When asked about the inspiration for my novel, I answer simply: “I love libraries.” Libraries of all shapes and sizes; new libraries and old libraries; libraries here, there, and everywhere. That said, the vintage, small-town, Midwestern Carnegie libraries hold a special place in my heart, probably because my very first library, in Manhattan, Kansas, was a Carnegie. That library and many others inspired my debut novel, To the Stars Through Difficulties. In fact, the photo on the dedication page is a vintage postcard of that library.
My father insists my first library visit happened before I learned to walk. I can’t attest to the veracity of this statement, but I do remember library trips before I learned to read. Our favorite book was The Peevish Penguin, about a penguin determined to fly. He tries and tries to fly like the seagulls and finally climbs an iceberg, spreads his wings, and floats down. (Not a bad life lesson for a first-time novelist who needs both tenacity and creativity to push a book into the world.) We checked out The Peevish Penguin over and over again, so I don’t suppose anyone else in Manhattan ever got to read it.
Fast forward to the beginning of my career, when I was hired to work with local arts agencies across the state of Kansas. I kept running across more Carnegie libraries, mostly in rural settings, and built sixty or seventy years earlier. These charming buildings often boasted columns shouting their significance, but inside they were downright cozy. I was struck by the sense of importance and sense of intimacy these buildings hold simultaneously, as do the impressive cathedrals of Europe and the world’s great performing arts halls. These buildings also hold another couplet, by providing spaces for us to come together as a community while at the same time allowing us to go inside our own heads to pray or imagine or dream. In libraries, we find inspiration and answers, challenges and solutions. We feel our individuality and our connection to the world’s population.
Back all those years ago, when I started working in Kansas, some of these libraries were being turned into arts centers. Some had outgrown the space, and others thought they couldn’t make accommodations for the new ADA requirements for ramps and other accessibility issues. The creative people with whom I was working saw those abandoned buildings as the gems they are and began planning their reincarnations as arts centers. It happened In Lawrence and Goodland and Dodge City. I learned about the history of these buildings at the same time I was seeing first-hand what went into their renovations. I saw the similarities between the women of the two eras, especially in their determination to make their communities better places in which to live. I started collecting notes, which I kept through seven moves to four states over the next few decades. I never knew what form those notes would take, but I wanted to tell the story of the volunteers.
In the end, I decided to try fiction, my own favorite form for reading. I had no idea how hard it would be or how long it would take, but by then I’d worked with enough artists to believe “nothing worth doing ever should have been attempted in the first place.” During the writing process, I got frustrated and impatient, but never bored with my topic. After all, there was always another library to sleuth, a place to find library minutes in perfect penmanship, to add details to my story. With a lot of help, I crafted a story told in three voices, that of Angelina, a PhD candidate in library science; Traci, an artist-in-residence; and Gayle, a tornado survivor. As they dedicate themselves to saving the Carnegie arts center and building a library/cultural center, they discover love, wisdom, and courage.
To the Stars Through Difficulties was published six months ago. A dream come true! It’s received generous reviews and a couple of gold medals (IPPY for contemporary fiction and Readers’ Favorite for women’s fiction). It’s allowed me to meet dedicated librarians and enthusiastic library lovers, who’ve told me their own stories. (Who knew that an old friend had rescued a plaster of Paris Carnegie bust from his hometown library or another had transformed his library’s oak table into a bathroom vanity?)
It’s been so much fun to continue to visit libraries. There’s the brand new state-of-the art, environmentally sound, Fayetteville library with 88,000 square feet … and plans to expand another 80,000. And the North Minneapolis Sumner Carnegie library which serves as a living room for the mostly Muslim immigrant housing project that abuts its property, just as it served for Jewish immigrants at its inception and as a home to the African American population in between.
It’s hard to choose one highlight among so many highlights of this writing adventure. However, reading at the Lyndon (KS) Carnegie library, said to be the smallest Carnegie library in the country, must be at the top of the list. They hosted me in the children’s room, in the basement with folding chairs, serving homemade goodies and 7-Up sherbet punch. And they made me cry when they told me they loved my book and said, “We think you told our story.”
The more I tour with the book, the more notes I collect. Someday soon I intend to gather them up, stumble up the iceberg, and try to craft some wings for another attempt at flight. Or at least gather enough momentum to slide into a sequel. If the last book was about collecting love, wisdom, and courage, the next will be about enhancing creativity and curiosity. Stay tuned!