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
Robert Inman and his wife, Paulette, make their home in Charlotte and Boone, North Carolina.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
or what do you credit with inspiring you to become a storyteller?
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.
anyone from your past learned something new about themselves from your
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
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?
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.
your talents include several writing styles – novel, essay,
screenwriting – do you have time management tips for juggling your
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
of your latest literary adventures is writing a stage musical.
Will it be about a small town in the South?
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.
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?
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.
us about your next novel, Captain Saturday.
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.
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.
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
© 2001 Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved