We talked this week with Ralph Berrier Jr., Roanoke Times reporter and author of “If Trouble Don’t Kill Me.” Recounting 1930s country music history and battles on three continents during World War II, Berrier tells the story of his grandfather and great-uncle, twins who almost made the big time. In these excerpts from our conversation, Berrier discusses the longest feature story ever, his lack of faith in the writing muse and the one piece of advice he’d give to aspiring writers.
I knew as far back as college — which was back during the Jurassic Age of the late 1980s — that my grandfather had a great story. That was the period where he and my great-uncle were in their Renaissance phase, where they were playing again as older men. I realized, “Hey, what a cool story that these old guys are still doing that after all they went through, that Fthey almost made it as musicians and then fought in the war. What a great story.”
At the time, I wasn’t a writer, and I didn’t really know that that was what I’d be. I was just starting to realize that I liked writing, and I liked literature. At the time, I thought, “Of course you’d have to fictionalize the story, because there’s no way you could go back and research everything they did and went through.” I’ve thought over the years, “God, if I’d only done that, it wouldn’t have taken as long as it did now. But I realized back then that my grandfather had a great story, regardless of who was going to tell it.
You grew up with these stories and at one point started taping your grandfather. But how did you go about thinking about what to include or leave out of the book? Did you have to cut a lot?
Yes, yes. And coming from a newspaper, I already knew a little about front-end editing and self-editing along the way. Even when it came down to doing research, once I got into the nitty-gritty of trying to finalize things, I could see things where I knew, “OK, this is an interesting piece of information, but it’s not going to make the final cut.”
Even after that, the book as it is now is probably about two-thirds as long as that first draft. I submitted it knowing full well we were going to cut it back. My editor said, “Just get it out, get it on paper, and we’ll go from there.” I did a lot of front-end editing myself, where I said, “OK, this relative here, who was meaningful to the boys’ lives, is not really working out.” Even after that, we still had passages of good stories we cut just because they were a little tangential.
I guess it’s kind of a writing teacher cliché, but I heard somebody say one time that you don’t have a good story when you cut all the bad stuff out of it, you have a great story when you get to the point that you’re cutting good stuff out. I feel like we left some good stuff on the cutting room floor with this.
“If Trouble Don’t Kill Me” is a mix of the 1930s music scene in North Carolina and Virginia and military history from the twins’ experience in World War II. As a writer, how did you frame bringing those two different worlds – music and the war – together?
I knew it was going to be difficult to maintain the same tone and voice through the war part. You start off with this comic “O Brother Where Art Thou?” tale, a little southern Gothic and funny, with guys dressing up as women onstage and doing comic routines. And then all of a sudden it becomes “Saving Private Ryan.” My agent joked that we should call it, “O Band of Brothers, Where Art Thou?” I knew that it was going to get a little darker, but that was important, and it was necessary, because my grandfather’s and my great-uncle’s lives got darker during this period. If you don’t have that, then their story is completely different. It’s just a story of a couple of cute, sweet old boys who almost made it as hillbilly musicians and then as old men decided to go play the VFW circuit.
I knew that were some things in their war experiences that fundamentally changed them and made their story even more gripping later on. I’ve been asked numerous times, “What surprised you in working on this book?” I worked on it so long that I could never remember: “When did I find this out?” I began to worry, “Jeez, did nothing surprise me?”
And then it dawned on me that I don’t think I ever grasped as a younger man what the war had done, especially to my grandfather – that all the health issues he had were either indirectly or directly attributable to what had happened to him in the Philippines and on Okinawa. I guess a lot of us were just discovering what these guys went through on the 50th anniversary of different events, the truth behind these old guys who went and did their duty. They saved the world and built the interstate highway system and never complained. And slowly, I began to realize that, well, it wasn’t that way for a lot of them. I’m sure there were a lot of guys who never lived past the 1960s and ’70s because of things that had happened to them during the war.
Did you think about how to manage the tone so the reader could cross that bridge to the war with you?
I thought a couple things. One, I thought I should keep it focused on the boys as best I could, which was not all that easy, because I don’t have a detailed account of where my grandfather was on each specific day. But if I could do the best that I could and not try to rewrite the history of the European ground offensive in the winter of 1944-45, and instead just keep an eye on Clayton on the bottom of the hill at this one moment, even as the tone got more violent and darker, you could still see it through these two subjects, that they were always there in it.
And the other part of it is, I had to resign myself to the fact that the tone of the book would change, because the tone of their lives changed. They tried to do what they could. My grandfather tried to continue to play in country and western bands before he was shipped out. But their lives were completely changed by this, and there’s no reason to try to write a comic story about what happened to them during the battles of World War II, because not that much that was funny happened to them. I tried not to worry about how dark it got, because I knew there would be brighter and funnier moments at the end, that the story would resolve and redeem itself.
In places, you bury yourself deep in the story, and in others, you’re very much out in front, sometimes directly addressing the reader and saying “you might think this.” How did you decide when to be in the story?
I think the times where I put myself in there were the times where perhaps a scene had resolved itself or concluded in some way, and then I would come in with a sentence or two or a paragraph or two about what I thought this all meant. I don’t think I put myself in the middle of a battle scene. But there’s a scene where Clayton uses his rifle butt against a Japanese soldier, which is a story I’d heard various versions of through the years. And once that was over, I kind of throw in a little flashback scene of what his life was like before he ever went into the Army and had to shoot another man and was shot himself, to show that he had changed and what that meant for him.
It was much easier in the early parts – the funny part of the book about the music – to drop myself in there, than it was on the island of Okinawa. So I did moderate it a little during the battle scenes.
First-person memoir is really popular these days, but you were doing a family history and cultural history. Did you read stories other people had already done that helped or inspired you along the way?
I don’t know how much of it I really distilled or absorbed, but Rick Bragg certainly did a lot of that with his family. It was a little more first-person memoir, but he also goes back and talks to older relatives.
I think a lot of this just came from my own experience of being a features writer at The Roanoke Times, just interviewing people and trying to tell other peoples’ stories. That’s what I’ve done for 20 years, I guess – I was a sportswriter before, but was doing the same thing.
The newspaper background has really helped me with this. I learned how to try to tell other peoples’ stories and get them or their friends and loved ones to talk about themselves in ways that made it easy to piece together the stories of their lives.
People are like, “So, when’s the next book coming out?” And I’m like, “I don’t really have a next book.” Everybody’s got an idea for a great American novel, but I don’t have any plans to sit down and write it. I felt like this was something I was supposed to do. I felt like these old guys were not going to be able to tell those stories to the world, and none of the family would either. I felt that it fell to me to do it.
Even now, the book’s been out a couple months, but I’m still out there trying to push it, locally and regionally, because I want people not to celebrate me in any way, but to read the stories of these guys, who they probably don’t know and never would have known. I’d like to say my grandfather was a speck in the annals of country music and a speck on the back of an atom on the back of a molecule on the back of a speck of World War II. Their stories could have faded away and nobody would have known or felt like it was a loss, but I felt they had a good story to tell.
It took me a long time to learn how to write and research and report and tell a story. I would have loved to have done this 15 years ago when the guys were still alive, but it wouldn’t have been very good. Their story would have been the same, but my ability to tell it was not then what it is now – whatever it is now. This was the result of writing maybe 5,000 newspaper stories over 20 years and learning how to tell a story clearly, even a complicated story. I always thought about this book by telling myself, “This is just the longest feature story you’ve ever written.” If I approached it that way, I thought I wouldn’t get overwhelmed.
Did that comparison work for you through the whole process, or did it break down at some point?
While I was working on it, I always thought, “This is a result of work, of years and years of work getting me to this point.” I’d like to go before a writer’s workshop and say, “I like to sit under a maple tree in fall and wait for the muse to visit.” But it’s not like that. It’s work, it’s a slog. I can’t build a house, but it’s like building a house on the page. It’s one nail after another. You look at it, and if that row of shingles doesn’t line up, you have to go down and tear some of them up and start over.
If there’s any advice I can give anybody who’s sitting down to write a story like this, whether it’s a long newspaper story, or a book, or a memoir – it’s just work. Do the work. Don’t sit around and wait to be motivated and inspired. Sometimes you’ve just got to suck it up and do it, and if two hours later, you don’t have anything you like, well, the next night, you go back into the salt mine and do it again.