A Novel Idea

These two Lawrencians Chose Careers that Both Depend Upon the Written Word.

| 2017 Q4 | story by Liz Weslander, photos by Steven Hertzog
“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
-Muhammad Ali

 A Novel Idea

Author Lucia Orth walks the trails with her dog Loki and her husband John Head.

One started as a lawyer and ended up as a writer. The other started as a writer and ended up as a lawyer. Local residents Lucia Orth and David Brown are examples of two individuals who have made dramatic mid-career changes between two different professions that both rely on the written word.

Lucia Orth (Novelist and Former Attorney)

Talking about writing a novel is easy. Actually writing a novel is hard. Local author Lucia Orth gets this. Orth has one successful novel under her belt and a couple of others in the works, but a lot happened before that, including a career as a lawyer and a stint working for a nonprofit overseas.

“Lawyers are sort of famous for saying, ‘Oh, I have a novel in me,’ ” Orth says. “Some of my law school friends would say this too me when I first published, and I would say to myself, ‘Yeah, you don’t know hard it is to get that novel out!’ ”

Orth, a Hannibal, Missouri, native, grew up surrounded by books in her father and grandfather’s bookstore She studied English literature and creative writing in the early ’70s during her undergraduate years at the University of Missouri. However, attending law school was always her ultimate goal, and she never seriously considered writing a novel straight out of college.

“I didn’t want to live on a salary like that,” Orth says. “I was focused on law school and was interested in women’s issues and making a difference. But, I also wanted to wait until I had stories to tell that weren’t just about childhood on the Mississippi.”

Orth attended law school at Notre Dame, concentrating on tax law, and focused much of her studies on political activity by charities. After graduating, Orth clerked at the United States Tax Court and then worked at a law firm in Washington, D.C., arguing international tax cases.

After a few years of practicing law in D.C., Orth and her husband, fellow attorney John Head, decided they wanted to spend some time living and working overseas. Head found a position in Manila, and in 1983, the couple, along with their first child, packed up and moved to the Philippines, where they lived for five years.

“If I had seen it beforehand, I would not have gone,” Orth says about Manila, which at the time was a third-world city. “First impressions are really awful in a place like that, but we ended up really loving it there.”

Weeks after their move to Manila, Ninoy Aquino Jr., a longtime political opponent of Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos, was assassinated at the Manila airport. This incident sparked the nonviolent revolution that ultimately ousted Marcos in 1986.

During her five years in Manila, Orth worked part-time at a nonprofit, traveled and grew her family.

“We went with one child and came home with three, so we were doing a few other things,” Orth quips.

And, although she was still years from becoming a novelist, Orth also found the title for her first book, “Baby Jesus Pawn Shop,” while running errands in Manila.

“We were driving around, going to work, dropping off some kids at preschool, and we turned onto this little back alley in the main part of the city,” Orth explains. “I look over and there was a sign in gold letters that said, ‘Baby Jesus Pawn Shop.’ I just gasped and said, ‘That’s the title for a book.’ ”

Not long after moving back to the States, Orth’s family moved to Lawrence so Head could take a position at the University of Kansas School of Law. Meanwhile, Orth qualified for the Kansas bar. Knowing Lawrence law firms were not a good fit for her skill set in international tax law, Orth started looking at bigger firms in Kansas City. But, after a few years out of the business and two moves in two years with a young family, starting up a corporate law firm didn’t feel like the right move.

“It was about that time that I said, ‘I think I’m going to write a novel,’ ” Orth says.

A close friend she met in Manila had just written a successful novel and was encouraging Orth to get back into writing, she says. She also knew Lawrence was close to the University of Iowa’s Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she could take some courses to develop the ideas she had brewing.

“I didn’t just jump in and think I could do it without some training and a peer group,” Orth says. “But the pressure just got stronger, and then you take all the things I saw in Manila that were constantly saying, ‘Here’s a book.’ Moving to Kansas was the right time for me to write a novel.”

Orth set about bringing her already-titled book to life by attending several workshops in Iowa and making a return trip to the Philippines for research. Part of this research involved attending a cockfight.

“I had to see one,” Orth says. “I knew it was something I couldn’t quite make up, and that there was some sort of sensory experience there that I needed. My instructors stressed that you should try to get into the body of character in order to ground them, and it’s nice to use some sensory thing to do that.”

The completed version of “Baby Jesus Pawn Shop,” which takes place in the Philippines during the 1980s and has been described as “Dr. Zhivago in Southeast Asia,” came out in 2009. Orth has since completed a second novel, which is set in the Philippines and Lawrence in the late-1898 through 1902, and centers on a young boy who was brought back to the U.S. by an army company after the Philippine-American War. She is also working on a World War II novel set in Italy and has started writing that coming-of-age novella.

“I sort of feel like these books are all planes lined up and waiting to land,” Orth explains.

She says she is pretty sure going back to practicing law is not in her future, but she does enjoy getting involved in the Lawrence community in ways that let her indulge her lawyer skills.

“I helped lead, with the help of David Ambler, the open and affirming process at Plymouth Congregational Church, and although that’s not really law, it felt really good in terms of affecting policy,” Orth says.

Her journey from creative writing major to lawyer to international traveler with a final destination as a novelist has been long and nonlinear, but Orth believes it has worked out just right for her.

“I’m glad I didn’t go right into writing,” she says. “I’m not sure I had blazing talent, and it’s hard to take rejection when you’re young. The solitariness of writing is also much easier at 40 than at 20.”

 A Novel Idea

Attorney David J. Brown in his office inside the historic Old English Lutheran Church at 1040 New Hampshire.

David J. Brown, Attorney at Law (and Former Journalist)

Local attorney David Brown’s life plan did not originally include law school. Brown had early aspirations of being a journalist and began his writing career at his high school newspapers. After graduating, he went straight to Ohio State to study journalism.

Working days at Ohio State’s The Lantern, nights at the Ohio State print shop and weekends at the Columbus Post Dispatch writing sports stories gave him plenty of journalism experience but also compromised his studies.

“I was a terrible student because I never went to class,” Brown explains. “I dropped out after a year and a half.”

The next few years were a series of odd jobs—some at newspapers, many not—for Brown. After attending four different universities at five different times, Brown finally graduated from the University of Kentucky with a degree in journalism. He started his career in earnest at the Corbin Times Tribune, in Corbin, Kentucky, and, after two years, moved to the Albany Times Union, in Albany, New York. There, he covered the general assignment beat then politics, moved to copy editor and, ultimately, advanced to weekend regional editor.

A highlight of Brown’s 10 years at the Times Union was working with editor Harry Rosenfeld, who played a key role in the Washington Post’s Watergate coverage prior to moving the Times Union.

“He was a super editor,” Brown says. “If I only had to work for Harry Rosenfeld, I would probably still be in journalism today; but, there were a whole lot of idiots who were between me and Harry Rosenfeld, and I didn’t get along with most of them. In fact, I told my managing editor more than once in a very loud voice in the middle the of the newsroom to go (expletive) himself.”

But, it wasn’t personality conflicts with editors that led Brown away from journalism and into law. It was physical and mental burnout.

“The bad hours and unhealthy lifestyle had a lot to do with it,” Brown explains. “The hours I worked meant that my social life was pretty much nonexistent, and I was horribly in debt, because journalists don’t make much money. But really, I kind of burned out on what journalism was all about.”

Brown says he originally got into journalism believing that, as a reporter, if he reported the news and uncovered facts, people would make reasonable decisions. He believed his writing might make a difference and hopefully help people. However, covering local politics in a city riddled with corruption and poor use of public funds dampened this idealism. Brown wrote many stories highlighting Albany elected official’s mismanagement of fund, but he says the people of Albany continued to re-elect the same politicians year after year.

“What I discovered is that it doesn’t matter what you write, and it doesn’t matter what’s in the paper. People have made up their minds already, and you do not help anyone by being in the press. At least, that is how I felt then,” Brown says.

 A Novel Idea

Attorney David J. Brown

Ready for something different, Brown applied, and was accepted, to Albany Law School. He graduated with a J.D. (Juris Doctor) in 1989. However, he left law school still unsure whether he wanted to practice law. When his partner landed a job at KU, Brown tagged along with her to Lawrence. He worked for a semester at the KU School of Journalism and then landed a job as a research attorney at the Kansas Court of Appeals. This job gave him a good foundation in Kansas Law and solidified that he did, indeed, want to practice law. After a brief job search, Brown decided to open his own law office in 1992 in Lawrence.

“When it was time for me to go out into the market in 1992, no one would hire me,” Brown says. “They didn’t hire me because I was from New York, and I didn’t know anybody in town. I also had a braid down my back and was a wacko liberal. All of these things contributed, so I decided to open my own office.”

Brown gathered his first clients by getting on the criminal appointment list at Douglas County District Court and taking on some Child-in-Need-of-Care cases. He also found a niche in representing members of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community.

“My whole goal is to help people, and what I realized was that, as a lawyer, I could help that community establish, as much as was possible in the early 90s, protection for their family units,” Brown says. “Working with the LGBTQ community is still a really important aspect of what I do.”

With a well-established family-law practice and long list of local nonprofit board and advisory positions, Brown says practicing law fulfills that desire he has always had to be of service to others. And, he only misses journalism on occasion.

“I miss the adventure and excitement,” he explains. “If something of major import happened, I was always there. I knew every important person, and it was thrilling. I often say that journalism was like a drug for me. There are just incredible highs when you are a journalist, but there are incredible lows—I don’t miss that at all.”

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