Michael Phillips is the author of at least 60 novels and 20 non-fiction books. A California native, he and his wife Judy raised three sons. They also ran their own press and bookshop, motivated largely by a desire to bring the works of the Scottish Victorian writer George MacDonald, the “Father of the Inklings,” back into circulation. Thirty years later, their labor of love has borne rich fruit. All MacDonald’s works are widely available in many forms, and from many publishers.
When I contacted Michael Phillips to request this interview, I had to include a story, because when I was a teenager, I met him and his family at a summer camp. Michael happened to overhear me saying “I dinna ken” (Scottish dialect for “I don’t know”) to a friend, and the next thing I knew, he had shipped me a box of MacDonald novels, as well as his own Mercy and Eagleflight and Secret of the Rose series!
Elisabeth: Michael, that kind of generosity and investment in a random teenager still makes me smile.
Michael: As I began to read, I gasped in disbelief! The incident with you and your friend is keen in my memory. I laughed out loud to be reminded of it. How great it is to hear from you!
Having read many of MacDonald’s books since then, I find that I still carry his wisdom and character lessons in my heart, and they tend to come out when I’m writing an article or counseling a friend. So thank you!
An Interview with Michael Phillips
When and how did you discover George MacDonald’s work? What was the impression it made on you?
Hannah Hurnard said that anyone who loves C.S. Lewis will eventually move on to George MacDonald. Not only was I shocked that anyone could move on from Lewis, I was intrigued. Judy and I had just discovered Narnia at the time and a little search yielded MacDonald’s two Curdie books in our local library. At the Back of the North Wind and Elizabeth Yates’ edited edition of Sir Gibbie followed, and we gradually searched for and found some of MacDonald’s full length fiction. I still wasn’t what I would call “hooked,” but the moment I discovered the two Malcolm stories, I was gone. Malcolm’s world became, for me, a real life Narnia. I think at that moment I knew I had been set on a course to reintroduce the world to George MacDonald.
I’d love to hear how you made the decision to edit and republish these very old-fashioned novels. Did you have a specific audience in mind?
I find that people are no longer aware that, by the 1970s, there were only a handful of fairy tales in print—not a single novel, not a single sermon, not a single poem. It became a passion: people had to know this man. That’s why I began. My original vision was not just to edit the novels: we also published MacDonald’s originals through our own Sunrise Books. I tried to produce every conceivable genre of MacDonald offering so that everyone, no matter what their taste and reading level, could find MacDonald books to read.
Did you find that the process affected your own worldview and walk with the Lord?
The spiritual framework of George MacDonald’s writings, and his perspective of God’s Fatherhood and work in the lives of his men and women changed everything for me. I was a lifelong Christian in the evangelical tradition. But MacDonald opened my eyes to the magnitude of God’s being and purposes in so many new ways it would take a book to enumerate them. What am I saying? I have written, I think, a half dozen books (in addition to the edited editions of MacDonald) that attempt to illuminate how MacDonald has changed my spiritual worldview on so many aspects of the Christian life in relation to the overarching Fatherhood of God. Not just my worldview in some abstract way, but my entire daily moment-by-moment walk with God.
I’m curious as to which came first: Michael Phillips the editor, or Michael Phillips the novelist.
What an insightful question. In many ways it is a question that goes to the heart of who I am as a writer.
Definitely the editor came first. I consider myself—ahem, sorry to sound boastful!—a good editor. On the other side of it, I do not consider myself a natural born writer or novelist. I have worked very hard to learn the craft. And in that learning process, MacDonald has been my constant guide and mentor.
It was the editing of MacDonald’s books, line by line, word by word, that ingrained into me the technique and process and craft of writing. I learned how to write by editing, by taking MacDonald’s writing apart and then putting it back together again. I suppose it was a little like a boy who loves clocks learning what makes them work by taking clocks apart. And I still love that process.
I hate to face a blank page. The first draft of any book is torture for me. But once I have a draft, however horribly written it is, then the fun begins. I put on my editor’s hat and go to work. I love second, third, fourth, and fifth drafts! I live to edit. But of course, if you don’t write anything, you’ll have nothing to edit.
C. S. Lewis wrote that while he regarded MacDonald as his master, he was not a good novelist. Would you agree?
Sure, from a technical standpoint, MacDonald’s lengthy digressions and sermonizing would be classified a stylistic “weakness” with regard to the “art” of fiction. And though Lewis goes on to say that some of his best things are hidden in his dullest books, I think Lewis still classifies him as a second rate novelist. With that I disagree, though I see his point.
For me the mad laird—and all the other memorable characters from Malcolm to Gibbie—the spiritual progress or declension of those characters, the spiritual threads and themes and insights woven in and through their lives and decisions and life journeys: these all represent the essence of MacDonald’s greatness.
In these aspects of his literary work, he is without peers. So do you say that he is a bad novelist, yet in these certain aspects of novel writing he is the best? That strikes me as something of a nonsensical statement. The “good” aspects of his writing cannot be divorced from the whole. Many novelists invent memorable characters. But MacDonald is alone in his development of humanity’s spiritual dimension. More than anything else, this is the feature of his writing that I have consistently tried to emulate in my own.
MacDonald and Lewis are my masters and mentors both spiritually and literarily. But I consider MacDonald the better writer (including better novelist) of the two. Lewis is not always the greatest writing technician. It is his ideas and his logic and his imagery that shine. Though some of MacDonald’s work is burdened by wordiness, digressions, and tangential spiritual bunny trails, even when following a tangent, his modes of expression and word-smithing are fantastic.
His digressions, both in plot and sermonizing, sometimes make even my eyes glaze over. That’s why I edited his books: in order to focus on the core germ of brilliance that I find in most of them, removing some of the extraneous bits that distract people from the greatness of the characters and stories themselves.
You mentioned to me that “good writing is not always the same thing as good—or worthwhile or classic—fiction.” What is the difference?
In my opinion, P.G. Wodehouse is the wordsmith and writing technician par excellence of all time. I could conduct a complete writing seminar using nothing but his books, and yet as works of fiction, they are pure farce, without any eternally redeeming value. They make me laugh, and they have taught me more about the excellence of the writing craft than anyone but MacDonald, yet are they “classic” works of good fiction like Dostoyevsky or the like? Obviously not. However, if I was lost on a desert island, I would want the four gospels, a set of MacDonald, a set of Wodehouse, and Mere Christianity—along with paper, pen, and ink so that I could produce some new works of my own. I’d leave Dostoyevsky at home.
What do you feel is the central or unique message or quality MacDonald offers to modern readers?
Many point to his fantasies and fairy tales as most revealing of his genius. I feel that this analysis misses the core of everything MacDonald was about. All his work points to the character of a loving, forgiving, embracing, life-giving, obedience-demanding, character-developing, utterly trustworthy Father. You obviously see his non-fiction suffused with this theme—it is on every page of his volumes of sermons. But it runs through the stories and fairy tales too.
Intrinsic to MacDonald’s comprehensive portrait of an eternally loving and forgiving Fatherhood is the second half of his unique and central message—God’s purpose in His creation, which is the fashioning of men and women to live eternally as the sons and daughters of His Fatherhood. God is building sons and daughters. That is what His Fatherhood does. It is what all life is about. Nothing else matters.
To fashion sons and daughters, He demands obedience of them, not because He is cruel or is intent to punish sin to the uttermost ends of the universe, but because He knows that in obedient sonship and daughterhood is personhood fulfilled. He is a good Father, and He desires nothing but good for His children.
God therefore reveals Himself to humanity as Father, with the intent that we, His created children, respond in loving and chosen obedience to that Fatherhood as revealed and taught by Jesus. To the extent we obey what Jesus taught and follow his example of Sonship, we grow into our own sonship and daughterhood in the divine Fatherhood.
All MacDonald’s characters are moving, growing, changing. Some, like Malcom, Gibbie, and Donal Grant, Mary Marston and Janet Grant, are growing toward God’s Fatherhood, and thus toward their own sonship and their own daughterhood, while MacDonald’s villains are growing negatively away from it. Curdie’s hand, purified by the fire of rose petals, can discern the direction of that growth. MacDonald’s weird crowning fantasy Lilith is all about this very thing—will Lilith in the end relinquish self and submit to the eternally recreating Fatherhood in her own rebellious heart? It is this process of growth into sonship and daughterhood that is central to all MacDonald’s work.
George MacDonald presents a comprehensive picture of God’s Fatherhood that in my opinion is unmatched in scope and clarity in all Christian literature or theology.
In 2018, you launched what you called “the most ambitious writing undertaking” of your life. Can you tell us how it began?
I have written a new biography called George MacDonald: A Writer’s Life. As is so often the case, my dear Judy was partially the inspiration for the book. For years she has said that I needed to compile my introductions to MacDonald’s novels from our editions of the 1980s. As I began to do so, I decided also to write introductions to the rest of MacDonald’s novels. Then further, I decided to present these introductions chronologically, along with a progressive account of the events of MacDonald’s life that led to his writing of each of the novels.
The project quickly took on a life of its own! When I began, I envisioned a book of 200-300 pages. But it grew and grew, and my research went off in more and more interesting directions, and…well, you get the idea! What resulted was the longest biography of MacDonald ever written, telling the “story behind the stories” of MacDonald’s books.
But that was just the beginning, right?
We are also publishing newly updated editions of all MacDonald’s novels—including expanded and lengthier new editions of those I edited back in the 1980s. The new series is called The Cullen Collection, in honor of the village in Scotland where MacDonald wrote and set his classic, Malcolm.
The first books in the new series are now available, and the rest will be released throughout the remainder of 2018…with 6 titles yet to be updated to be released in early 2019.
Will there be more books than the Bethany House editions published in the 1980s?
There were 18 titles in the 1980 editions. The Cullen Collection contains all 37 of MacDonald’s full-length fiction titles, including 31 newly updated editions of his realistic novels, and his 6 unabridged fantasies.
What prompted you to undertake such a massive project?
One of the main reasons for the new editions is simply that the 1980s publications are no longer available. I wanted to get them back in print and update them at the same time.
How does the Cullen Collection compare to George MacDonald’s originals published in the 1800s and to the Bethany editions of the 1980s?
The new editions are edited from George MacDonald’s originals, with most of the dialect “translated.” In addition, while updating the 18 books that were done for Bethany in the 1980s, I used the Bethany editions side-by-side with the originals to retain the same general flavor that readers have already found so helpful. And I think the covers of the new editions will draw readers into the stories, and into the magic of Scotland a little more than the stereotyped Bethany covers. In the covers for the different groupings of The Cullen Collection, I have tried to capture the flavor and feel of the books they represent.
How (in more detail) do your new editions compare to those you published before?
They are similar, but 2o-30% longer. Because of the constraints of the publishing process, and the need to find a publisher in the first place, I had to edit the Bethany editions in some cases more than I would have liked. That was simply the reality of getting MacDonald’s books back into print, and I am so grateful for those editions and the groundswell of interest in MacDonald that resulted from them. But all along I hoped one day to have the opportunity to re-publish the books without having to worry about, “What will an editor or publisher think of this?” I hoped to be able to present them in exactly the way that I personally would want to read them. The Cullen Collection achieves that. I honestly think readers will love them even more than the editions they loved so much from the 1980s.
I like what Gretchen says about this: “In other words, the books we didn’t really want to see end will now last a little bit longer?! This will be delightful.” And what am I most excited about? The fact that The Cullen Collection will be available on Kindle! Now it won’t matter what side of the world I’m on, and whether my own copies are nearby.
Have you heard of George MacDonald? If so, how? Who is your favorite character in his fantasies or novels? How have you experienced God’s son and daughter-making work in your own life?
You can find out more about Michael Phillips and George MacDonald at Father of the Inklings.com. View all of The Cullen Collection available on Amazon.
(originally published in 2015; edited from the archives)
Photography: JenniMarie Photography