Q&A: Author J. William Lewis On His Debut Novel

Mobile native J. William Lewis talks about his debut novel, a timeless Southern coming-of-age tale that unfolds on the Alabama coast in the 1950s.

Author J. William Lewis

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. What have you been up to since the release of your novel? 

Thank you for your interest in what is usually referred to as my “debut” novel, a description that suggests more to come, which may or may not be misleading. Now that I am no longer compulsively revising “The Essence of Nathan Biddle,” I am spending a lot of time answering questions about the book, far more than I could ever have anticipated. I had fatuously assumed that I could turn to other pursuits as soon as I handed the manuscript off, but I was seriously mistaken. I have inchoate ideas for a second novel, but I have done nothing other than move words around in my head. 

Why did you write “The Essence of Nathan Biddle”? 

I needed to write, and the story needed to be written. I began writing as an escape from the practice of law and, perhaps more pertinently, to present a different take on adolescent angst as described in other coming-of-age novels. Kit is the character I know and the character I could write honestly and candidly about. Kit and I spent a lot of time together in the verbal compartment of my brain.

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Why did you set the novel in the 50s?

I was an adolescent in that decade, and I wanted to write from experience, authentically and not hypothetically.

The book certainly has an incredibly authentic feel. Are there places or characters that overlap with reality?

If you’ve ever tried to write a story, you know that visualization is essential. The description of the coach’s office is just a description of the coach’s office at Spring Hill College, but the coach I describe is actually based on an intermediate school coach who gave every kid a nickname. My nickname just happened to be “Straw.” 

The dictionary was a very important component of Nathan’s childhood. The characters’ breadth of vocabulary, or rather, yours, is impressive. Did you have a similar relationship with the dictionary as a child?

First, a fictional narrative, particularly first person, always requires some suspension of disbelief. Second, I was an introvert with a fairly large vocabulary. I did, in fact, have a big fat dictionary, but I usually used my little paperback.

In an interview you did with the Shelf Care podcast, you mentioned the library was a sanctum for you. What role do you think libraries will play in future generations?

Even in the ’50s, the library was largely “nerdsville” except for brief periods when more serious research was required of all students. The paradigm shift is that now virtually everything is available on the student’s computer. Thus, the time spent in the library by most students has shrunk significantly. But even now, the library continues to serve the two major functions it has always served: A sanctum for people looking for solitude (a place to think in undisturbed quiet) and a source of a large number of essentially free books. Hopefully, these functions won’t ever go away.  

A large part of your book explores the intense emotions of a boy in his late teens and how he deals with them. Would you say this is a book for adolescents, adults or both?

For those who think the “why” of their existence is relevant and even interesting, the novel offers a front-row seat to watch a hopefully sympathetic character struggle and fail to find the answers he desperately wants. One of my nephews informed me that he does not “like to think about things like that,” a clear indication that “The Essence of Nathan Biddle” is not for him or anyone who wants to block out the imponderable.  

Kit’s intentional isolation provides the foundation and impetus of his search for meaning, his insular approach to understanding the behavior of the people around him, and his approach to the life he has been given. These conundrums are universal, and they are as pertinent to Millennials as to any other generation. The questions of why you are and who you are lurk in the shadows of every person’s mind, even if he or she has diversions or numbing devices that allow escape or avoidance.

When you think back to being a teen, do any particularly fond memories come to mind?

If I can indulge a bit of humor, I’m sort of like Holden Caulfield in the opening lines of “The Catcher in the Rye.” I don’t really feel like getting into “my lousy childhood . . . and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.”  

No discussion of The Essence of Nathan Biddle would be complete without talking about the heron. Why a heron? And when in your writing process did the heron first appear?

The heron showed up one summer standing in the shadows near a beach house my older brother and I owned in the 1970s. The beach house was 10 miles down Fort Morgan Road in what was then a desolate part of Gulf Shores. I saw the heron standing alone on one leg by the beach house just at the edge of the outdoor lamppost. Of course, I saw him a decade and a half after my truck wreck left me on one leg. The symbolism to me was just too perfect. Like me, the heron was alone, wary, baffled and standing on one leg, mostly in the dark. 

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

The truth is that the book was written for me. The book took so long to write that it is doubtful it could ever mean as much to any reader as it has to me. The journey has certainly been significant. I fully expect and hope that many readers will also love the journey. 

Excerpt from “The Essence of Nathan Biddle”

The Essence of Nathan Biddle Book Cover

On the first anniversary of Nathan’s death, we went to the sea. We may have been looking for the ungraspable image that Melville said is visible in all rivers and oceans, but I didn’t see it. Maybe I wouldn’t have recognized it if it were floating like flotsam on the surface of the water. In any case, I didn’t see the image and I didn’t find the key to it all. We spent two weeks in a little cottage my mother rented, walking on the beach in solemn silence and sitting on the deck in the evenings while the sun sank into the ocean. We talked some about Nathan but not really that much. Neither of us mentioned his death. We had exhausted ourselves in hours of anguished fretting over a death that in any sane world was inconceivable.

The ocean didn’t provide any answers but it did envelop us in an almost mystical caressing balm. The beach house stood a couple hundred yards back from the water, built on pilings among the sea oats and bordered on the beach side by a large wooden deck. At twilight, when the sun left nothing but an orange tint on the waves, the ocean flooded the deck with a pungent fragrance and gentle gusting breezes. Even in the half-light, you could see the whitecaps cascading along the line of the beach. The hush of the evening was punctuated only by the incessant, rhythmic pounding of the surf like a gigantic heart.

The last night we were there, I was sitting on the deck looking absently toward the surf when I noticed a great blue heron standing alone about twenty yards from the deck. The bird stood on one leg at the edge of the area lit by the flood lamp on the beach side of the house. The wind off the ocean moved the lamppost gently to and fro, so that the ring of light on the ground moved back and forth and the solitary fowl was alternately bathed in light and sheathed in darkness. The bird never moved while I watched him. The light came and went but he just stood there looking wary and maybe perplexed.

I still think about that strange, gaunt bird standing on one leg in the pulsing light. It seems unbearably sad to be totally alone and uncomprehending: The heron had no way of knowing and no one to explain why the light came and went or why the ocean throbbed and the wind moaned along the shore. I don’t worry all that much about Nathan’s death anymore, but the bizarre monopode randomly sneaks back into my mind and roosts there like a spirit from another world. Maybe because he first showed up in the summer, the hint of warm weather always invites him to return. He seems always to be lurking in the shadows but in the summer he is a constant intruder, yawking wildly if I try to elude him or chase him away.

Click here to purchase a copy of “The Essence of Nathan Biddle”

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