Terry Roberts is like many who are certain they have a novel somewhere inside them. He’d go to work every day and carve time in the early mornings or quiet of twilight to writing he now regards as dreadful.
“It was dreadful in the sense that I was struggling to find a voice, to teach myself how to write fiction,” Roberts said. “And while I think I had a lot of imagination, I didn’t have any training and I didn’t quite know yet how to tell a story.”
He continued writing into his mid-40s before beginning what became his debut novel. He was 55 when a publisher printed that book and now, at 65, Roberts’ fourth novel is out, titled “My Mistress’ Eyes Are Raven Black.” Roberts reads selections from the book Aug. 18 at Malaprop’s Books in Asheville and Sept. 14 at the Hot Springs Library.
“I did a PhD in American Literature, I in no sense thought I was training to be a writer, but I did think I was training to be a really insightful reader,” he said. “At the same time, I was also in a position to have studied how other people crafted, using language, a deeper, more sensual, more thoughtful version of reality.”
Roberts grew up in an unincorporated patch west of Marshall called Big Pine, with generations of farmers behind him between Asheville and Weaverville. Roberts taught for 10 years in Brevard, worked in education administration away from this region for 30 years and now is director of the National Paideia Center. He and his wife returned to this area in 2013 and live in a wooded neighborhood in East Asheville.
The geography of this region anchors Roberts’ first three novels, all under the umbrellas of historical fiction and Southern gothic thriller. His new book brings readers a century back to the wave of migration through New York’s Ellis Island. Roberts builds a story of tribalism and serial murder as an extreme reaction to the nation’s newcomers.
“I started with the question, ‘What is it about us as the human species that seems so fragile and so susceptible to hatred? Why do we hate the other?’” he said. “I could address this issue of eugenics, this issue of xenophobia through a historical setting without invoking all the immediate knee-jerk reactions that one would be likely to get if you write a novel set in the Mexican border in 2018.”
Roberts came to know the famed author and Asheville native John Ehle in 1980 after writing him a fan letter. Roberts said Ehle mentored him and became a close friend. Ehle died in 2018.
“He was a very scenic writer and, by that, I mean he conceived of a novel as a series of dramatic scenes and the characters come on stage and do and say things,” Roberts said of Ehle. “Each scene, in turn, answers a question from the scene before and asks a question, so that when that scene draws to a close, it’s almost impossible, if you’re sitting in a theater, to look away, and I think I learned that habit of mine from him.”
Roberts has won the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for fiction, a Willie Morris Prize for Southern Fiction, Thomas Wolfe Literary Award and a James Still Award for writing about the Appalachian South. He still holds that day job as an education consultant, but he’s already finished writing his fifth book, which focuses on an Asheville woman at the time of the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
“One of the things I’m trying to do is keep a sense of this place alive when the 21st century may be threatening to envelop it, almost wash it away,” Roberts said.