Interview with Mr. Larry W. Phillips, Editor of “Ernest Hemingway on Writing”

It is a pleasure and honor to welcome Mr. Larry W. Phillips. In 1984, he was the editor for a book that has become an essential tool for the contemporary writer: “Ernest Hemingway on Writing.” The book is available on

Preface to his Book on Mr. Hemingway

“This book contains Hemingway’s reflections on the nature of the writer and on elements of the writer’s life, including specific and helpful advice to writers on the craft of writing, work habits, and discipline. The Hemingway personality comes through in general wisdom, wit, humor, and insight, and in his insistence on the integrity of the writer and of the profession itself.”

Similar Career Path as Mr. Hemingway

Mr. Phillips, a native of Monroe, Wisconsin, began his writing career as a reporter for the United Country Courier newspaper. Before focusing upon books, he authored many magazine and newspaper articles.

Published Books

Covering the Second Coming
F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writing
Ernest Hemingway on Writing
Madison Retro
The Tao of Poker
Zen and the Art of Poker

Ernest Hemingway and “The Old Man and the Sea.”

Larry, please accept a warm welcome.

Thanks, it’s a pleasure Steve. I’m just going to write the answers to your questions off the top of my head– which may be the best way. I’m a big believer in “free association” (as distinct from stream of consciousness).

You were born and raised in Wisconsin. What attracted you to the writing profession, and who were some of your early mentors?

I’d say Hemingway was an early mentor. And possibly Mark Twain. Also, as a kid I remember watching episodes of the “Twilight Zone” on TV and keeping a notebook and writing down the plots to each episode. It’s hard to think why I did that. It just seemed somehow so cool that a plot-twist in a half-hour TV show could have such a big impact on a person. I guess I got curious about that, and why it was.

One my favorite quotes by Mr. Hemingway was “Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time.” Since you began as a reporter, how does that quote resonate with your own experience, and what lessons from that period assisted you as your career progressed into other areas?

This is a good question and a big subject. I think numerous dangers lurk in journalism for the writer who wants to go beyond journalism. Bloggers are actually closer to having the kind of freedom to really develop as writers, IMO, than journalists. I’ll give an exaggerated answer here, in order to show what I mean.

A journalist has limitations. He can’t use slang, he can’t use the way real people talk (often), he can’t (or isn’t supposed to) include his opinion, can’t mention personal beliefs or convictions, isn’t supposed to draw conclusions, can’t use obscenity, can’t use long, odd or quirky sentences, can’t say anything bad about a company or product (you may get sued), can’t make the story too long, and on and on—I could list many other limitations. It’s rather like a painter being told to go paint a picture, but without using yellow, blue, red, green, brown, black, or purple. This is an exaggeration, as I say, but it hints at what the problem is, and what Hemingway was getting at.

What were your motivations and goals behind the book on Mr. Hemingway?

My exact motivation, oddly (and laughingly) enough, was that I had a file of Hemingway quotes and I was looking for a couple of quotes and couldn’t find them. And this had happened to me before. I became so frustrated that I decided to start at one end of Hemingway and go through to the other and collect all the quotes. In the end I had enough to send to Charles Scribner’s Sons, the publisher. A motivation then was to create a small book for college students based on Hemingway’s observations.

Could you please share a few of your favorite quotes?

I think the Hemingway quote about “finding the thing that makes the emotion” is very valuable advice to a writer. And the one about “making” a scene rather than just describing it. The latter is kind of what journalism does, while the former refers to recreating in the reader what it felt like to be there. That’s the difference.

In your opinion, what was Mr. Hemingway’s legacy on literature and how we write today? For example, what might have been his perspective about the Internet and blogging?

Hemingway should be studied, I think, just to see how he did it. He has some rather amazing word constructions and turns of phrase. The lesson is not to write like him, but rather to mull over the act of writing itself, and think about it. What does repetition mean? What does page after page of just dialogue mean? What does paring things down to the bare essential mean? What do I have permission as a writer to do or not do? Hemingway’s style is not really the way people write these days, but there are things to be learned from it.

Two of the most influential American writers of the 20th century were F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Since you have written books about both men, and read many of their personal correspondence, could you compare and contrast their writing styles and personalities?

I think I wrote in the preface to the Fitzgerald book something to the effect that Hemingway was a “today-is-the-first-day-of-the-rest-of-your-life” kind of guy. He was always “breaking the plane” into the existential present. Fitzgerald saw things just the opposite, as a kind of “whole”, a kind of waltz on a yellow afternoon, seeing the whole of it, from A-to-Z. Fitzgerald’s particular writing trick– and a very difficult one to duplicate, even when you know what it is– was to “make things do things”. Shadows move against dressing-room blinds, stars “stir and bustle” and “neat sad waltzes” drift out through open doors. This is much harder than it looks to pull off. Fitzgerald also seems to key his writing to the continuation of a mood, rather than a plot. He’ll keep the same mood going, from scene to scene, and take up the book at whatever point necessary to do this, and the plot trails along almost secondarily. His books are the story of a mood (though the mood may change as the story goes along).

In your opinion, what are the necessary traits and attributes for a contemporary writer?

There’s a saying in the poker world, “It depends”. Should I raise, should I fold, should I check-raise in this particular situation? It depends. It’s the same for writing. It depends on what you want to get out of it. I read bits and pieces of a lot of blogs. Every so often you read one that is crushingly boring (for lack of a better word). You’ve all seen these. “I got up about 8:30 a.m. I made coffee. I moved the potted plant from the dining room into the kitchen. I called Julia. I looked out the window. About 11 o’clock I went to the grocery store.” And so on. Clearly, this person is never going to be ascending the steps to the podium taking down the National Book Award. But if this is what they want to get out of it– and maybe it is– it could be a form of perfection or something.

For everyone else I would advise: try to get down to the next level below the obvious level. There is a kind of obvious level that exists that we all operate on in our day, but just underneath this there are a lot of things going on of what we all really think. I’ll use an example from something I’ve been working on, about the decade of the 1950’s. The obvious level is the Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs level. The level just underneath that is the way Tinker Toys tasted when you bit into them, the wood smell of the can, the sound the can made when you were filling it up, and so on. There is a kind of secondary level like this to everything. Look for it. Proust, in particular, was very good at drawing the curtain back on this level. After you read some of him, you start seeing it everywhere– and you realize it was always there.

Let’s turn to poker. On your website, you describe it as your vocation. When did your passion for poker begin?

Oh, I’ve been playing poker since I was a kid. Somewhere about in my 30’s I thought it would be a good idea to start spending a lot of time playing cards on riverboats in the Mississippi. I find high stakes poker players and world class poker players to be very interesting people. It’s kind of like the old joke about the mafia. “How do you know if someone is in the mafia?” Answer: “Well, if they are sitting in a restaurant and the person next to them gets hit in the head by an anvil, and they don’t even look up, then they’re in the mafia.” It’s kind of the same with world class poker players. Something like that happens and they don’t even flinch. There’s just something interesting about it. It’s almost like professional actors who you might meet. Most of them are great story-tellers too.

After viewing the titles of your poker books, is it accurate to say that you view the topic as more of an art than a science?

It’s just something you never quite get to the bottom of. Just when you think you know it all, you confidently bet 40,000 chips in a tournament, and a young kid across from you wearing music headphones and a cap turned around backwards, lights up with an expression like, “Aha! I’ve finally got him!” and he reraises you all-in for 200,000 more… So you fold your hand, and he turns his cards over to show you that he had nothing at all. Two terrible cards. It’s like that. You just never quite get ahead of it, or learn it all.

Kenny Rogers wrote a famous song called,The Gambler.”

“You got to know when to hold em, know when to fold em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.

Now every gambler knows that the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away and knowing what to keep.
Cause every hands a winner and every hands a loser,
And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.”

Besides knowing when to hold them and when to fold them, what are other key factors for successful professional gambling?

Well, with regard to line 3 (above), you better count your money when you’re sitting at the table, especially if you’re playing any kind of big bet poker, such as pot limit or no limit hold’em. You need to know not only how deep your own stack is (for strategic purposes), but how deep everyone else’s stack at the table is, because it’s going to influence how you play the hand.

As far as professional gambling goes, there is very less of this going on than the lay person knows– the number of successful gamblers (over a large sample of time) is actually pretty small. This would include probably fewer than 10 or 20 people (if that) who actually know what they’re doing in sports betting handicapping, who wait for just the right spot to bet their money, and several hundred poker players and blackjack players that make a consistent living at a fairly high level.

You have been a newspaper reporter, magazine writer, and book author. If you were to advise a person who wanted to pursue a writing career, regardless of genre, what would you share with them from your own journey?

They should write to the level they want to get to and not feel like “failures” for not selling a million books or something like that. A lot of my writing just goes out to 5 or 6 friends. Maybe that’s all you need to do. Maybe that’s success. Maybe writing in a blog– or 2 or 3 of them fulfills you. I’ve stopped thinking that’s a bad thing– or somehow “not enough” in some weird Hollywood “success” kind of way. Of course, it would nice to sell a million books, but if you don’t, so what? Poets have moved the world with a few lines that didn’t even sell in their own lifetimes. Become more indifferent to the whole success thing. Write in your own voice. Be your own success.

Larry, thank you very much for sharing your insights and expertise.

Thanks Steve–
Take care–
Larry W. Phillips

About the Interviewer

Steve Amoia has published articles and book reviews about alternative health, art history, career-related themes, historical figures, Italian and international soccer, martial arts, psychology, and sport topics. His writing portfolio can be found here.

5 thoughts on “Interview with Mr. Larry W. Phillips, Editor of “Ernest Hemingway on Writing”

  1. I’ve read “Hemingway on Writing” several times and I love it. Thank you, Mr. Phillips, for putting those particular quotes together. I’ve done a few posts on the quotes over at my blog:

  2. self-pity -> wanting the girl who was with that other different guy

    oh, the poetry stopped when I got the girl.

  3. They should write to the level they want to get to and not feel like “failures” for not selling a million books or something like that. A lot of my writing just goes out to 5 or 6 friends. Maybe that’s all you need to do. Maybe that’s success.

    Spot on – quality writing, creative writing, is not always a popularity contest, even though it’s fun and good for your ego if thousands of people read your articles every day.

    I used to write a lot of poetry in college – never shared it with more than a few people, but I treasure that part of my writing history as being just as successful and good as anything I’ve written here on Performancing or on Soccerlens.

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