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Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues

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JOHN EHLE

COURTESY OF PRESS 53 PHOTOGRAPHY BY LYNN ROBERTS

In those days, John was widely known and celebrated, not just as a writer but also as an educator, social activist, and cultural gadfly. I didn’t tell anyone that I had written to the great man because, deep down, I doubted I would hear anything in return. How wrong I was! John wrote back in the next mail, a letter that was at once informal and funny. He answered my questions, asked to know more about me, and invited me to come visit sometime so that “we can have a look at you.” That exchange of letters from more than thirty-five years ago began a lifelong friendship that is easily one of the important relationships in my life. I hope to tell you a little about that friendship, and in so doing, capture just how astonishing a man John Ehle was. Within the year, I did go visit John and his wife so that they could “have a look at me.” I first visited with them at their cabin in Penland, in what must have been the spring or summer of 1982. I interviewed John for The Arts Journal, a now-defunct newsprint magazine that was popular in Asheville at the time, about his new novel, The Winter People.1 When I pulled up in the yard at Penland, a most fetching woman came out to greet me, waved and held out her hand. “Hi, I’m Rosie,” she said in the most cheerful tone imaginable. It was, of course, Rosemary Harris, John’s wife, and her smile, like her voice, gleamed. While Rosie fried chicken (John had taught her how), John and I sat first in a side room where he wrote and, after lunch, on the porch, where we talked long about The Winter People, but also about the mountains and how they shaped the action of his novels, gave the characters something beyond themselves against which to strive. For the mountains – and some of the people who live here – are not merely beautiful, they are dangerous. Winter in the high peaks will take your stock, your children, and your life. It’s no accident that the characters in John’s novels are often forced to be the people of winter: fighters and survivors. A sometimes harsh environment is not all that the mountains provided John however. Either in that conversation or one that came later, John described how Paul Green, the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright who mentored John in Chapel Hill, once told him that he was fortunate to have the mountains as his natural setting. They form a kind of green bowl, he explained to John, a natural stage wherein the characters are isolated from the rest of the world, and our attention is focused entirely on the small, isolated community within those steep walls. Certainly, this is true, for John’s imagination was an entirely dramatic one. For all his lyricism, he was a writer of the most intense and compelling scenes, in which love and hate flame out to devastating effects. Green, himself a flatlander from Harnett County, was jealous of the natural stage that was John’s heritage. Over the succeeding years, I visited John many times, either at the house in Winston-Salem or at the cabin in Penland, and we saw each other in meetings and at events. And as the years turned into

1

John Ehle, The Winter People (Harper & Row, 1982).

LEFT Terry Roberts with John Ehle and

Rosemary Harris, Winston-Salem, Oct. 2016

Profile for East Carolina University

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2019  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2019  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

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