Terry Roberts: When Life and Writing Intersect

by Marie Hefley

Terry Roberts

Terry Roberts, author of A Short Time to Stay Here

The carved stone gargoyles that ring the roof of the Grove Arcade in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, peer into Terry Roberts’ office, a bright room with one wall of windows and one of bookshelves filled with nonfiction and regional fiction alike. Roberts, a teacher and writer, is the director of the National Paideia Center, an organization dedicated to “teaching children critical thinking skills and how to speak for themselves.”

His workplace illustrates his firm conviction that setting, one’s environment, is essential in forming and telling one’s story. A sign over the entrance door sets the tone for the rest of the space. “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” This quote from Francis Bacon says that Padeia and its leader are serious about scholarship and precision, traits evident in Roberts’ thoughtful reflections on literature, writing, and storytelling. He sits in a large wooden rocker, sipping coffee and carefully considering his soft-spoken words in a far-ranging conversation about literature, writing, education, research, publishing, and what’s important to him in life. Frequent smiles and wry comments punctuate his sentences.

Roberts holds a Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I once thought I would be in an English department somewhere,” he says, but the reality of supporting a young, growing family led him to a “providential” career in education reform and writing about education. His work includes teaching teachers how to impart literacy, critical thinking, and self-expression skills to K-12 students, mostly in public schools. “This is mission work,” he says, “derived from the tradition of public service that is part of my responsibility to give back.”

Roberts has written “a lot of nonfiction about education and literature,” including editing the Thomas Wolfe Review for ten years. “I was a manic reader who never took a creative writing class, [was] not taught to be a writer in any formal sense.” He absorbed what makes a good story well-told but never thought about trying his hand at fiction until his mid-to-late forties, when a growing interest in his family’s history and the history of the region they lived in, Madison County in Western Carolina, led him to experiment with telling the story of the people of the region.

After extensive historical research and much thought about how his family’s history in Madison County contributed to its culture, he began writing “a long fictional essay” in an attempt to understand “who I am and understanding this place historically and regionally.” He thought maybe his children and friends would be interested in his work, but at some point, based on his deep knowledge and understanding of Southern American literature, realized his story “is OK, it isn’t bad.” He also saw that it might “have a shape—a beginning, a middle, an end, and a plot.” His essay grew into a novel—A Short Time to Stay Here. Publishing it became a realistic goal. So began Roberts’ journey through territory familiar to all writers.

“The history of the book is classic,” he says. “I found an agent who worked hard to sell it, got his requisite twenty rejections, all for different reasons.” Since the New York national editors who rejected the book didn’t really seem interested in buying it, even with fixes, Roberts ignored them and decided to go with a regional publisher.

Roberts’ smile grows wider. “This is a fun case story for would-be novelists.” He discovered Ingalls Publishing Group, Inc., which publishes on demand. The book has no PR budget and sells by word-of-mouth. Roberts scored blurbs from Doris Betts, John Ehle, Elizabeth Spencer, and Lee Smith. He credits Asheville’s Malaprop’s Bookstore with helping spread the word about his “little engine that could” novel. Momentum built when Short Time won several prizes, including the Willie Morris Prize, which was “a much bigger deal than I thought at the time.” Roberts is particularly proud that, even without “PR or a New York publisher tooting its horn,” the book’s sales are as strong today as when it was first published in 2012. He hopes it’s because “the quality of the book, over time, began to speak for itself” and that people are more willing to rely on their own opinion of a book than on a reviewer’s or editor’s.

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Roberts gets fired up talking about Short Time. “Setting is so important to the story. It is so very grounded in setting.” Wanting to write about “what it means to be from rural Western North Carolina,” Roberts saw Madison County in 1917 as an ideal setting to explore these themes. He had developed an interest in the history of the internment of Germans, mostly civilians from cruise ships in American ports in 1917 when the United States declared war on Germany, at the Mountain Park Hotel in Hot Springs, North Carolina. “This event became my platform to illustrate how outsiders view and interpret life in Madison County, as well as how insiders interpret it. There is a lot of insider/outsider perspective being contrasted in the book.”

The setting of an internment camp provided Roberts an opportunity to explore his twin themes of imprisonment and escape. “For most thinking adults we’re all prisoners in a sense, of decisions we’ve made, financial commitments, jobs, careers, families. At the same time, there’s the notion that if we’re not who we are, who would we be?” For the characters in Short Time, war and the creation and existence of the camp give rise to conditions that free them to do things they normally wouldn’t do. Unfamiliar situations force them to make choices that change who they are.

In his effort to show “what it means to be from Western North Carolina, specifically Madison County,” Roberts decided to present characters that have some mileage on them. When 2,370 German soldiers arrive, Stephen Robbins, the imperfect manager of the Mountain Park Hotel, becomes the Inspector General of the Hot Springs Internment Camp. He watches as his beloved hotel fills with guards and is surrounded by barbed wire fences. Anna Ullman, a middle-aged photographer married to a powerful, wealthy New Yorker, abandons her life in Manhattan to document life in Hot Springs. Prince Gardner is the unofficial leader of the “thriving black community in Hot Springs” that existed in 1917 but is no longer there. The German Commandant, Hans Ruser, is the captive leader of the interned men. Most of the other primary characters are middle-aged or older. Roberts says, “This opens up the story to exploring how we hit the middle part of life and realize we have more chapters to come, so what do we do with the hand we’re dealt? The characters are forced to make some decisions about their lives.”

These themes illustrate another element that Roberts sees as essential to a good novel. “It must be driven or motivated by ideas,” he says. As Roberts’ enthusiasm for this subject increases, he begins speaking in paragraphs.

“What makes [characters] interesting are the questions with which they are faced, which translates into ideas; the nature of life and death, family, community, change, etc.” He emphasizes the point. “What makes a book interesting, haunting, may make someone go back and reread it, are fundamental questions that drive the book. Fundamental human questions, fundamental human ideas.”

The many characters in Short Time all have something to say about insiders versus outsiders. The two protagonists, Stephen and Anna, “represent the theme of the clash of cultures.” Stephen represents mountain culture and Anna high European culture, and by derivation, German culture. “They’re living out the question of what do we do with what’s alien to us,” Roberts says, which echoes the relationship of the people of Hot Springs versus the Germans.

Roberts likes Stephen and Anna “a lot,” even though “they’re not always likable.” He goes on to catalog their failings, allowing that the flaws are what make them human. He also sees them as “courageous, Phoenix-like in rising from the ashes of previous lives.”

Other characters he likes are Prince, Johnsie Wright, “a distressingly pregnant woman who shows up at the end,” who brings humor in the face of potential tragedy into the book, and Edgar Ramsey, a “quintessential mountain man—self-reliant, courageous, smart”—who reminded Roberts of his own father. That these characters “ground the book in a way” appeals to Roberts as an author.

They also appeal to Roberts because they show that life can be serious but not tragic. “This contradicts a trend today in literature that books are well-crafted, but at the end, everyone will be dead. If they live going into the last chapter, they’re doomed.” He laughs at this idea. He says a lot of writers see life as “essentially tragic,” but he “decline[s] to accept that notion, to paraphrase Faulkner.” Roberts believes that characters in serious literature can be funny, not in a slapstick way, but in laughing at life, making jokes at their own and others’ expense, telling jokes. By the last chapter, he says, “When the final hand is played, serious literature can end on a high note as opposed to a long, drawn-out death knell.”

Every good story has conflict, sometimes in the form of a villain. Roberts walked the fine line with Roy Robbins, the sheriff and Stephen’s cousin. “I wanted to present an evil man as a complicated threat, without making him a Bull Connor stereotype.” A technique Roberts used to accomplish this was to give the reader a good look at this man early in the story and then make him an “off-stage character and an off-stage threat.” The story never tells why Roy is “so damned mean, why he has the “Iago quality of motiveless malignancy.” Keeping him in the background allowed Roberts to avoid having the other characters deal with Roy and his evil as part of the story. If Roy were more present in the story, Roberts believes, he would have “changed the tone of the novel and been more troublesome in the sense of how outsiders saw mountain people.” He adds, “Keeping him an enigma makes him a vague threat that works OK.”

The main characters in Short Time seem to embody principles that Roberts teaches in his work at Paideia: everyone can learn, learning is a lifelong pursuit, and education prepares one for earning a living, being a good citizen, and making “a good life for oneself.” The characters think critically about life-altering issues and speak for themselves in the sense that they reshape their lives, sometimes painfully, to find an expression of their true selves.

Roberts notes that Short Time is “full of death—it’s a war story.” People die in the war and at home. “The “comic elements, marriages, births, and love affairs balance out the deaths,” he says. “That’s fair to the human condition.” He consciously ends the book with the belief that people “more than persevere, they build things, rise above their circumstance…that’s important about this region…to dispel unfair stereotypes about mountain people.”

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By the time Roberts finished Short Time, he had lived with his characters for years. He recounted a story from one of his mentors, John Ehle, who told him that an author will “live with the characters, and one day have to put them in a little box, fasten it up, and send them away.” Roberts described a “mourning period” for his characters, and missing them. “You can’t talk to them any more. It will handicap what you can do next. The only thing to do is start another book.”

And he has. He describes it as “a literary murder-mystery” set mostly in Madison County after the Civil War, but it’s not a novel about the war or the “inter-familial conflict” the war wrought in the South. The idea he explores is “how you get over that kind of catastrophe.” The working title is To Bind Up Our Wounds, a phrase taken from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural speech:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

The book explores how a person can deal with his own “wounds, memories, traumas from the past,” as well as how a community can do the same. “How do we deal with the aftermath of war socially, culturally?” Roberts says.

A man who enjoys outdoor sports and activities, Roberts is already thinking about a third novel set during the period when the Great Smokies National Park was created as a community backlash against the clear-cutting logging that denuded so many of the mountains in the Great Smokies chain. “At that time,” he says, “the idea of nature as almost a religion and the human relationship to the natural world butted up against the European concept of personal ownership. Who owned the mountains?”

Roberts sees a story in the conflict created when “nature as religion” runs headlong into forces that see other uses for community land. Does destroying nature change our relationship to religion? “People are less afraid of nature now than in earlier times, but what does that mean?” In exploring these questions, Roberts hopes to find a compelling story that will further show who the people of Western North Carolina are.

                                                                  . . .

Despite writing so many nonfiction articles and books, Roberts still learned a lot when he began writing fiction. Early on, as he’s already pointed out, he realized “how important setting can be.” He “lucked into” this revelation because of his interest in the internment camp in Hot Springs. That research, in turn, led him to appreciate the potential of developing a story dependent on that setting, a story that could happen only there.

He also wished he had known “anything, anything about plot.” He knew the structure of a good story—rising action, complications, protagonists—but “knew it in my head, not my gut, in my heart, as I was writing.” So he “wrote and wrote and wrote” to find his way through his story, refining his sense of how to develop a plot that the characters can support.

Something Roberts still struggles with is the pacing of a story. He feels that in contemporary fiction, writers tend to write in “staccato chapters. You know, sixty-three four-page chapters, almost as if our attention span is roughly two to four pages.” His challenge is that he “still [doesn’t] write that way” but is conscious of having to cause things to happen and that readers “want things to happen fast, don’t want to be given long catalogs of sensory information or back story. [They want the author to] just set things in motion.” He finds this limiting in his fiction since “there are certain things you just can’t do in four pages.”

Perhaps the main lesson Roberts has learned in writing fiction is choosing a subject that is dear to the writer’s heart and figuring out what big ideas about that subject lend themselves to extensive exploration. He advises writers to “figure out what obsesses you, what you’re fascinated by, such that you want to spend three to four years thinking about that. Ultimately, that gives you the endurance to go on and write those four hundred or five hundred pages. What keeps your own heart and soul in the game are those fundamental questions you’re struggling with.”

Terry Roberts was born in Asheville and raised near Weaverville, North Carolina. His father, Lee, to whom his novel is dedicated, was born in Anderson Cove, as was Lee’s mother, Belva Anderson Roberts. All told, Terry’s ancestors have lived and farmed in Madison County since the 1700s. The Director of the Paideia Center, Roberts is a graduate of UNC Asheville, Duke University, and UNC Chapel Hill.

Marie Hefley, a long-time member of the Great Smokies Program and Managing Editor of this publication, is a graduate of the Masters of Liberal Arts program at UNC Asheville. She invites you to read her interviews with Cynn Chadwick (Issue 6) and Wiley Cash (Issue 9), found in the Great Smokies Review Archives.