Silver Spring author scores a ‘Touchdown’ with novel

Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2006

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In spirit, Lyda Phillips is hardly her mother’s daughter. The Silver Spring writer dedicated her recently published young adult novel ‘‘Mr. Touchdown” to her ‘‘de facto mother” Leola Thomas. Phillips explains that her ‘‘over-protective and neurotic” real mother hired the black woman ‘‘to work full-time as my nanny and our housekeeper so she could return to teaching.”

Thomas, she says, ‘‘was a much calmer and more consistent parent than my actual mother, who harrowed my soul” and transmitted a ‘‘boatload of self-doubt.”

Still, Phillips is grateful for having ‘‘inherited or learned” from a mother whose attributes she acknowledges. She was ‘‘a reader, a dreamer and a seeker of some kind of higher truth and meaning.”

Phillips’ father and older brother, ‘‘who was like a third parent,” also served as positive influences. Her ‘‘almost silent” father, she says, ‘‘radiated a quiet acceptance of me that was a tremendous comfort through the buffets of my discordant relationship with my mother.” As a child, Phillips recalls feeling ‘‘allied with” the family’s two males and watching football games with them ‘‘while my mother slammed around the house and complained about how much she hated football.”

The young girl loved dogs and horses, and wanted to take riding lessons.

‘‘Instead, my mother made me take piano lessons,” she says, then adds, ‘‘As a result, I now have a horse and two dogs – and no piano.”

‘‘Mr. Touchdown” was inspired by Phillips’ observation of the four African American students who integrated her Southern white high school in 1965. Whereas the boy was readily accepted upon proving his athletic prowess, the three girls were ignored.

‘‘The image of then sitting there alone has stayed with me ever since,” Phillips says. ‘‘Since then, I’ve talked to probably hundreds of people – black and white — about their experiences with segregation.”

At Northwestern University, she became ‘‘radicalized.”

‘‘By the spring of 1968, a revolution had begun,” she observes, citing the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. ‘‘The country was in flames.”

After college, Phillips moved to New York, where she took ‘‘a gazillion little stupid jobs,” then went to Columbia University for a master’s in Middle East history. and started on a doctorate at Columbia University.

‘‘Just short of my Ph.D. orals,” she says, ‘‘I took a hard look at what I was doing and realized it was ridiculous. I hated research.”

Her next stop, a job at an oil industry trade paper, was the start of a 15-year career that included small weeklies and dailies, UPI and the Nashville Banner. In the end, she opted out of journalism, too, this time because ‘‘I was becoming too partisan, couldn’t hide it.”

Instead, Phillips proceeded to earn a master’s degree in public policy at Vanderbilt University, work for a gubernatorial campaign and a public relations firm and study screenwriting.

About the same time, she also made ‘‘a major breakthrough” by writing fiction for middle-graders and young adults.

‘‘I took some classes, went to conferences, found an amazing critique group, and started pounding out novels and screenplays while my husband went backpacking on weekends,” she says.

Phillips came to Washington in 2000 for a job with the pollsters for Al Gore, afterwards moving on as communications director for the Association of Alternative Newspapers and finally to her current position as a reporter for BNA.

With the almost insurmountable difficulties involved in getting first novels published, Phillips decided to self-publish her work — ‘‘Falcon’s Way” and ‘‘Mr. Touchdown” — through iUniverse, a print-on-demand publisher.

iUniverse was the only company she found that offers the option of having an editor review and critique the manuscript. If it’s good enough, she says, the book ‘‘is recommended for the Editor’s Choice designation, which at least gets your head above the vast sea of bad books that are self-published.” Both her novels qualified.

Full-time writing is Phillips’ goal, which she is working toward ‘‘with all my heart and strength.” In addition to continuing ‘‘to submit to traditional publishers and vigorously market my two self-published novels,” she works with critique partners, takes classes as well as private screenwriting lessons, and may self-publish a third novel later this year.

For now, she says, ‘‘I keep writing, always. It keeps my soul alive.”

No doubt, both Phillips’ mothers would be proud she found her own fulfilling form of self-expression.

To order ‘‘Mr. Touchdown” (182 pages, $13.95), call 1-800-AUTHORS.