Editor’s Note: The following is an interview conducted by Shepherd University staff as part of the Appalachian Writers in Residence award. You can learn more about this program at shepherd.educ
I am honored to have been selected Shepherd U’s AHWIR for 2018. I will visiting Shepherd U in West Virginia for a series of upcoming events in late September. You can access the schedule here.
Those interested in teaching resources for my work can find a host of teaching materials here.
Interview with Karen Spears Zacharias
By Caitlyn Sheets and Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt, August 1, 2018
C&S: The trauma of the death of your father was obviously a defining part of your life. Today, we honor “gold star” children with such profound respect. Why do you think the country has changed in the forty years since the Vietnam War, regarding how it honors the sacrifice of soldiers and their families? Would a different attitude from the community have made a difference or made it any easier dealing with your own father’s death in 1966?
KSZ: This topic conflicts me. I am not so sure the nation honors Gold Star families. I often meet people who have no idea what it means to be a Gold Star family member. Recently, we have witnessed national leaders disparaging Gold Star family members to the cheers of thousands. Many of them veterans themselves. I do think, however, that most Americans like the mythology of war. Seeing that folded flag over a casket invokes the memory of something meaningful deep within us. The fallen infuse us with a fierce patriotism like few other things do. But most Americans do not want to be reminded of the true cost of war, the human sacrifices made daily.
Can I share with you a story? My friend Destre was 5 when his father was killed in Iraq. His mama was pregnant with his brother at the time. When Destre went to first-grade, I asked him if he told the other kids his father was killed in Iraq.
“No,” Destre said.
“Why don’t you tell them?” I asked.
“Because the kids at school think it’s cool if your dad dies in war. But I know it’s not cool. It hurts,” he said.
What I didn’t tell Destre, but I am sure he is learning, is that it will hurt for the rest of his life. And that is true for every child who has ever lost a parent, no matter how they’ve lost them—through war, or cancer, or drug abuse, chronic illness or divorce, or public policy that intentionally separates them.
Kids need parents. When those parents are taken from them, it alters that child’s life forever. A community and a people who understands that is much better prepared to step in and alleviate some of that pain. I was fortunate in that I was scooped up by a community of caring people who did just that.
C&S: You majored at the university in communications and studied to become a teacher. What influenced your interest in writing?
KSZ: My writing career was something I stumbled into while in graduate school. A writing professor saw something in me that I had never envisioned for myself. He pulled me aside one day and said, “You are a writer. Write.” I told him I was too busy; I had four children, a husband. He told me to carve out time to write daily. Writing became a sacred thing for me. A time of prayer and reflection, a time to heal and to hope, a time to advocate and educate.
C&S: We really enjoyed the story of your own journey toward becoming an author, and appreciate that at any point in your life, you might have headed in another direction. After your nonfiction publications and your work as a reporter and columnist, what inspired you to turn to your Appalachian family roots to write the Christian Bend books?
KSZ: While on tour with my memoir, I appeared at the South Carolina Book Festival, alongside the likes of George Singleton, Ron Rash and others. After our panel, the next featured speaker was Michael Montgomery, who explained his work on the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English. As he spoke, I heard the voices of my people—grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, parents. I bought the book, returned to Oregon, and began in earnest writing the story my then editor, Henry Ferris, had been encouraging me to write. I wrote with that dictionary in my lap, at my feet, evoking the spirit of Aunt Lucille “Cil” Christian of Christian Bend, Tennessee. Here’s the one true thing I’ve learned about writing, whether writing fiction or non-fiction: We can raise up people from the dead, if only momentarily. Writing is resurrection power.
C&S: Appalachians have a long tradition of fatalism, going back to Celtic roots as well as the Cherokee influence; how much of your life as a writer do you assign to “fate and circumstance” and to some “inner plan and purpose”?
KSZ: Wow. What a powerful question. Are you willing to sit up all night with me over a bottle of wine dissecting this? As I have often said, the Vietnam War made a writer out of me. Yet, I don’t think I was “predestined” to become a writer, any more than I think the Vietnam War was “predestined” to happen. My worldview is that we were all born to be co-creators. We get to choose how we live out creativity in our work, in our personal lives, in our communities. But creativity itself is innate within us. We are compelled to it. We are at our best when we are creating. We are at our worst when we are disrupters of that plan— when we tear down, demean, belittle, destroy, and disrupt. Our “fate” is to create but we can choose to destroy.
C&S: The Christian Bend trilogy with its array of wonderful characters is such a rich tableau of the time (Twentieth Century Appalachia), the people, and the issues facing the country as a whole, yet specific to one place and time. Why did you decide to tell the story as a trilogy?
KSZ: Before my memoir was published, I traveled to Vietnam with a group of people who, like me, had all lost fathers in that war. During that trip, I met an attorney from Austin, Texas, whose father was still missing-in-action. Listening to his stories made me ponder the many impacts of war. Every MIA family holds out hope that their loved one is still alive. I knew from the very first chapter of Mother of Rain that the overarching story would be about how communities can heal us. Of course, war’s impact depends upon our role as the soldier, the spouse, as the child, as the preacher or the priest, and as the helpers in the community. I sought to amplify as many of those voices as possible. Those voices needed to be explored in ways that seemed too far-reaching for one book. After all, if one is trying to address the power of community, shouldn’t it require more than one book? Shouldn’t it require a community of books?
C&S: What writers were particularly encouraging to you to tackle the narrative in this way—that is, as a trilogy. One thinks of Robert Morgan’s Gap Creek books or Silas House’s books about the Sizemores and Sullivans. Your trilogy has perhaps the tightest narrative and thematic structure that we’ve read, however. Who was particularly influential on the writing of the Christian Bend stories?
KSZ: I am an unabashed Silas House fan girl. I first happened upon his novel Clay’s Quilt at Powell’s Bookstore in Portland. I was attending a Society of Professional Journalists meeting and while my peers went out on the town that night, I stayed in reading. Silas’s story echoed deep within, reminding me of who my people were—voices I had lost since moving to the Pacific Northwest. I will be forever grateful to Silas for reminding me that who my people are matters. However, I believe it was the work of women writers featured in the anthology, Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia, that primarily informed my novels. The short stories and narratives of women like Lee Smith, who has become a treasured mentor. Annie Dillard, whose Tinker Creek my husband first introduced me to. Barbara Kingsolver, who taught me that writing is really miner’s work. Bobbie Ann Mason, who wrote the story of my childhood before I did. And Lisa Athler, whom I don’t know but have long admired. Patricia Hudson and Sandra Ballard labored a decade to ensure that the voices of women writers would be preserved. Thankfully, my work has been the beneficiary of their labors.
C&S: We enjoyed the way you integrated French settings into your second book in the trilogy Burdy. Bayeux seems a particularly rich choice, with its ancient cathedral and Bayeux Tapestry focusing on the manifestations of a war going back to 1066, a war that certainly changed the face of England as well as the English language. What were the reasons that you chose to take this Melungeon character Burdy all the way to French Normandy and specifically to the town of Bayeux?
KSZ: The trip Burdy makes to Bayeux turned out totally different from what I first imagined. I’d planned all along as a writer to go to Normandy. My thinking was that I would travel from Normandy down the coast to Saint Mere Eglise, as a way of documenting Zeb’s journey. But prior to making that trip, I met a kindly fella who had recently moved back to his hometown of Pine Mountain, Georgia, from Bayeux, France. This Georgia shop owner, who deals in antiques and all things French, insisted I had to visit Bayeux. He wrote down where I should stay, and all the things I should see while there, including the tapestry. So, at his urging, I made plans to visit Bayeux. Truthfully, I knew nothing of the community or the town’s history prior to my arrival there. From the moment we arrived and saw the spires of that ancient Bayeux Cathedral, I was transfixed. It was one of those times as a writer when you know the characters are doing the telling and you are just there as the note-taker, the witness to all that is yet unseen.
C&S: Burdy also intrigued us with the narrative structure you chose—that is, the story frame of the pharmacy shooting that bookends the “journey” Burdy takes thirty years earlier. This is a complex structure that takes high-level writing skills. How did you come up with this unique and intriguing way to tell the story?
KSZ: If only I were that smart! The truth is I borrowed it straight out of the headline news. During a trip to visit my Tennessee kin, there was an awful shooting at Bean Station Pharmacy. That shooting captured headline news throughout the region because of its violent nature and because a cop had committed the murders. My former work as a cop reporter lends itself well to my work as a novelist. I learned a multitude of investigative skills as a journalist that carry over into my work as a novelist.
C&S: Joseph Campbell did a wonderful job in Hero with a Thousand Faces of articulating the idea of the Monomyth or the Journey of the Hero. Burdy follows his paradigm with amazing consistency: the “separation,” the “journey” where a mysterious stranger (sometimes a demon lover) assists the hero on his quest, and the “return” with specific knowledge gained. What made you want to use this archetypal myth and how were you inspired to turn the “hero” into a woman, and a fascinating mixed-race heroine at that?
KSZ: I have been both a student and a teacher of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, so I was intentional about my development of Burdy. I wanted to create a strong Melungeon character because I had never encountered one in literature, and the notion of creating a tri-racial character that everyone in the community trusted and respected intrigued me. My father’s mother, Leona Lawson Spears, was reportedly a Melungeon. My uncles have memories of going to visit the family up on Newman’s Ridge. Much to my kinfolk’s worry and consternations, I even traveled to Sneedville to interview folks about the nearby Melungeon community. Writing about strong women is natural for me because I have been surrounded by them throughout my life. Burdy is an amalgamation of those women and is as real to me as my own daughters. I feel like I’ve known her my whole life long. I suppose in some ways she is my Spirit Guide.
C&S: In your memoir After the Flag Has Been Folded, you talk about reaching a point in your life in the Northwest, when your children were small, of needing to journey yourself back to Tennessee and Georgia, the part of the country you considered home. Why did this need to go “home” exert itself on you at that time?
KSZ: Motherhood is like a bridge troll. You gain a lot of new adventures, but there’s a fee to pay. During those early years of childrearing, I was so busy tending to others, I lost all sense of self. The year I turned 30—the age my mother had been when my father was killed—all these emotions over his death were triggered. I entered therapy and began to work my way through a grief that had long been denied me. Part of my own healing was a desire to reconnect with everything my mother had cut us off from. Specifically, Tennessee, my dad’s family and the community of Christian Bend.
C&S: One crucial topic the Christian Bend stories (as well as your blog posts) addresses is the question of mental illness—that is, PTSD. Since there is still a stigma around mental illness, especially in Appalachia as well as the military culture, what made you decide to confront this affliction directly? Expand on how you see the topic of Post-Traumatic Stress in our society today, beyond just as a side-bar of war.
KSZ: One of my childhood girlfriends suffered from postpartum psychosis and was hospitalized for a year after her first child was born. This was in the 1990s and none of us had any understanding—or knowledge—at the time to recognize the danger this posed to her and others. Ten years later, when her second child was born, she attempted suicide. She would have been successful had a doctor not happened upon her there on that lake bank, overdosed. As I stood over her hospital bed in ICU, I washed my girlfriend’s face, and prayed her life would be spared. It was and eventually her family got her the right kind of care—an endocrinologist familiar with post-partum psychosis. Years later, while working in the newsroom, I filed a report on a Texas mom who killed her children. Andrea Yates drowned her five children in the bathtub. When I filed that report, I knew in that moment that could have been my girlfriend. I knew then that I would write my girlfriend’s story, but that I would never be able to tell that story in non-fiction because of the burden it would place on her. So much stigma is attached to those who suffer from mental illness.
My sister just went through breast cancer. People keep telling her how strong she is, a common thing when a person is stricken with cancer. Yet, a person who is afflicted with mental illness is considered weak. Who knows what strength it took for Anthony Bourdain to get out of bed every morning and travel the world to bring us stories? Who understands the toughness it took for Andrea Yates all those years prior to not submit to the voices taunting her? Her husband was warned by doctors that another pregnancy would be debilitating for her. Those warnings were not heeded. One does not need to go to war to deal with Post-Traumatic. It can afflict anyone. Those who survive rape or sex abuse, shootings, car wrecks, domestic abuse, child abuse or child neglect. Those who survived hurricanes, earthquakes, mining accidents. Those who suffer miscarriages or witness a murder. Post-Traumatic is the body and mind’s response to any number of untold tragedies. I think of it as a sign the body is trying to heal the wrongs endured. In that way, PTSD is a strength. It is our recognition that something terribly wrong has occurred, and we need to try and right it.
C&S: What do you believe constitutes a sense of home, particularly in this day and age when we are all so mobile?
KSZ: When I moved the Pacific Northwest, there were so many things that represented home to me: landscape, food, music, mannerisms people possessed, the words they spoke and the stories they repeated. I had moved to Oregon because my family was there, but I never felt “at home”, or like I was among “my people.” Even after I had married and had “Western” children of my own. I can’t say what represents home for others, but for me, when I drive that windy road that runs alongside the Holston River up to Aunt Cil’s old barn at the corner of Christian Bend and Miller Roads, I know I’m home. But it also feels like home when in Oregon and I spoon up a mess of beans and collards and a slab of cornbread onto my husband’s plate. The honeysuckle blooming wild along a fence also represents home to me. Or when I turn on the radio and hear that lonesome voice of Ralph Stanley calling out, “As I stand by the river, the homeland I see … Almost home. I’m almost home.” Lord, all that hollows me plum out and fills me up at the same time. No matter how mobile we become, home will always be those things that remind us of where we came from and who are people are. The way the stories of Silas House and Michael Montgomery stirred those memories loose within me. Like I said before, writing is resurrection business.
C&S: These three Appalachian books are such a departure from the kind of writing and the books you were publishing early in your career, mostly nonfiction. Why did you turn to Appalachia for the story?
KSZ: Simply put, I did it to honor Mama and Daddy, our people and their ways, and the land that has infused all my ancestor’s lives with much beauty and a tad of terror throughout the generations.
C&S: Every author has her own writing process, unique to her style and work habits. Could you give us a brief glimpse into what it takes for you to write a novel? What are some ways you find inspiration for details? When you get stuck with the dreaded “writer’s block,” how do you overcome this obstacle? For the aspiring writers out there, do you have any sage words?
KSZ: I believe books have their own birthing seasons. Some of my books have only taken six months to write. Mother of Rain took nearly a decade of my life. Of course, I worked on other books while writing that one. I’ve got two books I’m working on now and two more I’m dreaming up. It was Pat Conroy who told me once, “Writing is like truck driving—you have to be in it for the long-haul.” Truck drivers don’t wait for the muse to show up before they deliver a load. They get up every morning, pull on those boots, and get behind the wheel. We writers must do the same. We must assume our posture for the day and write. Even when, or especially when, we don’t feel like we have anything to say. For me, that doesn’t mean sitting down at 8 a.m. and getting up from my chair at 3 p.m. I will often write between the hours of midnight and four a.m. When I was working at the newspaper, I would get up at 4 a.m. and write at least a page before heading off to my paying job. Writing is almost always double-shift work. (Very few writers—or any self-employed person—can afford to pay their own health insurance these days). I rarely lack ideas. The first thing any writer must do is look up. See what is going on around us. Is the neighbor walking his dog again? Is the sun low or high in the sky? Why did the goldfinch not show up at the feeder? What does that emblem on the flag across the street represent? When did they cut down that tree? Why would anyone cut down a Blue Spruce? We must see the world the way a young child sees it—with shameless curiosity. A writer who lacks curiosity is a boorish oaf. Do not invite that writer to dine with you.