MY STORY Novel reality
The Barrow Fields is Phillip Lewis’s debut novel, yet even before it is published he is being talked of as “a powerful new voice in fiction” (Google Books).
He is a lawyer as well as a bibliophile whose coming of age novel has been described in the New York Times as “Beautifully written and deeply moving” in the tradition of Tom Wolfe and William Styron
The Barrow Fields is a painfully honest family saga centred on the relationship between a father and his son. Your own father was a lawyer and frustrated novelist. How much does the narrative draw on real life? While I drew on my own experiences in writing the book, I did my best to translate and transform those experiences, and the emotional weight of those experiences, into an entirely or largely fictional account. There are undeniably some overt parallels, including the father’s afflictions of alcoholism and depression— both of which plagued my own father—but the father in the book is otherwise a product of imagination.
Similarly, the other characters in the book (with the exception of the magnificent and darling canine) are fictional constructs or amalgamations in one form or another, and the lives of the characters and their victories and tragedies are likewise imagined and not based strictly on events in my life. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that the emotions expressed in The Barrow Fields arose out of experiences I had as a younger man and my observations of life as seen through my own eyes. It took you ve years to complete the book. To what extent was writing it an exorcism of your own hard life experiences?
I’ve heard authors say that you write a book not to remember it, but to forget it, and this goal was probably in the back of my mind as I began writing The Barrow Fields. I think people have a tendency to repress, or try to ignore, or rationalise difficult or painful memories, but writing about them is pretty much the opposite of that. When you write about hard life experiences, you have to bring them out and hold them up to the light and actually try to understand them—certainly if you are going to explain them to anyone else in a meaningful way. What I did in writing The Barrow elds was not to focus on the memories themselves, but rather on the emotional content or weight of those memories—in other words, how I felt about them; the emotional response I had to them. For example, to this day when I return to the mountain town where I grew up, it has an oppressive quality to me that I don’t feel anywhere else in the world. In The Barrow Fields, I wanted to create a fictional town that would make readers feel the same way that I feel when I go back home, which was not easy to do. If I had described my hometown in purely objective terms, you’d say, “Well, that’s just delightful”. So in order to bring about that same sense of apprehension or dread that I’ve experienced for so many years, it was necessary to create an entirely new place with a character of its own. All of this was cathartic in its own way, but I’ve found that it was less of an exorcism than I would have liked.
How difficult was it to get The Barrow Fields published? I was extremely fortunate, and I feel like I owe the universe an enormous debt of gratitude. The daughter of a former law colleague of mine happened to know an agent in New York, and she sent him my manuscript. He read it, contacted me, and in just a few weeks he and I were working on revisions. After several months of hard labour, we had the manuscript in pretty good fighting shape, and she was purchased at auction by Hogarth in the US. Soon after I learned that publication rights had also been sold to Sceptre in the UK, and also the publishing companies in France, Germany, Italy, Poland and the Netherlands.
The book is firmly set in the traditions of the Appalachians, your home, yet it is being published on both sides of the Atlantic. Do you think it will be as easily appreciated by British readers as American? The major themes of the book are, I believe, universal. If you had to boil it down, the book, at its most fundamental level, explores relationships more than anything else—relationships between a father and his son; between a son and his younger sister; between an adopted daughter and her parents, both adoptive and biological; between a bright young man and the girl he falls so madly in love with; between a young man and his dog. The book explores in a very sincere way how genuine people deal with loss, separation, grief, love, and at the end of the day, summon the strength and courage to begin to and hope again despite having no real reason to do so.
You’re a student of language and a collector of books, but literature has taken a swerve because of digital publishing with authors now able to by-pass the publishing and editing stages. Has writing itself changed as a result, and if so for the better or worse, do you think? Human beings are capable of extraordinary and boundless creativity, and I think there should be no barriers to this creativity finding an outlet for its expression. I also believe that very few literary works are created in a vacuum, and that the editorial process is invaluable and likely essential if you want to wind up with the best possible book or short story or essay. Still, I constantly thirst for new and interesting and raw expressions of creativity and imagination, and there’s never been a better time to find such expressions than in this digital age. If you love the written word, it’s an incredible time to be alive.
By the same token, with readers consorting to electronic tablets more and more, has the reading experience changed? The reading experience has changed for some people, and looking at how rapidly our society is veering toward digital appliances and applications, there does seem to be a certain inevitability regarding the change from books made from trees to electronic books—although I, for one, will never prefer electronic books to paper ones, nor will I read a book on an electronic device unless I have no other options (magazines, yes; books, no). I’ll go down with the damn ship. In my home, I maintain a fairly extensive library of books that I’ve collected over the years. Many of the books contain my notes, annotations and various marginalia regarding my observations, or the definitions of words I looked up. I have a daughter and two sons, all of whom I hope to one day bene t from this library. It’s something I think about constantly. What could be more meaningful than for one of them to open a book 20 years hence and see their father’s handwriting in the margin and know his thoughts about a particular passage, or see through their own eyes the same words that his eyes read so many years before? Could there be a more valuable inheritance? I honestly cannot think of one. And this is not something that’s likely to happen with an electronic book.