When UNC Asheville alumnus Terry Roberts attended the university in the 1970s, there was no creative writing program—but that didn’t stop him from becoming an award-winning novelist.
UNC Asheville was smaller then, Roberts said, with only a few residence halls and more non-traditional students, some of whom were Vietnam veterans. Even then, “it was a full-fledged liberal arts university with a living, breathing humanities program,” Roberts said.
“I learned to write by reading,” Roberts explained, “and I learned to read the humanities in a very large and, I hope, deep way. There’s a sense in which, I am, as writer, a novelist, the product of the larger UNC Asheville vision of the liberal arts education.”
Roberts is the author of two historical novels set in Western North Carolina: A Short Time to Stay Here, published in 2013, and That Bright Land, for which Roberts won the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award from the Western North Carolina Historical Association, presented on Feb. 4, 2017. Last year the novel also won the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction, which recognizes the most significant work of fiction published over the course of the year by a North Carolina author.
Roberts’ interest in the history of Western North Carolina stems from his own ancestry; his family had already been in Madison County for several generations by the time the main character in That Bright Land would have returned home from the Civil War. Or, as Roberts puts it, “we’re not newcomers.”
But it was spending 30 years of his adult life outside of Western North Carolina that gave him the perspective to write about it.
“Part of the history of my own life has been that I was born here and grew up here, was educated here, largely, and then moved away for a long time,” said Roberts, who went on from UNC Asheville to receive a Master of Arts in teaching at Duke University and a Ph.D. in American literature at UNC-Chapel Hill. He spent part of his career as a high school teacher, and currently works at the National Paideia Center, working with K-12 schools all over the country, helping teachers learn to lead Socratic seminar discussions with their students.
“Part of what I was doing when I first worked on A Short Time to Stay here…I was looking back and looking inward at Madison County, at Hot Springs, at the mountains writ large—simultaneously from the outside looking in and then from the inside looking out, as someone who was born there and whose genetic material was wrapped up in the French Broad River Basin.”
For Roberts, the novels were a chance to explore themes such as healing or escape through the complexities of the people of his native Appalachia.
“I was asking by extension not just who I was and who my people are, so to speak—how do we look at the world and how does the world look at us?” Roberts said, noting that negative stereotypes about Appalachian residents are still prevalent in our culture. “My job is to capture the fact that there’s a vibrant, expressive, liberal—in many ways—culture that exists in the ballad tradition, traditions around husbandry, how people relate to the land, how people live on the land. It’s the kinds of things that we take passing glances at, but at heart a lot of people still view with prejudice.”
In the end, it comes down to a few questions, Roberts said. “Who are we? Are we who outliers believe us to be? Are we who we believe ourselves to be? Or is it some mixture of both?”
It’s a line of questioning not so dissimilar from the big questions he learned to address years ago in UNC Asheville’s humanities program.
“To me the idea of the humanities is that one becomes more fully human by studying the human condition as it has been understood through the centuries by those who thought most clearly and cogently about it,” Robert said. Studying the humanities, Roberts explained, allows students to consider the “great questions: what is justice, what is family, what is community?”