At 80 she published a steamy saga; it’s winning awards

Valdosta writer is nominated for a Townsend Prize
Writing fiction gives you a chance to live an unlived life, says Valdosta author Roberta George, a sudden success at age 80. Once one of her daughters telephoned to ask what she was up to, and she answered, “I’m trying to entice Leonard Cohen into my Bentley.” The daughter answered, “Oh my God, mother, that’s too much information.” CONTRIBUTED BY JEAN ARAMBULA

Writing fiction gives you a chance to live an unlived life, says Valdosta author Roberta George, a sudden success at age 80. Once one of her daughters telephoned to ask what she was up to, and she answered, “I’m trying to entice Leonard Cohen into my Bentley.” The daughter answered, “Oh my God, mother, that’s too much information.” CONTRIBUTED BY JEAN ARAMBULA

This was a decidedly mixed review for writer Roberta George.

“Roberta,” said her friend, “I love your book, but you’re going to hell.”

George, a “new” author (at age 80) from South Georgia, has been writing for decades but has only recently been published. She is winning prizes with her novel, “The Day’s Heat.” But some of her readers are aghast at her material.

Perhaps the subject matter — an unhappy housewife has a torrid affair with a young Catholic priest — and the sensuous detail, took her audience by surprise.

“Our local parish priest said ‘don’t publish that book,’” said George. “Nobody gave it a nod here in the states.”

George, who founded Valdosta’s venerable literary magazine Snake Nation Review 30 years ago, couldn’t get any U.S. publishers interested, so she sent her manuscript overseas.

Last year the story won a novel-writing competition in England and was published by British outfit Impress Books. Then the book won Georgia Author of the Year for literary fiction.

This year she's been nominated for a Townsend Prize, the award named after beloved Atlanta magazine editor Jim Townsend, and bestowed every two years by the Georgia Center for the Book and the Chattahoochee Review. The prize will be announced April 23 at the DeKalb History Center.

Previous winners have included Celestine Sibley, Philip Lee Williams, Alice Walker, Mary Hood, Ferroll Sams, Ha Jin, Terry Kay, Kathryn Stockett and Thomas Mullen.

Every Saturday Roberta George teaches a writing class at the Turner Center For the Arts in Valdosta, Ga. She’s been teaching writing — and yoga — for decades. “Yoga saved my life,” she says. “It calms you down and energizes you at the same time.” CONTRIBUTED BY PAUL LEAVY

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"She is one of the most beautiful writers I've ever known," said novelist Janice Daugharty, a fellow South Georgian and author of nine novels including "Necessary Lies" and "Pawpaw Patch."

Daugharty has published with the mighty HarperCollins, but also with the tiny Snake Nation Press.

She counts George among her best influences. “She taught me to edit my work.”

Another lesson she taught, said Daugharty: “Never give up. You don’t give up. You keep trying.”

And indeed, George has continued to write, despite decades of rejection from publishers major and minor. She began working on “The Day’s Heat” 20 years ago, she said, and has rewritten it multiple times, often with advice from the Snake Handlers, the Snake Nation writer’s group that serves as a sounding board for members.

This late-in-life attention “feels very strange, very unexpected.” Now her British publisher has asked to look at another one of her unpublished novels, “The Bankrobber’s Sister.”

George has also published poems in literary magazines and a previous novel, "Baptizing the Cat," through her own Snake Nation Press. "Truthfully, I wanted the Snake to get the money for it," she said. "The Snake is hanging by a thread, and always has been."

George has lived an eventful life. She draws on her South Georgia world (and her lively imagination) to create her protagonist, Lee James, a young Lebanese mother who is starving for attention from her dimwitted white Anglo Saxon Protestant husband, Charles.

When the young priest at her Catholic church has a tooth knocked out, Lee’s quick thinking saves the incisor, and leads to a clerical transgression. This all happens in a fictional South Georgia town named Strickland.

George did, in fact, save the tooth of a Catholic priest in Valdosta. But, she said, "I have to keep reminding people that the priest in this story is not the old priest that was there at the time. He did have his tooth knocked out by a basketball, and I had just read in a ladies magazine about putting a tooth back in a child's mouth."

However, this Valdosta divine was in his late 60s and lived with his parents. The young, hunky priest from “The Day’s Heat” is lifted from a teenage fantasy when the young Roberta Haas attended an all-girls Catholic school in Houston, under the priestly guidance of “a beautiful young man with curly back hair and a Van Dyke beard… (All) of our girls were mooning over him,” she said, which caused him to “run for his life.”

Members of George’s writing group read from their work during a Saturday class at Valdosta’s Turner Center for the Arts. CONTRIBUTED BY PAUL LEAVY

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Only in the novel does hanky-panky take place, with some alluring and graphic descriptions. “That’s the wonderful thing about fiction. You can take those romantic impulses that are never realized and go to bed with them.”

Roberta Haas was born in Bisbee, Arizona. Her father was a Border Patrol agent, a Bible salesman, a Veterans Affairs employee and a vagabond. The family moved often.

Later an older Roberta would feel a kinship with the novelist Pat Conroy, a self-described military brat whose family moved almost every year while he was in school. "He was always the outsider and books were always his refuge."

A steady influence in her life were summers spent at her paternal grandparents’ farm in Live Oak, Florida, where she would stay until Christmas break, splitting the school year between Florida and Arizona.

Her family moved to Valdosta when she was a senior in high school. The locals treated her as a nonentity. “Nobody talked to me,” she said. “They all had their own little groups. Most of them had grown up together since kindergarten.”

A friend told her later on, “all I remember about you was how sad you looked.”

That changed when she made friends with a Lebanese girl who introduced her to a cousin, Noel George, a Valdosta native and former football hero at Valdosta High School.

“When Noel and I started dating, all of a sudden it was ‘How did you meet Noel George? How did you get to date Noel George?’”

Football was, of course, the one true religion in Valdosta, which had the winningest high school football program in the country.

The Georges raised seven children of their own. For several years they took care of two of her sister’s children. At age 40 Roberta George earned an English degree, then a master’s in creative writing, and then started the Snake Nation Review, a small literary magazine.

Thirty years later, the magazine is still alive. Snake Nation has grown to include Snake Nation Press, which publishes about five books each year. In 2012 Snake Nation Press published a Roberta George novel, “Baptizing the Cat,” because her friends at the press were worried it might never see the light of day.

Her Snake Handler friends have helped establish the Turner Center for the Arts in downtown Valdosta, where George teaches yoga and writing classes. The group also helped start the South Georgia Book Festival.

George’s husband died in 2017, and her companions at her Valdosta home are three dogs and a cat, led by the cockapoo Silver.

“She’s after it constantly; she does not rest,” said Jean Arambula, a member of the Snake Nation’s board. “It’s her drive to create. That comes from having nine children. She’s a creator. After you have that many children you think you can do anything.”