SLR interviews J. William Lewis, Author of “The Essence of Nathan Biddle”

SLR: How long did it take to write The Essence of Nathan Biddle?

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JWL: I began writing the story in the mid-1980s.  I wrote the first draft (which was largely biographical) fairly quickly and then put it aside for gestation.  I also put it aside because I had a large and demanding law practice and legal writing commitments.  Parts and pieces of the story would drift back into my mind (sometimes at odd hours or inconvenient times) and I would add, delete or tweak.  The story became my refuge from the world to which I retreated, particularly when the world seemed to be too much for me.  The unfortunate effect of all this is that I continue to be reluctant to let it go, despite the fact that I know in my heart that it is done.  It’s like parting with a dear old friend.

SLR:  How did you get the idea?

JWL: When my children were small, we spent two weeks at a beach resort we deemed sufficiently safe for them to run wild and free.  (Each of our daughters took a friend, a scheme that relieved us of having to entertain them.)  On a whim one summer, I decided to reread The Catcher in the Rye just for fun.  I enjoyed it, particularly the aspect of it that struck a familiar chord with my own adolescence.  I was also struck by the missing chords, the struggles with why and the exasperating efforts to accommodate the whims, desires and “programs” of people around me.  That summer I began to sort in my mind the practical and existential issues that plagued me.  My assumptions were that I was a fairly typical teenager and that, to the extent I was not typical, it might make the story more pointed.  The object was to write about the angst that begins as a ripple in the early teens and becomes a tsunami as the adolescent approaches adulthood.

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SLR: How do you feel about the ubiquitous advice “write what you know”?   Did you?  Why or why not?

JWL: A very good writer can get away with writing outside his area of direct knowledge, but he will get into trouble quickly if he wanders very far from his own backyard. For example, non-lawyers who try to write legal drama must of necessity write derivatively; even when they get away with missteps with lay readers, they often look silly to lawyers.  I just finished reading A Gentleman in Moscow which is beautiful and brilliant, but the story has Count Rostov and his adopted daughter living together in a ten-by-ten hotel room from the time she is five until the time she is twenty-one.  As the father of three daughters, I can tell you that the arrangement might more or less work for the years five to ten or maybe even twelve but the years from thirteen to twenty-one would have been a nightmare.  The Count would have shot himself!  Towles’ beautiful writing permits a greater than usual suspension of disbelief!  The basic rule that you write what you know is, except in some metaphorical outer space, as solid as the law of gravity.

SLR: What is the best piece of advice on writing you’ve ever received?

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JWL: I have only two vivid memories of my elementary school days.  One is a pretty little blonde haired girl named Genith who lit up the room when she walked in, and the other is the time right after lunch called “Reading Period” in which the teacher read stories and YA novels to the class (Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn, Call of the Wild, etc.).  Some of the other boys would grumble about having to listen to “all that stuff” but I could hardly wait for Reading Period each day, and I was always unhappy when the period ended.  I never told my friends how much I loved the stories, maybe because I thought I was supposed to hate being read to.  I loved the words and I thought it would be the grandest thing in the world to be able to write beautiful, moving stories.

I mention these memories because some proclivities seem to be built-in.  I started writing because I had some inner compulsion to do it.  I have always done it for me, not for some person who might read my words.  Nobody taught me to love words and nobody has ever told me how to use them.  The fact is I’ve never received any advice on writing, and I’ve never sought any.  I think writers are very much like physicists:  I think they’re born, not taught.  At dinner a couple of decades ago (after the book was published claiming that some other person wrote Shakespeare’s plays and poetry), the wife of one of my former law partners opined that Shakespeare could not have written the plays attributed to him because he wasn’t sufficiently educated.  I didn’t want to argue with her (the fact is that the 17th and later centuries produced many highly educated men and women but only one Shakespeare), so I simply said, “Carolyn, I don’t think it works like that.” The room was quiet for almost a minute and then one of my other former partners at the far end of the table said, “I agree with Lewis. I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that.”  Einstein worked in a patent office, not one of the great universities (at least, not until he published his brilliant papers) and he rearranged the world of physics.  A mere patent clerk!  Really?

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SLR:  The Essence of Nathan Biddle has drawn comparisons to The Catcher in the Rye. How, as a debut novelist, does that feel?

JWL: Actually, considering the reason for the existence of The Essence of Nathan Biddle, it might be strange if the comparison were not made.  In a way, Kit Biddle is supposed to be the doppelganger of Holden Caulfield four years older.  Holden is distressed but he never really verbalized why; he’s sort of smitten with “old Margaret” but he doesn’t yet know what that means.  I have presumed that by the time he reached eighteen, Holden would be struggling with deeper and more elusive questions and perhaps seeing “old Margaret” as the scintillating Anna who shuts down his systems with the hint of a smile.  And he’ll focus on the fact that the real thing that’s haunting him is the irrepressible why.

SLR: Which southern writers do you admire most? 

JWL:  I have read some of the works of most southern writers of note (with respect to some, I have read virtually everything they’ve published) and, as has been observed by others, the styles are wildly varied.  Southern writers are not homogenized, probably more because of their life experiences and innate gifts than because of influences from other writers.  The words of most writers come bubbling out of a cauldron of all that they are and all they are capable of, not from some conscious or even subconscious attempt to write like some other writer.  The richness of southern literature is a testament to the individuality of experiences and gifts of southern writers.  The work of some southern writers I love (e.g., John Kennedy Toole) and some I do not love (William Faulkner) but I have found none without flaws or merits of one kind or another.  With regard to writing style, I have no wish to write like any other southern writer (dead or alive), and I am confident that no southern writer alive would want to write like me and that no dead southern writer would have been affected by me or any other particular writer.

SLR:  As a reader, which works of southern lit are your favorites?  Why?

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JWL: I have great difficulty separating my emotional responses from my intellectual perceptions.  For instance, the time I’ve spent in New Orleans gives Toole a special advantage.   A Confederacy of Dunces has a cogent reality that someone less familiar might not feel.  Likewise, my experiences in south Alabama as a young person and the intertwined history of my family with Southampton County, Virginia (splintered off from Isle of Wight County in 1749), makes The Confessions of Nat Turner speak with more power than might otherwise be the case.  (Some of my distant relatives, particularly the Whiteheads, likely descendants of Rachel Lewis and William Whitehead, and the Williams families, likely descendants of Elizabeth Lewis and William Williams, were killed in the “rebellion” of Nat Turner in 1831.) I love the poetry of words but the words have to have meaning in context and structure.  I don’t like words simply sprayed on the page even if done with imagination.

A work of literary fiction should also tell a real and consequential story, not just some unusual or even pretty word salad, even if the “story” is just a character study.  For all these reasons, I am drawn to Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Robert Penn Warren, James Dickey, John Berendt and, of course, John Kennedy Toole.  (In this respect, the term “favorites” is determined by the number of times I’ve been drawn to re-read the works.)  This list clearly raises the question:  Who is a “southern writer,” one who writes about southernisms or one who is simply born and/or raised in the South?  Here’s my partial and limited answer:  If a person is truly born in the South and has known almost nothing but the South during his formative years, then he has no way of escaping the ambient culture of the South and it will therefore seep into his work in one way or another no matter what his intent.  Is The Essence of Nathan Biddle a “southern novel” or just a novel set in the South?  Here is my best answer:  The primary themes of the novel are not southern but universal (perception, identity, meaning, isolation, morality, etc.) but the sub-themes (racism, sex, family, etc.) have a particularly southern tone and ambience but even those are not limited in any way to the South.

SLR:  Is there a particular Southern writer (or work of Southern literature) that has influenced your writing?  If so, who—and how?

JWL:  The short answer to this question is no.  I began with Thomas Hardy as my exemplar and at this point it is unlikely that will ever outgrow him.  Like most other writers, I wanted as an adolescent to be Shakespeare and Cervantes and Yeats, but two things intruded into those dreams.  First, I could never be any of those writers because I do not have their innate gifts or their life experiences.  Second, in the ensuing decades I read a lot of books by a lot of different writers from a lot of different places, from a lot of different cultures, and an astounding number of distinct styles and perspectives.  All those writings are a large jumble in my head, and I have no way to identify the source of any particular word, syntax, viewpoint or insight.  When I write, the words come tumbling out and I have no idea where they are coming from.  I love many southern writers but I have no way of paying tribute to them.  They are a part of a larger fabric, a significant part, but I have no way of identifying the thread or any aspect of the warp and woof of that canvas.

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