James H. Lewis is the author of the new novel Sins of Omission. He has worked as a reporter, a public media executive, and a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and he lives in Pittsburgh.
Q: You note that part of your novel is based on your own experiences as a reporter in Jacksonville in the 1960s. What did you see as the right mix of fiction and history as you wrote Sins of Omission?
A: I use history as a backdrop for a story. The book contains three layers—fact, fiction, and fictionalized history. The events I describe in Jacksonville between 1963 and 1968 are true; I saw most of them first-hand.
I based much of the other historical background on actual events, so while the slaying that opens the book is fiction, it was inspired by two civil rights murders during the early ‘50s. There are many other examples, and Florida readers may have fun making these connections. As the saying goes, you can’t make this stuff up, so I didn’t try.
Q: The novel is set primarily in North Florida. How important is setting to you in your writing?
A: Because I based the novel’s backstory on actual events, it was important to get the sense of place right. I lived in Jacksonville for 15 years and visited frequently thereafter, so I described most scenes from memory.
For others I asked friends for help, searched the internet for pictures and, in one instance, called a government office and asked a clerk to describe a setting within the building.
I based the scenes along the St. Johns River on the home of a relative where the cover photo was taken. But there’s a “Mr. Rogers” aspect to those settings. Every scene on the east bank of the river relies on actual locations with which I’m familiar. Those on the west bank are in the “Land of Make Believe.” Anyone familiar with North Florida geography knows there’s no hill along the west bank of the St. Johns, so I imported it.
Q: You write that the election of 2016 was a motivating force behind your writing the novel. How did your opinion about the election influence your decision to write the book?
A: When I came South in 1965, I encountered an atmosphere of “casual racism.” White people made racist statements in my presence assuming I shared their viewpoint. They regarded such language as routine.
Over the years, such everyday racism became less acceptable, but during the presidential campaign in 2016, I saw it reemerge. I sensed us sliding backward and felt compelled to speak to it. Racism was always there during the intervening years, lurking in the background, awaiting a chance to step forward.
Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: The title emerged from a section of dialogue in which a key character seeks to minimize an action he took by characterizing it as “a sin of omission.” As I wrote those words, they seemed to represent not just the small sins that produce major consequences in my story, but in real life. Many of our societal problems come not from what we do, but what we fail to do when we encounter hate—our sins of omission.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve finished the first draft of a “prequel” to Sins that explores elements of its backstory. I’m also researching a story based on an incident during the Second World War. I will co-author this novel with a colleague who’s an expert on the history of that era.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’ve been a writer all my adult life, but everything I've written previously was nonfiction. This is my first novel, and it was an exhilarating experience. I wish I’d started on this path years ago. To those who feel they have a story inside them, I encourage them to stop dreaming and write.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb