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Every Trial is a Story

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Bert Goolsby of Columbia says the average lawyer writes as many words in the course of a year as the average novelist, and maybe more.

He should know. He’s been both.

The name on the dust jackets of his novels is “Bert Goolsby,” but it was more formally Judge C. Tolbert Goolsby Jr. in his 24 years on the S.C. Court of Appeals.

Goolsby’s writing career dates to his student days at high school in Alabama. His published output includes short stories, two books on legal topics (the S.C. Tort Claims Act and a lawyer’s manual on the death penalty), five novels (most of them mysteries), and a just-released volume, 90 Daily Devotions for Lawyers & Judges And Those They Serve. He will be signing copies at The Book Dispensary from 2 to 5 p.m. on Dec. 14.

The new book uses passages from Scripture and weaves in what he describes as “war stories that lawyers and judges tell” to illustrate his points. He originally planned to do 365 devotionals instead of 90, but “I ran out of gas,” he says.

People who suspect judges must be starchy, all-business people even in their private lives haven’t talked with Goolsby. He was once a stand-up comic. Once, literally — one show at an Atlanta-area nightclub when he was in the Army. But he was serious enough about being funny that he also tried out as a comic for the legendary Ed Sullivan All-Army television show in the 1950s.

“This guy stinks,” he heard one of the judges say. But it turned out the judge was referring to the fact that Goolsby’s baby son had thrown up on his father’s military uniform just before the audition. (His biography notes he was drafted during the days of the Korean War and “fought communism as a non-combat percussionist,” playing the drums with several Army bands.)

After his discharge, Goolsby went to The Citadel under the G.I. Bill and then earned his law degree from the University of South Carolina. He later earned an advanced law degree from the University of Virginia.

He spent more than two decades with the S.C. Attorney General’s Office, broken up by two years in private practice. He rose to chief deputy attorney general before his legislative appointment to the appellate court in 1983.

Goolsby sees a connection between legal work and creative writing.

“Every lawsuit is a short story in miniature,” he says, incorporating conflict, personalities and a final resolution.

He got serious about his writing after taking a correspondence course in short story writing. That led to publication of a collection of his work under the title Sweet Potato Biscuits and Other Stories.

After joining a writer’s group, he sold a Christmas short story for $400 to the St. Anthony Messenger, a Catholic magazine.

“I don’t think they realized I was a Presbyterian,” he says with a laugh. The story, “The Box With the Green Bow and Ribbon,” was also twice produced as a stage play.

The first of his five novels was published about 15 years ago; most of them involve crime or courts.

He describes Harper’s Joy as “probably my best.” As for his topics, “They say write what you know, and all I know is the practice of law and that kind of thing,” Goolsby says.

At 78 years old (“I don’t tell people I’m old; I’m pre-dead”), Goolsby continues to write. He has just finished his sixth novel and is looking for a publisher. He has a variety of book signings scheduled, and he will appear on a panel of mystery writers in February.

It’s a long time since Goolsby’s drumming days, but he’s still writing and marching to his own beat.

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