Billy Phillips, President and CEO of Toon Studio Licensing, has ghost written over 15 books. I recently chatted with him about writing Once Upon A Zombie, his first fiction book. Read what he had to say below.
When did you first realize that you wanted to become a writer?
“I’ve been writing since I was in grade school. I would write plays and put them on in front of the class. I would write plays and put them on in front of the school. So I was writing since I was 8, 9, 10 years old. I’ve always had a love for writing.”
Who or what inspires your writing?
“Actually, the inspiration comes from practically everything in my life. I have a wide variety of interests. I can draw inspiration from any area. My biggest problem has always been filtering out the inspiration and focusing on one topic and one project at a time. I wish I could write 15 books at a time or research 15 books at a time. The inspiration comes easy. It can come from the smallest idea or large ideas from over a vast variety of subjects.”
Under what genre would you classify your writing?
“Thriller and Fantasy.”
Are there other authors whose work you enjoy reading?
“Yes, and for various different reasons. I enjoy George R.R. Martin. I found myself….and I’m not particularly, believe it or not, a rabid fan of the fantasy genre. I’m more a fan of thrillers. But when I read Game of Thrones, his writing style, his narrative, the descriptive elements of the book just absolutely blew me away. He was able to conjure up vivid imagery in my mind. I mean, his words, his sentences, his paragraphs….I found myself studying lines of texts wondering how he managed to convey more than what was on the page.
When I’m reading a book and it gets too descriptive, sometimes I’ll skim and go directly to the characters and the plot. I’m not always a fan of too much descriptive text. But George’s characters and scene descriptions, how he would evoke such emotion and imagery, blew me away. I also love, in terms of a thriller, reading Ken Follet. The Man From St. Petersburg. An amazing book because it takes place pre-World War I. There are no high tech weapons to dazzle you like today’s novels and movies. Yet, Ken created a page-turner, a compelling thriller and he did it in that particular setting. It was truly, to me, an amazing accomplishment, an extraordinary feat.
He’s also able to transport you anywhere with his writing style. I’m a big fan of Dickens. A Christmas Carol. It is one of my favorite stories of all time. I read it once a year, so those are some.”
Let’s talk about Once Upon A Zombie. What inspired you to write this book?
“I’ve never written for middle grade, or young adult before. I’ve ghost written for the last 15 years for adults. My son came to me and said, “Dad, why don’t you write a book on zombies?” It’s a really hot topic. So, my company owns the original Junior Elf children’s books including Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland…. I thought I’d blend zombies with the fairy tale universe. It happened in a flash and that was it. I also liked the zombie genre because no one really explained what a zombie can represent metaphorically or allegorically. There’s just always a virus or something causing an Apocalypse.
What’s the deeper metaphorical and allegorical symbolism behind a zombie? That was what I wanted to tackle.
Caitlin Fletcher is a protagonist afflicted with fears, anxieties and phobias. There are healthy fears and there are unhealthy fears. A healthy fear is if you’re afraid of leaving the oven on or the candles burning because you don’t want a fire to burn down your house. An unhealthy fear is being afraid that there’s a fire-breathing dragon underneath your bed. So the problem isn’t the fear. It is the kind of fear that you have.
To me, a zombie represents negative fear and also all those constant negative impulses that sabotage our lives. For example, we know something is good for us, and yet we talk ourselves out of it. We know certain things are bad for us, but we do it anyway—even though we don’t want to. How come its easy to get addicted to junk food, but not to zucchini? How come it’s not easy to get instantly addicted to a positive activity or behavior that will benefit our lives?
In the book, the Royal Zombies (Zombie Cinderella, Zombie Sleeping Beauty and Zombie Snow White) represent the good fears, and the will power to resist. The Blood-Eyed Zombies, the flesh-eating Zombies, represent our negative fears and impulses that are out of control. Resisting those negative impulses and fears is how we exercise free will. That’s how we become human. Most times we don’t exercise free will. We are slaves to our negative impulses and fears. We become mindless, like a zombie. So for Caitlin, that whole universe that is now crawling with zombies is a metaphor for that internal struggle inside all of us.”
How did you come up with the title?
“To start with ‘Once Upon’…and ‘zombies’, you’ll know immediately what the book is about.”
What would you say is the message of the book?
“I think the message of the book will evolve stronger through the course of the trilogy. The overall message is not to settle with coping with our issues, with our fears, or with our anxieties. We’re not here to just cope. We’re here to cure. How do you cure? You cure by not focusing on the “me.” That’s what breeds all fears and anxieties. It’s always ‘my fear’, ‘my worry’, and ‘my concern’. The one common element is the Me!
The key is to think about others. The moment Caitlin thinks about others, she is able to transcend her fears. When we learn to become unconditional in thinking about others, we open up a world of possibility and miracles. But that’s the paradox. You get it all when you are prepared to get nothing and only focus on aiding and assisting others.”
If you could change something about Once Upon A Zombie, what would it be?
“That’s a great question and my answer would be that I won’t even go there, meaning that you can perfect until the end of time. There comes a point where you’ve just got to let it stand on its own merits. I don’t like to look backwards. That was always a problem I had. I was always perfecting. I was always trying to make things better. That’s when your ego gets in the way. You’re now taking ownership of it instead of just being an open channel. Some of the best films, you see a lot of flaws in the production, but they’re so full of passion, you don’t care.
So I train myself, no regrets. Don’t look back. Look forward and if ideas come to me, then I will try to implement them in Book 2, Book 3 or Book 4. Always look forward. Try to keep evolving.”
What advice would you give writers seeking to publish their first book?
“Success isn’t measured solely by whether or not you’re published. There is so much you can learn, so much you can channel, so it’s kinda like a paradox. You should enjoy the journey rather than focusing on the reward. You kinda have to do a delicate balancing act. We all want to be published, but writing is a gift.
Writing is an art. Writing is a blessing. If you’re able to write, that should be the reward in your mind. That’s a more of a loftier position. The more practical advice is just don’t give up. Everybody says it and it’s so true and it’s so simple.
You have to resist those negative thoughts. If you’ve touched the life of just one person with your writing, you’ve touched the universe.”
Are there any current writing projects you’re working on that you would like to share?
“I’m working on Book 2 of Once Upon A Zombie. The working title is Once Upon A Zombie: The Lord of the Curtain.”