Books by Phyllis

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Books by Phyllis 2017-02-21T13:09:59+00:00

Rather than just setting the books down in a list, with the latest one first,  I thought it might be interesting to create a book biography in which I say a little something about what was going on at the time each book was written.  Books are like people, born with a background that at least partially explains how they came into being.  So, starting at the beginning…

California and Other States of Grace

California & Other States of Grace was my first book. I was 38, had just left my marriage and was struggling to take care of three very young children when I was asked to write a series of personal essays for the New York Times. This was a huge break, which landed me a publisher and a contract to expand upon what my essays touched upon – growing up in a large, idealistic family in California. Looking back, the chapters pretty much poured out of me. I felt as if I was being given a scholarship to write the story of my life at the precise moment that it was falling apart. For the most part, the reviews were very encouraging. My family, however, was not thrilled to see their foibles and lives in print.

Publisher: William Morrow; 1st edition (June 1980)

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Peripheral Visions

Peripheral Visions is a collection of personal essays, many of which had already appeared in various magazines or newspapers. They dealt with whatever seemed worth exploring,   from starting a vegetable garden to dealing with a bully who was antagonizing my older son. Now in my early 40’s, living a full and unbalanced life, I was knee-deep in subject material. The essay form lent itself to philosophical reflection and was short enough for me to complete between catastrophes, which is what being the mother of small children tended to involve.

Publisher: William Morrow; 1st edition (December 1981)

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Night Lights

Nightlights: Bedtime Stories for Parents in the Dark, is a collection of personal essays which revolve around the maddeningly difficult, funny, heart-breaking experience of raising children. I used to tell them that whenever they said something funny or profound which wound up in a essay that they were supporting themselves. But there were many times when what my children did or said did not reflect upon parenthood but upon learning how to be a human being. “You’re lucky,” said my younger son, “you’ve already made it through.”  (of course that remark wound up in print.)

Publisher: Viking; First Published edition (February 10, 1987)

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Serefina Under the Circumstances

Serefina Under the Circumstances is an illustrated children’s book about a little girl who loved big words. It might never have existed if the poet Naomi Shilab Nye (who was in Richmond, Virginia with her 10 year old son, Madison, on a teaching gig) had not picked up the phone to introduce herself. I invited the two of them for supper and Naomi arrived bearing a present, her children’s book Sitti’s Secret, about a little Palestinian American girl visiting her grandmother in Israel. I loved it and told her that upstairs in my office I had a half-finished story about a little girl who lived with her grandmother Naomi asked to see it and after she read it she said, “Finish this right away and I will send it to my publisher.” I did as she said, Naomi sent it to Greenwillow Press, and Serafina Under the Circumstances was the result.

Publisher: Greenwillow Books (September 30, 1999)

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Book of Eulogies

The Book of Eulogies evolved out of my love of reading about inspiring and/or interesting people after they died. When I decided to collect some of the best tributes I could find I started my research at the Library of Congress to see how anthologies of great eulogies had been arranged in the past. I was amazed to discover that it had never been done before. Ever. In any language. It took me about two years to pull the material together. In the process I became an enthusiastic amateur historian, linking lives together that had previously been disconnected in my mind. (Henry David Thoreau was ten years old when Beethoven died. Helen Keller’s funeral was held the same day Robert Kennedy was assassinated.) Interestingly, after The Book of Eulogies was published, several other eulogy collections – each with its own twist – came out as well, proving that the same good idea usually occurs to a lot of people at the same time.

Publisher: Scribner, (May 30, 1997); Reprint (January 10, 2015)

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Powell's
Giovanni's Light

The idea for Giovanni’s Light came to me after a massive snowstorm in Washington brought the city to a halt. I dashed off few pages about how the snowfall affected the town and put it away to finish later. When I moved to Ashland I took it with me and every once in awhile I would fish it out and work upon it some more. Then my mother came to live with me and urged me to finish it so she could know what happened before she died. I pushed everything aside, and got it done. The money from the sale was used to build the writer’s cottage behind my house. Unlike my other books, Giovanni’s Light seems like a gift that was beyond my ability to write.

Publisher: Scribner (November 1, 2002)

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Powell's
The Journal Keeper

The Journal Keeper is a memoir in journal form which encompasses six years of my life in my mid-60s. I began the book after my efforts to write another book – about  my  mother’s life – kept stalling. A friend encouraged me to lay that project aside and edit my journals. The result was a chronologically arranged memoir about a lot of things – getting old, living in a small town, struggles with the creative life, and the joy of keeping a journal about all of it.  It has done well and fueled a wave of seminars teaching others how to keep their own journals.

Publisher: Grove (October 1, 2010)

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Powell's
The Good Bishop

The Good Bishop began as an oral history, commissioned by a group of Protestant ministers who wanted to honor their Catholic colleague,  Bishop Walter Sullivan, who had been a guiding force and inspiration in their lives. A controversial, liberal-leaning bishop in the right-leaning diocese of Richmond, Virginia,  Sullivan was a living legend and it did not take me long to realize that his life was too large to be contained by an oral history. The well-regarded Catholic publishing house, Orbis Books, agreed with this assessment and gave me a contract to finish the book as a biography. It was a race to the finish. The last lines were written only days before Bishop Sullivan died.

Publisher: Orbis Books (May 1, 2013)

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Powell's

CURRENTLY IN THE WORKS… The biography-memoir of my mother (working title, HOW MY MOTHER ATTAINED ENLIGHTENMENT), who was born into a wealthy family that disintegrated, dropped out of school at 14, married at 19, had six children, two nervous breakdowns, one heart attack, and left her marriage without any money or means to earn a living. She came to live with me when she was 80 and nearly blind. For five years we lived together, during which time I asked questions, took notes, and prepared myself for the day when she would no longer be with me. This book is my way of ensuring that she will always be close by – for everyone.