Shelf Care Interview: J. William Lewis

Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Seaman Capital.

In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Susan Maguire talks to J. William Lewis, author of The Essence of Nathan Biddle. Alabama native J. William Lewis is a former lawyer who lives in Shoal Creek, a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. After a clerkship for the Honorable Walter P. Gewin on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Lewis practiced law in Birmingham for over three and a half decades. Presently, Lewis serves as an executive officer of his family’s investment company, Seaman Capital, LLC, and related companies. He’s been married to Lorraine Seaman Lewis for more than half a century. His debut novel, The Essence of Nathan Biddle, comes out on June 1 from Greenleaf Book Group Press.

You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. This transcript has been edited for clarity.


SUSAN MAGUIRE: Thank you so much for joining me.

J. WILLIAM LEWIS: Well, thank you for having me.

Tell us about The Essence of Nathan Biddle.

It probably is fair to say that it began a long, long time ago in human terms. When I was a kid, I read The Catcher in The Rye and I identified greatly with Holden Caulfield and really thought the book captured a lot about adolescence. When I was in my forties, on a whim I re-read it, and the thing that occurred to me then was that Holden Caulfield was 14. A lot of the problems, a lot of the angst that he had, were not relevant to the angst that I had later in my teens.

It occurred to me only after I re-read the book that the things that Holden Caulfield was fretting about and the depth of his romantic afflictions were like, “Oh, Margaret.” “Oh, Margaret” is sort of a 14-year-old response to the beginnings of that kind of interaction, but it isn’t the kind of seriousness that happens later, when you actually have much more serious consequences to gender interactions.

And then the other thing was that the things that had begun to occur to me when I was 14 years old, like: why? And why am I here, why am I at all? And who am I? And how did this actually come about? And those things became a serious burden for me in my teens, particularly in my late teens. The thought, with respect to the book, is that it occurred to me that someone should write something about angst in later adolescence.

People talk a lot about college angst, but college angst actually occurs when you get to be a senior and it actually occurs at the same time that you’re struggling with a lot of other things. And so what I started trying to do was to, and the first time I wrote out this story, it was very substantially autobiographical. But after a while, I began to say, “Well, this is not actually capturing what I want.” And so I changed it. I added characters. I caused some characters to grow and some characters to diminish based upon the flow of the story. I borrowed from all of my experiences. Everything in the book is actually borrowed. It’s just not borrowed in the same sequence.

It’s so funny that you have to sort of fudge the actual truth to tell the truth you wanted to tell in the book. That’s the beauty of fiction, isn’t it?

It really is. It really is. Things don’t have to occur in the same sequence or with the same people. You simply draw on whatever is appropriate, whatever you need for the story. I had things like, I had my daughters to tell me that my female characters were too subservient and too small. And so I said, “Whoa, okay.” Well, this was way back when, and so I redid it. I did it so that the female characters were much stronger, much stronger people and had—

I’m snapping my fingers in appreciation of your daughters right now.

The other thing I had in the book is that the main character wrecked a truck. I rolled a truck when I was in my late teens and I ended up being an invalid for a couple of years and so my character ends up doing the same thing. And so he has a period in the hospital and there’s a lot that happens in that period. That’s part two of the novel. But I had a friend of mine say, “Well, that’s sort of boring. That part in the hospital, he’s just lying there. It’s just sort of boring.” And so I thought, “Okay, well now there’s an opportunity there because a whole lot happened during that period. I can actually make that more interesting.”

And the interesting thing was then I showed it to another friend of mine—I was using friends to try to develop the story properly—but he said, “Why don’t you start with the hospital part? That’s the most exciting part?” And I said, “Well, that’s an interesting thing because I just beefed it up.”

And so what I did was, in part one, the part where it begins and ends up with what I call these climacteric events—that is used in a much, much, much broader sense than you might ordinarily think—I went back to it to make it better. And then I added part three, which is the part with the psychiatrist, because his mother thinks that he has attempted to kill himself. It’s with the psychiatrist where I basically explain and rationalize what has gone before.

And of course, I’ve had some people say that it is far more interesting than the other parts. One of the things that I did was to try to figure out in what order I should write the story. Ultimately, it ended up basically as just chronological order. But originally, after my friend commented that I should put the hospital scene first, I made it first. And then it went back to what’s now part one, the climacteric section, that climaxes with the truck wreck. And then I did the psychiatrist sessions. And that was very sort of difficult and confusing. And somebody else said, “Well, why don’t you put the psychiatrist sections first? And then the rest of it sort of follows.” I tried that.

Unfortunately, that didn’t work all that well either because then it was out of chronological order and everything after that was in flashback.

Right. That’s a lot of flashback.

Yes. And it was very confusing. And so ultimately I said, “Okay, well, what we’re going to have to do is we’re just going to have to do chronological order and just go straight through.”

It struck me reading the book that you’re so deeply in Kit’s point of view that for me as a reader, it almost didn’t matter what happened to him. I just was kind of entranced by watching him go along for that ride. So maybe that straightforward time line served you well, because it wasn’t playing any tricks with the plot or anythingjust telling a straightforward story, but narrated by this really interesting character.

And you mentioned characters a few times, and you mentioned that the story started out kind of autobiographical, and I am dying to know if any of the characters are based on people that you knew or that you grew up with.

Almost all of them.

All right!

Obviously, they’re not exactly the same. They’re not in exactly the same roles. The Uncle Newt character is based upon my Uncle Newt who was James Newton Connerly, and he was a reader. That’s sort of all he did. He read his whole life. But he was an interesting character. And ultimately, I had to build him into the story. He is sort of a peripheral character in so many ways, but he’s a part of the mix.

The main female characters are based on real people. Now, the Sarah character is actually based upon probably several different people, not just one. The Anna character is based on a single person. And most of the interactions are real, including the scene on the back country road and particularly my attitude toward her, my sort of awe of her as a person.

You’ve had a long law career and now you have sort of a second career going, and this is your debut novel. So have you always wanted to write? How did this novel come to be in your career trajectory?

I was always going to be a writer from the very beginning. From the time I was a kid, I was going to be a writer. And then what happened was that I got to my senior year in college and I had to figure out how to make a living. So I looked at working for a newspaper or a magazine, and I thought those looked like terrible jobs. And I thought about this and that. And finally, I thought I’ll just become a lawyer. This is a default position for almost everybody who goes to law school. And one of the things they do in law school is they require you to write stuff. You write a bunch of stuff, okay? You write papers and you write analysis and whatever.

So, I applied and got a clerkship. And it was probably the most delightful experience that I had after law school in the law. Because what I did wasthe Court of Appeals sits in basically in three judge panels, and then one judge is assigned to write an opinion disposing of the casespend a year drafting opinions for the judge that I worked for, and I had more fun. All I did was write. That was my job: write opinions.

So, were you working on this novel the whole time you were practicing law in Birmingham or was it more recent?

No. I started working on the novel probably in about 1988, or thereabouts. We took the girls for a couple of weeks to the beach every year. I would spend the time recovering from the practice of law and reading. And that’s when I re-read The Catcher in The Rye. And in the next month or two, I wrote the first draft of the novel. Then what I did was, over the years, I refined it.

It was where I went when I was trying to get away from the practice of law. When I was trying to get away from doing the business of taking care of life, I would go to my little secret compartment and I would write and I would refine and I added characters and removed characters and restructured. But that was one of the things that kept me sort of sane over the period of time. It was the thing that I could always go to when I just didn’t want to deal with the other problems, whether they were problems with the kids . . . though we didn’t have any problems with our kids, but—

Yeah, but life is tough sometimes.

Life is tough. Okay. It really is. I mean, it’s sort of like the last year—

Right. Well, hopefully it’s not always that tough. I love that writing this novel was an escape for you.

It was truly an escape.

Booklist is part of the American Library Association, so I have to ask you about libraries, of course. How have libraries played a role in your reading or your writing life?

It is amusing that you want to ask me this, because libraries, particularly for young people, are sort of like an inner sanctum. The Mobile Public Library was a place where I went and sometimes I would go for a book because I knew what I wanted, but sometimes I went and I just sort of browsed. I just went through the stacks just looking from the time that I was fairly young.

But from time to time, the library would either replace or throw away—I can’t remember which. I don’t know what they were doing, but they would have dump day and there would be all these books. Most of them were a little bit ratty looking. And you could have them, okay? Now, occasionally they would put a little price on them, like a quarter or something, but for the most part, they just gave them away so they didn’t have to take them to the dump or whatever they were doing. So I collected books from dump day. And the effect of that, of course, is that you end up with a lot of random stuff. I mean, I have read a lot of random stuff. I don’t give away books. I have a staggering number of books. At one point, or actually on more than one, probably twice when I was young, people said, “Did you steal this book from the library?” And the reason was is because it had the little library stamp on it.

That’s an offensive suggestion that you would ever steal from the library!

Those are dump books, okay? Those are the ones that they actually just got rid of and I happened to come along and pick them up.

I am a bit of a loner. I am not very gregarious. And so the library is sort of made for people like me. And it’s also made for anybody who actually has curiosity about anything. And the library, as you probably represent it, was enormous to me all the way through high school.

When my leg was broken, by the way, my younger brother did a run to the library, but it was just after my accident. He would go and he would come back. I would give him a list and he’d come back with all he could carry. He would just bring them in. And so we did this about once a week. He would come in with about eight or 10 books and, since I really couldn’t do much other than read, I read an enormous amount. And so by the time he got back to the library, I was already done with the other books.

I recently rediscovered libraries. I wrote a genealogy on my Lewis family line and I rediscovered libraries, the musty old part of the library.

Right, yes. The genealogy section.

It took me about seven years to get, and I had to have a lot of help from DNA, but I had to get all the way back to the first people, my first Lewis ancestors to be on this continent. And Thomas Lewis died in 1672, in Isle of Wight County, Virginia.

So excavating the past through genealogy and through revisiting a fictionalized version of your youth.


Well, the book is really great and I hope folks get a chance to enjoy it.

May libraries never go away, okay?


You really don’t want computers to take away that solitude, that ability to sit between those shelves, in that little table by yourself. It is such a delightful experience. You don’t ever want that to go away, ever, no. And sitting alone with your computer is never going to be a substitute.

Well, thank you so much for chatting with me and thank you everyone for listening to the Shelf Care Interview.

This Shelf Care Interview was sponsored by Seaman Capital. J. William Lewis’ The Essence of Nathan Biddle is available on June 1. Happy reading.'

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