Gin Phillips on writing dilemmas, settings and maternal instincts

Gin Phillips talks about the challlenges of writing her debut novel, Fierce

You have a son of a similar age to your character Lincoln. How much of yourself, and your son, did you write into the book?

Of all the characters I’ve written, Joan is one of the closest to myself. Her background isn’t mine, but her views on the world – and on motherhood – mirror my own. Her amazement at the intricacies of her child’s mind – that’s all me. Parenthood is so different from other kinds of love: I remember one night when I was heavily pregnant, and our dog was sleeping on my lap. I turned to my husband and said, ‘I really hope I love this baby as much as I love the dog.’

It wasn’t entirely a joke. I had known the dog for a long time, and the baby would be a stranger. Of course, my son was born and what I felt for him was a thousand times what I felt for the dog (thank goodness). The love for a child is such an overwhelming love, and it’s so immediate. This novel came about because of wanting to capture and explore that connection.

There’s plenty of my own son in Lincoln – that was one of the great pleasures of writing him. There’s a line in the book where Joan looks down and realizes that the four-year-old holding her hand will eventually disappear, turning into some other, unknown version of himself. I wrote this book when my own son was four. Many of his mannerisms and phrases and jokes are crystallized in Lincoln, and that’s a wonderful thing because now – in real life – that four-year-old has disappeared. But he’s still there for me in the pages of this book.

A big part of what fascinates me about motherhood is that it's both immensely selfless and fairly selfish

In Fierce you take a location that so many families are familiar with and turn it from a place of safety into one of fear. Why did you choose this setting?

I liked the zoo on several levels. It worked so well because it encapsulates the day-to-day routine of parenting, and yet … there are wild things in boxes. Alongside strollers and cotton candy, there are sharp teeth and claws and the promise of everything that is undomesticated. There is power.

I think that sense of complexity works well for what plays out in the story. Joan and Lincoln wind up feeling trapped, so there’s that echo of the caged animals, but Joan is also smart and strong and sure. She has power.

On another level, a big part of what fascinates me about motherhood is that it’s both immensely selfless and fairly selfish. There is an animal impulse to protect your own. Is that pure and noble? Or is it something else? Joan would do anything to protect her son. She would die for him. But – this is where we get into how we differ from animals – who else would she die for? Who would die for her? I think we owe something to each other, even if we’ve just met. Even if we’ve never met.


Throughout the novel, Joan is faced with impossible choices in order to save her child. Would you make the same decisions as she does?

I think the only honest answer is that I don’t know. Yes, Joan is faced with a series of impossible choices. On top of that, she’s making these life-or-death decisions in a matter of seconds. She’s determined to do whatever it takes to save her child, and yet, as the night stretches out, her choices only get more and more complicated.

She has this constant battle between what is best for her child and what is best for a stranger. At each point in the story, she makes a different call. That said, there is not a single moment in the story where I judge her. (I think, as women, we can be pretty quick to judge each other.) I think she’s smart and competent and brave, and I respect every single decision she makes, even the uncomfortable ones.

More about the author


Gin Phillips

'Enthralling. Tense' Daily Mail

'An outdoors version of Emma Donoghue's Room' The Sunday Times

'Gripping. Unputdownable' Sun

'A powerful, unsettling book' Guardian

'Captivating and beautifully written' Daily Express

‘Riveting and beautiful, and all too real.’ Shari Lapena, author of THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR

'Tense, shocking, heartbreaking. So good.' C J Tudor, author of THE CHALK MAN

‘It tore at every maternal fibre in my body. I couldn’t put it down.’ Fiona Barton, author of THE CHILD


Lincoln is a good boy. At the age of four, he is curious, clever and well behaved. He does as his mum says and knows what the rules are.

'The rules are different today. The rules are that we hide and do not let the man with the gun find us.'

When an ordinary day at the zoo turns into a nightmare, Joan finds herself trapped with her beloved son. She must summon all her strength, find unexpected courage and protect Lincoln at all costs – even if it means crossing the line between right and wrong; between humanity and animal instinct.

It's a line none of us would ever normally dream of crossing.

But sometimes the rules are different.


‘A page-turning, adrenaline-soaked read . . . an eloquent and meditative insight into motherhood and what it means, its many small trials and wonders.’ Alison Flood, Observer

‘I devoured it in one breathless sitting. Outstanding.’ Clare Mackintosh, author of LET ME LIE and I SEE YOU

Unbearably tense and yet beautifully written. After finishing, I pulled my loved ones a little closer.’ Paula Daly, author of THE MISTAKE I MADE

'I was absolutely captivated by this book. So, so tense, but wonderfully written. The perfect book.’ Gillian McAllister, author of EVERYTHING BUT THE TRUTH

Previously published as Fierce Kingdom.

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