Interview: Cedar Rapids author JT Roberts on work-art balance

Cedar Rapids author JT Roberts’ journey from athlete to author is a quintessentially Midwestern tale — much like his latest novel, The Brown Bottle Squeeze. The novel tells a coming of age story set in the Iowa City/Cedar Rapids area during the mid-aughties. On the surface, Roberts’ protagonist, Cameron Carlyle, is a hard-working, hard-partying, corporate drone — but that superficial patina belies Cameron’s quiet passion for writing.

The Brown Bottle Squeeze follows Cameron on a journey from the heady joys of college graduation and into the great mystery of what comes next. Cameron quickly realizes that the thrills of his first “real” paycheck and endless nights spent partying are fleeting. After a harsh lesson on the true value of loyalty in corporate America, Cameron realizes it’s time for a change and embarks on a journey toward living a more fulfilled, passionate existence.

Work is a major theme underpinning the story of The Brown Bottle Squeeze. The novel’s protagonist is at once a corporate Machiavellian schemer and a reclusive creative who longs for success but fears rejection to the point that he refuses to allow anyone to read his writing. Much like his protagonist, Roberts learned to balance the value inherent in hard work with his own creative drive.

We sat down to chat with Roberts about The Brown Bottle Squeeze and how it parallels his own life.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Southern Illinois, about 45 miles southeast of St. Louis. So, even though I was close to a major metropolis, I grew up in the sticks. My graduating class was 60 people. That said, being so close to St. Louis was awesome — both my parents were into sports, and my mom was a teacher, so we’d jet over to Busch Stadium two or three times a week growing up. Tickets in the bleachers were just $4! St. Louis also boasts one of the most important landmarks in the U.S.

So how did you end up in Iowa?

I went to college in Southwestern Kentucky at Murray State. After college I had a struggle getting my first professional gig and worked several jobs for the first five or six months after leaving college. Then I got my first professional gig and moved to St. Louis. They sent me to Dallas and then I got a call on a Thursday night from my boss saying, “We need you in Cedar Rapids, Iowa by Monday.” That was supposed to be a six-to-twelve-month gig and twelve years later I’m still here.

What makes the Iowa City/Cedar Rapids area such an appealing place to live and write about?

The cliché answer is: people. In all the places I’ve lived and traveled the people here are simple superior. The more detailed answer is, [the IC/CR area] is unique. In Cedar Rapids you get a flavor of big city life but you don’t have to put up with crime, pollution or traffic. I love going down to Iowa City. The airport is great too. Plus I love to travel and we are five hours away from Kansas City, Minneapolis and St. Louis so you can road trip if you get bored.

JT Roberts -- headshot courtesy of the author
JT Roberts — headshot courtesy of the author

September 11 is a major element in The Brown Bottle Squeeze — where were you on that day and was it a challenge to incorporate a national tragedy into the book without trivializing or exploiting it?

I was in college during 9/11 and a friend from California called and woke me up. I had started writing a little bit before, but, after 9/11, I had my first piece published by the university newspaper, about my thoughts on parallels between Pearl Harbor and September 11. Our parents had Vietnam and Watergate, but this was our moment and how was our generation going to respond to this?

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As you mentioned, the Cedar Rapids flood is another major element of The Brown Bottle Squeeze — how did the flood impact you personally? How did it impact your friends and family?

I was set to leave Cedar Rapids shortly after the flood. When something like this has happened in other places, cities often never recover or worse. But obviously, that hasn’t happened with Cedar Rapids. We now have this amazing district called New Bo. In terms of physical losses, I had friends who had whole properties submerged.

I had one friend in particular who lost everything; she couldn’t get back in time. I offered her the spare room in my condo … Eight years later, we’re married. We both freely admit that had the flood never happened there’s no way we would be together. We’d been friends but even while I’d be going out on dates I began to realize that I couldn’t wait for the date to end so I could get home to see Sarah.

Your character’s novel, America Fatwah, seems, at times, to be a bit of a distraction from the events of his life. How does Cameron’s relationship with his novel evolve over the course of The Brown Bottle Squeeze?

During some of my toughest times at work I would get a buzz whenever I finished a few good pages. I moved the needle and for Cameron it’s the same thing. Cameron finally puts down the bottle when his script for American Fatwah starts to get some traction.

Do you have any process-related writing advice?

You should give yourself goals. I think you can take a business mindset and apply it toward writing. It can be tough out there to find inspiration, but if you get serious about your writing you can hit your goals. I don’t do this on my own — I have two readers who give me feedback … In my files I have seven different versions of The Brown Bottle Squeeze.

Did you face any rejection?

With my first book, yes. I was searching for an agent, received a contract, and a few weeks later was moved to the bottom of the pile. But with CreateSpace, I found them. They liked the concept and obviously they’re a small publisher, and it wasn’t going to come out in hardback, but they liked my concept. For anyone looking for a publisher I strongly suggest CreateSpace because their professional services were fantastic.

Do you have any other advice for budding writers?

Reach out to local publications or journals. Try different forms of writing — interviews, short stories, reviews. Try ten to fifteen page short stories. It’s a thrill to see your name in print. Reach out locally to publications like Little Village and see how you can help them out as a freelancer.

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