Many people in Houston’s LGBT community know Phillip Johnson through social events. But now, Johnson can add “author” to his legacy with the release of his first book, Die Fotografie. He recently spoke to MONTROSE STAR about the book, his writing process, and what is next for him.
MONTROSE STAR: Tell us a little about yourself.
PHILLIP JOHNSON: I was born here in Houston, at Hermann Hospital. However, my dad was a visionary and we moved when he bought a guest ranch 35 miles NW of Austin on Lake Travis. I attended small country schools in the area until my parents bought a second home in Austin. I majored in design in college in Dallas.
I was a “normal gay student” and was harassed a little — but being over six feet tall helped with that!
After graduating from college, I moved back to Houston in 1975 and have been here ever since.
MS: You’re a bon vivant in the Houston LGBT community, and you’re very well connected.
PJ: I have been a member of many gay organizations over the years. These include the Mystery and Fantasy Mardi Gras Party, the Krewe of Olympus, Four Seasons, and the Diana Foundation.
I love to have dinner parties in my home and celebrate most holidays here with close friends. Of course, I have an alter ego, “She-needs-a Cocktail”! I bring her out for charity functions and, well, almost any event.
MS: Your first novel, Die Fotografie, is now available. What was the one thing that inspired you to make the book a reality?
PJ: The inspiration for this book came from the photograph that’s on the cover of the book.
MS: So, how long has the seed been planted? What told you that now is the time to tell this story?
PJ: Some 25 years ago, my best friend and I visited the Holocaust Museum here in Houston. There are displayed the picture of three boys who were traumatized at Auschwitz. After seeing the picture at the museum, I immediately started thinking of how I would go about writing a book.
I’ve been working on outlines and rough drafts for years. But within the last 18 months, the pandemic has given me the time I needed to finish the book.
MS: What is Die Fotografie about?
PJ: This book is about three 10-year-old boys at Auschwitz who were used for sterilization experiments, and their complicated lives until the three of them meet again 20 years later due to an emergency.
MS: Die Fotografie is a vast story, centered in Germany of course, but with stops in Africa and South America along the way. How did you organize your research?
PJ: I did many years of research — I must admit, not terribly organized at times — and watched every program on the History Channel on World War II! From there, creating the characters and scenarios for the book was challenging but a lot of fun.
The book was smaller in scope at first, but as I researched the events being portrayed, I realized this would be a much bigger project. This book is what scholars call historical fiction — the melding of fictional characters and events into a broader portrait of what was going on at the time.
I have always been interested in the Holocaust and this book has been a labor of love for me. I was inspired to learn of the atrocities and share the book’s many different storylines with others — from abused children to LGBT characters to redemption.
MS: Your first drafts were handwritten.
PJ: One thing that everyone knows about me is that I am not a computer person! I wrote my first thoughts and a short version of the story on handwritten pages in notebooks.
Believe it or not, when it was time to turn my ten-page short story into a 360-page book, I used my iPhone and texted chapters to Tom, my ghostwriter.
MS: Who is the character in the book with whom you most identify?
PJ: When you read the book, you’ll meet Gabby, who started off as a boy and had a kind of “fairy tale” journey to become a lovely lady.
The book has many historical characters too, including Dr. Horst Schumann, the photographer Hugo Jaeger, and nurse Maria Stromberger who intentionally sought a job at Auschwitz so she could confirm rumors about what was happening there.
MS: There came a point you knew it was time to collaborate in order to get this project into high gear. How was it working with Tom? Did he have new perspectives to bring to the book?
PJ: I hired Tom Loesch to be my ghostwriter and with his help and ideas we were able to bring this book to life. We were like Lucy and Ethel writing a book together! But there was lots of hard work and determination.
MS: How did you become interested in self-publishing?
PJ: My friend Lee Ingalls wrote a book, Ingalls on the Prairie: The Gene and Fern Ingalls Story, and he used Amazon for publishing. He shared the process with me, and it was a good fit for me as well.
MS: So, the $64,000 question: Will you do it again?
PJ: Absolutely! This book was the most important thing I have ever accomplished, and I am already writing a sequel. It follows all the main characters through the years and their continued adventures.