RACHAEL PHILLIPS: COLUMNIST, COMIC, AND COMFORTER
Some people collect stamps; others collect coins or rocks. Upland, Indiana resident Rachael Phillips collects experiences. From taking a walk to attending a festival, she absorbs life. Then she writes. No experience is too trivial for her memory or too small to spark a story.
“I love mentally to collect oddities and unique scenarios featuring what people say and do,” she says.
Once she rode her bike over a bridge and saw a half-melted rotary dial telephone on the railing. She still doesn’t know why it was there, but it sparked her imagination.
“I started to think maybe aliens stuck a phone there and zapped it with their lasers. Or maybe there was a bet involved between adolescent boys…. It would make a fun short story.”
Until a few years ago, Phillips had no thought of writing anything. She was a wife and mother and the director of her church’s music program. She enjoyed writing letters to missionaries as a personal ministry, and she loved reading.
“When the kids went to bed, it was like sneaking chocolate out of a box—grab a book and read!”
She never imagined authoring one of the books on her shelf.
Then her church secretary ordered every member of the church staff (including Phillips) to write a monthly article for the church newsletter. Everyone grumbled, except Phillips. She found she had a talent for writing.
In the late 1990s, soon after she began writing for the newsletter, Phillips learned of a writing workshop at Bethel College (Mishawaka, Indiana), close to her home at the time. She heard Janette Oke, Jim Watkins and Dr. Dennis E. Hensley speak.
“It was a joy. They challenged us and said… ‘Send your writing in for publication if you possibly can.'”
Soon after, Phillips saw an advertisement in the hometown section of her local newspaper, the South Bend Tribune, asking for news.
“So, I wrote a column on taking a walk. You know, a really heavy subject.”
The newspaper called her back and asked if she had any more pieces they could print. Then they offered her a job as a reporter.
When her oldest child graduated from high school, Phillips felt God calling her to pursue her writing career more aggressively. She quit her job as music director at her church and began taking classes at Bethel College for a degree in writing.
“That’s one of the very few times in my life I’ve felt sure of what God wanted me to do.”
Phillips finished her associate’s degree in writing in 2000 and graduated with a bachelor’s in English in 2005.
During those years she published four biographies. But she didn’t feel her career was solid yet.
“Even after I wrote the biographies I couldn’t call myself a writer. I just couldn’t do it. I was afraid somehow, that if I said it, the dream would disappear.” In 2004, everything changed.
Phillips sent a short piece called “Dam it All, Anyway” to the Erma Bombeck Global Humor competition. It was the story of having a son-in-law with the Dutch last name of Dam and having to deal with the oddities of that. Out of 1,100 entries, Phillips won first place.
“When I won that award, it made me realize that perhaps the dream wouldn’t disappear.”
The piece related a mix-up Phillips experienced when her daughter was trying to tell her about her new boyfriend (and future hubby). Rachael told the experience with her zippy brand of humor and has since become an accomplished comedy writer.
Though now recognized for her humor, Phillips has written in a wide variety of genres. As mentioned, her first books were biographies. Her very first book was Fredrick Douglass: Abolitionist and Reformer published by Barbour in 2000. She then published Billy Sunday: Evangelist on the Sawdust Trail, St. Augustine: Early Church Father and Well with My Soul, a collection of four hymn writers’ mini-biographies with Barbour in 2001, 2002 and 2003, respectively.
After winning the humor award, Phillips began writing romances. She drew on her music background to write her novella In Tune with You in Cedar Creek Seasons, an Easter disaster in which classically trained choirmaster meets tone-deaf drama coach and his rowdy cast. She set many of her stories in places she knew personally. The Return of Miss Blueberry, published by Harlequin in 2012, takes place in Plymouth, Indiana, where Phillips lived for several years. Phillips even incorporated a local festival into her story, capturing the small town atmosphere and giving her readers a real “taste” of Indiana. She followed a similar pattern in her most recent romance, Kissing Bridges, set in Parke County, Indiana, where 31 covered bridges, historically known as “kissing bridges” that accommodated courting couples a century ago, are celebrated during the Covered Bridge Festival.
In keeping with her unconventional writing career, Phillips doesn’t always follow the traditional love story recipe in her writing. She presented a proposal for a second-chance romance, though her colleagues discouraged her.
“Older people fall in love, too,” Phillips says.
In Ride with Me into Christmas, her novella in A Door County Christmas (Barbour), Phillips turns a typical romantic plot upside down. Instead of a young couple’s parents opposing their match, in this story a senior couple’s children oppose their marriage. Ride with Me into Christmas was nominated for the American Christian Fiction Writers’ coveted Carol Award.
Phillips’ other second-chance romance is The Greatest Show on Earth (Barbour). This story is also set in a small Indiana town familiar to Phillips.
In addition to her multiple published books, Phillips is a prolific magazine contributor and newspaper columnist. Her articles are based on her life experiences and the wisdom she has gained throughout the years. One article, “You’re Driving Me Crazy” published in Kyria, is about Phillips’ experiences riding in the car with her husband. In the article Phillips offers simple advice on marriage communication, with enough humor to keep her readers gasping for air.
Many of Phillips’ articles are about writing and others are about memories from her childhood. In each, she offers a few of her collected nuggets of wisdom and a cupful of her iconoclastic humor.
Out of all of her writing, Phillips’ favorite piece remains “Dam it All, Anyway,” though she says she’s enjoyed all her works in different ways. She loves this piece because it was a launching pad for her national career, and because it still makes her laugh.
In the future, Phillips wants to expand her writing beyond CBA markets to the secular publishing world. She hopes to write a full-length book of humor.
“Humor can help open doors, ” Phillips says. She feels that humor is her way of fulfilling her calling to love people and reach them for Christ. “Hopefully, the little windows I open here and there will let in the sunlight. I pray for my readers constantly, that the small things will touch them.”
Phillips tries to avoid being “preachy” in her writing. Though she says it would be much easier to preach, it’s not that simple.
She asks herself, “How do I get this out in a way that will get the point across in the way God would want?”
Phillips has recently taken new steps in her calling to write truth for secular markets. Her cozy mysteries, Recipe for Deception and Guilty Treasures (Annie’s Publishing), release this year in the secular market. A Midsummer Night’s Seam (Annie’s Publishing) will come out in 2014.
Phillips is hopeful that she will be able to touch many people with her writing.
“I seem to communicate mostly with your everyday people in a column or a book. My job is translation of the big concepts into everyday living. A lot of times it involves humor.”
As Phillips continues collecting experiences, she prays the Lord of Laughter will work through her to touch those who need His smile of grace.
Kristin Schwartz of Terre Haute, Indiana, is a Professional Writing major at Taylor University. She has been published in Christian Communicator, The Secret Place, The Aboite Independent, and Christian Book Previews.