I have always been a writer, from my school days when I was editor of my high school newspaper. In an earlier career, I wrote several non-fiction books for a trade association on construction-related topics along with numerous articles for their newspaper. My writing career hit full swing when I retired from the association in 2004.
I first decided I wanted to write a novel to tell about my experiences in the Vietnam War. But I wanted it to be an entertaining story and not be only about death and horror. I wanted to tell about some of the illusions and delusions of war and some of the humorous and amorous aspects of the conflict.
I decided to call it Cologne No. 10 for Men — “cologne” being something to mask the stench of war, “No. 10” meaning “very bad” in Vietnamese culture, and “for men” because back then the war was conducted by men, most of whom were very young. Writer’s Digest and Kirkus reviewers compared my book to Catch-22, M.A.S.H. and The Things They Carried.
In my October 22, 2014 blog post Fact or Fiction in Vietnam*, I told many of the differences between reality and fantasy in the book. You will find the link to that blog post at the end of my story. The reviewer from the Vietnam Veterans of America, David Willson, said, “There aren’t very many funny Vietnam War infantry books. This is one of them. Read it and be amazed.”
I wrote Well Considered, my second novel, when I became interested in Maryland history, particularly in Prince George’s County. In 1850, half of the residents of the county were enslaved. Most lived on tobacco plantations that surrounded mansions. Jim Crow segregation began with the Plessy-Ferguson Supreme Court decision in 1896 and lasted until the 1960s with segregated schools, drinking fountains, bathrooms, theaters, housing developments, etc.
There were twenty-eight lynching’s in Maryland, and one report said that there were lynching’s near what is now Bowie State University as late as 1907. I was shocked and decided to investigate. I consulted books and archives and the Baltimore Sun newspaper, which carried reports of lynching’s from across the country. I was unable to corroborate the report, although I did find one such case in Annapolis in late 1906. Nevertheless, I decided to write a novel in which the protagonist would do the same research that I did, trying to find out why his great-grandfather was lynched. I wanted to show Maryland history and provide background for discussions of racial justice and reparations. Some say the book is similar to Sycamore Row by John Grisham, which came out years after I wrote Well Considered.
My third novel, Canoedling in Cleveland, was based on my experiences canoeing all the rivers and lakes around Cleveland in 1960 when I was in high school and the water was badly polluted. While pursuing their adventures, my teen characters also become interested in why there were no African-American people living in their town. Cleveland is one of the five most racially segregated cities in the country. White people live on the West Side and Black people live on the East Side. So they started investigating, like Nancy Drew.
They ask adults embarrassing questions (which I did when I was writing editorials for my high school newspaper) and then decide to try to integrate their town. They invite a couple from the East Side to come to their church and have dinner with them, and then the West side neighbors do the same by inviting the East Side to visit. So the book is thematically similar to Huckleberry Finn, with all the canoe trips and efforts to end segregation.
My most recent novel, Masjid Morning is my reaction to the destruction of mosques and the increasing Islamophobia in our country. The theme of the novel would be religious tolerance and the suffering intolerance can cause. I was also curious about the differences between Islam and Christianity, and I started studying both religions. I decided to model the novel on Romeo and Juliet, in which two young people, Atif, an Islamic college student, falls in love with Amy, a young Christian woman.
The couple gets together when Amy asks Atif if he can teach her about Islam. Atif’s father is a Muslim surgeon whose group is building a mosque, and Amy’s is a wealthy dairy farmer, and hero of the Battle of Mogadishu, who hates Muslims and is trying to stop the construction. Another 'character' is the masjid (mosque) itself, which, in the words of one reviewer, “rises from the ground like a living being.” Kirkus Reviews calls it, "A thought-provoking and ultimately moving story that looks at love, human nature, and conservative religion."
In each book, I have tried to make a difference in the world, supporting peace, racial justice, environmental justice, and religious liberty. But in all cases I have tried to engage and entertain my readers.
All the covers of my books are by artist Audrey Engdahl, a graduate of Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. She is also a songwriter, musician and performer who leads children's song circles at a private school and museum. Audrey lives with her husband and children in Hyattsville, Maryland.
This is Week 9 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Richard’s story today. To connect with him and read more about his books, please visit the following links: