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Robert Whitlow

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Robert Whitlow Interview

by C.J. Darlington

"I enjoyed legal writing but had no ambition to be a novelist or to write fiction."
--Robert Whitlow

Robert Whitlow is the best-selling author of legal novels set in the South and winner of the prestigious Christy Award for Contemporary Fiction. A Furman University graduate, Whitlow received his J.D. with honors from the University of Georgia School of Law where he served on the staff of the Georgia Law Review. A practicing attorney, Whitlow and his wife, Kathy, have four children. They make their home in North Carolina.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard the story of what it was that inspired you to be a lawyer. Was it a boyhood dream?

My father’s older brother was a lawyer in West Tennessee, so I was around him during family visits when I was growing up. I liked him, so there was a little bit of family history there. And my grandfather was a county court clerk in western Tennessee, so he was involved in the court system. My uncle practiced law in the same county where Buford Pusser was the sheriff from Walking Tall. That gives you an idea of his background.

When I was coming through college I was a history major and didn’t really have any vocational plans, and I decided why not apply to law school? I did, and I lived happily ever after.

Was there something that surprised you during law school, or that you loved, which you didn’t expect?

I’ll tell you, the biggest thing that happened when I was in law school was I became a Christian. That really changed everything, honestly, as it should. But I did find out on the academic side that I really enjoyed law school. I was probably a better law student than I was an undergraduate. I was very thankful I did really well. I had an offer with a law firm in Atlanta, and had a real successful time there.

How did you become a Christian?

There was a time there that while I was familiar with the Christian faith and had been in church, I just began seeking God. I’ve learned since that the Bible says God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him, and that’s really what happened. As I was seeking, He was wooing. It’s kind of the Divine romance. It really came together my first year in law school and I came to realize for the first time in my life, that God loved me. Not just that He so loved the world, and was this cosmic force, but he was a personal God and wanted a relationship with me as an individual. I was absolutely staggered and blown away by that.

Where does novel writing come into play in this?

I enjoyed legal writing but had no ambition to be a novelist or to write fiction. Didn’t know how to do that. I would’ve looked at a novel, and said, how does somebody do that? How do you think of all that stuff, make it make sense, write all this conversation. I had no ambition to be a writer, but in 1996 I got an idea one day. I had been thinking about how so many Christians are unaware of the spiritual influence that the prior generations have on us. I mean, you go to the doctor and what do they ask you? Do you have a history of hypertension, heart disease, cancer . . . so it’s recognized in the medical field, but there are spiritual dynamics that influence us for good and for bad in our past. I thought it would be interesting to illustrate that in the life of a family going back to the Civil War. It just really went off in my imagination.

The ListWhen I got home I told my wife Kathy about it, and she said, “You ought to write that.” That was The List, my first novel. That’s how I got started. I read a book about how to write a novel, and that helped me. I really wrote it for my wife, my kids, I thought they might be interested in reading it sometime. Then I had a guy that submitted it to Thomas Nelson for me, and a few months later they called and said They wanted to meet with me. That was really neat. I’ve been with Nelson now ever since. They were telling me I’m the fiction writer who’s been with them the longest of anybody. I don’t know what that means, but that’s a fact. I can try to make it sound good! (Laughs.)

A key part in all this were two dreams your wife had?

Yeah, that really is true. I was in Georgia for many years and had my own law firm. We moved to Charlotte in August of 1996. But about a year before that my wife had a dream that we were going to move to Charlotte. I don’t even remember her telling me that, but I’m sure she did. A few months later she had another dream. We went out to dinner one night, and she told me she had to tell me about this dream she had. She said she had seen the house we were going to live in. This is honestly the way it happened. She told a friend that was a teacher in our children’s school in Georgia, and the woman’s eyes got bigger, and she said, “Kathy, that’s my brother’s house in Charlotte, and it’s for sale.”

We went through a process of investigating that and ultimately bought that home. It’s a very nice older home that was formerly a bed and breakfast. We moved in August of 1996, and in September of 1996, that’s when I got the idea for The List. I realize now looking back that if I hadn’t slowed down the pace of my life, because I really did have a busy law practice in Georgia, I would not have considered taking on a project like writing a novel. I worked part time for a few years, and that’s when I wrote The List and how I got started. My life had to be reoriented so I would consider doing something like that.

The List might not be the greatest novel ever written, but it was the greatest novel I’d ever written. I’ve just been so grateful that the book has continued to do well. The first film was The List, and I’m really glad for the opportunities I’ve had.

In talking to film maker Gary Wheeler earlier this week, I learned you’re an author that doesn’t hold too tightly to your book when it’s being adapted to film. What’s going through your mind when one of your books is being adapted, specifically The Trial.

One reason I’m involved in the process as one of the screenwriters is to help keep the adaptation to at least a significant aspect of the vision of the novel. We realized there are multiple textures to the plot, storylines and character arcs in the novel that you just can’t explore in a film, so we decided where our focus was going to be. That helps it not hurt my feelings when characters are cut and you miss a lot of the things that are in the book. That’s just part of the process, and I’m at peace with that.

The Trial was your second novel, right?The Trial

Yes, when I finished The List my wife said I ought to write another novel. I think she read someplace that if you ever did get a publishing deal they didn’t want to do a one book deal because they’re looking to build. At that point after doing one I realized I could do it. So The Trial is based a lot on experiences, not on a specific case, but on varied experiences I had in my early career. The first five years of my legal career I did some criminal defense work because the lawyers in our circuit were on a list that would have to handle image and defense if the public defender’s office was swamped. I was involved in a number of murder cases, primarily writing appeals, but also I was involved in the trial of murder cases.

I didn’t realize a judge can appoint someone and you don’t really have much of a choice there.

You have no choice except to leave town. Because a lawyer is also an officer of the court. We are under the authority of those judges, and under that system that’s the way it works. You had to do it. It didn’t pay very much, but it was really considered part of your duty to the community for the privilege of practicing law. If there was somebody who couldn’t afford representation then in the courts, under the constitution, everybody has the right to council. Whether I was effective or not as a young lawyer I was at least council. That’s the way it worked. Now in the situation of the movie, Mac is a more experienced attorney, and there would be more discussion, as there is in the film where the judge says, “I can make you do this, but at least think it over.” When I was young it wasn’t, “Do you want this case?” I got a call from the judge’s secretary that said you’ve been appointed to represent this defendant who’s charged with so and so, go down to the jail and meet with them.

What was the most surreal moment during the process of literally seeing your characters come to life with these actors?

I really enjoy the depth that Matthew Modine brings to the personal pain and struggles and journey to hope of the main character. That was obviously a progressive thing I got to enjoy on the days I was there for filming. The second closing argument he gives in the movie, when he delivered that on the set everybody applauded, the spectators, the crew. One of the most enjoyable moments for me was interacting with Bob Gunton, who plays the prosecutor, about a few changes in the nuances of his dialogue. I really appreciated the thoughtfulness he brought to his role, and because I’m a fan of his to be sitting there thinking, man I’m coaching up Bob Gunton, that was pretty awesome. I was really just kind of agreeing with what his suggestions were, but I was pretending to coach. (Laughs.) He was really such a professional.

Life SupportWhat did you like most about working with Gary, and what did he bring to the table that you maybe didn’t expect?

We have a comfortable personal relationship, and I have a lot of respect for Gary’s spiritual viewpoint. He understands what I’m about as a writer, what I’m creating. That’s huge. I can trust him with it. That’s the biggest deal. I can trust Gary with the creative process of doing the best that we can bringing the book to life on the screen.

How do you balance your life as a lawyer and your life as a writer? Besides giving you great plot ideas, do they compliment each other or are they completely different?

I’m always paying attention. You’re being kind and asking me about me, but if you and I were in the car going somewhere for an hour and a half, by the time we got there I’d know however much of your life story you could tell me in an hour and a half. I’ve always been interested in other people, their life. All of that goes in the bank of memory. And then you draw down on it when you’re writing a story.

And so that helps you as a lawyer when a client tells you their story.

Lawyers have to be storytellers in describing things in front of a judge and a jury. Even before was a novelist, when I would write my legal briefs sometimes I’d try to throw stuff in there that I thought might give the judge a chuckle and break the monotony of his or her day and add a little bit of entertainment value to it. You have to be careful with that because you have to respect the seriousness of the process, but it definitely has been part of who I am. I think the most profound effect being a lawyer has on being a writer is that I’ve read thousands and thousands of depositions and court transcripts and hearing transcripts, so you really develop an ear for dialogue because you’re immersed in a world of dialogue.

When you write do you always have a message in mind, or does that come about as you write the characters?

It varies. A couple of the novels I’ve written, The List and Jimmy, which is the new movie project we’re starting, I just felt compelled to write those stories. The other novels come out of what I hope is a sanctified imagination. Sometimes I have a theme I want to explore. For example, Life Support and Life Everlasting, two books that go together, I really wanted to talk about the theme of worship and what are some of the uncharted realms of worship.

The novel that I’m working on right now, that’ll be out next spring, Water’s Edge, the theme for that is from Jeremiah Chapter 6 where the prophet talks about standing at the crossroads and considering your way, following the ancient path. It’s the story of a modern man who has to return to his roots and he discovers the truth about himself, God, and what is important in life. I have things like that in my mind often as I’m crafting where I want to go.

There can be what’s called a crusader novel, and that’s not just limited to the Christian genre. People with any kind of agenda, whether it’s political, sociological or whatever, can write a novel and essentially the characters are secondary to the message. What I try to do is create characters that have enough credibility that they can communicate the message in a way that the reader can accept it as the perspective of that character in the context of the story. If you build credibility with your reader then as the novel progresses they’re willing to allow your characters to say things, and do things, and believe things that don’t come across as imposed or added on.

JimmyI notice most of your books deal with the legal profession, but some of your books, like Jimmy, veer off that path just a bit. Do you find it’s easier to write a legal thriller or do you enjoy it when you have something that’s a little bit different mixed in there?

I like both. You know, one of the rules is you write what you know, and you write what you’re passionate about. Those are two rules of writing. The first time I wrote The List the main character was a banker. But he was just a boring banker because I didn’t know anything about the nuances of that world. Of course, bankers may be boring, but I didn’t know the life of a banker. Once I turned him into a lawyer all the sudden he came to life. I know what it feels like to be a lawyer in various experiences and circumstances. I’m comfortable doing that, but I’m grateful when I really had this burning passion to write Jimmy, which is about a mentally challenged boy, it’s a coming of age story, my publisher was very amenable to that even though there is a legal component to that because his dad is an attorney. I’m not chafing at any kind of restrictions or upset by any of that.

What has been your most embarrassing moment as a lawyer?

Your most embarrassing moment as an attorney is when you make a mistake. Practicing as long as I have, thirty years, I have asked the wrong question, I’ve not filed something in a proper way. There’s nothing really glamorous about any of my mistakes that come to mind. The real tough part of it is that I represent a lot of individuals that if I make a mistake it can have a serious impact on their life. I can’t think of a funny mistake. (Laughs.) A few that are really heart wrenching come to mind, but no funny ones.

How do you as a person not bring it all home, or is that impossible?

Sometimes you do. You only have so much emotional toothpaste in your tube. Sometimes you have cases, and people, that you keep with you. That’s unavoidable. What you do is try to do the best you can with every client and every situation they’ve entrusted to you. And I do trust God with the outcome. I have seen situations where I’ve walked out of a courtroom or a hearing and I’ve turned to a client and said, this is a situation that you can tell people that God really worked on your behalf here. And we’re not talking about a situation where somebody else is hurt. I don’t know how interested God is in the outcome of football games, I sure care about some of them, but I’m talking about situations where really I could say that God was acting on that person’s behalf and really taking care of them. He says the sparrow doesn’t fall without Him knowing it.

I find it interesting how so many creative people are creative in more than one area, for you that’s music. Do you still play the piano?

No, I don’t. I played a lot growing up. Actually I played several instruments and I was very active in band. I sung in groups and stuff. I don’t have a solo voice, I like being in groups. Music was a huge part of my life as a young person. Now it’s more just listening to it and enjoying it, and occasionally singing. I did have help in the novels where I have a lot of music, I have a buddy named John Elliott, who’s a very accomplished pianist, singer and composer. John was kind enough to serve as my expert in some of the things I’ve done that have music, piano, and things of that nature.

The Trial DVDDo you think now you don’t feel the need to create as much with music because now you’re creating with words?

That’s possible. It’s like a muscle, and once you start using it you have to keep using it. I can go a few days without writing, but once the itch is there I’ve gotta get back in there and do some stuff.

What does the process of writing look like for you?

It’s so different from writer to writer. It’s been so interesting hearing how other writers do things. For me, I have to have an idea of the beginning and the end. And then I want to enjoy a lot of the stuff that happens in the middle and just be surprised myself. I have been writing before and many, many times I’m just typing as fast as I can to find out what happens next. I try not to kill anybody just in a random way. I want to make sure it’s for a good reason.

We’d love to hear more about your new project.

The main character of Water’s Edge is a rising star in Atlanta. He’s from a small town. He’s moving up the ladder in a very prestigious law firm, and in a single day he loses his job, his girlfriend, and his cat. He’s left with the ugliest dog in the state of Georgia. His father died a few months before, and his father was a lawyer. He has to go back to the small town and shut down his father’s practice. While he’s back in his small home town he’s working on that and discovers a couple million dollars in a trust account in his father’s law firm, and he doesn’t know who it belongs to. Then off you go from there.

Was that based on anything real life that you experienced?

(Laughs.) No, I’ve never been responsible for another attorney’s practice and discovered a million dollars.

What are two things people might be surprised about you?

That I’m pretty skinny even though I write about eating so much in my books. And the reason I have so many meals in there is it’s just a great way for people to get together and talk, so that’s what I do. I used to part my hair on the right, then I parted it on the left, and then I gave up and just cut it.

You’re in line at Starbucks, what are you ordering?

I don’t drink coffee, I’m a Christian. (Laughs.) I am not a coffee drinker, but this’ll make me sound good (chuckles), I make coffee for my wife every single morning and bring it to her. When I’m at Starbucks I’m gonna probably get a tea or hot chocolate.

The most touching scene in The Trial movie, I felt was the one on the porch when Mac and Anna are talking.

I was on the set that day, and I’m not normally. Usually I’m laughing and joking around, but I was very intently watching on the monitors when that scene was being shot. Matthew Modine came off the porch and he came up to me and he asked, “Are you okay?” I said, “Yes, this is just super important.” I thought they did a really good job on that.

Watch the trailer for The Trial Movie:




C.J. DarlingtonC.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.