Rosemary Rawlins discusses her debut novel All My Silent Years

My friend Rosemary Rawlins, the author of the well-known memoir Learning by Accident (https://amzn.to/34K3zjO), an account of her husband’s brain injury and recovery, has just this month released her debut novel All My Silent Years (https://amzn.to/34STKQH), the story of a young girl caught up in the terror of the Cambodian Civil War. I wanted to share this interview, along with thanks to Rosemary for the discussion:

Rosemary Rawlins

As an author based in Nags Head, NC, what first interested you in writing about the Cambodian Civil War, events from years ago on the other side of the world?

All My Silent Years grew out of a friendship that started in Richmond, Virginia, and the story of that friendship is unique. The inspiration for the character of Sokha was my hairstylist, who grew up in Cambodia. She wishes to remain anonymous, so I will refer to her as Sokha in this interview. We would often chat while she cut my hair, and one day I asked her about her life before she came to America. She stopped what she was doing as a look of intense sadness crossed her face. “You don’t want to know,” she said. “My children don’t even know. If I tell you, would you write it down for me?”

Over several months, we talked. Sokha’s children learned about her story, but I wanted to know more about the conditions that led up to her family being forced from their home. I began reading about Cambodia’s history and read several first-hand accounts of Khmer Rouge survivors because I found their stories so compelling. I’ve always been interested in resilience—the qualities, beliefs, and strategies that help people survive and cope with trauma—and I found a common thread in many stories. That thread is family connection and a driving urge to survive for loved ones.

For people who are forcibly displaced, the memory of home may grow in significance, too. Home, in this sense, is a place, but it’s more than a physical house with belongings. It encompasses moments and milestones, sounds, and aromas. To many people, home represents security, routine, and comfort. Home is where we feel a sense of belonging and unconditional love.

Your novel is quite richly imagined, with exquisite, sometimes excruciating details about everyday life on a Cambodian farm and in a work camp during the Cambodian civil war.  How did you go about researching all of this?

My research came about organically as I became obsessed with learning more about the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s culture, Buddhism, and America’s role in this geopolitical quagmire. I read many non-fiction books on these topics. One bit of knowledge would lead to another batch of questions, so I also watched videos, looked up images, and scoured the Internet seeking information wherever I could find it. I have probably forgotten more than I’ve learned, there’s so much information and data out there.

Cambodia is an ancient country with a mystical quality and captivating culture. I could read about the Neak Ta and the meaning of the spirit houses, or see photos of rice fields, but my imagination could take me only so far. My breakthrough for writing this book came when Sokha invited me to join her on a trip to Cambodia. We visited the killing fields, the site of her childhood family farm, Battambang City, and her old temple school, The White Elephant Pagoda. I walked a path that she walked as a laborer under the Khmer Rouge. I was finally able to see, hear, and smell a country I had only been able to imagine before the trip. I gave offerings to monks and received blessings in return; drank coconut milk from hand-picked fruit hacked open by a farmer with a machete, shopped in the street markets, and felt the morning chill burn off by an unrelenting sun. Spending time in Cambodia allowed me to discover a place and culture utterly unfamiliar to me. I could not have made the setting of All My Silent Years as vivid and real if I had not been there.

The novel’s protagonist is a young girl who grows through her teen years amidst the horrors of the Killing Fields.  Do you intend this novel for young readers, or do you see its readership more in the mainstream?  When you were writing the book, who did you imagine reading it?

The novel is intended for older teens and adults. In my opinion, it’s too violent for elementary or middle school students. I included historical wrap-up notes for readers who wanted to know more about some of the historical figures in the book, like Prince Norodom Sihanouk, General Lon Nol, and Pol Pot. I hope this book will be read by students and people who like learning about history and other cultures. I also feel it will interest reading groups (there is a discussion guide in the back of the book).

Your first book — a memoir of your own experience as the spouse of a man with a traumatic brain injury — has attained a wide readership in the disability community.  What correspondences do you see between the two stories?

Both stories have to do with people managing circumstances beyond their control. Fear is a factor in both stories. Although the two books are quite different, they both deal with a quest for independence and belonging. Both stories underscore the incredible capacity for human resilience.

Your novel deals with events from fifty years ago.  What do you think this story says to our current day?

Although this story took place fifty years ago, I see parallels playing out today. One point I want to make clear is that I did not write this book to be political, judgmental, or to take sides. I did not include any quotes from American generals, presidents, or Henry Kissinger, but I did that intentionally. Their stories have already been written and shared. This was a chance to explore the living experience of citizens caught up in wars they have no control over, the unintended consequences of geopolitical turmoil.

I don’t wish to argue about who won, or who was right or wrong. Rather, I see how much everyone lost. Lives were lost or forever transformed by injuries, both mental and physical. Honor was lost. Freedom was lost. Ancient temples were destroyed, sacred texts were burned, and Buddhism in Cambodia was nearly wiped out. The collateral damage of war is never-ending, and the horror of what happened in Cambodia still lives on in the minds and hearts of the people who fell victim to these atrocities. Sadly, it goes on today in places like Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. There’s an actual website that tracks genocide: http://www.genocidewatch.com.  This site exists to “predict, prevent, stop, and punish genocide and other forms of mass murder.” I find it tragic that there are so many countries on this list.

One of the great gifts of your novel is the way it offers a deeply immersive, almost tactile, experience of your heroine’s day-to-day life amidst horrific challenges in a Cambodian work camp.  What do you hope your readers will take away, when they turn the final page?

When readers turn the final page, I hope they see all people as they see themselves—not as refugees, or immigrants, as displaced, or illegal—but as people with families who want to live in peace to raise those families in a place they call home. We are all products of an “accident of birth.” We could be born rich, poor, in a peaceful nation or a nation at war, or to parents who nurture us or abuse us. None of us is given a choice of where or to whom we are born. We are, however, ultimately defined by the choices we make, no matter what the circumstances of our birth.

What have you learned in writing this book?

One of the most striking things I learned from my travel to Cambodia was that here in the United States, we talk a lot about sustainability, but many farmers are living a sustainable existence in the countryside of Cambodia. Homes are made of wood, clay, and dried leaves. Fruit trees fill yards; gardens and ponds supply vegetables and protein. There are families who live in much the same way as farmers who lived hundreds of years ago. They manage with little or no indoor plumbing by capturing water in cisterns. They raise their own animals and food, and bargain for essential tools or spices at outdoor markets. People have very little in the way of conveniences, yet they are joyful and generous.

I learned that cross-cultural friendships enrich our lives in ways we never anticipate. I had never imagined that when I asked Sokha about her family in the hair salon, I would later travel with her to Cambodia for the eco-tour of a lifetime. I also learned how difficult it is to settle in a foreign country after enduring unspeakable hardship. For most of us, surviving a war would be unbearable enough, but then to move across the world to an unknown culture when you don’t speak the language and immediately have to find a job and support yourself…it’s a monumental achievement to assimilate and move forward. I have great respect for immigrants who build a new life from the ashes of their lost one.

Book Launch at New Dominion in Cville

When I started work on my debut novel The Coal Tower (https://amzn.to/2HcegCg) ten years ago (there were previous novels, of course, piled in that proverbial drawer), one sweet dream that drove me to get up at 5 am, brew some coffee, and sit down in the light of my laptop to write before work was the possibility that someday the book would come out, and when it did, maybe I’d be fortunate enough to launch it at my favorite bookstore, the linchpin of Charlottesville’s literary scene, New Dominion.

Living in Charlottesville, working as an occupational therapist at UVA-Healthsouth, then starting a community reentry program for people with brain injuries connected to Martha Jefferson Hospital, then starting up an early tech company Cerebreon, along with acute care practice at UVA Hospital, while also starting a family with my amazing wife Chris and our two boys (both out of their teens now), the ideas and characters for this novel did what I guess you’d call germinate. An autocratic neurosurgeon at UVA, one of our brain injury clients who tended to drift off to a homeless camp on the edge of the river, teenaged patients emerging slowly from comas caused by car crashes or shootings, and so on, all this swirled around my busy days with no place to land.

Then there was that tragic shooting at the old coal tower downtown, when a young man with mental health problems killed two teenagers. That event struck me as a metaphor somehow for what I felt about Charlottesville, and its disparate communities, but it took me the writing of the novel to place it. I hope that’s what I’ve done.

Anyway, next week that sweet dream comes true. New Dominion is holding a launch party for The Coal Tower. And what’s even sweeter, they’ve scheduled it during Game Week. The novel takes place in one day – the day of UVA’s first football game of the season – and my reading will be held that same week (on Wednesday August 28, from 7-8 pm). Much of the action in the book takes place on the Downtown Mall, just outside the doors of the New Dominion Book Shop. How sweet is that?

So, if you live in the Cville environs, hope you can come and share in my dream come true. It’s been a decade in the works, but now tastes to me as delicious as a scoop of Chap’s coffee ice cream in a waffle cone!

Here’s the New Dominion link for the event: https://ndbookshop.com/events/tony-gentry-the-coal-tower/. Y’all come, now!

Faerie Book Gifting

So, I read about this thing where writers leave their books for people to pick up and read wherever, and thought it might be fun. In Charlottesville yesterday, followed the trail that the characters in The Coal Tower make, and left a copy of the novel at the Downtown Mall bus station, where Dr. Cannon holds his Hollywood-inspired party. In the book, I imagine this party on the rooftop of the bus station, giving the attendees views of a concert in the Sprint Pavilion next door. Couldn’t, of course, get up there, so left the book on a seat inside:

Would you party on that roof?
Leaving my lonely book behind…

Then went up to UVA, but the Jeffersonian pavilion where the good doctor relieves himself (after his slo-mo streak) was wrapped in scaffolding. So left a book on a rocker in front of one of the student apartments.

Finally, sought out the old coal tower itself. In a driving rain, came upon a dramatically different scene than the one in the novel. Where there once was a field (where the teenage lovers Chloe and Lucas end their daylong traipse around the city), there now stands a long row of condos and brightly painted storefronts, the apartments running right up to the edge of the coal tower, with more on the way. Once completed, the complex will bookend the old tower, which I guess is just too sturdy to tear down.

But the train tracks that figure in the story still run along to the right of the picture, the Sally Hemings dress frame structure (that the book’s character Sid thinks is an antenna for cosmic aliens) still tops the tower, and at least until they finish that new row of condos on this side, I think you can still imagine the climactic drama from the novel. Too wet to leave a book – next trip!

The Coal Tower is all about the tensions, misunderstandings, and disparities in families and community in Cville. Along the way, though, I paused before this corner, marking the place where the city exploded beyond anything I could have imagined just two years ago. What are we all going to do about that?

An Interview with James Cotter – 60-Something Debut Novelist

James Cotter is an associate professor of Gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of a gripping SF thriller about the travails of building a bridge across the Bering Strait. Here’s an excerpt from the novel’s opening passage:

The environmental challenges surpassed any other construction project, and these were dwarfed by the financial and political challenges. But the dream would not die – because humankind still remembers, deep in their souls, their early migrations when they walked out of Africa and spread across the world. And the Bering Strait has always remained a symbol of humanity’s sundered kinship, and so eventually someone would restore those ancient ties with a bridge across the Bering Strait.

The Bridge over the Bering Strait is self-published, available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle versions. Brisk, deeply grounded, and thought-provoking, it’s a good beach read, especially on those muggy days when a dead accurate depiction of winter in Alaska may soothe. We talked in downtown Richmond at Sefton Coffee.

When did you find time to write this novel?

I wrote the book over several years of early mornings – getting in an hour or so before work – and taking writing vacations as it came together towards the end. That’s still how I write. In the work we do as professors — which is intellectually strenuous — by the end of the day it’s hard to focus enough to get any real writing done.

Did you workshop the book or have readers look at your drafts?

I had some friends read parts and I was in a writing group at the time and received great feedback there.

Why this theme – building a bridge across the Bering Strait? It seems almost mythical, since as you have written, it serves to heal the broken link that brought the first Americans here. And speaks to the tortured Russian-American relations that have colored all our lives.

An image just came to me one day. A father and son were falling into the Bering Sea from a bridge. Just took off from that image.

You chose to self-publish this book. Had you shopped it around to agents before you went that route?

I did. Went to James River Writers Conference and met agents there, but nobody bit. I sent it off to a few agents and editors, but again no one seemed interested. So I went to Amazon’s Create Space and paid the $3000 to have them copy edit, typeset and publish the manuscript.

It looks good, beautiful cover, trade paperback quality, well done!

My son’s a graphic designer, so he mocked up the PDF for the front and back covers, and we used that. Create Space will do that, but it would have cost more and it probably wouldn’t have been any better.

So the book came out in 2010. How’s it been selling?

I’ve sold under 100 copies, a few more than just family and friends, ha. But I haven’t made my investment back, if that’s what you’re asking. And probably won’t. When you consider the monthly flood of books from traditional publishers in every genre, the thousands of writers going the self-publishing route. I paid some money extra for what Amazon called a marketing package. I think they sent out fliers to booksellers, that sort of thing. Of course it was a joke. They must get millions of these fliers. Next time, I won’t bother to pay for that feature. After all, a friend of mine who writes romances told me she has 30 days on bookshelves before they pull her books. 30 days to get somebody’s attention. And that’s for an accomplished author.

But you’re still at it.

I am. I’m taking a few days off next week to fly out to Portland, Oregon for the annual Historical Novel Society conference. I have an idea about an American soldier who finds himself involved in the sequence of conflicts that spread across the late 19th Century, between the Civil War and World War I. One book for each conflict. Meets Teddy Roosevelt, etc. I was a history major in college and I know how to do the research. I enjoy imagining myself back into those details of life back in the day, in different eras.

Your eyes light up when you talk about this. It’s like here you are in your 60s, near the end of a quite accomplished academic career, and you’re starting fresh with this whole new endeavor with some of the enthusiasm of a young man! Do you think there are a lot of writers out there who are taking up a pen as retirement comes closer?

Probably thousands and thousands. I mean, I wanted to write when I was young. I actually did that thing, went to Paris, lived in a garret, sat at a café table all day. The whole deal. Then eventually came to my senses, came home, and found work that I felt was both meaningful and paid the rent.

Do you regret that decision?

How could I? It’s been so rewarding on so many levels to have this career, to raise a family. And coming back to it now, yeah, who knows what I may have lost? But I’m not a naïve kid anymore either. The lived experience of all these years. I can draw on that now.

Yeah, our stories run parallel in those ways. New Orleans was my Paris. I mean, we all have this romantic notion about the starving artist and all, but most of the writers and artists I know have day jobs or rich spouses or trust funds. You don’t expect to make your way doing it really.

No.

It’s a stretch, but isn’t there something romantic or cool, too, about going back to your art in retirement? There’s less pressure to make the rent, you’re not fretting over getting rich and famous. You’re perfectly free to write what you want.

Except that the stress does drive you. Lacking that, it’s easy to take a day off, lay the story aside, go putter in the garden.

Well that’s true even with the stress, eh?

You know, much of my academic career has been about fighting ageism. So maybe I’m especially sensitive to this. I would think, though, that there may be an understandable but I would say unfair bias among agents and publishers who may shy away from an older writer. They’re investing in a career and all the years it takes to get a series of books written and successful in the marketplace, thinking that the older writer won’t have the stamina to get it done.  But I’d argue that we’re the ones with the energy and the time to really focus.  So I think that may be a mistake on their part.

And as you say, the older writer can bring that lived experience to inform the writing. Meanwhile, self-publishing. So you put the novel on your shelf, and pass it out to friends, and sell some here and there. And get on with the next one.

Yes. That’s right. And I suppose if you’re up for it you can self-promote, build some social media presence, go to book readings, maybe even show up with a box of books at the local bookstores.

And occasionally a self-published book catches on that way and a traditional publisher picks it up.

I’ve heard of that happening. For me, I’m glad that self-publishing is so accessible. Being able to hire an editor and control all the publishing details yourself, that’s not so bad. Better than the old days, I’d say.

Do you have a title for the book you’re working on now?

Not yet. Keane’s Quarry maybe.

We should start a 50 or better writing club. A guild!

We could, for sure. Not a bad idea.