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The Worm Hole Podcast Episode 04: Phillip Lewis (The Barrowfields)

Charlie and Phillip Lewis (The Barrowfields) discuss planning out fictional houses, the detail and beauty of classical music, books about books, and how real life in all its ups and downs makes its mark on your work.

Release details: recorded 9th November 2019; published 9th December 2019

Phillip’s social media: Twitter || Instagram || Website

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Show notes:

Question Index
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Question Index

00:25 You’re a litigation lawyer and used to write an online journal of criticism – tell us about your writing background
03:46 Where did this book come from?
08:00 Was there a reason for creating a fictional town (Old Buckram) related to what you’ve been saying?
09:56 What was your inspiration for the vulture house?
12:51 Tell us about the library
21:53 How important was music as a general part of the book compared to the other aspects?
26:04 How does the literature in the book relate to your own interests?
31:01 Did you ever worry that a significant number of literary references would be missed?
33:40 Was leaving until the end the mystery of what happened to Henry Senior always the plan?
42:34 Where did Bullar the dog first fit into the story for you?
45:20 What’s next?

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For ease of reading, ‘umms’ and similar, as well as sentence false starts, have been left out.

[intro music]

Charlie: Hello and welcome to The Worm Hole Podcast. Joining me today is Phillip Lewis, author of the haunting and superb novel, The Barrowfields, welcome Phillip!

Phillip: Thanks so much for having me.

Charlie: So you’re a litigation lawyer, which is used in the book a little bit, fictionally. And you also used to write an online journal of literary criticism, I read. Tell us more about your background.

Phillip: Yes, I am a litigation lawyer, most of what I’m doing right now is civil rights litigation, that’s a bit of a change for me. When I went to law school, seems like years and years ago now, it was always an aspiration to try to do something to help people and make some kind of difference in the world and you know, law school has a way of teaching you some of the realities about the business of practising law and a lot of folks who go in with those kind of goals and aspirations don’t hold them very long, once you get out because you have student loans and that sort of thing. And so for a number of years I was doing courtroom type stuff but I wasn’t helping people to the extent that I really wanted to be, but I’ve changed gears, fairly recently and I’ve gone to work for another firm and so part of my job involves helping folks that have been wrongly convicted, which is incredibly inspiring work to see these folks and their plights about their situation is, and we’re helping a fella now who was wrongly convicted in 1976 and has been 43 years behind bars for a murder that he did not commit and he was freed ultimately after years and years of hard work by the Duke Innocence Project over here and he’s a current client of mine and so that’s the sort of work that I’m doing now. So I’ve always had this duality I guess, where, you know, the practical on the one side [laughs] and the impractical creative on the other side and I don’t know why I try to balance them, it’s just about impossible, maybe training from my parents I guess, but throughout the time that I was practising law, in doing the things that I needed to do to make a little bit of money, and to survive, I’ve always read and written and been obsessed with the written word. And I’m sitting now in this room – we’re not doing a video conference of course – but I’m sitting in this room that’s full of books and it’s my favourite room in the house, it’s just how I’ve always been and I think that you and I may share some similarities in that regard [Charlie: umm] where you know that’s really nothing better than sitting down with a book in your hand and seeing the words on the page and hearing the words in your head and going places that people take you in books and so that makes up those two halves of my personality I suppose.

Charlie: Yeah, I totally agree with you there, yes. So to move into the novel itself, The Barrowfields is a first-person narrative told by Henry. It’s the story of his early years and revolves around the moment his father – also called Henry – left the family. And it’s about the impact this has on Henry and his relationship with his sister as he grows up. Now the book is set in a fictional town in North Carolina, largely in the 1980s and 1990s, and it’s very Gothic and sobering but there are also moments of great humour and it reads like a classic American novel. It’s full of emotion and heart and it’s really quite moving. So, Phillip, I was wondering where did this book come from?

Phillip: First of all you’ve very kind. I thank you so much for the kind words. The book was a long time in the making; it was about five years in the writing and then another couple of good solid years of editing to bring it about. The book is set in the mountains of North Carolina; have you been to North Carolina or to that part of the States?

Charlie: No, I haven’t been to America at all, which is more the pity, but no.

Phillip: Well, we’ve gonna fly you over-

Charlie: That would be great!

Phillip: Yes, you should absolutely come visit. So North Carolina, you know, it’s a beautiful state, and there’s a lot of history to it, from Wilmington, which is at the coast, to the far western and north-western mountains, and the north-western mountains of North Carolina, it’s really unlike any other place that I’ve ever been. The people there are extraordinary and you know, you talking about a place where the elevation is anywhere from 3000-5000 feet above sea level and the winters are long and cold and you have these extraordinary people who are sort of natural storytellers and natural musicians and you go up into the mountains and it is dark and it can be Gothic and you can walk into an old country store and have a conversation with anyone in there whether you’ve ever met them before or not, and within minutes they might be in the midsts of telling you some extraordinary story about their life, the lives of someone that they know, and their dialects and their ways and manners of speaking up there, which are also unique if you know where to look and know where to find them, and so if you’re looking for a setting unlike any other place, the mountains of Northern Carolina is just a great place to start. And in having grown up in the mountains of North Carolina it can be bleak – there’s a joke about the weather up there. The natives, when people come in from out of town, and they’ll say, you know, ‘in the middle of the summer it’s quite nice’, and the person visiting might say, ‘well what’s the weather like up here in the mountains?’ and the response is usually something along the lines of ‘well, we have three months of absolutely terrible weather, and then it turns winter,’ which is not entirely far from the truth. But I think, you know, you grow up there, the culture’s different, there are museums and plays and things like that, you’re not as likely to see, and for a thinking person growing up in the mountains it can be stark and can engender certain emotional responses that I think that so much of The Barrowfields grew out of my emotional and intellectual response to growing up in a place like the mountains of North Carolina.

Charlie: So you’ve, got this fictional town, Old Buckram – was there a reason for using something more fictional, was it related to what you’ve been saying?

Phillip: Well, you know, I liked the idea of an amalgamation of places. There’s so many extraordinary places, I think, in the mountains all along the western boundary of North Carolina, from Murphy all the way up to Boon, and beyond, and going with the fictional town gave me some liberties in regards to how I could create it, and I could imbue it with so many of those characteristics that you might find in the high western mountains but not be limited to what you might actually find on the ground somewhere, you know, and I kind of knew that people were going to be trying to guess anyway where the book was set and I was afraid that if I actually picked the place and set it there, that I would get details wrong, and suffer some criticism as a result of the details that I missed. You know I kind of had this idea, having grown up reading Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner, I wanted to create this place of just pure imagination that could be anything that I wanted it to be.

Charlie: So obviously, yeah, as we’ve said, I’ve not got any personal experience of North Carolina at all, but I was actually surprised when I put Old Buckram into Google to see what it might look like and I was very surprised actually, because, you know, it’s written and it comes alive so much but, yeah, I think you’ve explained, you know, how that’s happened so well.

Charlie: So, in Old Buckram you’ve got Henry’s family house which he refers to as the Vulture House, and I know to me it came across sort of like Du Maurier’s Manderley in that it’s a character in itself, but in a way it was kind of more striking and more foreboding, even, than that house. And it was quite hard, I found, to get an idea in my head of what it looked like, from the first, and then you get used to it, which almost seemed to be a point in itself I thought, I thought that was great. What was your inspiration for the house?

Phillip: Well to be honest with you I was reading a lot of Edgar Allan Poe at the time that the house was born.

Charlie: Right.

Phillip: And so the house on the page began as something more like Ernest Hemingway’s house, maybe in Key West Florida, you know, I think it was white, even, and had these enormous porches and it was set up on the side of a mountain and there was a dark aspect to it but it didn’t have that aspect of chronic malaise that I think the Vulture House really needed and so with successive drafts it just became darker and sort of more sprawling and I had this kind of odd sort of obsession with it and writing those scenes I was really enjoying being there. And so I went out and in order to envision it better I had graph paper and I drew it all out and plotted it and I never actually had somebody do it on AutoCad or something like that but I thought about it [laughs]. But it just kind of grew in the telling and, as you say, it became more and more of its own character, and I would find myself just spending lots and lots of time in the house, and writing scenes and writing rooms, even, and generating history for the house that didn’t actually make it into the book because I felt that it was necessary to understand the whole history of the house and everything that had gone on there and its entire personality and this strange sort of darkness that it embodied and carried which was sort of terrifying to everyone else but was so attractive in some strange way to Henry, the elder. So I think that for the most part it was just a creature of imagination that just kind of met the darkness of the novel and perhaps the darkness of the mood that I had when I was creating it.

Charlie: Yeah, when I was reading it, I mean I don’t know if you know the computer game The Sims? [Phillip: Yes] Yeah, I kind of wanted to get The Sims up, you know, I do play a lot, and plot the house out. So you saying about the graph paper, you can read that in the story, that amount of detail you’ve put into it. And I don’t think anyone’s going to moan at me keeping on the house for a moment because I was wondering about the library. The room is, I suppose, relatively neutral compared to the rest of the house; it gets my vote in the house because it’s a library. Did you have any particular library in mind or any picture when you imagined it?

Phillip: You know I didn’t. But I love libraries, and at some point I went online and I was trying to find pictures of things that were sort of similar, and I came across some places which had some pretty cool aspect but I loved the idea of this place where there are unlimited books. It had the big aperture I guess and the floor and then another aperture in the ceiling. It literally was right at the heart of the whole house, wasn’t it? And you could stand at the railing and look down into the Great Room below where the piano was, and you could look up and through another enormous hole in the ceiling and see to the glass and iron of the roof. In the house that I grew up in we had a small little – I call it a library but it was not a library, it was a bunch of bookshelves – and we books upstairs and we had another place like that downstairs and those were my two favourite places and if I could die and go to Heaven I would wind up in a library like existed in the Vulture House where you could walk around and there are shelves that are twelve feet high and then off in the corner is the writing room, and I think everybody who writes or does anything creative sort of longs for that kind of space where you can be surrounded by your inspiration entirely and yet simultaneously have a place where you can go to focus on the work that you’re trying to do. And so it was kind of a place that I would go to in my imagination when I was writing, and I always felt like I understood Henry’s character walking into this, you know, I think he calls it a Gothic skeleton of a house, and finding this library and seeing it and I think to the average person it would be something where they would be inclined to say, this is creepy and it’s not for me but I think there’s so many of us who would walk in and say, like Henry did, oh, here I can write. And that’s what I was imagining.

Charlie: Yeah, it’s the highlight of the house when the rest of it seems very dark. It’s difficult to find the darkness in it at the same time, I suppose. Do we have a reading?

Phillip: Yes. I would be absolutely delighted it you would indulge me. So I was thinking about, you know – there’s a fair amount of music in the book – and the passage that I was going to read here. And it’s a very short passage, but it’s a scene where Story comes in to young Henry’s house – and Story I guess we should say is a very bright young lady, a very strong young lady, who our narrator protagonist, Henry, falls for and has a deep, abiding, love and attraction to and he tries throughout the book to understand her. To some extent she tries to understand him and while she’s anywhere other than with him, he’s thinking about her and he plays the piano, he’s this isolated kind of character and he sits at the piano and he plays the Chopin and Beethoven and Liszt and so forth, all the while imagining that maybe one day, she would come up on his porch and stand outside his screen door and hear him playing and hear all the passion in it and know that he was playing for her. And so the moment in the book here is when she’s finally arrived and she comes in to his little house, his modest house, and they walk into the living room where he has the piano and he all at once gets to sit down and play, and he experiences this extraordinary outpouring of emotion. Every time that he’s ever sat and played, imagining she could hear the music being played for her, well here she is. And so that’s where I’ll start, if that’s okay? And I’ll put my glasses on – I sent off for some glasses yesterday and they arrived today by the miracle of Amazon and I’d misjudged the size; they’re reading glasses and I look a lot like Milton Berle, with them on, so again it’s good that we don’t have the video running.

Charlie: This podcast is not sponsored by Amazon, I’m just going to note for anyone listening [laughs].

Phillip: All right.

[Reading excluded to respect copyright]

Charlie: So on that subject of music, ’cause, it’s one of the best parts of the book, I think. There’s a lot of culture in the novel: it’s a book about book, which we’ll talk about in a minute; there’s also time spent looking at the stars and the planets; there’s a hint of philosophy and law; but I think most apparent, perhaps, is the use of classical music. And yes, I personally loved it, I’m really into classical music; and there’s a point where Henry’s father is discussing Chopin, and I went and got YouTube up and listened to it because it was one I hadn’t heard before – the A Minor Mazurka Opus 17 Number 4, for anyone who wants to look for it – and I noticed that not only did it align with what narrator Henry had been mentioning previously, I can’t remember the exact wording but the music started slowly and then it was quite invigorating to play. And I was listening to it while I was reading some of the pages, and it kind of corresponded to the structure of the book I found, which was wonderful and I just wondered how important was music as a general part of the book compared to the other aspects for you?

Phillip: Well, music was perhaps second in importance only to books. And I’ve always wondered what life would be like if we didn’t have music, if we didn’t have Chopin, for example. It’s kind of hard to imagine when you think about it. Music is such an important part of my life and it informs everything that I do and it seems to go hand in hand with emotion, I think. I think it’s hard to have emotion in the absence of some kind of connection to music and I think so many emotions are tied to some music maybe that we were listening to at the time, some quality in some piece that we know or can relate to. So much of the book was written with music in the background, and I kind of mean that literally and figuratively – I would, you know, for example, the A Minor Mazurka, which is an extraordinary piece and it’s really more like a nocturne, I think – the Polish dance aspect, I think the name of the piece derives from, and I have no basis for saying this, but there’s a little bit of a dance section in the middle of the piece which is lovely but the heart of the piece is this nocturne-type arpeggios over a waltz pattern, and I think it can be played brightly but it can also be played with quite a bit of melancholy. And sometimes what I would do is, when I was searching for a certain level of emotion for a particular scene, I would identify some music that took me to that place and I would play it and search for a way to articulate the emotion that I heard in the particular piece or the particular pieces. And of course it was tempting to take structure from the world of music and put it into the novel, you know the four part structure the book was initially conceived is something akin to something symphonic with different movements and different variations on themes and so, broadly speaking, music really is a very core part of the book.

Charlie: Yeah, it’s nice that there’s so many pieces in there to go back to and listen to I think, I kind of wish I’d made a list and I could go back and listen to all the ones that I don’t know. And that’s a recommendation for anyone who is listening and would like to read the book – do have a notepad with you, because there is a lot of music you’re going to want to listen to and there are a lot of books that you’re going to want to note down and either reference or just note for further reading. And, on that subject – from the outset, the novel shows itself to be a book about books; Henry’s father’s a writer, he passes his love of books to his children, as we’ve heard. So there are literary references aplenty and they’re a joy to find. Phillip, how does the literature in the book relate to your own interests, and how much is just Henry’s?

Phillip: Oh, I have to say that that part of it has a one-to-one correspondence to exactly how I feel about books and literature [laughs]. And one thing I love about books and literature is when I find literary references in a text, like honest to goodness ones, and I know there’s a debate about this, I know there are a lot of writer’s that say that, you know, they don’t do this intentionally and critics and readers overlay symbolism and unintended meanings on texts and that sort of thing, but also know that there is a very rich history of literary reference that is as old as the written word and I tend to love that and I love when an author indicates to me right off the bat that there’s going to be a depth, a complexity to the text, where I could take it at face value or I could look a little deeper and look at word etymologies and place names and names of people and certain flourishes and be able to tie those into something beyond the text which itself has meaning. And oh, I just love that dearly, and so… that was an enormous amount of fun to do with The Barrowfields, was to take all the literature that had made such an impression on me and was so important in my life, from F Scott Fitzgerald to Emily Dickinson to Herman Melville, I mean you name it – everything that I’d written, high school and since high school that just left me astonished and in awe and to be able to tip my hat and pay homage to those things, to J R R Tolkien… I mean the list goes on and that was an enormous amount of fun to me; you know I really found that it is an effective way to communicate a much greater idea. There’s a scene, for example, and this is just one, but there’s a scene where Story and Henry have returned to the Vulture House and the day is falling and the darkness is coming into the house and they’re making the most of it and trying to see the brightness in the shadows, and I think there’s a line that is an F Scott Fitzgerald reference that pertains to a Tennessee Williams play about Scott and Zelda that, it’s funny, it seems like few people know about it but it’s called Clothes for a Summer Hotel and I don’t know that it’s a particularly good play by Tennessee Williams – it’s certainly dark and it’s quite serious – and so there’s a reference to the Clothes for the Summer Hotel in that particular passage and it’s this light and lively passage but the idea was to communicate this underlying darkness and foreboding within this scene and by tying in the Tennessee Williams there at that particular point, I tried to give it that foreboding and that is an example. And I don’t know if that sort of thing works but as a reader I love to look for things like that and find them in texts.

Charlie: I saw the Scott and Zelda but now you’ve said the play, no, I did miss that one myself. But I know that the first time I read the novel, a couple of years ago, and coming back to it, it just kind of reminded me how important, I think especially with books that are about books, it is important to come back, and even if it’s just browsing a few them, a few years later or whenever you can do it, because you’re reading more all the time and you realise more – I mean I know I’d already read To Kill a Mockingbird before I read The Barrowfields, but I completely missed the reference to Scout and Arthur Radley and my goodness, yes. Did you ever worry that a significant amount would be missed or did you just go ahead and add what you wanted and what will be will be, kind of thing?

Phillip: I assumed that most people wouldn’t be looking for the references and would probably read over them the first time. And I think we all have that tendency, I think it’s perfectly ordinary for a reader to – when you first pick up a book it’s almost like getting to know somebody for the first time, and your first conversation with them. And you’re willing to give them maybe a certain benefit of the doubt but you’re not going to assume necessarily that they have an enormous depth of character, say, and I think we tend to be standoffish at first when we encounter people and we encounter new books, perhaps. At least I do that, and I want to believe that the writer’s going to take me on some extraordinary journey and show me all that depth but I think – and I’ve certainly done this so many times where I’ve read a book and then learned later on that it had so much more than I saw in it the first time and I had to go back and really dive in the second time, and I think that’s normal and natural – and so I assumed that that’s what would happen but I was hopeful that with the few hints and indications here and there that people would read the text closely and deeply and start to look for those Easter eggs and that there’s different layers of meaning, and be rewarded for the search.

Charlie: Yes, you say that – that’s kind of what I did a few days ago, I had a chapter and you know, showing my lack of knowledge here, it got to Blanche du Bois and I was like, oh, who’s that? So I put that in and then I kind of went oh my goodness, I really should know that. But yes, that’s definitely something that your book inspires. So I’ve been trying to keep away, I suppose, from some of the story because you don’t want to spoil the story, but I wanted to touch, if we can, on the mystery of where Henry’s father went, because early on, we know that Henry’s father has left the family but you don’t know why – there’s a few possibilities – and so the mystery is introduced in the prologue, and then that prologue is repeated with an addition later on in the novel. So, was leaving the mystery of what happened to Henry Senior always the plan, Phillip?

Phillip: It wasn’t, but I will tell you that, yeah I think sometimes that when you write over a period of time, and you’re working on something that’s very true and dear to yourself and your own emotional life, real life has, I think, a way of creeping into the narrative sometimes. And at the time that I was writing this book I was having a difficult time addressing some issues that my father was having. He is – and I don’t think he’d mind me sharing because it’s something that we try to talk about – he has been afflicted for many, many, years with depression, compounded by alcoholism, and I think that as I was writing, his condition seemed to be worsening and worsening over a period of months, and almost on an accelerated pace. And I think that some of the narrative with respect to the elder Henry leaving, disappearing from the family, was related to, perhaps, anticipation that I was experiencing regarding my own father and perhaps even pre-emptively experiencing a sense of loss for what I felt like may be coming in my own life, and that experience found its way into the narrative as the book was being written.

Charlie: [Silence] That’s, yeah…

Phillip: Didn’t mean to take it on a turn for the more serious there, sorry about that.

Charlie: No, no, it’s… nice, as much as that word can be used, to hear the story.

Charlie: Do we have one more reading from The Barrowfields?

Phillip: Yes, I would love to do that. This is a scene that I mentioned just a few minutes ago when Story and Henry have come back to the Vulture House as we were talking about and they’ve come in and of course, Henry has a dog, an enormous leonine animal named Bullar, who is indefatigable and only wants to do one thing which is to chase tennis balls. And so to set this up, they’ve come back in to the Vulture House and they’ve had a traumatic sequence of events that have led up to this moment. And Henry thus far has been unable to articulate his feelings for Story and he wants to feel close to her and be close to her but thus far she has some emotional matters that she’s addressing with respect to her own father and her own life. And so here we are and they’ve come back now, and they’re coming into the house, as evening is beginning to fall.

[Reading excluded to respect copyright]

Charlie: This is actually now the second time that I’ve wondered if you can see my prompt sheet because my next question – I’ve left this question until last because I suppose, objectively, he’s not quite as important as the other characters, but he is entirely winsome – where did Bullar the dog first fit into the story for you?

Phillip: Well, Bullar is true biographical material with respects to The Barrowfields. He may be the only true one. When I was in law school I had a dog named Bullar, and he was – it sounds like a cliché – but truly my best friend. We lived together and he slept in the bed with me, and went everywhere with me and on days when it was cool enough for him to be in the car he would ride to school with me, and wait on me and then go home, and we were just joined at the hip, for years and years, and we just had that connection like I guess you can have with your dog. And he died unexpectedly several years ago and, you know, we took him in to the vet one night and the next night he was gone and I’ve never grieved like that in my life before or since and I still miss him so very, very much, and it was just something that meant so much to me to memoralise him in The Barrowfields and bring him back to life and put him on the page and… I think about him every day and seeing his name on the page, it makes me so happy and I know it would make him happy too.

Charlie: That’s a lovely story. Yeah, I figured you probably had a dog or had had one because he’s so alive in the book. No, I can relate to what you say as well, I had a cat for quite a while. Yes, it’s difficult.

Charlie: What is next in terms of your writing?

Phillip: Well, I’ve got a fiction project that I’m working on now, and it may be a couple more years in the making but it is something completely different than The Barrowfields, but I believe it has the same level of heart and the same level of soul and it comes from an honest place, and I’m trying to write authentically and sincerely which I believe is just such an important thing to do. And I’m not giving out titles yet or even working titles, I always find that telling people what you’re anticipated is ahead of time is kind of like telling people the name that you’re thinking for your children that haven’t been born yet. You know, you’ll say, yes, we’re thinking about Herman, if it’s a boy, and people will be very visibly taken aback and they will usually not hesitate to tell you it’s a terrible idea but, if you wait until the child is born, and then you say, this is Herman, it’s all smiles, you know, no one will ever tell you then that Herman is a terrible name for a child. I don’t have a Herman, I just threw that out there. And so sort of the same thing with the new book – I’m just keeping the cards very close to the vest and not really talking about it with anyone but it’s coming along and hopefully it will see the light of day some time in the next two to three years.

Charlie: Well, that’s the most important thing, you know, it’s on its way. We will wait, patiently. Phillip, it’s been wonderful having you here and talking about The Barrowfields, and it’s been lovely to re-read it – it’s kind of an investment, I think, getting the book, because you do get so much out of it and you’re going to get more out of it again and again and again. It’s out now from Sceptre, and links will be in the description to this podcast. Phillip, thank you very much for joining me.

Phillip: Thank you so much for having me, it’s been an absolute pleasure.

Charlie: Join me at the earlier time of Saturday the 21st December when I will be talking to Samantha Sotto, author of Before Ever After, Love and Gravity, and A Dream of Trees.

[production credits]

Photograph used with permission from the author. Copyright © Isil Dohnke.


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