By the Book: Rosemary Rawlins

I’m grateful to count author Rosemary Rawlins as a longtime friend. We met after publication of her powerful memoir Learning By Accident, which recounted her struggle in helping her husband Hugh recover from a brain injury suffered in a bicycling accident here in Richmond. The book is heart-wrenching, hopeful, true. It has helped so many people navigate the long months of brain injury rehabilitation in their own lives. Rosemary and Hugh came to lecture my occupational therapy students about this, we chatted, and thus began our friendship.

Over the winter my jaw dropped to read a second manuscript Rosemary was finishing, a work of historical fiction on a topic that might seem impossible to tell, the horrors of the Cambodian Killing Fields of the 1970s. Rosemary knows Cambodian immigrants who lived through that time, has visited Cambodia with them, has immersed herself in historical research, and she has magnificently condensed all of this into a riveting tale of one girl who comes of age across the years when Cambodia was tearing itself apart. By imagining the killing and the upheaval as seen through her innocent eyes, Rosemary is able to convey the personal, human cost of such brutality more powerfully than any straight history could. If you haven’t picked up All My Silent Years yet, it’s available on Amazon, or you can request it at your local bookstore. As they say, you’ll be glad you did.

All this by way of introduction to our By the Book interview:

What books are on your nightstand?

I am reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. I often read two books at a time, alternating between them.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

I read every day. It’s also a personal habit of mine to read each night in bed before I sleep, and the habit is so ingrained that I have trouble sleeping if I can’t.

My ideal reading experience takes place in a favorite cushy chair in my office, feet on the ottoman. I love being engrossed in a book on a rainy day, or reading at the beach in the early morning or evening when it’s empty. In the fall, I read out on my back deck.

What’s your favorite book of all time?

That’s like choosing a favorite child—impossible! But one book that has stuck with me for a long time is The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, not only for the story but the beautiful writing. I found her characters to be extremely well developed and their voices so distinct that I fell into the story and never wanted to come out.

Your novel might be considered historical fiction.  Do you have favorite historical fiction books or authors?

Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible) and Tara Conklin (The House Girl). I also loved Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. More recently, I have read The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys byColson Whitehead, two powerful stories.

Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine?  Favorite villain?

Again, I could not pick only one, but for heroine, I’ll say Hetty Handful Grimke in The Invention of Wings, a slave girl called “Handful” with a strong will and memorable voice.

Here’s a quote from Handful in the book: “I was shrewd like mauma. Even at ten I knew this story about people flying was pure malarkey. We weren’t some special people who lost our magic. We were slave people, and we weren’t going anywhere. It was later I saw what she meant. We could fly all right, but it wasn’t any magic to it.”

Favorite villain. The villains I cannot stomach are vicious slave holders and overseers. The tortures they inflicted on people is unimaginable and inhuman.

Character-wise, I’ll name Nathan Price, the Baptist minister in The Poisonwood Bible. He was rigid and abusive, a self-serving fanatical man who was cruel to his wife and daughters while acting pious and self-righteous. If it’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people hurting others in the name of religion.

Your first book was a memoir.  Do you have favorite memoirs or autobiographical authors?

I love memoir! On top of the dozens of remarkable memoirs I’ve read as editor of the Brainline blog site (I have a written several book reviews on the site and you can find them here), here are a few other memoirs that I’ve loved over the years:

Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl for its immense wisdom.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, for the beauty of insight before death.

Educated, by Tara Westover, a riveting family story where education is only one of the themes.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, for its poignant depiction of a loving family’s dysfunction and how a child remembers that dysfunction.

Catherine Gildiner, Too Close to the Falls and After the Falls, for her humor.

Julie Barton, Dog Medicine: How My Dog Saved Me From Myself. I am highly allergic to dogs, but I love them so much I get dog allergy shots. This book had me in tears until the end—a beautiful tribute to a woman’s best friend.

For my research on Cambodia, I read many riveting first-hand accounts of stories that occurred during the Khmer Rouge period including: Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, compiled by Dith Pran; and First They Killed My Father, a memoir by Loung Ung.

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

Roz Chast’s graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

It’s a raw, honest, and wildly funny book about Chast’s caregiving experience with her parents. I needed this book when I felt isolated and frustrated about my own caregiving antics. A friend gave it to me at the right time, and it had an immediate impact. I felt lighter, less alone, and saw my situation as more absurd than annoying. Sometimes, books are pure medicine; they remind us that there’s love beneath all the mess.

What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Beautiful, impactful, and important in these times.

What’s the best book you ever received as a gift?

It wasn’t a book but it was words, so I hope it counts. My daughters arranged for all of the people in my life to write a quote or passage that reminded them of me, or that they thought I would appreciate, and I received the passages in a gift box. I open it all the time and read the slips of paper; each one is uniquely thoughtful and endearing. The gift means more to me than any other.

Are you a solitary reader or do you share your reading experience in a book club or reading community of some sort?

I read a book a month with my book club: Wine, Women, and Words. This group is made up of mostly retired teachers with a few oddballs like me, and we always have lively, intelligent discussions about the books we read together. I also attend a monthly Women’s Journey group that focuses mostly on women’s issues and spirituality.

What three writers, living or dead, would you wish to invite to a literary dinner party?

If you ask me this again in ten minutes, my answer will change. I’d like to have several dinner parties by genre and one with poets, but here goes:

  1. Sue Monk Kidd (The Invention of Wings),
  2. Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy), and
  3. Yann Martel (Life of Pi)

What book do you think everybody should read before they die?

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. What makes a life worth living in the face of death to a young doctor and father facing a terminal disease? An exquisite exploration of the significance and meaning of life, of life choices and beliefs.

What do you plan to read next?

I just ordered Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kandi. I’ve been immersing myself in reading BIPOC authors to better understand recent events in our country and the Black Lives Matter movement.

By the way, here’s an interview I did with Rosemary about her new book. Enjoy!

Katy Munger: By the Book

I am fortunate to have a longtime friend who is also an accomplished mystery writer, Katy Munger, the author of several acclaimed detective series, including The Dead Detective, Casey Jones, and Hubbert & Lil (here’s her Amazon author page link) (here’s her website).  Somehow Katy found time to indulge my request for a NYT-style By the Book interview.  Thanks, Katy!


What books are on your nightstand?

I currently have books by M.C. Beaton, Anne Cleaves, Caleb Carr, and Louise Penny on my nightstand. Can you tell I am a crime fiction fan? But I also have several books by Stephen Ambrose I am re-reading. He is one of my very favorite authors.  (For the record, I also have about 3,000 more books on my shelves and my phone is full of audiobooks waiting to be heard.)

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

Well, my withering attention span has truncated my reading in bed time (previously, my favorite spot) to about ten minutes at a shot before I fall asleep. So, quite honestly, my favorite reading experience now is either sitting in my backyard around a fire listening to an audio book while I enjoy a cocktail or working in my garden while listening to a book. Long trips are also fabulous reading experiences for me now. Let’s hear it for alternate reading formats.

What’s your favorite book of all time?

That’s like asking a woman with ten children which one is her favorite. It’s impossible to answer. But I can say that one book that has always resonated with me is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. Not perfect, and not even his best book, but the way so many seemingly unrelated plot points came together at the end in a Robert Altman-style climax was life-changing for me as a writer. I have also recently become a big fan of Sue Miller’s work, especially A Life Beneath. Again, because it is a modern novel that subtly depicts some timeless emotional epiphanies we all share.

You’ve written several mystery series.  Which of your detectives is your own personal favorite and why?

I have rotated through my favorites as my era in life changes. For a while in recent years, it was Kevin Fahey of my Dead Detective series. But I am working on a couple new Casey Jones books right now so she is back in my good graces. Weirdly, I recently began to love Auntie Lil again, the protagonist from my very first series, Hubbert & Lil. Probably because they are selling so well on Amazon. It’s like my very own elderly aunt has come back from the dead and is sending me a check for my birthday every month… Thanks, Auntie Lil!

Who is your favorite fictional detective?  And the best villain?

Oh, gosh. Why do you ask these hard questions??!!  Right now, my favorite fictional detective is Hamish MacBeth. It was Ian Rankin‘s Inspector Rebus, so I guess I love my Scotsmen. Brrrrraaaace yourself!

Villains are harder. I like villains who look just like you and me, who are complicated by conscious and circumstances. Cartoon villains like fictional serial killers bore me. My favorite villains actually come from true crime: narcissistic women who have waded through life leaving a trail of victims in their path as they pursue incredibly superficial goals. Bleached blond hair. Huge houses. Multiple husbands. Ignored children. Batshit crazy self-esteem. Have you ever noticed that they never get caught until they start to get old and lose their sex appeal? What does that say about us as a culture?

What makes for a good mystery?

Suspense is great and all, but I think a really good mystery takes an exploration of life and death – and all the big questions in between – and presents them in a way that connects directly to the heart and soul of the reader. You’ve got to make it real. You’ve got to make it personal. People want to feel real emotion and they need to feel real emotion in this plastic, staged world we live in.

What kinds of stories are you drawn to?  And what stories do you steer clear of?

I am drawn to original settings, characters, and plots with minimal descriptive prose.  I love flawed protagonists. I steer clear of derivative books (either those that copy other authors or those that are near-replicas of prior books in a series). Serial killer books featuring villains with elaborate scenarios and motives bore the crap out of me, as does gratuitous violence. Contrived serial killer plots are idiotic and boring, not to mention way disconnected from the messy, impulse-driven reality of actual killers.

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

I love tales of sailing ships in the 1700’s and early 1800’s – Patrick O’Brien is a favorite – as well as history books and anything by Stephen Ambrose, best known for writing non-fiction about World War II.

Who is your favorite overlooked or unappreciated writer?

I can’t answer that. I’m sorry. My writer friends would kill me if I did. Except for the friend I picked. Let’s just say we’re ALL underappreciated these days.

What kind of reader were you as a child?

Way too advanced for my own good. A 9-year old child should not be reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Yet there I was, perched in a tree, reading about all kinds of paraphilias instead of doing my math homework. The only book my mother ever took away from me was Miss Lonelyhearts by National West when I was ten years old. I still hold it against her. And I think I was still in diapers when I first read Flannery O’Connor, so no one should be surprised that I am fascinated with the darker impulses of human nature.

Favorite childhood literary character or hero?

Tik-Tok in the Wizard of Oz series by L. Frank Baum. God knows why. Maybe because he was just so cheery and resilient, a lone robot wandering in a world of humans, munchkins, witches, flying monkeys and other fantastical creatures. The Cowardly Lion from the same series ran a close second. I also loved The Boxcar Children because they got to live by themselves, without parents, in an abandoned train car parked deep in a forest.  That really appealed to my independent streak.

What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?

The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age by Joseph Burgo. Boy, did it explain a lot about my childhood and the subsequent choices I made as an adult. And in this current national climate, I recommend it to everyone.

What’s the best book you ever received as a gift?

An old friend named Hart Getzen (who is now a producer-writer) had a wonderful knack of giving me books exquisitely appropriate to what was happening in my life. He once gave me a collection of short stories by Irish writers when I was about to visit Ireland, and he gave me another short story collection called Leaving New York when I left the city after 16 years living there to move back down south. I think that was the most thoughtful gift I have ever received, and it was a wonderful book. It’s a bit of a landmine to give a writer a book as a gift, you know, but he nailed it. His gifts always showed great respect and a deep understanding of who I was.

What book did you feel like you were supposed to like but didn’t?  Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

Oh, gosh. I don’t want to piss anyone off, especially not anyone who I am going to run into at the bar at a writer’s conference. Let’s just say I recently put down a book by a bestselling female author that bored the crap out of me and I was upset because I really like her. And I put down a lot of books hyped by the publishing industry written by up-and-coming young bucks who are the new writers du jour and usually feeling some sort of alienation from the world, given that being a young white male in this world of ours is so very hard and all. Cry me a river and, while you are at it, please edit your prose so you do not come off as an entitled, self-absorbed jerk who mistakes endless description for depth.

What book would you recommend to the President?

What a coincidence! The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age by Joseph Burgo.

If you were to write something besides crime fiction, what would you write?

Non-fiction, without a doubt. The behavior of actual humans is absolutely fascinating. If true crime is off the table as a choice, I’d go with a book about unsung war heroes. Or maybe one on managing a creative team? I have a lot of interests and would love the time to explore some of them.

Whom would you choose to write your life story?

Harper Lee. She’d get me.

What three writers, living or dead, would you wish to invite to a literary dinner party?

Jane Austen (I’d get her SO drunk, so she could loosen up and have some fun!); Truman Capote; and Flannery O’Connor.

What book do you think everybody should read before they die?

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.

What do you plan to read next?

Surrender, New York by Caleb Carr. But only because I have already read The Coal Tower by Tony Gentry.