Q&A with Alumni Award Recipient Jo McClelland Phillips

Q&A with Alumni Award Recipient Jo McClelland Phillips

This year is the fifth year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, today’s with Jo McClelland Phillips.

Jo McClelland Phillips was born on the shores of Lake Ontario, then migrated to the mountains of New South Wales. Her work has been published in TIME Magazine, USA Today, Fairfax Media, and Mashable along with several national and independent newspapers and magazines. She is the winner of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award and she has been shortlisted for the Publisher Introduction Program Fellowship with Varuna, the National Writers House in NSW. Her short story, The Glass Slipper, won the Fringe Festival Award at The Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, and received honourable mention in The Glass Woman Prize.

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?

In August 2015, I was mother to a 4-month-old, living in Ontario, Canada, waiting on the paperwork that would reunite me with my husband, who was living in New South Wales, Australia. He owns his own bookstore (which may or may not have been one of the key factors of me marrying him in the first place) and a neighbour invited him to join her team in The Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen (GISHWHES, pronounced gish-wes). The winning team would receive a holiday for all 15 members to join Misha Collins in Iceland. I joined the team as well so that the pictures of his daughter that I sent him every day might be a little more interesting.

Jo on scavenger huntDuring that week, among other photos (including literally “”buttering-up”” my baby), I posed with her for a picture that made it into the GISHWHES yearbook. The photo showed how the world would be a better place if we walked in each other’s shoes. But we didn’t win the trip.

Fuelled by hormones, I decided I would show Misha Collins he was wrong and go to Iceland anyway. That’s what prompted me to go searching for all things Iceland. In that first Google search, I discovered the Iceland Writers Retreat.

Have you ever applied for the Alumni Award before?

I’ve applied every year since then and can track my applications for the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award by the growth of my now-four-year-old daughter. I was shortlisted in 2016.

Each year I’d read about the Retreat from the Alumni Award winners and get more and more excited. I’ve expanded my books-to-read list by reviewing the faculty each year and discovered new authors I now love. This year, my newfound favourites are Kamila Shamsie and Maria Semple.

Past award winners described their experience as “world-shifting” and “transformative.” They wrote about the comradery they encountered, which helped them to build their confidence. I related to past winners like Audrey Wright, who said that before the experience she had ‘imposter’s syndrome.’ I began to feel like the Retreat could be a life-changing, confidence building, craft improving journey that had more to do with the event and less with my desires to visit Iceland. Although, as we all know, we all love Iceland.

Have you ever participated in a similar kind of Retreat? If yes, how did the experience benefit your writing?

I’ve never been to a retreat like this. But it’s long been a goal of mine to focus on my writing in this way. I even created my own Retreat once.

In 2010, I locked myself in an empty house for Labour Day weekend and spent the whole time writing a novel for the 3DayNovel writing contest. Apart from a brief time when my computer died, and I had to call my brother over to repair it, I spent the weekend eating, sleeping, and writing. I worked on the whole project in Google Docs and invited members of my writing community to watch me as I worked. I finished within minutes of the deadline with a slightly rushed ending. The novel has never again seen the light of day, but I do feel my writing improved by the experience. That was also the weekend that I fell in love with my husband, who was among those following my progress.

So, even my make-my-own-retreat was skill-building and life-changing.

What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?

The other day I was making my lunch for work and telling my husband how exciting it is to be working towards the writing retreat. How I don’t mind the effort of making lunch instead of buying lunches out, saving any tip money I get, and dedicating an account to save for flights and accommodation at the Radisson Blu Saga Hotel.

My husband looked up at me in all my excitement and said, “Oh, are you going to Iceland? I don’t think you mentioned that more than ten times today.”

Okay, I’m excited. And I don’t think I have ever been so infinitely excited for anything before. After years of battling with depression and anxiety, I am finally able to feel exhilarated about something. There is nothing about the Iceland Writers Retreat that doesn’t thrill me.

Two days ago, I had to get a shot recommended by my doctor before I travelled. The vaccination wasn’t covered, and so I had to fork out some money, something I usually complain about, and then I had to get a shot and was told by my doctor that my arm would hurt for several days. Not a complaint from me, I told a friend later, “I was excited to get a shot because it’s one more thing I’m doing for my trip to Iceland.” Today, my arm is sore, and it makes me smile, remembering why.

I’m torn between saying that I’m more excited about the writing workshops, or the extensions, or the chance to do something that’s all about me and my writing, or the opportunity to go somewhere new and so beautiful. And I must say that I’m very much looking forward to meeting my fellow Alumni Award recipients. But what am I looking forward to most? What’s longer, an infinite line or a line that starts at a point and goes on for infinity? The infinite and the infinite, that is how I’m measuring my excitement.

What and/or who do you find inspiring?

Neil Gaiman said, “You get ideas from two things coming together.” I would expand on that. I am inspired by one thing colliding with another and another and another and another until I’m overwhelmed with a crazy heap of puzzle pieces that shouldn’t fit together but do – or I make them.

I can be inspired by the smell of fresh fruit or a sour expression from someone on the street. I can be inspired by someone I know and love profoundly or by an overheard sentence in a crowded coffee shop. I am inspired by books I read, authors who’s workshops I attend, TV shows, weather, and memes.

Thank God for journals to write it all down.

How has writing influenced your life?

The summer I turned ten, I learned to read by writing at the dining room table, crafting a publication I called PANDA BEAR MAGAZINE. The first issue came out in August but the second was delayed indefinitely by the start of the fifth grade. These months condense in my memory to a single moment when I transcribed a phone interview with my aunt. I asked my mother how to spell “remember.” She was baking something, and the room smelt sweet and warm, the table was spread with drawings and cut out bits of paper. My pencil scratched as I wrote down the word, dark charcoal etched in my mind.

From then on, my life didn’t feel real until it was written down. At a book launch held for some local authors at my husband’s bookshop, a member of the council said that one’s passion can be identified by the one thing that makes them lose time. This is true of writing for me, but more, time is also marked by my writing. The most important moments and memories of my life are surrounded with words, from my wedding vows to letters to my daughter before she was born, to the stories that define me.

What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

I struggled with dyslexia all my life. I was a late reader and writing was my gateway into the literary world. Reading and comprehension continue to be daily challenges. Despite this, I have worked as a writer, editor, note-taker, and transcript scribe.

I attribute my success to one simple truth. A friend once said to me that she couldn’t imagine how hard it was, and she was amazed that I never considered quitting. I’ll always remember it. I looked at her, dumbfounded, and I asked in all sincerity, “I could have quit?”

I shudder to think what might have happened if I had realised that quitting was an option.

Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?

This journey to Iceland has only begun, but it is already one of the most rewarding of my life, both personally and professionally. I would encourage anyone who gets joy from writing to investigate attending the Iceland Writers Retreat.

The prestigious Alumni Award is funded in by generous IWR alumni and friends. It gives its recipients full or partial funding to attend the next Retreat, which will take place April 29 to May 3, 2020 in Reykjavik. The winners are chosen based on both merit and financial need, and submissions were reviewed by IWR alumni volunteers. We received hundreds of applications from around the world and the quality of submissions was extremely high. Read previous interviews with Abak Hussain and Chelsie Bryant here and here on our blog.

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