South Park Magazine

Intrigue with a Southern twist

In 1996, Robert Whitlow had an idea. A simple story of a young lawyer, a secret inheritance, and an enigmatic, ominous society. He told his wife.“My wife just looked at me and said, ‘You need to write that,’” says Whitlow. “And really, that was all the encouragement I needed.” Whitlow spent two years completing the story. “When it was done, I just decided, ‘Well, why don’t I try to get it published?’” From there, his path was enviably smooth. Publisher Thomas Nelson released his first novel, “The List,” in 1998, and his 11th novel, “Water’s Edge,” hit bookstores in August. Whitlow’s novels are a commingling of legal intrigue, Southern culture and fast-paced thrill – all with a Christian bent. “Two of the basic axes of writing are to write what you know and to write what you are passionate about,” he says. “What I pretty much do is write what I live, so I don’t have to research!” Whitlow’s work as a lawyer grounds his novels’ intricate plots of legal scheming, but the distinctively Southern flair of his character-driven prose distinguishes Whitlow (and has drawn comparisons to John Grisham). Born in Georgia, Whitlow is a graduate of Furman University in Greenville, S.C., and of the University of Georgia School of Law.“I know Southern people, Southern ways,” he says in a relaxed Georgian drawl. “All of my books are either in Georgia, South Carolina, or North Carolina, because those are the states I have lived in.” But that doesn’t mean stereotypical settings. “When you write what you’re familiar with, you can actually avoid stereotypes and bring texture to the characters,” Whitlow says. “If I were writing about Minnesota, I would be more prone to be stereotypical about it, because I have never lived there and seen the nuances of life.” Whitlow has relished creating the idiosyncratic characters that popoulate his novels. “I really enjoy the development of believable, credible characters that express their ideas about things in a way that makes sense in the context of their world.” Southern culture and quirky characters abound in “Water’s Edge.” Grief-stricken from his father’s death and emotionally numb after losing his job and breaking up with his girlfriend, Tom Crane journeys to his hometown of Bethel, Georgia, to close his father’s law practice. Unanswered questions regarding his father’s death, cryptic files about certain clients, and a scandal that threatens to capsize the small town set the plot churning. “There has been so much interest and so much publicity about Ponzi schemes,” Whitlow says. “These things have been around for decades, but there is just a heightened public awareness of that whole phenomenon, and I thought I could make that a part of my book.” This highly topical issue is tempered by the main character’s personal struggle with despair. “He had shut down emotionally because of what had happened, and that needed to be dealt with. Maybe some guys will read this, and say, ‘You know, there’s a part of me there.’ I’m looking for themes to have possible depth of feeling and emotion to them.” And faith also plays an important part.“(It) is just something that’s part of the story to these people,” he says. “My goal is not to write a religious novel but to write a novel about people, some of whom have religious convictions. It would not be consistent with our culture if I ignored that.” Religion and law may seem to be an odd match at first glance. “There’s a lot of praying that goes on in the courtroom!” he laughs. “Juries will pray. You don’t see it a lot on TV, but it happens. It happens in real life,” he says. “The intersection of beliefs and the law is pervasive. Whatever the belief is.” Two of Whitlow’s novels have been adapted to film, “The List” and “The Trial,” both available on DVD, and a third, “Jimmy,” is in preproduction for this fall. Whitlow has lived in Charlotte for 15 years and has been married to wife Kathy for 30.They have four children and three grandchildren. He continues to practice law and writes daily. “I have an idea when I sit down of what the beginning and the end is,” Whitlow says of his writing, “but the middle is the journey of discovery for me.”

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