A humbling conversation with writer Bob Rich

Being chairman of the multinational food company, Rich Products Corporation, that does business in 120 countries and being chairman of the board of the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio are but a few of the many successes Bob Rich has accomplished in his life. Even with his undoubtedly busy schedule, he has written five books. Four of them are non-fiction; however, the fifth, most recent novel was his first attempt at fiction. “This was the first chance I had to write a novel and that, to me, was the ultimate challenge. I always wanted to write a novel,” Rich said. “I think that in writing non-fiction, I always felt like a reporter: that I was telling something that happened. But in using the form of a novel, I really felt that I could start with a clean sheet of paper and I could control the characters. I could develop my own characters and put them in situations and control their destiny and I thought that was a very exciting process.”

Developing his own characters was a challenge, but another challenge Rich discovered was that writing a fiction story was time consuming. “Most of my previous books [took] about a year and a half to two years [to write], but Looking Through Water became a project that I worked on over quite a long period of time, maybe seven years. Not continuous work, but just going back and forth and refining it and fine tuning it,” Rich said. One of the things that really took an extra amount of time for Rich was developing a timeline of the story since he used the device of flashback. “For me, it became very precise work to try to create flashback where the reader wouldn’t have to wrestle with going back and forth and wondering who the characters were.”

Rich admitted that one of the biggest problems with writing a novel is getting started, but a bigger problem is to be able to choose a subject that one is going to stay interested in for the long run. He feels it is important to pick a subject that a writer really feels strongly about and to develop characters that a writer also feels strongly about. What is fascinating is that while writing his book, the characters Rich developed talked to him and helped him better develop and write his story. “When you define in your mind who the characters are and when you profile them for your readers, you’ll often find that, if you’re like me, that the characters will come back and talk to you,” Rich said.

“For example, you may have defined your hero or a villain and you’ll take them down a certain road and you’ll have them behaving a certain way and then, all of a sudden, sometimes when you least expect it, a character might come to you and it might happen in the middle of the night and the character will say, ‘Hey, that’s not the way it happened. That’s not the way I would’ve behaved. That’s not how I would’ve acted. You’re not doing me justice.’ So, believe it or not, the characters will talk to you and help you create them the way that they really think they should be perceived,” Rich said. “It opens your mind and it is part of the process and, if you love reading, wait till you get into high gear as a writer because these are the kind of things that come up out of nowhere and they really are part of the trade and they make it a lot of fun.”

His characters may have helped him write his story, but where did the idea for Looking Through Water come from? For his first work of fiction, Rich believed he followed writing what he knew best: fishing and running a major private family owned business. “So, I know fishing and I know families and I think it became natural to combine the two passions in my first novel,” Rich said. “I never set out to write this as an autobiography and it’s not. I never set out to write it as a fishing book, but rather I wanted to use the outdoors, to use the water world, to use fishing as more of a backdrop that allowed me to put my characters into situations where they would have to rely on each other to get out of the situations. That gave me a great chance to set up a conflict and then have a medium for conflict resolution.”

Even Rich’s title came from the familiar sport of fishing. He described that when one rows out in a boat, whether one is alone or with others, it becomes a wonderful chance to be removed from their regular world and to become dependent on one another for dialog and conflict resolution. He also described that a standing joke amongst fishermen, especially on days when there is not much activity in the water, fishermen say that they spend a long time looking through water. “When you’re in water, whether it’s shallow or deep, you can actually look through the water. You can train yourself to just not see the surface of the water, but you can look down through the depths of water just like life. Instead of just looking at the surface of life, if you look deeply and drill down, you can really understand new meanings and a more profound meaning of life itself.”

A modern story that Rich always enjoyed that also helped to inspire his storytelling was Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. It contained a multigenerational family of Scottish Presbyterians and featured the family’s life together as seen on a trout river in Montana. It was not necessarily a fishing story, but Rich said it used the water as a backdrop for dealing with family relationships. “For me, Looking Through Water became somewhat of a modern adaptation of that theme and you’ll notice in the book that I featured a family whose roots were in Scotland,” Rich said. “Looking Through Water is like A River Runs Through It with a dash of salt.”

With Looking Through Water only having been out for a few months, many wonderful things are happening for Rich because of it. He was contacted by Audible Books to travel to New York to narrate his own story for an audio book, he has a script ready for a possible movie and is in the process of speaking with people in Hollywood about producing one, and his story has been nominated for several book awards. And yet, even with everything wonderful that is currently happening, there is one thing Rich is very proud of: a starburst that can be found on the cover of Looking Through Water that mentions the proceeds of the book’s sales are going to America’s Veterans.

“I have been very fortunate because I have a good day job, so I haven’t had to depend on my writing for a living and for each one of my books, I’ve chosen a worthwhile organization that I felt would benefit from the proceeds and I’ve been able to give the proceeds of each of my books to an organization. In the case of Looking Through Water, I found a group called ‘Project Healing Waters’ and I have been able to contribute all of my proceeds to them,” Rich said. “They’re a group of people from around the country who have made a soft landing for our Veterans returning from war in Afghanistan or Iraq and have been able to embrace our Veterans and take them out in the outdoors and teach them a new sport. In this case, fly fishing.”

“It’s unnatural for me to work with them because a lot of us, when we talk about the water and talk about fishing, we understand that water has a lot of healing properties. Going back in early Christian times to baptism and the healing water of healing wounds and helping people and to the psychological value of being on the water as a getaway and to be able to find a group like ‘Project Healing Waters’ who share the same beliefs as I do and they’re institutionalized in those beliefs to help our Veterans makes this a very exciting project for me. Especially now with Memorial Day coming up, this is a great way to pay honor to our Veterans with a book that’s out in time for the Veterans to benefit from the project itself,” Rich said.

Giving Looking Through Water as a gift to a Veteran is a wonderful way to pay homage to those who have put their lives on the line to protect America. Veterans and even just fans of Rich’s story will even have the chance to speak with Rich about his story for he will be in Cincinnati, Ohio the Friday before this year’s Memorial Day. “I am extremely excited about coming to Cincinnati!” Rich said. “My wife is from Cincinnati and I am coming to Cincinnati on Friday, May 27 and I will be at Joseph-Beth Booksellers on Madison Road from 7 pm to 8:30 pm.” The organizers of the event have told him that many Veterans have planned to come out and he is very excited to hear their stories and to share his own story with them.

One amazing story Rich had to share caught him completely by surprise while visiting a church in West Virginia. “I went to a church in West Virginia and I was sitting in the back of the church about a month ago and the minister was doing a sermon and he reached down and he pulled up a book. I looked up and I said, ‘That’s Looking Through Water. That’s my book.’ He was using the book as a teaching aid to talk about opening your heart to find love. His message was, ‘Until you really open your heart, until you drop hatred or anger or rage, until you do that, you will never open your heart to find true love.’ I listened to that and I thought, ‘Wow, that was my book.’ That was a transformational moment for me and that was really exciting,” Rich said.

Another exciting story Rich had to share was that he has had the good fortune to have been with eight out of nine of his grandchildren when they caught their first fish. The only reason the ninth has not caught one yet is because she is only four months old. And all of his grandchildren, minus his youngest granddaughter, have read their grandfather’s story and they all believe they are in the story. The book can be profound, especially for young readers, and his publisher had recommended the age group for readers to be twelve years and older. “Having said that, one of my granddaughters who is ten, unbeknownst to me, took the book from her parent’s library and read the book and did a book review on it for school. At first, I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, she’s kind of young,’ but she got an A+ on the book review and her teacher loved the book and she got to talk about the book in front of her class. For a grandfather, or for anybody, that was a very special time for me,” Rich said.

There will be many different readers who pick up Rich’s book and many different readers already have. He originally had fathers in mind while writing and, similar to his hopes for Memorial Day, he hopes Looking Through Water will make a wonderful gift for Father’s Day this year. However, one of the unintended audiences Rich realized picked up his book was women readers. These women shared the book with their families and they bought copies for their husbands, sons, and brothers and insisted they read it. It has changed the dialog in their families and the men are opening up in ways the family never believed. Rich did not believe his book could have that sort of an impact on people and that was very humbling for him to discover.

Upon completing Looking Through Water, Rich hopes readers will take away many things. “I want this to be a different experience. I want them even to enter into the pages with an air of expectation, but not really knowing what to expect. I want them to be caught up in it, I want them to laugh and I want them to cry because that is what life is about: NO ONE gets a hall pass,” Rich said. “I want them to get a new understanding of familial relationships. I want them to understand that there is no perfect family, that families are generic and that they can challenge and that many times living in a family can be an emotional roller coaster, but at the end of the day, families are all we have. So, I want them to understand that there’s a great opportunity, no matter where they are at with their relationships right now that wounds can heal and people can move forward and find resurrection and they can find happiness and love. And I’m hoping that my book will spark some of those feelings among the readers.”

“When I was in college, I was bulletproof. I was going to live forever and that’s the way it was. I never thought of any other alternative to that. I think as you get older, you have a growing sense of your own mortality and all of us would like to live forever and all of us would like immortality and all of us would like to be remembered by someone for who we are or what we thought or believed,” Rich said. “One of my thoughts in the book was that this book does not offer up immortality, but I think it was a challenge and an opportunity for the hero of the book to gain that fleeting moment of immortality with one child because all of us who fish, you will always remember who you caught your first fish with. You will always remember where and when and what and who you were with. For a grandparent, the opportunity to take a grandchild fishing is an opportunity for at least that one day of immortality when you will live in that child’s memory for taking them to a special place and teaching them a special thing that provides.”

Rich is a very successful man and continue to do incredible things to this day. Along with aiding the businesses he works for, he is also currently working on several projects when it comes to his writing. He plans to write some short stories, magazine articles, and a cookbook. He plans to promote Looking Through Water through Father’s Day, traveling to many different places to promote his novel. “But it has been so rewarding because people have been enjoying this and coming out to a place like Joseph-Beth in Cincinnati gives you a great couple of hours to just talk to people and not only talk about the book, but just to meet people and share ideas and the stories I’ve heard,” Rich said. “That’s how you get your ideas for future things because when you meet people who have enjoyed your book and want to come out and say hello, you hear their stories as well as them hearing yours and it gives you a lot of great ideas for some of the creative works that you want to do going forward.”


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