Karen Zacharias Q & A
Just ahead of her visit to Thomasville this weekend, Mercer University Press author Karen Zacharias answered questions about things like her literary influences and early life.
During your childhood, did you ever think you’d grow up to be an author?
No. I never gave a moment's thought to being an author as a child. My childhood was wrought with chaos as a result of my father's death in Vietnam. Books and the bookmobile, specifically, gave me an escape from that chaos.
How did you decide on the location of Mother of Rain, Burdy, and Christian Bend?
The summer my father died - 1966 - I spent a good bit of time in the real community of Christian Bend, TN (so named because most of the folks who lived there had the last name, Christian). Each of these novels deals with the problem of alienation and how community can be the answer for such problems, so I never gave a moment's thought to setting the books anywhere other than in the community that had given me healing when I needed it most.
Many of you books shed a light on important social issues, such as class disparities between the rich and the poor, what was the logic behind that choice?
I think that my life experiences as a Gold Star daughter raised up by a single mom who struggled with addictions, and my career as a journalist informs my work. The silence I endured growing up the daughter of a soldier KIA in Vietnam made me empathetic to the marginalized. Society did not acknowledge the families of the fallen during the Vietnam war, and if they did, it was usually to tell me that my father had died in vain. This was usually said with disdain for my father and the other soldiers. I tried watching Ken Burn's compelling documentary this week but could only stomach a few minutes of it. I remember too much of that national turmoil. I grew up in Columbus during the My Lai trials. I knew who Lt. Calley was and what he had done. When I became a journalist (at age 40) I finally broke through the silence thrust upon me as a child. Writing gave me a way to organize that chaos. It also made me realize the responsibility and honor of being a voice for the marginalized.
What made you make the jump from journalist to author?
My years of writing non-fiction taught me that there are stories that are better told in fiction. Develop characters that readers really care about and create communities that they feel at home in and they will stay with you even in the most tragic of circumstances.
Which of your characters do you identify with the most?
Great question! Honestly, think there is a little of me in every character. I identify with Maizee because of the confusion she endured as a child. I identify with Burdy because I'm a bit of a romantic and love a wild adventure. I identify with Zeb because I've known a lot of veterans and have heard their stories first-hand. I identify with Rain because I understand the search for truth and the need for reconciliation.
All throughout your blog you mention authors who you admire for one reason or another. Who are your top three literary influences?
Pat Conroy is at the top of my list. Pat reached out to me when I was a new author and offered his assistance. He had the biggest heart in the business. Of course, I had long been a fan of Pat's, having read most everything he'd written. I even read My Losing Season, even though as a basketball coach's wife I had my fill of the sport. Pat made me care as a reader, as a writer, and as a human. I hope my work always makes Pat proud.
Flannery O'Connor would be my second biggest influence. As a young girl who grew up within a stone's throw of O'Connor, I appreciate the struggle O'Connor endured as a woman and as a writer in the Christ-Haunted South. I find myself trying to work out a life of faith while resisting the misogyny and anti-intellectualism perpetuated by those who practice the Religion of Cetainosity (people who would rather be right than redeemed). I have a shirt that I meant to bring with me on book tour but I forgot. The inscription on that t-shirt says "I love Jesus but I cuss a little." That about sums up the struggle I face daily. How do I live out my life in a way that brings honor to God, yet is void of all duplicity? How do I write about the grotesque while retaining the beauty that reflects the true character of God?
I hate to give a third literary influence because it requires throwing people out of the boat. There have been so many who have mentored me along the path or those from whose writings I have gleaned so much: Lee Smith, Eudora Welty, Mary Alice Monroe, Patti Callahan Henry, Anne River Siddons, Jeannette Walls, Michael Morris, Wiley Cash, Ron Rash, Barry Hannah, Ralph Eubanks, Rick Bragg, Jon Krakauer, C. S. Lewis. The list just goes on and on. I am loathe to name just one more influence but I suppose it is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who continues to inspire me to think beyond the single story. Adichie warns that there is a danger in the single story we tell. She challenges us all to think beyond whatever misconceptions or beliefs we might have about others. Writers of fiction and nonfiction alike have an obligation to push readers to think beyond stereotypes, to consider that all of us are far more complex than whatever single narrative has been perpetuated. Adichie urges us to question that narrative and to tell new stories more honestly.
Special thanks to Karen Zacharias for taking the time to answer our questions. She will at The Bookshelf on Sunday signing copies of her books and we hope to see you there!
Until next time, this is me signing off.