Book Project Spotlight: Interview with William Henry Lewis

Book Project Spotlight: Interview with William Henry Lewis

Editor's Note: With the recent addition of faculty member William Henry Lewis to the Book Project Mentor team, beginning in August, fellow mentor and Book Project Director William Haywood Henderson exchanged a few questions with newest mentor on his path to writing, what he's working on, and more.

A little bit about William Henry Lewis (he goes by Hank): He has published fiction, poetry, and nonfiction in many publications, including The Washington Post, O Magazine, African American Review, Kenyon Review, and Ploughshares. His work as a young playwright was selected by Edward Albee, and his fiction has been honored by America’s top literary entities, including the American Library Association, Fellowship of Southern Writers, National Endowment for the Arts, Best American Short Stories, and as finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize.

Hank is the author of two books of stories, In the Arms of Our Elders (Carolina Wren Press; three printings), and I Got Somebody in Staunton (HarperCollins; two printings), which was listed among Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2005, and selected as the city of Richmond's Go Read book for 2006. He’s currently at work on a suite of five speculative novels. 

His work has been praised by, among others, David Eggers, Nikki Giovanni, Peter Matthiessen, and Pulitzer Prize–winner Edward P. Jones. The Los Angeles Times Book Review praised his fiction as "beautifully written and carefully crafted," while the Boston Globe noted his work as "moving, but unsentimental, these are stories of hard-won wisdom, potent intelligence, and compassion for the cadence of everyday life, establishing Lewis as a writer to be appreciated and admired."

In these days of social distancing, I zapped some questions to Hank over email, and he had a lot to say! 

William Haywood Henderson: What drew you to writing originally?

William Henry “Hank” Lewis: Writing, in general, was important in my upbringing, not only because I’m dyslexic and I test low in language arts skills, and I wanted to better navigate those challenges, but judgements about writing and how we use English, then, like now, were a way of undercutting the stereotypes about Black folks’ use of English. So writing, which was but one weapon in the arsenal that education provided Black folks, was always a skill to be mastered in my family.   

If I’m being honest, my self-generated interest in creating stories came from wanting to draw and write comic books (yes, I was a comic geek as an early teen in the early ‘80s), but I didn’t take on writing as a serious interest until the end of junior high school, when I was changed by reading Ursula K. LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea, Langston Hughes’s Semple stories, Ernest Gaines’s Gathering of Old Men, and, curiously, Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul, which I read in 8th grade, in Latin, in a DC public school (no, this was far from some upper-crust striving, and I’m proud of that class of early-teenage Black boys, who won the city’s Latin Bowl that year, at a time when then, like now, most folks don't expect much beyond essentialist views of young Black men).  

Even then, I can’t say I was a literary kid. No, I wasn’t as erudite as Jonathan Franzen, who had a subscription to the New Yorker in his early teens, apparently. I had George Gervin, Pele, and Sugar Hill Records posters on my wall. By 10th grade, I was a three-sport jock who liked (not yet loved) to read and was secretly becoming very interested in how and why the written word impacted my life and others. I didn’t know then that I was already beginning to pull apart the function and arc of stories, but I was fascinated by the power of crafted words.

The two people who were significant in advancing my making connections between vernacular culture of storytelling, comic book driven imagination, and more serious writing, were my mother, who introduced me to Ernest Gaines and reading Harper’s (sorry, Franzen, I didn’t start getting erudite (kinda) until 11th grade, LOL), and my Nana, who used to play a game called “Magic Carpet” with me as a child to get me to sleep. She would start off, saying we are setting off on a magic carpet…where will we fly tonight, Hank? And that would encourage me to create an imagined trip to a place I mentioned, say, Nigeria, because I might have seen mention of that country in Jet or Ebony magazine, and then I would add a detail, like when we get to Nigeria, we will eat breakfast…what will we eat, Nana? And she might say at a big market in Lagos, where the men haul in the produce and the women run the business… and it went on from there until I fell asleep. All of those beginnings were in me but I didn’t reconcile how important that was until after college, when I was working on my first book and started to feel all that stuff fuel how and why I crafted words.

In college, I first started writing plays quite seriously and thought that was where I was headed, but I got into reading literary journals and loved how short fiction worked. By sophomore year, when my soccer-playing career took a massive hit, I had read Invisible Man, Zora Neal Hurston’s stories, Joyce’s Dubliners and McPherson’s Elbowroom, and Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (also furnished by my mother), and I was hooked.  When I started to chafe at the loss of control I had as a playwright over how my words would end up in a crappy production (I had some plays published and/or produced), I pivoted to having all the control in writing short fiction.  

I wouldn’t say then that I declared I wanted to be a writer, but by then, writing was happening to me.

WHH: How did you find Lighthouse Writers?

WHL:  In 2019, someone I had not talked to in some time referred my name to the higher ups at Lighthouse and they reached out to me. I’m so grateful for that, and wished I had connected with this amazing place much sooner. I was burnt out of university life, but I have loved how much my joy of teaching is supported and cultivated at Lighthouse. 

WHH: If you had to tell a student only one thing to help them with creative writing, what would it be? (Or two or three.)


  • The first is a steal from Toni Morrison (rest in power): “I try to write stories that I like to read,” which sounds self-serving, but if you consider the source, she is actually challenging herself to produce writing that is in the realm of work that stands out from her vast lifetime of reading.

  • The next is from Elizabeth Bowen: “Work to write good fiction, not to publish it.” I have always taken this to mean a writer should focus on the demands and refinement of craft first and above imagining where it will be published. And be sure you know what “good” means for you, not some stranger(s) you want to impress. Publishing is important and wonderfully validating, but, as for me and how I work, it can’t be more important than the quality of the work.

  • “Get close to your work.” This is a family saying that comes from my Pop Pop, Ernest W. Holliman, who was a jazz musician, Sante Fe Railway conductor, janitor at Rocky Flats (in CO, where they produced WW2-era, weapons-grade uranium), and a carpenter, which is how I knew him for the 14 years he was in my life. It's a passage I’ve carried with me on sites where I worked as a carpenter’s assistant, and in working a lot of floor refinishing jobs with his son, my uncle and godfather, who would often echo that saying to point out that, to do quality work on a floor, you can't just use a machine or skip steps to maximize your rewards. You have to get on your hands and knees, in the corner of a basement, and work that corner by hand, because if most of the floor is polished with a machine, but the corners, where a machine can’t reach, are less so, the room isn’t as appealing for those who enter. Same with fiction: using all the tech today to produce/present slick, compelling ideas/conceits in fiction is great, but if there are unrefined elements of craft or parts of narrative that are left wanting, they distract from the whole piece when a reader enters.

  • One more (I cheated, but pick as you see fit), which is mine, or rather I’ve re-iterated the sayings/lessons from writing mentors, known and read: “Either your reader is interested and engaged, or the reader is distracted” (by either errors, or craft that doesn’t help the work). Umberto Eco, whose thumbnail has more genius than I’ll ever have, gets at this in far more meaningful ways in the dense, but inspiring, first essay/lecture from his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods.  

WHH: Who are you reading these days?

WHL: As I’m dyslexic and have really poor reading comprehension and recall, I read VERY slowly, but impatiently, and often repeatedly. I book-surf, rotating through a few different books. I’m far from the first to do this. Here are the five books on the stack of 10 or so by the couch and bed:

  • My Monticello, stories, Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

  • Between the Lines: Letters Between Undocumented Mexican and Central American Immigrants and Their Families, Larry Siems, editor

  • Alex Ferguson, My Biography, Sir Alex Ferguson

  • A Fighter’s Heart, non-fiction, Sam Sheridan

  • Instructions for a Funeral, stories, David Means

WHH: What’s your “other life” beyond writing, and how does it help with your writing?

WHL: I moved back to Colorado in 2011 to look after my parents and work with my uncle David Holliman in rebranding and revitalizing one of the family businesses, which was in building maintenance and floor refinishing. My uncle passed in 2017 and I maintained contracts in the business for a year longer and then shut it down when my coaching work became more demanding. So these days, my primary work away from writing is in coaching collegiate and semi-pro soccer, and privately training athletes who aspire to play in college or in the pros, but the main thing that takes up my time is being the primary caregiver or my parents, who are in their mid-80s.

I also take on clients for freelance editing, which has been a nice development brought on by COVID, both in the sense of folks trying to refine work and in seeking me out to help them.   

When I’m not caught up in those, I get on trails (I live in Golden, CO), and craft with wood. 

I think the practice of craft in all of those areas—even the craft of observation while hiking, even looking after my parents—helps my writing, not only because, in all of those, one must, to quote my Pop Pop, get close to the work, in all things, but also, because my schedule is incredibly demanding, I think I make the most of my pockets of writing time.  

WHH: And, finally, what are you writing these days, Hank? 

WHL: I’m working on a novel that will be the first of a suite of five books, and each of those books I’ve been writing as I write this one, as oftentimes changes in this book impact the others. I joke to myself saying that writing this suite of five books pseudo-simultaneously is sort of like building an ex-burbs housing subdivision, and right now the primary novel is the model home that folks will walk through first.  

WHH: Thank you, Hank. I’m so glad you found Lighthouse and Lighthouse found you. We’re lucky. Can’t wait to hit the ground running in August 2022.