Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Talk with Philllip Lewis, Author of Debut Novel "The Barrowfields"

I was pleased on January 5, 2017 to talk to Phillip Lewis about his first book The Barrowfields.

The Barrowfields propagandist Henry escapes an unhappy home life with a distant, alcoholic father with failed literary aspirations. But Henry discovers that to be free of the past one much confront it.

The book is full of the presence of author and North Carolina native Thomas Wolfe, the father's idol.

Lewis grew up in Northwestern North Carolina, close to Virginia and Tennessee, but only a few hours away from Wolfe's hometown of Asheville. "I've spent a lot of time on Mr. Wolfe's porch, I can tell you," Lewis admitted.

We talked about Wolfe's fall from off the radar; the writer who influenced such diverse writers as Ray Bradbury, Maya Angelou, Pat Conroy, Betty Smith, Philip Roth, John Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson (who lifted 'fear and loathing' from Wolfe) is rarely read today.

"I think Wolfe is difficult for a lot of people to read compared to most commercial fiction these days," Lewis commented, adding "I find that so often, but not always, the books I truly enjoy and want to return to are the more difficult, are challenging books. For example, Blood Meridian [by Cormac McCarthy] is a book that I am proud to have read and finished partly because it was so challenging to me...You really have to concentrate on what he's saying or you can miss so much. But you feel like you've grown somehow by the end of it. It's really and extraordinary book, but it's not an easy book."

I told Lewis that I had read that Wolfe commented that his books all were about the search for the father [] and I saw that theme in The Barrowfields.

Lewis: "That was definitely an important theme for me," he replied. "I had a very complicated relationship with my father, and still do. This was the genesis of much of the material in The Barrowfields. He has suffered from a combination of alcoholism and depression for a number of years. He is also quite a literary fellow himself...I think he is a true writer but his struggles with other things have made it difficult for him to do much with it (other than inspiring his children, perhaps.)"

Nancy: "This explains why Henry the father is such a vividly drawn character."

Lewis: "For me the goal was to address or exorcise certain demons and to do so in an emotionally honest way--without writing an autobiographical account. In other words, you take an experience or amalgamation of experiences and examine the emotional toll, and then try to articulate that in some way with the written word that accurately depicts the emotional toll but does not reflect actual experiences.

"So everything in the book comes from a very emotionally honest place, and it was extraordinarily difficult and often painful to write for that reason.

"It's always impossible to know how all of that is going to translate to readers--because I think it is easy to assume that you're reading a book that's just been written for commercial enjoyment. But so far I've seen a few reviews by people who seemed to find aspects of it resonant with their own emotions."

Nancy: "That's when a book really gets to you when the author says things you cannot put into words yourself. I'm pretty blown away right now. The courage, as a writer, to struggle with demons!"

Lewis: "It truly was a very difficult process for me. And of course, it is a very lonely process, too. You spend a hell of a lot of time sitting somewhere trying to write what it is that's inside of you, and all the while not having any idea whether anyone other than you is ever going to read what you've written!"

Nancy: "In your book the son escapes the past but realizes he must return and confront his past. Is that what your book is--confronting the past?"

Lewis: I think that is an accurate description. Henry, our narrator, is in large part coming to terms with all that has transpired. He's somewhat of an expert at repressing past events, I think.

Nancy: "Yes, even abandoning Threnody." [Henry's sister].

Lewis: "Exactly."

Nancy: "I was thinking about Poe being another of the father's favorite [authors]. I just read in Mary Oliver's Upstream her essay on Poe. She says "life grief was his earliest and deepest life experience" and it made me think about Henry's father and what ghosts he was struggling with."

Lewis: "I have the sense that certain people experience anguish and tragedy in a different way than perhaps others do."

Nancy: "I wanted to say that two scenes from The Barrowfields that stay with me are the book burning and Henry and Story and the horses at night."

Lewis: "Thank you. I think those were probably the scenes that took the longest to write, and required the most effort.

"In regard to the horse scene, we had horses growing up and we were fortunate enough to have a good-sized field for the horses to enjoy. And one of my favorite things was when all the horses would take off running through the field and thunder away and then come charging back up the hill. And so I had memories of that, and that is what I drew on to describe that scene."

Nancy: "So, putting a memory into words, getting it just right--it's a lot of pressure."

Lewis: "It really is. And imagine this: my mother had horses from the time she was a child, and still does. I was writing those scenes with the horses knowing that she would be reading it, and knowing that it had to be just exactly right.

"I think authenticity is so incredibly important when you are writing fiction. And above everything else, I wanted The Barrowfields to be authentic. I wanted the characters and the scenes and the events to be authentic and deeply real. The horse scene late in the book, in addition to the horses, was also partly for the purpose of describing that part of the country at night--which I believed was important, or even critical, for that sense of authenticity."

Nancy: "There is a strong sense of place in your book, whether the mansion on the hill, so Gothic and dark, or Henry's university days, where it felt so contemporary and modern."

Lewis: Sense of place has always been important to me as a reader. Have you ever read a book, and in the book is a scene, and you're reading along and you realize that you have no idea where the charterers are, or what it looks like?"

We chatted about books we had read or were planning to read. Lewis' TBR shelf includes The Nix by Nathan Hill, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, and Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleeve. Books he recommended to me include The Tinkers by Paul Harding, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and James Salter, "who has his own writing style." He also enjoys J. R. R. Tolkien and fantasy novels.

Lewis is a working dad who spent five years working on The Barrowfields which is coming out in March 2017.

Read more about Lewis at his website

from the publisher:

The Barrowfields is a richly textured, deeply transporting novel that traces the fates and ambitions of a father and son across the decades, centered in the small Appalachian town that simultaneously defines them and drives then both away.

Just before Henry Aster's birth, his father--outsized literary ambition and pregnant wife in tow--reluctantly returns to the remote North Carolina town in which he was raised and installs his young family in an immense house of iron and glass perched high on the side of a mountain. There, Henry and his younger sister grow up in thrall to their fiercely brilliant, obsessive father, who spends his days as a lawyer in town and his nights writing in his library. But when tragedy tips his father toward a fearsome unraveling, Henry's youthful reverence is poisoned and he flees, resolving never to return.

During his time away at college and then law school, Henry meets a young woman whose family past is shrouded in mystery and who helps him grapple with his father's haunting legacy. He begins to realize that, try as he might, he, too, must go home again.

Mythic in its sweep and mesmeric in its prose, The Barrowfields is a breathtaking novel that explores the darker side of devotion, the limits of forgiveness, and the reparation power of shared pasts.

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