By Donna Meredith
What surprises most people about Terry Lewis is not that he can only carve out five hours a week for writing legal thrillers. It’s that he can find any time at all.
Lewis has been a circuit court judge in the Second Judicial Circuit of Florida since 1998 and was a county judge in that circuit for nine years prior to that. He also plays basketball and tennis regularly and enjoys good books and films. Recently he has taken up guitar again after a lapse of many years. So the question that might be raised is this: does he ever sleep?
His latest novel, Delusional, took six years to write. It would probably take longer for most people, but he knows where he is going from the outset.
“I guess it’s my legal training but I’m an outliner,” he says. “I take a germ of an idea and start making notes, expanding to a rough outline, at which point I have a pretty good idea of where we will end up and a more vague idea of how we get there. I’ll start writing chapters and revise and expand the outline as I go along. I also revise chapters as I go along so that the early ones will have been revised many times by the time I get to the last chapter.”
A long-time member of the Tallahassee Writers Association, Lewis belongs to a small critique group composed of other TWA members. He doesn’t let them read his work, though, until it is polished enough that he will benefit from a critique.
“I have been reading Terry’s work since his first novel,” says Michael Whitehead, a member of Lewis’s writing group. “He does an excellent job at writing and critiquing other manuscripts. He never tells us whodunit when we are reviewing his books. I guess he wants to make us buy the book to find out the answer.”
Despite knowing whodunit and how-he-done-it from the get-go, Lewis employs techniques that evolve through various drafts. The first version of Delusional was written entirely from Nathan Hart’s point of view. The final version alternates perspectives between this paranoid schizophrenic and his lawyer, Ted Stevens.
Lewis drew on his courtroom experience to create Nathan. “I have had cases in which people who are seriously mentally ill, but are not legally insane, nor legally incompetent, are charged with crimes,” Lewis says. Some of them can be extremely clever and, if one accepts a certain premise, very logical in what they say. But sooner or later it became evident that something is off. I thought that might be an interesting perspective to present.”
Lewis also read many books on schizophrenia as well as blogs and chats on the web from current and former schizophrenics who described their symptoms. On several occasions he visited Florida State Hospital to shadow and observe psychologists, patients, and staff members. He even had the unusual experience of meeting with a facility administrator in Ohio who had once been a patient there and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
During his research, Lewis discovered that certain delusions concerning CIA or other espionage group, aliens, or God are so common they seem stereotyped. The delusions run across all ethnic, racial, and income groups and are extremely difficult to cure or even manage.
Since writers have to delve so deeply into the psyches of their characters, there could conceivably be challenges and pitfalls to spending so much time exploring the inner space of characters as flawed as those in Delusional.
Lewis laughs this off with a joke: “What do you mean flawed? I don’t see any flaws.”
While far more grounded in reality than Nathan, Ted Stephens holds onto his own delusions. “We all have strengths and weakness, things about us that are admirable, and some that aren’t,” Lewis says. “So, in my opinion, should the characters in your fictional world. The risk is that you make your protagonist so flawed that the reader can’t root for him or her. The reader needs to see that there is at his or her core a nobility, a basic goodness that makes them want him or her to overcome whatever obstacles you have placed in his or her way.”
At age 70, Lewis will have to retire as a judge—“whether I want to or not,” he says. “I may do something else in the legal field but have no firm plans. I would probably find more time to write and travel.”
When he retires, the justice system will lose a valuable asset. Lewis is widely known as a fair and thoughtful judge. “The constant challenge in my position is to get it right, legally and procedurally, and reach a result that will be seen as just, at least by most objective observers.”
What the courtroom loses at the time, may be the literary world’s gain. Any careful reader of Lewis’s novels will see the same meticulous attention to getting it right, in both content and style.
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