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An Interview with William Rawlings, Jr.

By Joyce Dixon


William Rawlings, Jr. reminds one of Margaret Mitchell's characters. He is a product of tradition, family heritage and loyalty to community like Ashley Wilkes. Yet, he yearns for adventure and is a natural entrepreneur like Rhett Butler. Rawlings has one foot in the past and one in the future.

A sixth-generation resident of Sandersville, Georgia, Rawlings could have been a medical success in a major city, but was drawn back to his small middle Georgia town. He takes time to explore the world and collect its treasures, but he is drawn back to the land of his birth. It is that 'sense of place' that radiates through his first novel The Lazard Legacy


You are a classic Southern Gentleman-- that is, you hold land that has been a part of your family for generations; you work in the professional arena and do research; you support your community in civic organizations and historic preservation; you are independent to pursue your whims; and you are well read. Is it a role you were born to play? 

You are most kind to describe me as such.  In all honesty, I think that my life has evolved as it has more out of chance than design.  During my educational years I thought for the longest time that I’d go into academic medicine.  That would have involved my living in a city somewhere and devoting my time and energy to a single field of pursuit.  I’d applied and been accepted for a Cardiology fellowship at Johns Hopkins.  But something changed—I’m not sure when or where—and I decided to move back home to live and work near my family and friends.  One of the reasons that I’m involved in so many things is that there is a lot to do here.  We have a good community and I enjoy being an active part of it.  Perhaps I was destined to become what I am today; I don’t really know.  Suffice it to say that I’m quite happy with my life and if I had it to all over again, I’d do the same thing with even greater enthusiasm.

What was it about Sandersville, Georgia that made you want to settle in a small town instead of a major city? 

I know this may sound a bit strange, but it’s hard for to me understand why any sentient human being, given the option, would want to live in most major American cities.  Admittedly there are advantages in terms of proximity to educational and cultural centers as well as shopping, major sports arenas and the like.  But to my mind these benefits are more than offset by what I refer to as day-to-day quality of life issues like crime, pollution, traffic and political corruption.  The thought of living cheek on jowl in a mass produced housing development populated by transient neighbors is anathema to me.   

To answer your question more directly, I live in Sandersville because it is my home.  It is where my parents and grandparents for generations before me have lived.  It is where I was born, and no doubt will be where I die.  Here I feel that I am a contributing member of the community.  Here I have a degree of freedom to work, grow, earn and learn that would be impossible in a larger more hierarchal environment.  If I had settled in a city, my life would have been far different, and far less rewarding.   

I live with my wife Beth and my two girls (aged 8 and 10) on a fairly large farm on the edge of town.  If I could sit down and image the sort of place that I’d like to raise a family, I couldn’t create a better one.   Our house is in the country, but the girls go to a great school and are being brought up in what I hope is a wholesome environment.  With that said, we’re certainly not culturally deprived.  Atlanta and Savannah are each two hours away.   From Atlanta, we’re an overnight flight from Europe or South America.  I like to think that my family, like so many others, lives in a small town out of choice, not necessity.  

You used your medical education to research a local ailment - kaolin pneumoconiosis. How is kaolin a part of the Washington County, Georgia history? How did your research help the miners? 

Washington County and nearby areas of east central Georgia are fortunate in having some of the world’s largest and purest deposits of kaolin.  For your readers who may not be familiar with this mineral, it’s the chief component of a type of white clay that was deposited by rivers along the ancient Georgia coastline millions of years ago.  As with objects made from naturally occurring petroleum deposits, we use products daily that contain processed kaolin in one form or another.   Perhaps best known are porcelains (hence the name “China Clay”), but the main use for kaolin is as a filler and whitening agent in paper manufacture.  Publications ranging from USA Today to The National Geographic are printed on paper filled with Georgia kaolin.  It also has numerous other uses in paints, plastics, pigments, medications, cosmetics and so on.  Kaolin mining and processing has been a major economic force in this area for half a century. 

In medical school I was in a dual degree program, graduating simultaneously with my Doctorate and a Master’s Degree in Epidemiology.   During my residency at Johns Hopkins I became interested in chronic lung disease and was quite familiar with coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, the so-called “black lung disease.”  After returning home to practice medicine I began to see case after case of seeming healthy kaolin workers whose chest x-rays displayed a pattern of pneumoconiosis.  Working with a colleague from Hopkins I was able to document that the problem was both widespread and essentially unreported.   Our preliminary work led to a larger industry-wide survey that for the first time demonstrated the characteristics of this illness and subsequently led to significant changes in worker exposure and health monitoring.  Twenty five years ago as many as one in ten workers in a given plant might have pneumoconiosis.   As a result of the change in attitude about the significance of dust exposure, I haven’t seen a new case in years.  I think we actually did some good for a bunch of people.

You are extremely well traveled. Are you an adventure traveler? Do you join programs like Doctors without Borders? Describe a favorite moment while traveling. Describe a moment that changed your life. 

I’d definitely have described myself at one time as an adventure traveler, but a little bit of age plus a wife and two children have kept my wanderlust in check—somewhat—in recent years.  In my thirties I spent a lot of time in the mountains and jungles of South America.  I still manage to get down that way a couple of times a year, but usually for much tamer pursuits.  

I support humanitarian organizations like Doctors Without Borders, but I am quite firmly opposed to sectarian missionary work that delivers aid and assistance with a religious or partisan message.  I don’t believe we should try to impose our culture or religion on others.  

A favorite traveling moment?  There’ve been so many!  They range from sewing up piranha bites in the Amazon jungle to swilling cheap vodka on the top of a rocky crag in the midst of the Mongolian steppes to eating fried rat at a restaurant in rural Bolivia.  Travel for me is like that dog riding in the back of a pickup truck with his face in the wind and his tongue hanging out.  He’s assaulted with sights, sounds and smells of things new, exciting and different.  It’s a big world out there and I regret that in my lifetime I can see only a tiny part of it. 

A moment that changed my life?  That, too, is very difficult to answer.   Once, when I was in my late thirties and things were not going well for me I spent several weeks hiking through jungle in southern Venezuela, climbing up a near-impossible 10,000 foot high mountain just to see what was at the top, and then hiking out again.  It was one of those times in your life when you’ve got to make some tough decisions and know that things will not go smoothly, no matter what.  After that self-imposed ordeal I came back with a new attitude, ready to face anything, and with the moral courage to do what needed to be done. 

Who gave you the love of reading? How are you carrying on this tradition with your children?

I think it was my grandmother who stressed the importance of reading.  She read to me before I was able to read myself, and then encouraged me as I got older.  She had that Victorian mindset that “every good home should have a library” and that I should be well versed in “good” literature.  Perhaps that sounds a bit strange in that my current novel The Lazard Legacy falls more in the popular fiction genre.  But what I write, and what I read for recreation are oftentimes quite different. 

As to passing on my love of reading to my girls, when I built my home several years ago I included a very nice library in the plans.  They have a great selection of literature in front of them ranging from popular fiction to classical works.  I try to encourage them to be curious and reward them for new found knowledge.  I’m just going to make them wait until there’re a shade older to read one of my novels….

Are any of the events in The Lazard Legacy based on fact?

As a fiction writer the proper response to that question would be “Of course not!”  The truth is, much of the plot of The Lazard Legacy is based on or inspired by true events.  They just didn’t happen exactly in the order I said they did, or to the same group of people or at the same time.  Writing a novel is like making a good old fashioned Southern quilt.  You want the end result to be something pleasing to look at, but you’re working with left over scraps of cloth.  So, you take a story here, embellish it a bit, add it to a story there, and so on.  Eventually you’ve sewn together a fine plot that from the reader’s perspective is a seamless story.   

Let me give you an example.  One of the central themes of The Lazard Legacy is that of an older widower who remarries a much younger woman after the death of his first wife.  The older children are very much opposed to the marriage and despise the second wife and her child, their half brother.  Much of what happens in the book is precipitated by that series of events.  In my family, a similar thing happened.  My grandfather was born is 1852(!), married and had several children.   His first wife died and at age 65 he marries his law partner’s sister—my grandmother—who was in her early 30’s.  He died about three and a half years later.  My father was the one child of that marriage.   The children of the first marriage deeply resented the second wife and by extension, her son.  They had been left fairly wealthy while my grandmother, a young widow, was forced to work to raise her child and hold only what little inheritance she’d been left.  So deep was the hatred that my father tells me he didn’t even meet his half sister until after he’d graduated from medical and had come back to Sandersville to practice medicine.  That intrafamilial enmity extended even to me when I started my practice in the late 1970’s, all because of events that had happened more than half a century earlier!  It makes for a good story and only goes to prove that the truth is better than fiction any day.

How is the possession of family land important?

The economy of the traditional South of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was based on agriculture.  Land ownership was not only a means of livelihood, it was also a measure of a man’s success.  People were often born, raised, married, died, and buried on the same farm—even now hundreds of small family cemeteries dot the countryside.  America has changed dramatically, particularly in the last fifty years.  I keep coming across the statistic that the average American family moves every four to five years.  I don’t know how accurate that is, but it’s an undisputed fact that we are a very mobile society.  Very few people live in one geographic location for a long period of time.  The sense of community and continuity that once existed is being lost at an ever increasing rate.  Family history and family traditions have faded away.  To some, it’s as if the generations that came before are simply names scribbled in the family Bible, and all they stood for, worked toward and believed in has been lost with time.  I like looking out of my window in the morning and knowing that the lake in front of my house was built by my father fifty years ago, and that his father before him boiled syrup on that hill across the pasture, and that the bricks that make up the remains of chimneys here on the farm were made right over there were the ruins of the kiln can still be seen.   I guess what I’m saying is that family land is a connection to the past, and if preserved, a link to the future.

Your main character returns to the place of his birth to take over a doctor's practice. What is the future of rural hospitals? What changes should be addressed by the community? 

Ah!  To properly answer that question I would have to possess a crystal ball with the power to see the future.  I do know that in today’s America the entire health care system is in the midst of wrenching change and that the eventual outcome is very uncertain.   Let me back up a bit.  At one time the vast majority of physicians in this country did general practice, delivering cradle to grave care to generations of families.  The seeds of change were sown in the mid-twentieth century with the rise of increasingly specialized areas of practice and urban based “medical centers” that delivered increasingly specialized care.   Throw into that mix layer on layer of complex governmental regulation, price controls through Medicare and managed care, and the ever increasing cost of malpractice and liability insurance in our litigious society.  The net result is that smaller hospitals that deliver quality home town care are being regulated and priced out of the market.   

Take our state of Georgia, for example.  All considered we probably have an adequate number of physicians for our population, but most of them are concentrated in urban areas.  The physician-patient ratio is rural areas is much lower, while the population of these areas is on average older, sicker, and less able to afford medical care.  In some rural areas of our State, health care statistics are as bad as some third world countries.  And things are getting worse.

Both State and Federal governments are quite aware of the problem, and are making real efforts to change the system.  Health care networks and rural-urban partnerships seem to be the most workable solution for the short term.  These are being encouraged and supported.  In the long run, however, we need to encourage more physicians to practice outside of major cities, and we need better ways to offer reasonably priced health care to our rural poor and elderly.  A community’s support, or lack thereof, can make all the difference in attracting, recruiting and retaining physicians in local practice.  The number rural Georgia hospitals that have closed in last decade should be a wake-up call to us all.   

Migrant farm workers are a part of The Lazard Legacy, though the ones in Troup's employee are most likely from the drug cartel and illegal. How is Hispanic labor changing the culture in Middle Georgia? 

One thing that we tend to forget, particularly here in the rural South, is that America is a nation of immigrants.  Look for a moment at population trends in Georgia.  During the decade leading up to the 2000 census the State’s population increased by more than 26%.  We were the fourth fastest growing state in nation, and the fastest growing state east of the Rockies.  But where did that growth take place?  It was in urban areas and corridors that track the interstates.  If one looks at rural Georgia, many counties’ populations peaked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and steadily dwindled with the urban migrations that accompanied the Depression and followed World War II.  The declining population in traditionally agricultural counties has left a shortage of labor, and Hispanic immigrants have stepped in to take these jobs.   

I really don’t know how our culture will be changed in the long run by this new group of settlers.  I am fairly fluent in Spanish and personally I am quite fond of Latin culture.  So much of what we think of as “Southern” has African roots—okra and yams and turnips—not to mention our church spirituals and the way we view life.   I can only hope that with time, the inevitable changes that accompany the varying demographics of our population will only serve to enrich an already proud and diverse heritage. 

What is your next book?  

I thought you’d never ask!  The next book is entitled The Rutherford Cipher, and will be released in September 2004.   Like The Lazard Legacy, it takes place in the fictional town of Walkerville.  The main character is Matthew Rutherford V, who I describe in the plot summary as being “overeducated, under qualified, formerly overpaid and currently unemployed.”  He is a dot-commer living in California who loses his job when the high-tech economy crashes.   He hangs out thinking that someone will snap him up at a lucrative salary until he’s out of money and facing the harsh reality of no job offers.  His options narrowed, he moves back home to Walkerville to consider his future.  He arrives just in time to attend the funeral of his Great Aunt Lillie.  To his surprise, he’s informed that his Aunt has left him and his first cousin her entire estate which is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.  He has scarcely begun to savor this unexpected financial salvation when his cousin is discovered brutally murdered.  Having both motive and opportunity, the police name Matt as the prime suspect.   

Knowing that he didn’t kill his cousin, and seeking to clear his name, Matt begins searching for a motive to explain what seems to him to be a random killing.  His family had always been fairly wealthy, and he’d heard rumors that his Great, Great Grandfather and namesake, Matthew Rutherford (the first) had stolen a huge amount of the gold from the Confederate Treasury in the waning days of the War Between the States.  The murder weapon that dispatched his cousin turns out to be a gold ingot stamped with the Great Seal of the Confederacy.  After much searching Matt discovers a long hidden diary that confirms that his ancestor had in fact stolen the gold to keep it from falling into the hands of the Yankees.  Matt sets out to solve the mystery of where the gold is buried, but soon discovers he’s not the only one after it.  That’s when the fun starts…. 

I think it’s a good plot, and I’m really quite excited about it.  The background is historically accurate, it gives a fresh look at an old legend, and most importantly it could have happened the way I say it did.  I think this next book will do well.

William Rawlings, Jr. at Harbor House Books

The Lazard Legacy
by William Rawlings, Jr.
Harbor House, 2003
Hardcover, 24.95 (308 pages)
ISBN: 1-891799-23-1

     Southern Scribe Review




© 2003, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved