Pursuing Your Passion Project: An Interview with Phillip Lewis, Author of “The Barrowfields” (Part 1)
It isn’t often that a novel is capable of hurtling you decades into your own past and rekindling thoughts of people and feelings long since buried in the hubris of life. For me The Barrowfields was such a book. We meet book’s protagonist Henry as an adolescent North Carolina boy and journey with him into adulthood, through both adventures and tragedy. When Henry went to law school and his experience was more-or-less appropriately harrowing, I looked to see if the author of The Barrowfields, Phillip Lewis, was a lawyer by trade. When I found that he is a lawyer with a practice in North Carolina, I knew I would reach out to him.
Many of us desire to engage in endeavors other than, or perhaps more appropriately – in addition to, the practice of law, whether it’s passion projects or side hustles. But so few actually do it. There are many obligations and driving factors that allow us to be deterred. Phillip Lewis had a dream, and he was not dissuaded from pursuing it. Here’s my interview with Phillip Lewis about making the decision to follow his dreams and taking the steps necessary to achieve them.
Interview with Phillip Lewis (Part 1)
JWR: When did you know that you wanted to write a novel?
PL: I grew up in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina called West Jefferson, in Ashe County, which is stuck right up there in the northwestern corner of the state next to Tennessee and Virginia. It was, and still is, a very beautiful place, but I recall it from my youth also as a place where you could look for and easily find all manner of human conditions, from severe poverty, to new-found, yet meager, wealth (old family money was almost nonexistent); people living, often resolutely, with disease and disability; people living and coping with loss, and finding joy and hope in small places.
You’d drive around and on the main highway there’d be a man sitting in his front yard, right in front of his house, a white T-shirt on, eyeglasses too large for his face, just watching the traffic go by for hours on end and probably remembering a time from long before when it was a two-lane road instead of a four-lane. In a field running up a hillside there were muddy black cows, and in the next pasture over, an old mare with a bowed spine and her ribs showing, and a timeless old creek coming down out of the hills. Down the street: men standing at the gas station, talking, some of them in overalls. Spit on the ground. Cowboy boots; work boots. Up behind the town, at the municipal park, a little-league baseball game in the 6th inning with everyone in town interested in the outcome and looking forward to reading about it in the next day’s paper.
And then in the early evening a funeral procession on Highway 194 to the family cemetery, way up on top of the hill, and every car coming the other way stops and turns its lights on to show respect as the procession passes. Every single one of them, the people, profound in their simplicity, resilient in their determination to live each day, and the next one after that, assured by simple truths and spiritualisms and practical aphorisms that contain multitudes of truth. You can’t paint everyone with the same brush, of course, but this was what you’d see before you looked any closer.
By the time I graduated from high school, I’d concluded that this world in the mountains was, at its honest core, a place imbued with a fundamental sadness, and also with a deep sincerity of living that may not exist anywhere else. It was a place that longed for a fair description. And it is where I experienced, time and again, a deep sense of quiet melancholy, of simple human tragedies, that I longed, and still long, to describe. From as early as I can remember, I wanted to paint these landscapes and draw these portraits.
JWR: Having some experience with this myself—there is a difference between wanting to write and actually doing the work of writing. When did you decide to write your novel?
PL: I started writing The Barrowfields in earnest about seven years ago, but I do not remember a specific moment in time when I thought, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to write a novel.” Starting off writing your first novel is a bit like contemplating the construction of an Egyptian pyramid or building a rocket intended for space travel. You have no idea at the outset whether what you are about to attempt is possible; whether you have the ability or the wherewithal to complete the task; or whether you’re going to die trying before you reach the end.
Psychologically, it’s easier if you fool yourself into thinking that you’re not at the beginning of a years-long journey that will eventually consume you entirely and take a magnificent toll on your family and everyone around you, but instead that you’re just putting up the framing for what will eventually be a small house, but which you know in the back of your mind will almost certainly evolve into a hillside mansion. All of this is just to say that I had no Eureka moment, no decisive morning on which I arose and declared my intention of writing a novel. It just began, and as it grew older, it sprouted legs and grew until it finally achieved the form it has today.
JWR: I’ve heard tell that when he was a practicing lawyer, John Grisham set aside time every morning to write before beginning his billable work. How did you create time to write?
I met John recently and the very first thing he said to me was that, as a writer, you have to have rigid discipline that includes setting aside time to write every day. I think he still follows this routine, and obviously it has worked well when you consider that he’s now published more than 25 books and he’s still going.
My writing schedule for The Barrowfields, with first one young child at home, and then two before the book was finished, did not allow for anything approaching regularity, but I nevertheless found myself working on the book at every spare moment of the day. I’d often get up and write in the mornings while everyone else in the house was still sleeping. For me, this writing time was the best and the most lucid, but it was also the shortest. I would often write for a few hours once I got to work, before I was overwhelmed with client e-mails and telephone calls and appellate deadlines and the like.
On days when I had court, I’d get to the courthouse early and write before my hearings started. Anyone who knows me well knows that a lot of my CLE time was spent writing and working on The Barrowfields. At night after work, I would resume writing once the children were in bed—a few ounces of good bourbon at the ready—and this time was good for reviewing the day’s writing and reading it aloud to myself to gauge for tempo and rhythm and meter. Wherever I went I had a notebook with me, and usually a laptop computer, so that if I found myself with any amount of time, I would set to work on the book. At the bar in Poe’s Tavern in Charleston was a favorite place of mine to write.
In Part 2 of this interview with Phillip Lewis, which will post on Thursday, we get into how the writing process affected his practice and how his law partners responded to his project.
One of the lines from The Barrowfields set off a chain of ideas and a conversation on LawyerSmack that led to a blog post, “I Have a Useless Undergrad Degree, so I Went to Law School“.
Other author interviews: