Garden Music” at: https://www.ushmm.org/remember/holocaust-reflections-testimonies/echoes-of-memory/garden-music
Read “The Invitation” at: https://www.ushmm.org/remember/holocaust-reflections-testimonies/echoes-of-memory/the-invitation