When you purchase Peggy Rowe’s new memoir, “About My Mother,” you get two stories for the price of one. The first is the story that’s told inside the book, the true tale of Peggy’s challenging, hilarious and frequently heartwarming relationship with her mother, Thelma Knobel. It’s hard to imagine a mother-daughter pairing more dissimilar: Peggy, the horse-obsessed tomboy, and Thelma, the take-charge sophisticate. Everything changes for both of them, though, when the Boston Orioles arrive in early 1950s and Thelma becomes an unabashed baseball fanatic. Hilarity ensues.
The second story, though, is the extraordinary journey of how this book came to be. Peggy’s been writing for years, but her work first gained a larger audience when her son—television personality and host of “Dirty Jobs” and “Return the Favor” Mike Rowe—began sharing her texts, letters and stories with his 5 million Facebook followers. They loved it! Based on that success, Mike encouraged Peggy to write a book, and the initial self-published printing sold 10,000 copies on eBay.
Since then, the book has been acquired by Forefront Books, done extremely well on Amazon and for a day or two outsold Bob Woodward’s “Fear” on BN.com. Lightworkers recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Mike and Peggy Rowe about the book, the story behind it and their book tour.
So Mike, what initially prompted you to ask your mom to write this book?
Mike: Well, I couldn’t have stopped her if I wanted to. I first urged her to write a book twenty years ago, when she began submitting stories to local publications and getting all this terrific feedback. But like me, I think she hesitated, because she didn’t want to screw up a hobby that she really enjoyed.
But, the world changed. We all got older. Technology came along. Social media changed everything. I started publishing some texts that she would send me, reading some of the stories she had written in the past and publishing those on Facebook. And the response was just overwhelming. People just loved the idea of a guy reading letters to him from his mom. They were sassy, and sweet, and smart, and funny, very much an “Erma Bombeck” type of thing. So one morning, we woke up and there were literally millions of people waiting for my mother’s next missive. Publishers reached out and the next thing you know, we’re sitting here in New York, and we’re on a book tour and she’s number 2 on Amazon. It’s a funny little world.
Peggy, the title of your book is ‘About My Mother.’ When you first began writing, did you set out to write a book about your mother, or did you find as you were writing that all of your stories kept coming back to her?
Peggy: Well, I have written stories about a lot of topics throughout the years, and many of them have been published. But the stories I’d published about my mother received such positive comments, so I decided that people really enjoyed hearing good stories, positive stories about family. So I continued to write stories about my mother—who was, by the way, really great material, an interesting person, a funny person and a person who was very different from me. I decided to put them all in a book, and it seems to be popular, which is great news.
While this is your debut book, you’ve been writing for a long time. So what was your writing process like for this book? Was it similar to your writing before? Was it different?
Peggy: My writing process has really not changed throughout the years. I write every day. I can’t not write. I take notes everywhere I go. I’m always thinking about stories; it’s like I’m trapped in a writer’s mode. And it’s wonderful, I really do enjoy it. But a few months ago, I got on social media, at the suggestion of my son. He said, “Well, you know, if you’re going to write me these texts and these letters, you should be on social media in case your book ever does come out.” And since then, it’s been a daily process of doing my blog.
Mike Rowe. Image courtesy of Icon Media Group, Used By Permission.
Peggy Rowe. Image courtesy of Icon Media Group, Used By Permission.
Mike, tell me a bit about the experience of seeing your mom’s book so successful.
Mike: Well, all the obvious things apply, with one added thing: she’ll be 81 years old next month. We can talk about the book, and the stories in the book are terrific, but I think what is resonating with the country is the idea that it’s never too late. Countless books have been written on how to do the very thing my mom just did. And that is, to sit down and truly give in to the thing you want to do.
If Peggy Rowe can do it, why can’t I?
We just happen to be living in a really odd time, when exposure and notoriety can happen very quickly if in fact you do have something to say. My mom has a lot to say. It’s kind of like Napster: if my Mom was a musician, and making music that people liked, well once upon a time the only way to get that music out was to make a deal with the record label and go through all of that stuff…Well, that’s all over. She can write from her heart and put it in a place where 5 million people see it. So, the publishing world is upside down. Everything’s changed. Most people understand that there’s been a seismic shift, but I don’t think we’ve fully come to grips with the fact that the technology at our disposal allowed an 80-year-old woman to write a bestselling book by accident. That’s amazing.
Do you think your mom’s story will bolster other people to use the technology at their disposal?
Mike: I hope so. More choice is always good. The marketplace gets noisy, for sure. But in the end, whether it’s a Snapchat or an Instagram or a Facebook or a Youtube, whatever it is, content is still king. And authenticity still matters. This is my real mom, and I’m her real son. (laughs) My dog is probably gonna write a book this year, because he’s my real dog. I think people want to understand the story behind the story.
They want to see something that is undeniably unmanufactured, something genuine, authentic, organic and as my mom would say, first and foremost, “relatable.” She’s written a relatable book about the most important person in her life to whom she was related.
Peggy, how has writing the book changed the way you think or re-inforced your thoughts about your mother?
Peggy: I’ve discovered that during the writing process you learn a lot. It opens your eyes, and you see things you didn’t see before. I have gained a greater appreciation for my mother since doing this book. As you’re living it, that’s just it: you’re living it. But you’re not really processing it because you’re so busy concentrating on what’s happening, but in retrospect, your eyes are opened. This has been an invaluable process for me.
Do you see any similarities between you and your mother that you didn’t notice before?
Peggy: Yes, oh my goodness! I see my mother in myself from the minute I get up and look at myself in the bathroom mirror. And I can’t tell you how many times my husband will call me Thelma, because I’m re-enacting my mother’s behaviors. When we go out for a walk or elsewhere and I say, “Wait a minute, I have to go back and comb my hair and put some lipstick on,” he’ll say, “Alright, Thelma, but don’t be too long.” Or when I’m watching an Orioles game and I lose control and jump up and down and scream, he’ll say, “Alright, Thelma, settle down now.” So, yes, I see my mother in myself.
What do you take away from the book, Mike, and what do you hope others take away?
Mike: Biggest thing for me is, like we said, it’s not too late. What is the thing you’ve always said you wanted to try, and what are the reasons you haven’t? To have a book like this on the shelves, written in her eighty-first year, to me, proves definitively, you can do it. You should try it. Put pen to paper and see what happens. We’re just living at a remarkable time and if you think you have something to share, share it. It’s all possible today in a way it simply wasn’t before. Social media gets a bad rap, partly because it deserves it, partly because it brings out the worst in people, and that’s too bad. You can use social media in whatever way you want. We’ve chosen to use it as a way to highlight the things we think are important, and good, and universal, and relevant. That’s what I hope people take from the book. If Peggy Rowe can do it, why can’t I?
Tell me a little bit about what a mother-son book tour is like. Will there be a book about that? Because I’d read that in a heartbeat.
Mike: If there were a camera crew following us around, shooting some version of some reality show called “Mike and Peggy Take a Book Tour,” it would have many millions of fans and viewers. Trust me, to see my mother and 86-year-old father get in and out of an SUV and walking into a recording studio or TV studio, sit down, answer questions beamed over a satellite, try to figure out the technology of monitors and time delays, wander past a Barnes and Noble and go inside and see your book, right there at the front and nearly faint as a result, to watch your father go up to a customer in Barnes and Noble with a copy of your mom’s book in his hand, open it up and start reading it and telling her, “You should buy this book,” and then to see that woman actually buy your mother’s book because your father just gave her the hard sell in a Barnes and Noble, on 5th Avenue, in Manhattan— that’s content. I don’t know why we didn’t bring a camera, because we’d literally be chronicling one of the weirdest versions of “The Kardashians” you’ve ever seen.
Peggy: It’s all true.
Last question. Are you working on anything new, Peggy? Can we expect a new book?
Peggy: You know, I’m almost there with my next book. Because I’ve been writing through the years, I do have a lot of material, and apparently, there’s a great hunger for more news about my immediate family: my sons and my husband. So, yes, there is another book in the offing. It’s not quite ready. We want to get this one launched first. And this has been a wonderful opportunity to see my oldest son at work. And I am so moved by the fact that he has given me so much time, and given my book so much time and effort.