Featured Author  

 

You Can Go
Home, Again
 
An interview 
with author 
Robert Inman
By Joyce Dixon

 

The word “home” resonates through the works of Robert Inman.  It encompasses family, friends and even those cranky folk down the street who watch over you because they care.  “Home” brings to mind family dinners, storytelling on the porch, and sharing secrets with a best friend.  “Home” wraps you in the warmth of love, tradition, and the daily moments – like watching hummingbirds.  Robert Inman is a master at capturing the simple pleasures and recognizing the goodness in people. Home.  

You could say that printer’s ink runs in the blood of Robert Inman.  In his boyhood hometown of Elba, Alabama he began as a “printer’s devil” at the local weekly newspaper and soon was writing high school news.  After earning B.A. and M.F.A. degrees at the University of Alabama (Auburn didn’t offer journalism at that time), Inman moved to Charlotte, North Carolina to become a TV journalist for WBTV.  In 1996, he ended a 31-year career in journalism to become a full-time writer. 

Robert Inman and his wife, Paulette, make their home in Charlotte and Boone, North Carolina.   

After four years, you said goodbye to readers of your column in The Charlotte Observer at the end of 2000.  Many of the columns about growing up in Elba, Alabama found their way into Coming Home.  What can a modern urban and cyber society learn from small-town living? 

I've always thought of small towns as a microcosm of American life.  A character in my novel Old Dogs and Children says, "You can't stay mad at somebody when you have to look 'em in the eye every day."  That's not universally true, but in small towns, people have to learn to get along with each other, warts and all, because there's no place to hide.  You may not like a fellow, but you have to sit next to him in church and at the high school football game, so you learn to accommodate.  There's a tremendous diversity of people in my hometown, and they don't all like each other all the time, but they manage to get along.  That's what America's about -- managing to find ways to make things work despite our differences. 

Then too, in a small town, you can't help but see what other people need.  When they're hurting, down on their luck, in need of a helping hand, they're right there in front of you.  You can't ignore the brotherhood thing.  So you develop this sense of community out of both shared need and shared purpose.  Each of us has something we can contribute to the others. 

The challenge for an urban society is to nurture small-townness within the larger setting.  It's hard, because the neighbor who moved in next door last year may be gone next month.  So it takes extra effort.  But human ties are the glue that hold us together.   You have to work at 'em. 

I had a journal next to me as I read Coming Home, noting lessons from Mama Cooper, the inscription on editor Henry Waterson’s desk plaque, and moving literary quotes from Wendell Berry and others, plus your own observations about the South.  It occurs to me that you must be an archivist of words.  Do you have a personal motto?  What sign sits on your desk? 

When you're a storyteller, you're also a collector of stories -- and names and sayings and the like.  Everything goes into your story bag.  I have one quotation on the wall above my desk.  It's from Andre Gide: "Look for your own.  Do not do what someone else could do as well as you.  Do not say, do not write what someone else could say, could write as well as you.  Care for nothing in yourself but what you feel exists nowhere else -- and out of yourself create, impatiently or patiently, the most irreplaceable of beings."  I guess that comes as close to a motto as I've got. 

I should add that I'm not a very organized person when it comes to keeping track of stories, sayings, etc.  My mind is like the worst closet in your house, the one where you keep all your junk.  When I read or hear or experience, stuff goes into my cluttered closet.  When I go to write each day, I open the closet and stuff falls out.  I pick up and use what I can and cram the rest back in for another day.  Some of it inevitably gets lost in there, but a surprising amount pops to the surface just when I need it. 

Who or what do you credit with inspiring you to become a storyteller? 

My mother.  She sat me on her lap when I was an infant and started reading to me and gave me that inestimable gift of imagination.  At some point, I started wanting to tell my own stories.  She gets the credit. 

Has anyone from your past learned something new about themselves from your essays?  

Booger Winston said he had forgotten all about reciting the lines from Julius Caesar in high school English class (Coming Home, p. 48) until I wrote about it.  It was a good memory for both of us and gave me a chance to say in print how much I think of him.  I think he was pleased. 

There are elements in Coming Home that also express a sense of coming home to your inner self and finding peace.  How can essay writing be an exercise of self-discovery? 

If anyone has learned anything about themselves from the writing of the essays, it's me.  Writing for me is partly a process of self-discovery.  Things occur to me as I write that I didn't know were there.  And in setting words down on paper, I work out the complexities of ideas and feelings.  I've always thought of writing as partly geometry -- giving shape to an idea by using words as building blocks.  As you put the words on paper, a shape begins to emerge, and eventually you stand back and say, "Ah, that's what it looks like.  Now I can see it."  Sometimes, the writing does help me find some inner peace -- such as when I remind myself that just being quiet and listening to the sound of my own heart helps reveal some things I need to know. 

Since your talents include several writing styles – novel, essay, screenwriting – do you have time management tips for juggling your various projects? 

Years of working in daily journalism taught me how to switch focus.  I would get up every morning and plunge into whatever fictional world I was living in at the time, and then tear myself away and go to an afternoon and evening job in which I was up to my neck in the gritty real world of news.  Now that I've left daily journalism, the habit remains.  

I may work on a novel in the morning, then take a break for lunch and a workout at the YMCA, and come back to a screenplay in the afternoon.  The separation of an unrelated, usually mindless activity helps. 

The thing that gets the work done, though -- whatever the project -- is applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.  I'm a creature of habit and routine.  I go daily to the process and battle the demons.  I don't always feel like writing, but I always write.  And I find that on those days I didn't especially feel like it, if I'm patient and persistent, what comes out at the end is about as good as on those days I was really full of energy and inspiration.  It must work, because I produced three book-length works of fiction and 15 screenplays while holding down a full-time news job.  So you don't have to be a full-time writer to get the work done. 

You wrote and co-produced The Summer of Ben Tyler (1996, Hallmark Hall of Fame), which addressed the issue of a white couple raising the black son of their deceased housekeeper in 1940’s South.  What small town values and malice did you use this story as a vehicle to present? 

In my acceptance speech for the Writers Guild Award for The Summer of Ben Tyler, I talked about unsung heroes of the small-town South, those people who -- despite great odds and opposition, often at peril to their social and economic well-being and even their lives -- did the right thing when it came to a decision about race.  There have always been great numbers of people in the South who knew deep in their hearts what was right and wrong, and wanted to see the right thing done, but were afraid to get out front.  They just needed someone to lead, to take the bold step, as the white couple did in the story.  As I said earlier, there's no place to hide in a small town.  You're cheek-to-jaw against people's prejudices and meanness as well as their good side.  So if you choose to do the right thing despite the odds, you ought to get a movie made about you. 

One of your latest literary adventures is writing a stage musical.  Will it be about a small town in the South?   

The musical is in the embryonic stages right now.  I'm working with a wonderful musician/songwriter who has several successful productions under his belt.  I've never done this before, so I'm learning as we go.  It's tremendously exciting and a little scary.  The story takes place in a rural crossroads community in the 1920's, a time of enormous social and economic change in America.  I think we'll have great fun with it, and then we'll find out who wants to see it. 

Southern writers using southern settings write a good portion of the fiction being published by New York houses.  What do you think are the traits that give these novels universal appeal? 

I'm a southern writer simply because I've lived all my life in the South and I'm just writing about what I know.  But I think -- at the risk of over-generalizing -- there are some traits that many southern writers (today and in the past) have in common.  Maybe Reynolds Price said it best when he said that "in the South, our families are our entertainment."  And in the concept of "family," we include lots of folks who aren't blood-kin to us.  They are the source of our stories, our insights into what makes up the human condition.  We get to look 'em in the eye over time, warts and all.  And then we turn them into fiction, even when they'd just as soon we didn't.  As readers, we discover things about ourselves from the lives of these fictional characters.  If there's a universal appeal to southern writing, that's probably where it comes from.

Tell us about your next novel, Captain Saturday. 

Captain Saturday is my first urban contemporary novel.  It takes place in Raleigh, North Carolina and the principal character is a TV weatherman.  It's about how you let outside influences -- job, status, celebrity, etc. -- affect your notion of who you are and how you relate to the people around you -- and then how you go about finding out who you really are when the rug is pulled out from under you.  I haven't heard an exact publication date yet from Little, Brown, but I suspect it will be the early spring of 2002. 

What other projects do you have in the works? 

At the moment I'm doing a screenplay adaptation of my third novel, Dairy Queen Days and starting work on my 5th novel.

 

 


Bibliography
 
Coming Home: Life, Love, and All Things Southern.  Down Home Press, 2000
read the Southern Scribe Review

Dairy Queen Days.  Little Brown & Co., 1998

Old Dogs and Children.  Little Brown & Co., 1994 [reprint]

Home Fires Burning.  Little Brown & Co., 1998 [reprint]

No Hiding Place: Uncovering the Legacy of Charlotte-Area Writers, edited by Frye Gaillard, Amy Rogers, Robert Inman.  Down Home Press,  1999

Novello: 10 Years of Great American Writing, edited by Frye Gaillard, Amy Rogers, Robert Inman.  Down Home Press,  2000


 
Screenwriting Filmography for TV
 
Home Fires Burning (1989)  (based on Inman’s novel)
A Son’s Promise (1990) 
Cries from the Heart (1994)
My Son is Innocent (1996)
The Summer of Ben Tyler (1996) (co-producer and writer)
Family Blessings (1999) (based on LaVyrle Spencer’s novel)  
 
 
Visit Robert Inman's web site at:
http://www.robert-inman.com/

© 2001 Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved