KAREN SPEARS ZACHARIAS is the nation’s leading authority on chicken salvation. Karen was adopted at an advanced age by Lucky Earl, a rooster that she saved from certain death. She is an accidental vegetarian.
Karen was recently canned from her job as a columnist & editorial writer for the Fayetteville Observer in Fayetteville, N.C.. She taught journalism and feature writing at Central Washington University and is a popular speaker at literary events. In 2008, she served as author-in-resident for the Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts, Fairhope, Alabama, where she wore a WWII helmet to ward off late-night bombardier roaches and tick collars around her ankles to keep from being eaten alive by fleas.
Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek and on National Public Radio. Her third book, Where’s Your Jesus Now? offers a seriously funny look at fear. Karen lives in Pinehurst, N.C. where she is at work on her fourth book — Will Jesus Buy Me a Doublewide? Visit her blog.
What is your current project? Tell us about it.
Where’s Your Jesus Now? is a collection of seriously funny essays about how so many of us in the faith community have given in and let fear have its way with us, only to wake up in the next morning full of regret and lacking any self-respect.
Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head?
I was recruited to write for Zondervan by an editor who had read my previous work and loved it. The book, Where’s Your Jesus Now?, was inspired by a gray-haired granny named Shirley Dunham. I met Shirley while covering a crime story as a reporter.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.
Journalists don’t have the luxury of writer’s block. I am expected to turn in an editorial every day. It doesn’t matter how I feel, what matters is what I produce.
That’s proven to be a very valuable lesson to carry over to book projects. I set self-imposed deadlines and work on those, such as typing a page a day, or a chapter a week.
But, yes, I suffer from self-doubt, like any writer, like any reflective person of any profession. I don’t mind it so much any more, though. It’s good to second-guess yourself. It helps keep the criticism of others down to a minimum.
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
Oh, gosh, there are so many mistakes I’ve made. I thought that writing was the hard part. I didn’t have a clue how hard marketing a book would be. It’s a lot like selling Fuller Brushes or Mary Kay. Some people are born to it and the rest of us, well, we might as well get jobs hawking Dilly Bars at Dairy Queen. I still haven’t mastered the art of marketing.
The other huge mistake I made was trusting untrustworthy people. Always ask for references and make those calls. Writing is a very personal process. It creates false intimacies. Remember there’s a difference between someone who truly cherishes you as a person and a person who simply cherishes the product you produce.
What’s the best or worst advice (or both) you’ve heard on writing/publication?
The best advice came from George Venn, my writing professor, who told me once: Ignore all flattery and all criticism and just keep writing.
What is your favorite source for finding book ideas?
Listening or eavesdropping.
Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share? Or have you ever been at the point where considered quitting writing altogether?
I spent eight years writing After the Flag has been Folded, the story of what happened to our family after my father was killed in Vietnam. That book was showcased in nearly every media market from CNN to Good Morning America to National Public Radio. Yet, sales were dismal.
The American people are pretty discriminating readers. They don’t want to read about the aftermath of war when their sons and daughters are deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan. Go figure.
Needless to say, I came off of book tour, exhausted and devastated. I couldn’t imagine writing anything more important than that book. I was ready to walk away from it.
But the one thing that kept me going was the emails of encouragement and thanks that trickled in from readers, primarily Vietnam veterans or their families.
That, and a note from author Pat Conroy. “Writing is for the long-haul,” he said.
With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?
Don’t quit the day job, even if you end up with a bestseller. You’ll lose the thing that makes writers write well – interaction with the real world.
What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?
George Venn was the first writer to tell me I was a writer. He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. Had he not pulled me aside and told me that I should be writing, I never would have pursued it.
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?
That’s like asking me which of my four children I love most. I love them all equally but for different reasons.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
The overall infatuation Americans have with celebrities. A gal approached me once in Nashville. She was gushing because she’d seen me visiting with a friend who is a celebrity-writer.
“Are you friends with HER?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Are you a writer, too?”
“Are you famous? Should I know you?” she asked.
“Apparently not,” I replied.
Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?
I’d give my away my iPod to see an AP photo of President Obama reading one of my books on Air Force One.
What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?
Writing grants me access to so many adventures. My favorite part of being a writer is taking others on those adventures, whether that’s saving a chicken’s life or to the gravesite of one of our national heroes.
My least favorite part of writing is the ticks I encounter on those adventures.
The photo is of the sunroom at the Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts cottage. I wrote my last book here while serving as the writer-in-resident.
What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?
When I made the transition from writing articles for newspapers to writing books. Articles are considered long if they go over four graphs. Books required 40,000 words or better.
I wasn’t sure how to craft the longer project, but I was given once piece of advice that has served me well. Don’t quit writing when you have exhausted what you have to say. Instead stop during the heat of it and leave a note so you know what to come back to the next day. That keeps me from returning to a cold computer screen. I don’t stop until I know exactly where I’m going to pick it up next.
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?
I keep a jar of pickled pig’s feet on hand. I gnaw on one before I begin writing and when I finish for the day. While writing, I dip snuff.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response? Please share.
I wrote a column after his grown son Kyle died of cancer. I’ve never met Harry but he called me a couple of years after Kyle’s death. Said he and his wife keep that newspaper clipping in a scrapbook and take it out from time to time. Harry’s in his 80s now and not in good health himself. Kyle was his only son. He misses him terribly. I tell people that the reason I write is because of people like Harry. Words can breath life back into a person, if only momentarily. For a grieving daughter or a grieving father, sometimes that’s good enough.
Have you had a particularly memorable peer honor? Please share.
Yes. When I left my last newspaper job, several of my peers cried. Anyone who has worked in a newsroom will understand the value of those tears shed.
How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?
Depends. On the memoir I did tons. Everything from 8 minutes on Good Morning America to hour-long shows on C-Span and NPR. I was on the road for all but 6 weeks of that year, talking at literary festivals, universities, military events.
With this last book, Where’s Your Jesus Now? I hired my own publicity person to market the book. We did a few books signings. A couple of gigs at churches and a few literary events. Very low-key.
I’m a people person. I love to speak in public forums, panels, etc. But I don’t like the aspect of hawking a book.
The bottom line is bestsellers are sold the same way any book is sold – one by one. The best marketing tool any of us could hope for is to have a reader urge a friend to read our book and that friend tell a friend and that friend tell a friend…
Tell us about your actual platform/vision as a speaker/author.
Fear is destructive. It is a poor foundation for constructing public policy or personal choice. Love and faith, not fear and anxiety, ought to be the factors that mold us and compel us. If Christians don’t have hope, what do we have to offer a world of wounded people?
Do you have any helpful hints on finding the perfect voice/career/passion fit?
There isn’t any magic formula. Search for who you are in Christ. Then, instead of removing yourself from the world, become an active participant in it. Get out of the cubicle. Live a life worth writing about.
What would you be doing if you hadn’t followed this career path? Why?
I’d be a fashion model for used trucks. I’d wear cutoffs and a red halter-top and my calendar would be pinned up in every junkyard auto parts store across the nation. Men with scruffy beards and beer bellies would whistle at it, nudge their buddies and declare, “There’s a sight that’ll give you sore eyes.”
Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?
There are no perfect words, perfect writers, or perfect people. But life is not a first draft – we don’t get to rewrite this script. Figure out in advance how you want to wrap it up and plan accordingly.