Map of Kansas Literature [graphic] dot Return to MANHATTAN
[graphic] dot Return to KANSAS MAP
Romalyn Tilghman Kansas map; Manhattan
Romalyn Tilghman Photo

Romalyn Tilghman



Romalyn Tilghman grew up in Manhattan, KS, from the time she was two until she graduated from the Manhattan High School. She received her BA in 20th Century Humanities and her MS in Journalism from the University of Kansas.

Straight out of graduate school, Romalyn was hired as Executive Director of the Association of Community Arts Councils of Kansas and was lucky enough to work with rural arts councils throughout the state. 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 Romalyn’s first novel, which won the Independent Publishers (IPPY) Book gold medal award for contemporary fiction. It was inspired by the 59 Carnegie libraries built in Kansas in the early 20th century and has been described as “a love letter to libraries.”

---Bio submitted by author

Return to Top of Page

Bibliography ( - housed in Thomas Fox Averill Kansas Studies Collection)  


Return to Top of Page

Writing Sample  

No mountains in the way. That's what my father used to say. Nothing between you and the horizon. Which spans forever. It's frightening to some people, afraid they'll fall off the edge of the earth. Kansans believe it takes a sophisticated traveler to appreciate its beauty.

The empy skyline matches the blank spiral notebook digging into my back hip. Speeding along I-70, there is nothing, and everything, ahead. One hundred days to finish my dissertation so I can submit it before the last extension on my last deadline. The time is now, or never. My advisor has been absolutely clear on that point. I can pull it all together, or ... or what? Not much future for a penniless dropout in a dismal economy.

Time to get to New Hope. And fast. No more diversions. No more distractions. Time to stand on the steps that inspired me to write about the libraries Andrew Carnegie built. If the library in the next town over was destroyed, what about my library? The library that changed my life by giving me the love of books. Time to soak in its history and salute its glory, while it's still standing, although as an arts center.

It wasn't easy to make arrangements; I had my moments of absolute terror. If I hadn't just devoured Eat, Pray, Love, I might not have summoned my courage. I couldn't sleep an entire week as I contemplated what it would mean to walk out of my mother's Philadelphia house, alone, to take the steps I should've taken a decade ago. What it would mean to let go of a routine, in which I knew every single thing that needed to be done and when and why and how. I couldn't breathe a word of my fear so pretended I was nine years old, brave, and ready to set out. Defiance guided my steps, and my will to achieve a dream pulled me forward.

---from To the Stars Through Difficulties, pp. 3-4

Return to Top of Page
Review Quotes  

“…this warmhearted first novel celebrates the value of community (and libraries!); the inspirational story of women past and present is a must-buy for Kansas libraries and recommended for general adult readers.” ---Library Journal

 "... this charming debut will appeal to women’s-fiction fans of gentle reads."---Booklist

I had a lot of love for this book and its multi-layered message about how women have made, can make, and will make history happen even in the most dire of situations. About how the arts are not a lost cause and neither are people. That creativity brings light and hope, no matter where it is found or how little there is to work with. And how you can find yourself by looking at the people around you. Sometimes, they help you see the things you can’t see in yourself.”---Sweatpants & Coffee

‘Romalyn Tilghman’s debut novel should come with a warning label for readers: Put on comfy pants, folks; you may be here awhile. It’s easy to start flipping through the first few chapters with no intention of devouring it only to find yourself looking up, disoriented, the sun coming up on a new day . . . . a promising debut . . . . The erstwhile prairie woman proves her mettle weaving together the lives of disparate characters maintaining readers’ attention to the very last page, whether they hail from Kansas or simply wind up wishing they did.”---The KU Alumni Magazine

“…an uplifting story about the strength of collectivity, especially the collective power of women.”---Centered on Books

Return to Top of Page

Author Interview

1. How did you learn about the Carnegie libraries? What made you want to write about them?

My very first library, in Manhattan, KS, was a Carnegie library. I started going when I was five or younger. I loved that place! Its atrium, its desk with a drawbridge, the children's room, the stacks, the big oak tables for grownups to read newspapers, the little cards you signed to check out a book. To say nothing of all the stories!

That said, my memory isn't so good. A few years into writing this book, I asked my brother if he thought they'd change the name of our elementary school, as part of the movement to take Robert E. Lee's name off buildings. He informed me OUR school was named after Mary Cornelia Lee, the first librarian of that Carnegie library in Manhattan, who served from 1904-1942. In other words, even as a kindergartener, I must've known of her importance to the Carnegie library movement.

Straight out of graduate school, I was hired as executive director of the Association of Community Arts Councils of Kansas and spent much time traveling the state. Several communities were converting their Carnegie libraries into arts centers, and I was intrigued by both their history and their current use. The more I read, the more I was struck by similarities in the efforts taken to bring cultural amenities to very small, very remote, very rural communities, then and now. I've been carrying notes around for over 30 years.

2. At one time, there were 1500 Carnegie libraries. Do any of the libraries still exist as libraries? If not, what has become of them?

Wikipedia has a complete list of Carnegie libraries and it's been great fun to check them out as I travel. Friends have found themselves doing the same! Recently, I had a wonderful tour of the Carnegie library in North Minneapolis, which first served a population of Jewish immigrants and had books in some forty languages; then served mostly African Americans; and now is of great importance to the Muslim community.

3. Is it a fact that women have not been given credit for bringing the Carnegie libraries into existence or was that something you fictionalized? If it’s true, why do you think their stories and voices were not recognized?

Are women ever given the credit they're due?! As I worked with volunteers in Kansas, I realized how integral these women were to their communities. I can't help but believe the same was true when the libraries were built. Most of what's been published about the Carnegie libraries has been written about Andrew Carnegie, although if you look at the local histories, women predominate.

4. Do you think libraries play as important a role in rural communities as they did when Carnegie founded his libraries?

Absolutely! Step inside one and you'll see the importance. As I did research in Kansas, I saw people doing genealogy research, checking out piles of mysteries to read by a loved one's sickbed, grappling with homework. Computers are always in use. I have yet to find an empty library.

5. You clearly love books. Where did your love for books come from?

I have loved books since I can remember. They've been my most constant companions, through periods of despair and celebration. My parents read to me before I learned words, then I started reading to my brothers. I've read through a hurricane, on beaches, in planes, trains, and automobiles. I wouldn't think of leaving on a trip without too much to read and too much to knit.

6. Why did you decide to write from the perspectives of three main characters?
I started with Angelina, the library researcher, but I wanted to weave in arts centers so added Traci, as artist-in-residence. Gayle was the third to join the party. Since this book was several years in the making, I attended many workshops and lectures on writing, and the Wizard of Oz
was often brought up as a perfect plot. As a Kansan who can be defensive about Wizard of Oz stereotypes, I resisted the urge to capitalize on the story. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized our need to understand our own hearts, brains, and courage is universal.
7. You have been involved in arts and communications work your whole career. How hard is it for any community to fund and then maintain an arts institution nowadays? Is it any easier? Is it harder for rural communities or poor urban ones? Have you seen arts programs transform communities in the way your novel describes?

I started in the nonprofit arts field in its heyday, when the National Endowment for the Arts was encouraging (and funding) creative endeavors throughout the country. We developed quite a reputation for the work done in rural Kansas. Very small grants encouraged private support, and the smallest of towns were hosting art exhibits and performances as well as creating opportunities for community members to participate in making art themselves. That has become significantly harder in the last decade, as funding has decreased, especially in Kansas, where there is no longer a state arts agency. Arts have definitely transformed communities in the way I describe in the novel.

It's hard for both rural communities and poor urban ones to support the arts, perhaps in different ways, but equally as hard. The one thing they have in common is it's usually one person or a very few who start a process that makes magic happen.

8. Do you knit? Quilt?
I knit and I have quilted. One of the most important encounters of my life happened in the knitting section of a bookstore when a woman suggested I join the knitting group sitting around a table a few shelves over. As an introvert, I've never been much of a joiner, but this group of women sustained me through the writing of this novel. They are amazing in their creativity, diversity, and spirit. We tell each other stories, lift each other up, chip in on a good cause now and then, and have been known to adventure as far afield as Iceland.

9. Have you lived through a tornado?

I have not lived through a tornado. Thank goodness! I am terrified of tornadoes and always have been. Anyone who has been with me in tornado weather remembers my hysteria. As a child, my recurring nightmares were of tornadoes coming towards me.
As research for my novel, I spent a couple of days in Greensburg, the small town in Kansas that was decimated by a tornado in 2007. I immersed myself in first-hand accounts, and many of those experiences are reflected in my novel. It is one of the most amazing places I've ever visited. The community imagined a totally new, green, 21st century town and then built it.

10. Can you explain the title of your novel?

Ad Astra Per Aspera is the Kansas motto, translated into “To the Stars Through Difficulties.”

11. What do you hope readers take from your novel?

A greater appreciation of the history of the Carnegie libraries and a sense of the power of a small group of people to change their communities.

Return to Top of Page


Romalyn's Website

Fourth & Sycamore article

Centered on Books Review

Ivory Owl Reviews

Books By Women

Book Perfume


Return to Top of Page