You really carried around notes for this novel for several decades?
Yep. Those notes have lived in the garages of nine homes in five states during that time. I was 24 years old when I was hired to work with local arts councils in Kansas, and although I’d grown up in Manhattan, Kansas, the rural communities I was visiting could’ve been on the moon. I became fascinated by these towns and wondered why some had a certain energy about them and some didn’t. What was in the water that made people in one town walk faster than those in the next town over? And my, did those towns have feuds! Each competed to have the best arts council, seemingly still carrying animosity from the Civil War days of Bloody Kansas.
Your novel is inspired by the fifty-nine Carnegie libraries built in Kansas in the early 20th century? Was there a particular Carnegie library that inspired you?
My very first library was a Carnegie. In fact, the photo on the dedication page of my novel is that library in Manhattan, Kansas. We started going before I learned to read. Our favorite book was The Peevish Penguin, which we checked out over and over again. I grew up in the Nancy Drew section and read biographies of women such as Jane Addams and Clara Barton. I certainly learned more in that library than I ever learned in school!
Once I started crisscrossing the state as an adult, I kept running across Carnegie libraries built in the early 20th century. Early on I saw similarities between the volunteer efforts between the two eras. The women I knew found their own power and self-esteem in their volunteer efforts, and I imagined how women of an earlier era would have found satisfaction and even joy in making their communities better.
What was your favorite part of writing your novel?
Research! It was like a treasure hunt. I had great fun in sleuthing archives, reading the perfect penmanship of those who recorded minutes at library meetings. I was overwhelmingly impressed by the dedication of (mostly women) volunteers who conducted bake sales, minstrel shows, and women’s softball games to raise money for books. I got caught up in the politics of the women’s suffrage movement, since the library bond measure was often the first vote women cast, often because town leaders expected them to vote for Prohibition as well. I studied the history of the Dust Bowl, orphan trains, and epidemics (when libraries were closed for extermination).
Have you ever lived through a tornado?
Good grief, no! I am scared to death of them. My biggest act of courage in writing the book was spending a night in Greensburg, Kansas, the town that was literally blown away ten years ago. I know about tornado alleys! But I needed to see how Greensburg had been rebuilt as a totally green community, powered by sun and wind, and with the arts center the very first building to open after the tornado. They have a guest room in the Chamber of Commerce building that’s built like a bunker. I mustered my courage to stay after watching the video on the Internet showing a car being dropped from 65 feet onto that concrete building. The car was destroyed, but the building remained intact. After seeing that, I thought I could stay for one night. As long as there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
You seem to like facts. Why fiction instead of nonfiction?
Because I missed my imaginary friends! As a young girl, I loved playing with dolls not so much for their costumes as for the chance to create dialogue and plot. One imaginary friend wasn’t enough for me! Writing my novel felt like having a whole gaggle of imaginary friends. Who mostly behaved as I told them to.
Fiction has always been my passion. My Master’s thesis was on the role of women in 20th century magazine fiction, and I looked at the goals of heroines. Although I’ve just started writing fiction, you could say I was practicing with my dolls and studying women’s motivations for even longer than I’ve been carrying those Carnegie library notes around.
Do you think libraries will survive political attacks and the pervasiveness of the Internet?
Absolutely. I’ve yet to step inside an empty library. They serve the most diverse populations you can imagine. People of every age, every ethnicity, and every income bracket still go to check out books, tutor or be tutored, meet authors, and read periodicals. Libraries still serve as the heart and soul of their communities. Where else will you see a petite Muslim woman in a hijab opening the door for a hunky blonde Swede in a Viking sweatshirt, both juggling armfuls of books? Or a four-year-old struggling with a wagon full of items to be returned?
ROMALYN TILGHMAN was hired as Executive Director of the Association of Community Arts Councils of Kansas straight out of graduate school and was lucky enough to work with rural arts councils throughout the state. She saw first-hand how groups of (mostly) women encouraged culture on the Plains. From there, she went on to work for the National Endowment for the Arts as Regional Representative, eventually serving a territory that stretched over the Dateline, over the Equator, and over the Arctic Circle. For more than twenty years, she has worked as a freelance consultant in the arts – conducting strategic planning, initiating audience engagement projects, and assessing grant programs for nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and private foundations. She has served on the boards of Americans for the Arts, Association of California Symphony Orchestras, and Western Arts Alliance, as well as on numerous national panels. She lives in Long Beach, California. To the Stars through Difficulties is her first novel.