Interview: Romalyn Tilghman Author of To the Stars Through Difficulties

The 2017 IPPY Gold Medal Winner in Contemporary Fiction, this debut novel follows three women who join together to build a new library after their Kansas town is devastated by a tornado.

She Writes Press

Shelf Unbound: What interested you in writing a book about libraries? 

Romalyn Tilghman: I love libraries! Always have! My first trips to the library happened before I learned to read, maybe before I learned to walk. The buildings themselves hold a sense of occasion and a sense of intimacy simultaneously. To me, they’re like the greatest cathedrals or the most exquisite theaters or a secluded path in the woods. Libraries are magical places, full of exquisite treasures of every viewpoint and genre, most of which you can take home for FREE, making libraries themselves priceless. On top of which library patrons are as diverse as the communities they serve, meaning they demonstrate the essence of democracy. 

Shelf Unbound: Your first job out of graduate school was in Kansas, where this novel takes place. What about Kansas as a place do you find unique and wanted to include in this book?

Tilghman: I grew up in Kansas so knew a good deal of Kansas history, which fascinates me. It was the destination for many dreamers who came to create new lives in pretty desolate surroundings. Bloody Kansas played a key role in the Civil War, where essential beliefs and values clashed. I find the scenery exquisite in its expansiveness, mostly in the sky which is ever-changing. Kansans are stoic, still carrying pioneer genes and demonstrating grit and gumption. And then Kansas has its own quirky characters, like Dr. Brinkley, who implanted goat gonads into men to increase fertility, or Samuel Dinsmoor of Lucas, who recreated the entire Garden of Eden out of concrete. I haven’t lived in Kansas for over 30 years, but the further away I am, the more I appreciate its uniqueness and the more I want to share it with others.

Shelf Unbound: You write the novel from the alternating perspectives of three characters. Which character came first and how did you develop one? 

Tilghman: Angelina, the PhD candidate in library science, came first because I did want to tell the story of the libraries and how they were built a century ago. She starts out impressed that Carnegie funded 1,689 libraries that served 35 million people by 1919 and comes to see those libraries would never have been built, let alone thrived for a century, without the support of “seemingly ordinary” people. The libraries were the vision of not one man, but of many women and men.

Traci, nicknamed Trash, was added because part of my original concept was to show how these beautiful buildings were finding second lives as arts centers. Although they went from orderly and quiet to chaotic and noisy, they still serve as cultural hearts of their communities.

Gayle came relatively late in my creative process. I wanted to show how quickly we can be called upon to order a community’s priorities. I was well into writing my novel at the time of the Greensburg tornado and was struck by their insistence that a community arts center be the first building to open its doors.

From the beginning, I wanted to show that women often find their own power, worth, and self-esteem through their volunteer efforts. Although all of us from Kansas resist Wizard of Oz comparisons, I came to realize our need to find wisdom, love, and courage is universal and could provide something of a framework for my characters’ journeys, even though I tried to keep the Oz references to a minimum.

Shelf Unbound: This is your first novel. What did you learn about writing from the experience of creating this novel?

Tilghman: The short answer is I learned how long it takes. As a person who’s written newsletters and reports and trade articles for a very long time, I assumed writing a 300-page novel would take approximately 10 times, or maybe 20 times, as long as writing a four-page newsletter. WRONG! There are about 100 times more complexities.

I also learned to believe in serendipity. There were several times during the process when an early reader would question the believability of a decision. Why would Rachel be so understanding of the troubled teens from foster homes? Suddenly I came across the orphan trains so realized her father could’ve ridden on one. I needed the women to hear the journal at the same time, but would they really sit around and listen to a journal being read? And then I discovered Carnegie’s father had hired readers for the weavers in Scotland, to help pass the time. Perfect! I had my own questions about the believability of a sudden inheritance, but the day after I arrived in Kansas for my research trip a waitress asked me, “What are you really here for? I know. You’ve inherited land and are here to claim it!” Total serendipity!

Shelf Unbound: What have libraries meant to you throughout your life?

Tilghman: They are a safe haven, a collection of friends. I lived in several places during my childhood and libraries grounded me wherever I was. As a nine-year-old, in Copenhagen, starved for English, I read my way through the school’s third/fourth grade library and was allowed access to the fifth/sixth grade library too, while at the same time dipping into the offerings of the American Embassy’s library. One summer, as an 11-year-old, suffering the angst of maturing and being away from friends, I lived next door to the library in Bellport, NY, where I was saved with daily pilgrimages. There are times in adulthood when my library habit lapsed, when I bought more books than borrowed, largely because of an intense travel schedule. But as bookstores closed and I began to pinch pennies in order to write a novel, I found myself living in libraries again, helping myself to whatever I wanted, without the guilt of accumulating too much stuff.

Libraries throw off a sense of peace and a sense of power, almost spiritual to many of us. In libraries, I find inspiration and answers, challenges and solutions. I feel my own individuality and my connection to the entire world’s population. 

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