Charles L. Roe is a prolific Appalachian writer, having penned nine novels and one short story collection set in eastern Kentucky. He was born in 1934 in Harrison County, Kentucky. He worked as a cryptanalyst for the FBI from 1953 to 1957 where he broke diplomatic codes. He worked at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory from 1957 to 2000 as a project manager for U.S. Navy and NATO programs where he worked on combat issues. Mr. Roe lived in Washington D.C. from 1953 to 2000 before he retired and returned to Kentucky. Mr. Roe and I are friends, belonging to the same writers’ group, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask him about his writing career.
“Charlie Roe practices a subtle magic in his work, writing with a direct style that creates a natural sense of immediacy. The reader feels present in his stories, firmly located amid unfolding characters and events, which generates a sympathy that reflects the deep current of compassion found in all his writing.” – Jennifer Barricklow, Lexington editor and poet.
UM: Given your extensive writing about Appalachia, what was your initial inspiration for writing novels based in eastern Kentucky? You are from central Kentucky. Do you have any family there?
CR: Being away from Kentucky (Washington DC) I was a little homesick and read the stories of Jesse Stuart and John Fox Jr. who set their stories in eastern Kentucky. The eastern Kentucky feuds, mountain schoolteachers, Frontier Nursing Service, mountain moonshining, etc. caught my fancy. And those people didn’t seem much removed from the people I grew up around. I consider myself to be primarily a writer of Appalachian fiction.
UM: What Kentucky writers, if any, have been an influence on you? What specific books by these writers have influenced you the most?
CR: John Fox Jr. “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine”, “The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come”, and “Heart of the Hills”; Elizabeth Maddox Roberts “The Time of Man” and “The Great Meadow”; Robert Penn Warren “All the King’s Men” and “World Enough and Time”; and Jesse Stuart “Taps for Private Tussie”, “Men of the Mountains”, and “Daughter of the Legend.”
UM: Have you traveled extensively to eastern Kentucky to do research for your work? When and where have you traveled?
CR: I have been up into eastern Kentucky many times. But prior to publication, when I was still working on “A Season for Healing” in 2009, I paid a couple of visits to the Frontier Nursing Headquarters in Hyden and visited some of the nursing outposts.
UM: Are there any current Kentucky authors whose work you read and admire?
CR: Silas House and Barbara Kingsolver who is from my home county of Nicholas. I also admire Sharyn McCrumb, an Appalachian mystery writer who lives over in Virginia.
UM: You recently chose to break away from using Appalachia as a setting. Will this be a permanent break from Appalachian writing for you?
CR: No, I have those books off my chest and will return to Appalachian fiction.
UM: I’d like to find out about your working methods as a writer. Since you’re a novelist, do you like to work from an outline, or do you have a good idea where a story is headed when you begin writing and let it develop?
CR: I think you have to have a good detailed outline before you start with a good idea of where the story will take you. I usually take seven or eight months researching the idea and putting together an outline. With everything in hand I can usually sit down and write it in three or four months.
UM: Some prominent Kentucky writers like Bobbie Ann Mason and Silas House have come out against mountain top removal. Another perennial issue is the state of education in eastern Kentucky. Do you have an opinion you would like to share about these subjects? Are there any other topics concerning eastern Kentucky you would like to comment on?
CR: Anyone who has flown over the eastern Kentucky mountains and seen the destruction of those imposing peaks must be outraged at mountaintop removal. And much of the wealth never goes into the pockets of Kentuckians. As far as educating the children, I wish we could convince them to forego drugs and tobacco.
UM: What education would you recommend for the aspiring writer? Do you have any advice for someone who has chosen writing as a career?
CR: I don’t think you can educate a writer. It has to be something burning inside you. I had a 47 year career with the FBI and Johns Hopkins U. Applied Physics Laboratory, but I never gave up the urge to write. I was surprised that with my best writing years behind me when I retired that I could still create. And my writing has improved even into my seventies and eighties.
UM: The publishing world has changed dramatically in your lifetime with the popularity of self-publishing and the advent of e-books. What is your opinion on this?
CR: When I was younger I despaired of ever getting published. Now with self-publishing it is easy to do. It is getting a bad name as more and more people who have a few hundred dollars to indulge themselves are putting some bad books up for sale. But be selective. There are a lot of good things getting into print that wouldn’t have during the days before computer- aided publishing.
UM: Are you currently writing another book? What future projects do you have in mind?
CR: I am preparing a second memoir covering my early years in Washington D.C. I will entitle it, “A Town on the Potomac.” After that I plan to collect all my short stories (about 60 in all) under the title, “The Place Your Heart Calls Home.”
Most of these stories were written when the world was a happier place. When I could pause from a day at work in another town and remember the folks at home and in the mountains and reflect back on tales I had heard or that maybe I had misheard and embroidered a bit. The lives of these eastern Kentucky people seemed important and vital even if it was mostly to keep me running level and to remind me that the world where I was (mostly Washington, D.C.) was not where the real people lived.
I have always felt that a man will fall back on his blood and background. Of the stories in this volume I wrote most of them when I was far from the locale of their happening. Maybe I was homesick and wanted to cheer myself up, and in the telling I was finding a bit of home.
The people of eastern Kentucky and my own home counties of Nicholas and Bourbon and Fayette are very wonderful. They may drink a bit too much and smoke too much and I regret these tendencies, not because they offend me in any way, but because they are detrimental to the health of many that I love and cherish. Life in the hills is hard and many of the children of these “hillbillies” are leaving. The day of the rugged and sturdy mountaineer is rapidly passing – maybe is gone already. But I hope to have captured some of their best virtues (courage, patience, truthfulness, steadfastness, and humor) in these stories.
“No one likes to write, but everyone loves to have written,” I read somewhere. Putting these stories down on paper never seemed like an onerous chore to me. For a few hours I stole away from my sterile office and fished with my brother beside a Quiet Shaded Lake, watched Hemp Wagoner run off a batch of moonshine Under the Juniper Tree, and celebrated Old Christmas on a snowy night in the mountains. Enjoy.
– an excerpt from the Charles Roe’s short story collection.
The following are books by Charles L. Roe in the order they were published.
Moonbeams and Mistflowers (2005), Cumberland (2006), My Native Home (short stories (2006), Thistles (2007), Barren River (2008), Adrift (memoir – 2009), A Fort on the Chenoa (2010), Greenup Time (2010), A Season for Healing (2011), Big Sandy River (2012), Bourbon County (2013), Death on the Zurich Express (locked room mystery – 2014), A Little Gray Spy (spy novel – 2015) All of Charles Roe’s books are available on Amazon.com. Several are also available locally at Joseph-Beth Booksellers.