We ask many questions in the aftermath of mass shootings, but the most universal is, “What if?” If it happened to us, what would we do? Would we be heroes? Would we even survive? Gin Phillips explores these questions in Fierce Kingdom, a novel that follows one mother as she tries to keep herself and her son alive during a shooting at a zoo.
The book’s origins mirror its opening. Phillips was already brainstorming story ideas centered around motherhood, and a trip to the zoo with her four-year-old son gave her the angle she needed.
“I started thinking, ‘What would we do if we were sitting here and someone had a gun? Where would we go? How would it be different with him with me?’” Phillips tells Paste in a phone interview. These questions coalesced into a more concrete idea, one that “opened up possibilities to look at motherhood in a more fast-paced way than [she] first intended.”
Set over three hours, Fierce Kingdom opens just as the zoo is about to close. Joan and her four-year-old son, Lincoln, are frequent zoo visitors, and they are sequestered in a quiet wooded area when the first shots ring out. Joan doesn’t immediately recognize what she’s hearing, but as they move to the exit, she sees a shooter. Her intimate knowledge of the zoo’s layout proves to be a distinct advantage as they are forced to hide, but their survival is complicated given Lincoln’s age; he gets antsy, hungry and bored by turns.
Phillips says that it was crucial to ensure that Joan read like a real mother throughout the novel. “There’s a danger of falling into the overly dramatic in dealing with this nightmarish situation that we read about all the time and all imagine what might happen. From the beginning, there’s an issue in how you keep that grounded in something that feels real and not imaginary.”
Lincoln, a sweet kid whose youth shields him from the gravity of their situation, proved the key to keeping Joan relatable. She struggles to communicate the danger without overwhelming or scaring him, and keeping him quiet is a challenge. “Having that sense of the every day in the middle of this much more dramatic situation was crucial to make Joan real,” Phillips says.
Fierce Kingdom relies on withholding knowledge to fuel its tension. Joan and Lincoln spend much of the book hiding in an empty groundhog exhibit, but their lack of information—of the polices and shooters’ locations, of whether danger is just around the corner—makes the book viscerally terrifying even in moments of quiet. The fact that the action unfolds in real time adds to the drama.
“Once I got a few chapters in, I realized it could be close to real time,” Phillips says. “One of the things you’re taught in journalism, and I think it applies in writing as well, is don’t take 10 words to say something you can say in five.” But for a novel that Phillips considers deeply character-driven, it was a challenge to introducing backstory while staying true to the book’s sense of drive. “There’s so much focus on the action and a sense of intensity through the whole book…These people are hiding from a gunman in some bushes, and you don’t want to go off on a fond memory of a stuffed animal from when they were a child.”
Although Joan is the heart of the story, she and Lincoln aren’t the only ones inside the zoo. Kailynn, a teen zoo employee, and Margaret Powell, a former teacher, are also hiding from the three shooters. Phillips writes from the Joan, Kailynn and Margaret’s perspectives, but she also writes from one of the shooter’s perspectives.
Robby, the shooter, alternately thrills and shrinks away from the killing in which he’s taking part, reflecting on the supposed artifice of society he and the others are tearing down through their violence. He feels deeply wronged, from his memories of being excluded as a child to the numerous jobs from which he’s been fired. His sense of victimhood is juxtaposed against Joan’s actual victimhood, but he’s not without complexity.
“For Robby, it was important to me that he not feel just one-dimensionally evil,” Phillips says. She chose to make him a character who would likely ring true for his lack of personal responsibility and his overarching lack of belonging. “That makes it harder to write him off and dismiss him, if you think, ‘He has a point.’ That’s a disturbing moment, when you find yourself slipping into empathy. He’s not a sympathetic character, but he has a lot of moments where he’s more than just the shooter.”
The ability to see beauty or meaning in something horrific is, in some ways, a message Phillips hopes readers take away from the novel. Right and wrong are far from black and white in this story, particularly for the people trying to survive an ordeal they can only see in bits and pieces. Joan struggles with a near tribal instinct to protect herself and her son at all costs, an impulse that is at odds with her compassion and sense of obligation to protect the vulnerable. The complexity of life drives the book’s overarching theme, givine it a compelling psychological dimension.
“There’s a line in the book, ‘There are beautiful things, pay attention.’ That’s the kernel that it comes down to for me—the notion that there are ugly things that surround us but there are also moments of real beauty,” Phillips says. But she sees the story’s heart as speaking to a sense of collective responsibility, something she hopes readers recognize in how Joan and the others react to their own need to survive. “We have a responsibility not just to those we love, but to those we don’t even know.”
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.