You have been a fixture in Rhode Island media for many years and we will get into some details momentarily. But first, can you give us a bit of your background?
My family moved to Providence in 1986 – the year after I was born – when my dad was hired as a professor and medical researcher at Brown University. So I can’t claim to be born here, but I was certainly raised here.
Growing up in Providence was like winning the hometown lottery. I love everything about the city: the people, the history, the architecture, the food, the arts and culture, the ever-colorful political scene, the natural beauty, the proximity to Boston and New York and Vermont…I could go on. I’m known to talk at great length about Rhode Island.
Other facts about me:
I have two older brothers and they each have two kids, so I’m an uncle of four. I’m also a dad to two middle-aged cats named Jack and Jill.
My first job was as a busboy at The Gatehouse in Providence (now the Waterman Grille). I also worked for the restaurant’s catering company, which took me to off-site jobs at Newport mansions, political fundraisers (including one for John Kerry’s presidential campaign), the Amgen offices in West Greenwich, and a Moulin Rouge-themed bat mitzvah party at PPAC.
For college, I attended the University of Michigan. Two years after graduating, I enrolled in the nonfiction MFA program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. I graduated in 2011, and I’ve been back in Providence ever since.
When did writing first interest you?
I’ve always been a big reader, and in college I majored in English. But It wasn’t until my first post-college job – an under-stimulating, cubicle-based corporate publishing job in New York City – that I had my “Aha!” moment. After about six months of daytime drudgery, I signed up for a night class in creative nonfiction. Within a few sessions, my life’s purpose clicked into focus: I wanted to write true stories. It was an exhilarating discovery, and an outlet for so many aspects of my personality: my love of conversation, my wide-ranging curiosity, my tendency to get obsessed with subjects that interest me, and my passion for words.
Soon after completing that writing class, I left the corporate job, landed an internship at an alt-weekly newspaper in San Francisco, and spent that summer writing my first stories. When I returned to Rhode Island, I started writing for two papers (the Providence Phoenix and the Jewish Voice and Herald) and applied to MFA programs. I’ve been on the same path ever since.
Did you have any mentors along the way?
Lots of them!
In college, Professor Deborah Dash Moore’s class “History of American Jews” made a huge impression on me. I consider much of the writing I’ve done for Jewish publications since then to be unofficial “assignments” for her class.
In graduate school, my teachers Patricia O’Toole and Samuel Freedman (both of whom are experienced authors) were particularly helpful and inspiring.
As an up-and-coming journalist in Rhode Island, I was a freelancer for two successive Providence Phoenix editors, Ian Donnis and David Scharfenberg, who were both great to work with, and who have both remained generous and supportive. I’ve also received crucial help from other Rhode Island journalists and editors, including Mike Stanton, who has been an invaluable sounding board at many stages in my career; Amanda Milkovits, who shared crime-reporting tips with me during my book project, which was my first major foray into crime writing; and Sarah Francis, who, as editor of Rhode Island Monthly, gave me a chance to write long-form profiles of public figures like Jorge Elorza and Sheldon Whitehouse.
You were the last editor and staff writer at the Providence Phoenix before it ceased publication in 2014. Tell us about some of your stories – and your feelings when it closed.
The Phoenix will always have a special place in my heart. It was the first publication that paid me to write. It’s the place where I wrote my first cover story. And, later, when I was hired as the news editor and staff-writer in 2013, it was my first full-time journalism job. I owe so much to that paper.
During those 18 months when I was the paper’s news editor and staff writer, the Phoenix was a dream job. It was an outlet where I could write about my home state in a voice and style that reflected my sensibilities, and where I could follow my curiosity to any corner of the state. I wrote about the legalization of gay marriage, the Alex & Ani craze, the power dynamics of the General Assembly, the Newport Jazz Festival, and dozens of other subjects.
But, at the same time, the paper was understaffed and its weekly production deadlines were punishing. By the time the paper closed, I was beginning to plan my exit, because I was so exhausted. Working there pushed me beyond my limits.
So my feelings when the paper closed were mixed. As a Rhode Islander, a journalist, and a consumer of news, I miss the paper desperately. As we approach ten years since it closed, there’s still a hole in the news landscape where that paper used to be. And the loss of similar papers across the country has been tragic for our country’s public discourse.
But, as a person, I remember how depleted I was working there. By the time that I was hired, I don’t think the paper was able to employ people in a healthy way. Unfortunately, this combination of feelings – of joy and purpose in the work, gratitude for the opportunity, alongside the precarity of print journalism and being overburdened by work demands – is not unique to my stint at the Phoenix. I think it’s common in today’s world of journalism.
You also have freelanced for a number of regional and national publications. A few details please.
When I’m not writing about Rhode Island, I have a few other “beats” I like to write about, including mental health, nonfiction books, Judaism in America, and the Freedom of Information Act. And, over the years, I’ve picked up various tricks of the freelance-journalism trade. For example: when pitching a story about a not-so-timely subject, it helps to “peg” it to a notable anniversary. This is how I sold an essay about Walt Whitman’s journalism career to LitHub, that ran around the bicentennial of his birth, in 2019.
And you have been a lecturer at several colleges and universities. What are they and what did you teach?
The year that I finished graduate school – 2011 – happened to be the 375th birthday of the city of Providence. And, as my graduation approached, I drew up a proposal for a course about the history of the city and shopped it around to a few schools. By chance, an English professor at RISD was taking that fall semester off, and the school hired me to teach my class in his place. I wound up staying at RISD as an adjunct in the Literary Arts + Studies department for almost ten years. In that time, I taught introductory writing and lit classes for freshmen, a journalism class, creative nonfiction workshops, an elective about HP Lovecraft, and my signature course: a Winter session class about true crime stories.
Over the years, other teaching opportunities came my way. In 2018 and 2019, respectively, I taught feature-writing courses at UMass-Dartmouth and Brown as a semester-long substitute. And in 2020, I co-taught a six-week class at Columbia’s MFA program called “Writing Darkness: How to Tell Powerful – and Ethical – Stories About Crime, Trauma, and Injustice,” alongside my friend (and the author of the brilliant book, The Rise of True Crime: 20th Century Murder and American Popular Culture) Jean Murley.
My dad, who is as mild-mannered and gentle a guy as you’ll find, went to college and med school with Volkman. And, back in 2009, when I first learned about this connection, I became intensely curious. What on earth had happened to this guy?
I’ve spent the years since then finding out. I interviewed and corresponded with Volkman, at length. I spoke with people from all different chapters of his life, including family members, former classmates, and former patients. I made frequent reporting trips to Southern Ohio and interviewed dozens of people there, including family members of Volkman’s deceased patients. I read through the 4,000-page trial transcript and numerous other documents.
My book tells the story of Volkman’s remarkable fall from grace. He was a high school valedictorian who earned an MD/PhD from the University of Chicago who, later, became a notorious drug dealer one journalist dubbed the “Pill Mill Killer.” It’s also a story about the medical, legal, political, and geographic context of his crimes, and the wreckage he left in his wake.
This book has been long in the making. Fill us in on that backstory.
The most obvious reason for the delay was a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) battle over non-released evidence from Volkman’s trial. The material I was seeking – videos, photographs, and nearly 20,000 pages of documents – was not incidental to the project; it was central. And I didn’t feel I could proceed with that question about access in limbo. That odyssey began with my FOIA request in 2012 and didn’t fully end until late 2017, two years after the Rhode Island ACLU helped me sue the Drug Enforcement Administration.
But, FOIA aside, it also took me a long time to feel prepared to tell a story of this weight and magnitude. This book tells the story of an intelligent, highly-qualified man who claims he was wrongfully convicted. It involves the deaths of a number of his patients. It involves numerous malpractice cases from Volkman’s pre-Ohio career. This is a complex and high-stakes story. I saw its potential when I first learned about it in my mid-20s. But I didn’t feel like I could do it justice, as a person and a journalist, until many years later.
I should add that, generally, I think true crime is a genre that should be approached with caution and care. When you’re dealing with real-life tragedies involving real people, it’s not something you want to rush. I wanted this story to be as fair, thorough, accurate, and compassionate as possible. And this, too, took time.
You have been very open about your mental health challenges and we commend you for that. Tell us why this is so important for you – and for many others.
I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for most of my life. For years, I tried to “power through” these issues without much treatment. But then in my thirties, this strategy, if you can call it that, stopped working. I had spells of depression that left me unable to work for weeks at a time. I had panic attacks so bad I went to the emergency room. I missed important events due to my mental health.
Starting in 2017, I began working with a therapist on a regular basis. (I had previously viewed therapy as a place for “tune-ups,” not as a long-term endeavor.) And a couple years later, I started taking antidepressants. These two life-changing choices were part of a broader effort to get my mental health under control. I read a lot of books about mental health. I cultivated hobbies outside of my professional life. I started doing yoga and meditating.
At some point, during this work in my personal life, I started writing and talking about mental health. And the response to that work has been tremendous.
So, to return to your question: why is it important to me?
Because I’ve been to some dark places, mental health-wise, and I know how lonely, confusing, and painful it can be.
Because these issues remain stigmatized, especially among men. And I’ve learned that I can fight that stigma by doing what comes naturally to me: talking and writing.
Because I know how powerful and soothing it can be during tough moments to hear someone talking openly about this stuff. If my words could have that kind of effect on someone else, that’s a gift for both of us.
Beyond shepherding your book toward publication, what lies ahead for Phil Eil?
Professionally, I’ve got some freelance ideas in various stages of production, and I’m also working on another book proposal. Stay tuned for those!
Personally, I’m looking forward to emerging from my writer’s isolation. I’m overdue to catch up with my friends and family. I’ve got some fun traveling planned this fall. I just got my bike tuned up, and I’m eager to hit the East Bay Bike Path. I plan to do more cooking for my girlfriend.
This book has been such a privilege to write. But, in the process, I lost some of my work-life balance. I’m eager to reconnect with the parts of my life that don’t have anything to do with writing.
And lastly, a question à la The New York Times Book Review that we ask authors: If you were to host a dinner party for authors, past and/or present, who would you invite and why?
That’s tough! I’m sure I’ll be thinking about this for a while. But here’s today’s list.
Frederick Douglass, because he was an American hero and a literary genius.
Truman Capote, because In Cold Blood changed my life.
Mary Oliver, because her poems have been a balm for me recently.
Susan Orlean, because she’s one of my favorite living writers and she, too, loves libraries.