Recently, Joseph Lewis’ friends have started to wonder if he’s OK.
He’s now published six suspense novels that deal with such dark subject matter as human trafficking, drugs, gangs and serial killers.
“A friend just told me, ‘Joe, I’m starting to worry about you,’ ” Lewis said, chuckling merrily.
Despite the suspenseful and sometimes controversial nature of his books, Lewis—who is in his 11th year as principal of Stafford High School—calls himself a “Pollyanna.”
“I see the glass as not only half full, but mostly full,” he said.
Lewis is able to write about what he does because he’s “a compartmentalizer.” His books, though they are fiction, are based on true stories told to him by kids he worked with as a school counselor and from what he learned as an educator affiliated with the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, an advocacy group for children’s safety.
He sees his novels as not only providing entertainment in the form of thrillers so gripping that fans say they have trouble putting them down even to sleep, but also raising awareness of topics he views as under-reported—particularly the human trafficking of teenage boys.
“There’s much truth in [my books],” Lewis said. “I’m OK with being controversial—it gets people talking and thinking.”
Lewis grew up in Wisconsin. Sixth grade is when he first remembers falling in love with writing.
“The teacher, Sister Joseph Marie—who I’m still in touch with—would keep these notecards on her desk with three-paragraph ‘story starters,’ ” he recalled. “If you had downtime, you could take one and finish the story. That really lit a fire in me.”
The 1986 movie “Stand By Me,” based on a Stephen King novella, also made an impression on him, with its story about preteen boys in rural America who share the experience of dysfunctional and abusive families.
“They’re not from mainstream society,” Lewis said. “I must have watched that movie dozens of times.”
It inspired him to write his first short story, about two brothers who have been abandoned by their parents.
Another pivotal moment occurred in December 1989. Lewis was on a plane trip and read an article in the in-flight magazine about Jacob Wetterling, a Minnesota boy who was kidnapped at gunpoint in October of that year by a masked man in front of two witnesses.
“That almost never happens, and it bothered me,” Lewis said. “I identified with this kid—he was from a small town, his favorite color was blue, he loved steak, he wanted to be a football player.”
He reached out to the foundation established by Jacob’s parents and told them he wanted to help.
“I can write and I can talk,” he told them.
Lewis became an educator for the foundation. He would travel and speak to schoolchildren about safety and awareness.
He also worked as a school counselor.
“If any kind of abuse happened, I was the counselor [the child was assigned],” Lewis said. “I don’t know how that happened. I had no special training other than the foundation.”
While working as a school counselor in California, Lewis met and married his wife, Kim, who is now the P.E. director at Shirley Heim Middle School in Stafford.
Their first daughter, Hannah—now a teacher at Stafford’s Widewater Elementary—was born, and just over one month later, they finalized their adoption of their son, Wil, from Guatemala.
Becoming a father made Lewis’s work for the Wetterling Foundation difficult.
“I began to picture not just faceless people, but my own children,” he said. “I couldn’t do it.”
He stepped away from advocacy, but he still wanted to help. So he started to write a book that combined Jacob’s story with those he’d heard as a school counselor.
The result was “Stolen Lives.” True Visions Publications, out of Houston, read the manuscript and asked for a series of books, as well as a prequel introducing the characters in “Stolen Lives.”
The prequel, “Taking Lives,” was published in August 2014 and “Stolen Lives” was published a few months later. “Shattered Lives” and “Splintered Lives” followed in 2015, completing the Lives series.
Lewis’s next book was inspired by a story he read in the newspaper about the skyrocketing number of deaths nationwide from fentanyl overdoses and another about the gang MS–13 migrating south. “Caught in a Web,” published in 2018, deals with these topics as they affect one of the main characters from the previous series.
The book received a PenCraft award for best thriller.
Lewis calls his latest book, “Spiral Into Darkness,” which came out in January, his “most controversial.”
“It’s nature versus nurture,” he explained. “Are serial killers made or born?”
Lewis writes these difficult stories while sitting in the family room in his home—his wife, Kim, watching television nearby and the dogs running around.
“I can’t write in silence,” he said.
Some writers are planners, Lewis said, but he calls himself a “pants-er”—in that he flies by the seat of his pants. Sometimes he doesn’t know how a book is going to end until it’s time to write the ending.
He writes short chapters that don’t end neatly—and sometimes the entire book doesn’t end neatly.
“The reader has to keep his or her wits about her,” Lewis said.
The main characters in most of the books are teenagers and reviews and readers have praised Lewis for accurately depicting the way kids behave and talk to each other.
“I’m in a neat position because of my job,” he said, noting that he has worked with young people for 42 years. “I can stand in the halls and listen to the kids. Any writer has to be an observer and a listener.”
Since he’s so immersed in their world, Lewis said his next book might be one for young adults.
This might be a relief for his fans.
“One person told me, ‘I can’t read you at night—at some point, I have to sleep!’” Lewis said with a smile.