- Published: 25 July 2008 25 July 2008
Florida novelist Janis Owens sits down for a sisterly chat with award-winning memoirist and essayist, Karen Spears Zacharias, author of a provocative new book of essays just out from Zondervan, WHERE'S YOUR JESUS NOW? Janis and Karen both claim to be Christians, although, there are those who raise an eyebrow at the very idea that these two could squeeze between the gates of heaven. Pull up a chair and decide for yourself.
Q: Karen, Karen, Karen: you are a study in contradiction. You are a southern-born journalist who lives in the Pacific Northwest, who writes southern novels in your spare time. Before I get to your latest book, let me briefly address your schizophrenia: Do you find it difficult, starting out as a journalist and then writing novels? Any blurred lines, or difficulty jumping back and forth between the two forms? Which is easier - and if it is journalism, why and oh why torture yourself trying to write fiction?
A: Barry Hannah said it's the juxtapositions of our lives as southerners that make us such good storytellers. The black, the white. The rich, the poor. The journalist, the fiction writer, I reckon.
But to be clear, I have only written one novel, and it has yet to see print, so I'm not sure that qualifies me to answer your questions. But, then, ignorance has never been a deterrent for me. It may be the very thing that compels me.
Asking me which is more difficult -- writing fiction, or doing the journalist thing -- is like asking me which child was harder to raise -- my son, or my three girls. Each gender presented its own set of challenges and joys. I enjoyed both experiences but for different reasons.
Q: You're southern by birth and rearing, but have lived much of your adult life in Oregon. Does the South seem more or less familiar to you when you return? What do you like most about your trips home, and what do you detest? Do you find that being a southerner stays with you, where ever you live? Do you suffer discrimination because of your accent and affection for butterbeans?
A: Good news is I’m baaaccckkk in the south now. In August, I’ll begin a job as editorial writer for the Fayetteville Observer in Fayetteville, N.C.
I went to Oregon as an 18-year old girl, never intending to stay there. I only went because my mama up and moved off, leaving me by my lonesome in Georgia. She was my sole-living parent and I missed her.
I didn’t realize when I married an Oregon man four years later that I might as well have taken a hammer and nailed my foot to the buckboard of wagon. We raised our four children in a home that literally sat on what once was part of the Oregon Trail.
I consider myself a displaced southern girl. I like sweet tea, squash casserole, collards, and mustard-based barbecue. I love lightening bugs, warm nights, and seeing everybody dressed up on Sundays.
The only thing that I really detest is the undercurrent of racism that continues to be tolerated by people who know better. The crude joke. The off-hand comment. And the suggestion that I simply don't, or can't, understand.
I detest that as much as I do the suggestion from the folks out West that I must be ignorant because I love Jesus, or I talk funny.
And, yes, I have suffered discrimination because of my southern ways, so maybe that's why I'm sensitive, maybe overly sensitive, to the plight of other groups of people who suffer such ill-conceived slights.
Q: You have more opinions per page than most writers, which is unusual in that you are a Southern born woman of my own generation. Were you born without that southern-female-pleaser gene, or have you been in therapy so long that it has erased your early teaching?
A: I spent six years in therapy but only three of it took. The first three years I was just saying whatever my therapist wanted to hear.
Trust me. I have the female-pleaser gene in the worst way. It's even complicated by my middle-child pleaser nature. It's just that like my anorexia, I seem to have successfully overcome that particular neurosis.
Seriously, though, southern women are by their very nature opinionated. I was in the ladies bathroom at the athletic club the other day, cleaning sleep from the corners of my eyes and this lady I've never met walked by and said, "Honey, you need to splash your eyes with cold water."
"I do?" I asked.
"Yes,” she said. “I get that stuff all the time in my eyes. Cold water will do the trick."
Southern women give their unsolicited opinions on everything. From the best mayo to use in Deviled Eggs -- Best Foods, of course -- to the best way to treat an ant bite -- Dab it with vinegar.
Q: The subtitle of WHERE'S YOUR JESUS NOW is: How Fear Erodes Our Faith. Just curious: in post 9/11 America, and especially this year of tornados, floods and war, do you find yourself personally battling more fear? How do you over come it? (and quoting scripture can't be the only answer. You must elaborate.)
A: I am so paranoid, I sent my shadow away when I noticed it kept following me around.
I'm the mother of four grown kids. Kids who can have sex, unprotected. Kids old enough to drink. And drive. Kids old enough to pick out a mate, without my help or my approval. Kids who sometimes choose not to go to church, even on the Sabbath.
Hell yeah, I'm scared. But I don't let my fears fence me, or my children, in, anymore. When I feel the fear rising, the way I do about 40 times an hour, I pause to pray. I pray things like, "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief." Or, I pray "For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of love, power and of sound mind."
Q: You write of the demonization of Muslims in popular fiction. Do you object to this bias based on your Christian beliefs, or because you've lived in Oregon so long that you've become a closet liberal? We're all friends here. Pray be frank.
A: I’m not a closet anything. I wear my feelings like an 18-hour bra, straight-out. The bible is very clear that there is great power in the word. We ought to be more careful about the words we use and the labels we attach to people. Playing to people’s fears might be a great marketing tool, but sooner or later there’s going to be hell to pay for such carelessness and encouraging such biases.
Q: As a follow-up question: do you get tired of narrow minded interviewers forever trying to pigeon-hole you with labels?
A: Is that a trick question?
Q: Speaking of labels: you take a well-reasoned anti-war and pro-gay stance in the book, which separates you from mainstream American fundamentalism. Do you fear the televangelists are going to call you out? Do you get uninvited to church suppers? And by-the-way: how the hell did you get a book contract with a Christian publisher?
A: Mmm, I’m prickling at those labels. If being pro-gay means that I love people no matter what their sexual orientation, then yep, I’m guilty of that. And if anti-war means that I don’t want to see our military families exploited for political or even financial gain, then yes, I’m guilty of that as well.
Zondervan sought me out after Scot McKnight author of Jesus Creed introduced us. That they weren’t afraid of a woman with a messy life and rough edges is a testament to their commitment to living life honestly.
As far as the televangelists calling me out, I think the beauty of Truth is that it needs no defenders. It can stand alone. It is not made truer by the number of people who believe it or those who don’t. And I’m in no way suggesting I am the only one who knows the Truth. I’m just relating some of the lessons I learned while seeking Truth.
Q: OK, enough with my labels. Let's move to an easier, less controversial subject. I think it is safe to say that most Americans are tired of the war in Iraq. What's your plan for getting us out? In twenty words or less.
A: Pull them out the same way we put them there – one-by-one, right now. Because if Vietnam didn’t teach us anything else, surely it ought to have taught us that when freedom is forced upon a people, it is not truly freedom, is it?
Q: If you had one piece of sterling advice for the American church and the American people, what would it be?
A: Love one another as Christ has loved us.