Former Albany Herald lifestyles writer Sonja Lewis has lived in England for the past 16 years. She recently published her second novel. (Special photo)
LONDON — When Sonja Lewis started work on her second novel, “The Blindsided Prophet,” the words of essayist James Baldwin served as a lofty benchmark: “You write in order to change the world. … If you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”
Such aspirations never would have occurred to Lewis, a former Albany Herald journalist, when she started her writing career in 1984 as a still-wet-behind-the-ears country girl from Calhoun County, only days removed from obtaining her English/Journalism degree at Valdosta State College.
But time and experiences, adventures if you will, have a way of keening one’s intellect and elevating one’s aspirations.
And Sonja Lewis Harbard has lived an adventure-filled life.
There was the move to New York … world travel as a Habitat for Humanity national relations consultant … a whirlwind international romance and marriage … management of sometimes testy communications relationships between corporate executives and trade unions … published articles in “The Guardian” and a blog created for “The Huffington Post UK.”
Oh, and there are those two novels: “The Blindsided Prophet,” released earlier this year, and 2011’s “The Barrenness.”
“I’ve been jokingly referred to as a ‘lady of leisure’ by some friends, but I’ve worked very hard to get to this point,” Lewis said in a phone interview from her London home prior to a Thanksgiving trip to Leary to visit family for the holidays. “I look at what I do — my goals — as a hill, and I’m now halfway up.
“I went through much frustration to get part-way up that hill. I’d get through one door, and it would immediately close behind me. I decided not to be told by traditional publishers what I had to do (to have my works published). So I set up my own publishing company (Primus Publications). I’ve found the results quite rewarding thus far.”
For those in Southwest Georgia who knew Lewis when she toiled for this newspaper as a lifestyles writer, adapting to her clipped English accent is initially something of an amusing exercise. As the conversation progresses, though, traces of her old Georgia twang escape, proof that 16 years as an expatriated member of proper British society have not eradicated her roots entirely.
Indeed, it’s those deep roots that render her “Blindsided Prophet” characters believable in a tale that swings back and forth between the Georgia woods and upstate New York.
“I think a lot of the metaphors that run through what I write maybe unintentionally go through Calhoun and Dougherty counties,” Lewis said. “In the new book, small-town life has a profound impact on the characters. I figure a lot of their beliefs and values came from my time there.”
Lewis left The Herald in 1986 to work with the Albany-based Flint River Girl Scout Council. Within two years she’d parlayed that position into one as first a media specialist and later a public relations consultant with New York City-based Girl Scouts USA.
It was during her tenure as Youth Division Director for Habitat for Humanity International that Lewis first met Paul Harbard, an accountant/developer who served as chairman of Habitat UK. The two were at a conference in Holland when they had their first encounter, although the suave businessman had already eyed the American beauty.
“I was having trouble with my (electrical) adapter/converter, and I couldn’t get my curling iron to work,” Lewis laughs. “I made a bit of a fuss, threatened to leave the conference where I was a speaker if I couldn’t get a proper adapter. Paul had people hopping to; he made sure I got one.”
A few years passed before the two started dating properly.
“I was living in Atlanta at the time, and I flew to London and Paul to Atlanta on occasions when we could,” Lewis said. “But when we started talking about having a relationship, it became a question of distance. What were we supposed to do, meet in the middle of the Atlantic?
“But I was in a place in my life where an international move was OK for me. I was ready to focus on my writing, and Paul was very willing and able to take on the responsibility of acclimating me. There were visa hassles at first because I was traveling in and out of the country. But when I started work on my master’s degree in International Journalism, I got a student visa.”
Even that became a moot point when, 13 years ago, Harbard and Lewis became man and wife.
Now there’s the remainder of that writing hill to ascend. Lewis says she has two or three other books at various stages, including one about her time while at The Albany Herald.
“I wrote that so long ago and, frankly, the writing is terrible,” Lewis said. “I just couldn’t be objective. Now, frankly, it’s not that important to me. I’ve thought about re-addressing the story because I believe it’s significant. But I don’t want to do a disservice to either race, and that’s the focus of a lot of the story. I believe it’s an important story, but I also believe it’s a story that’s been told.”
Both of Lewis’ books are available in e-book via most online retailers, including Amazon, Sony and Apple. Trade paperback copies are available from online retailers such as Amazon, Waterstones, and Barnes & Noble.