Terry Roberts explores jazz and economic ruin in his latest novel

AUTHOR'S BEST FRIEND: Terry Roberts notes that his late dog, Bodie, sat with him throughout the writing process of his latest novel, 'The Sky Club.' In turn, Roberts immortalized the hound, placing him in the story itself. Author photo by Jesse L. Roberts

For those familiar with Asheville history, Nov. 20, 1930, is a significant date. On that day, the Central Bank and Trust Co. — the largest bank in the region with $52 million in assets — closed, along with several other smaller financial institutions in the area.

In the blink of an eye, countless residents and families lost their life savings. Furthermore, the county, the city and the public school system combined for a total loss of nearly $8 million in deposits.

For local author and Buncombe County native Terry Roberts, recapitulations of that historic day often detail an astonished and anxious crowd, locked out of banks and cluttering doorways and sidewalks. The perspective, he notes, is always from the outside looking in.

“I wanted to tell this story from the inside out,” the award-winning writer continues. “I wanted to write it from within the bank — someone looking out the window as the door is locked and the people on the sidewalk start to gather.”

In his latest novel, The Sky Club, released earlier this month, Roberts does just that. The book’s narrator and main character, Jo Salter, is a 26-year-old Madison County native-turned-Asheville-resident. A math prodigy with a healthy dose of rural skepticism, Jo lands a job at the Central Bank and Trust Co. in the spring of 1929. Soon thereafter, Jo’s skill set elevates her through the ranks of the institution, and she quickly discovers the numbers don’t add up.

Jo’s only respite from her demanding job is time spent at The Sky Club, a speak-easy jazz club nestled atop Beaucatcher Mountain. While there, she meets and eventually develops a complicated relationship with the club’s elusive manager, Levi Arrowood.

“I wanted to somehow capture both the ’20s, with its jazz influence, while at the same time explore the decade’s demise — that pivotal point when things start to go south,” Roberts says.

The psychology of money

The late novelist John Gardner is credited with the observation that there are only two types of stories in literature — the hero’s journey and that of a stranger coming to town. The Sky Club falls into the latter category. But whereas the stranger in such stories is often the driving force of change within the given model, Roberts’ latest work adds into the mix the external factor that was the Great Depression.

“I was really interested in exploring the psychology of money,” Roberts explains. “What would happen to any one of us if we were to go to sleep one night with whatever amount of money we had, and then we woke up the next day to discover we had nothing.”

Like many works of historical fiction, Roberts’ novel intermingles actual figures from the period, such as Asheville’s then-mayor, Gallatin Roberts (with whom the author shares no familial ties), alongside fictional characters such as Jo and Levi.

Including individuals like Gallatin Roberts serves as a reminder of the real-life turmoil the economic collapse created. In the case of the former mayor, a deep sense of personal failure, culpability in the bank’s closure and corruption charges related to mismanagement of city funds resulted in his suicide on Feb. 25, 1931.

Such tragic turns create a sharp contrast to the book’s earlier passages, an intentional choice by the author. In beginning the narrative prior to the bank’s closure, Terry Roberts reminds readers of the blind optimism that many residents and community leaders shared.

“There was a mania at that time of buying and selling real estate,” Roberts says. “Everybody thought they could get rich, and everybody was exposed in a sense once the economy collapsed.”

Well, almost everyone.

“Poor people remained poor,” the author points out. “The people who were growing their own food before the crash were eating the same food after.”

The thing that made you

Jo’s background as the daughter of a poor farmer in Anderson Cove — a location inspired by the author’s own ancestral ties — provides the book’s narrator with a level of grit that many of the city bankers lack.

Her past is also a bridge between two worlds. Though much of the novel takes place in Asheville, Jo frequently travels north to visit her aging father. When she can’t make it to Madison County, the next best option is the farmers market on Lexington Avenue.

Such visits give readers yet another glimpse of the city’s past. “Trucks and even wagons from Haywood and Yancey and Madison counties, come down out of the mountains into town … to trade and sell and socialize,” Jo narrates. “The men and women swapping lies and livestock, telling lies and making gossip.”

Several times throughout the novel, Roberts draws contrasts between the urban and rural lives in Western North Carolina. Often, it is in these moments of reflection that the novelist — and by extension his narrator — are at their best.

For example, in an early passage, Jo contemplates the meaning of land and the way that understanding shifts depending on your location and situation.

“Up home, on Big Pine and places like it — Harmony, Spillcorn, Bluff, Doe Branch, Spring Creek, Runion — the land was where you were born and buried. Where you lived and died. The land was beautiful and harsh, and, in its own bittersweet way, the thing that made you. In all seasons and all phases of the moon. It’s where you planted and harvested, and it’s where you were planted and harvested.

“But not in town, not in Asheville. Land in town was a commodity — to be bought, sold, and traded. And God help you if you held onto a parcel long enough to like it, let alone love it. Land was meant to be kept moving, just like money, because it was money.

“Up home, the land was a lover, even if a rough one at times; in town, land was a whore, bought and sold.”

Throughout The Sky Club, Jo encounters numerous other differences between her childhood upbringing and the present reality she faces. For readers, much of the joy is in seeing how she navigates these polarities, and by novel’s end, how she finds a way to bring her two worlds together as a means of survival.


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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One thought on “Terry Roberts explores jazz and economic ruin in his latest novel

  1. Curious

    Sidn’t Jerry Sternberg own The Sky Club at one time? Did Mr. Roberts talk to Mr. Sternberg when he was researching his novel? Terry Roberts is one of Asheville’s literary treasures.

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