Join me in welcoming Karen Spears Zacharias, who has a powerful story to share with us today.
1. Karen, thanks for joining us at Dames of Dialogue. We are always curious about a writer’s creative process. What can you tell us about how you came to write A Silence of Mockingbirds?
Thank you for this opportunity to share A Silence of Mockingbirds, a story that I will never be able to extricate myself from. If you come at writing from a journalist background, as I do, and someone you know
is murdered, how can you not tell that story?
Writing is how I process my life’s moments, whether I’m writing about marriage or a murder. In the case of A Silence of Mockingbirds, it was the June 2005 murder of Karly Sheehan, the daughter of a close family
friend, which compelled me.
2. I can totally relate to the need to tell a story. As a journalist, you have a lot of experience interviewing subjects. But since you knew Sarah, the mother in this story, how was this process different for you?
The long answer to that question would require a bottle of wine and a late-night talk on a deck overlooking Mobile Bay or the Pacific Ocean.
I began my reporting career in the same Oregon community—Pendleton—where I had lived for over a decade, so it was not unusual for me to interview people I knew well. In many ways it gave me insights and an
institutional knowledge that others lacked. That knowledge cultivated fearlessness in me. I wasn’t afraid to tread into the intimate places, yet, I was always respectful about it. These, after all, were my neighbors, too.
Even so, Sarah was like a daughter to me. I purposely avoided her at first, knowing that our emotional entanglement would lead me astray, away from the facts of the case, if I wasn’t careful.
3. What, if anything, did you bring away from that experience that might inform future projects?
Every book I’ve written has taught me something about how to write the next book better. I’m not far enough removed from this project yet—I am still touring—to know how it will inform future works. But I’m confident that it will.
4. Your focus for this story was child abuse, and since April was Child Abuse Prevention month, do you have other projects along these same lines in your future?
My focus was on telling the truth. That is always my starting and ending point. I write books that educate and advocate. Those books cover a gamut of issues: women’s rights, veterans’ rights, and children’s rights. My next book, a novel titled MOTHER OF RAIN, addresses the issue of post-partum psychosis, the sort that Andrea Yates displayed. But even the novel is designed to educate and advocate.
5. That sounds like an intriguing story. And since your goal is to educate and advocate, what, if anything, have you been able to accomplish that will impact future legislation to prevent tragedies such as Karly’s?
By myself nothing, but as I’ve traveled around the nation, telling Karly’s story, others have taken up the cause and are working to get a law like Karly’s Law passed in their own states.
In Oregon, Karly’s Law requires that a child who has been abused will have those injuries documented via photographs within 48-hours of the report of injury. Then, that child must be seen by a medical professional trained in child abuse within that same time period. Common sense would tell you that such laws ought to already be on the books, but they are not. In many cases, those suspected of causing the injuries are allowed to determine what medical professional will assess the child, which happened with Karly. Her mother picked the doctor—her own—to do the assessment on Karly.
6. As a retired social worker, I could relate so completely with your story. I could point to a number of cases that evoked a similar emotion in our community. How did your involvement in this story affect you personally?
I am a person of resolve. We cannot change that which we don’t talk about, and child abuse repulses us. We draw back from it. I have noticed a significant silence among those who typically correspond with me. I know it’s because of this book. They don’t want to tell me that they haven’t read it, so they avoid me. I suspect it’s much like what anyone who works in this field experiences at a dinner party. All of sudden the person who asked the question sees someone else they must go speak to.
I am intentional about how I live my life. I am trying to do important things. I am trying to make the world a better place. I’ve no tolerance for those who simply want to be entertained. We have a real-life Hunger Games situation underway, where children are being led to their slaughter, while adults stand about gap-mouthed.
Abused children don’t need our tears. They need our voices. They need our votes. Speak up.
For pity’s sake don’t tell me you can’t read this book because it might make you weep. If I write a book about child abuse that doesn’t make you weep, doesn’t make you mad, doesn’t compel you to take action, then I need to quit writing and get a job at Dairy Queen.
7. Oh, I couldn’t agree more! And because we often tackle difficult topics, we do need to take care of ourselves. As writers, we often have rituals and routines that nourish our writing journey. Do you have a special writing space, or a routine you follow?
Much to my own chagrin, I am not a person of routine. I am a person of passion and, thus, obsessions. I work off a laptop that I carry with me from room to room, depending upon the weather, my mood, what the dogs—Portia and Poe—need at the moment.
I can most often be found in my office upstairs, overlooking fields of sagebrush and Russian Olives. Or downstairs in the red chair, next to a stained glass window of a garden scene that a local artist made. I
surround myself with bright art because the creativity of others inspires me.
8. What lovely views you have! Art and beauty do nourish the soul. What can you tell us about how you first decided to become a journalist?
It was not a profession I chose. It chose me. I majored in communications and education because I liked to talk and I liked kids. I made the choice to stay home and raise our family. But as a mother of four young children, I became engaged in the issues that concerned children. I became that woman—I am sure you have one in your community—who wrote letters to the editor all the time. I wrote well enough that the editor, who was a friend of mine, asked me to write for the newspaper. I started my first journalism job on my 40th
birthday. It seems all very surreal to me at times.
9. What were some of the defining moments along the way for you? Who or what inspired you?
Lewis Grizzard. I live in Oregon but was raised in Georgia. Every true Georgian adored Grizzard for his wit and wisdom. When I wrote my first book I tracked down Grizzard’s former agent, Tony Privett, and asked for his help. Tony and I struck up a delightful friendship. Bob Steed, another writing wit and dear friend of Lewis, also helped me get my first book published with Mercer University Press.
10. What can you tell us about your family life?
I stayed in Oregon primarily because I married a wonderful Yankee. Tim and I met at Oregon State University. He’s a teacher, former coach and current law school student (the reason he’s a former coach). We have been married for 33 years and have four grown children, all who live in the Pacific Northwest. We are expecting our first grandchild, a boy, later this summer. And, yes, we are over the moon about it.
11. Congratulations! You are in for some wonderful experiences as a grandparent. We also love to learn about the settings where a writer lives and writes. What can you tell us about yours?
I travel a great deal. I actually wrote the first draft of A Silence of Mockingbirds while serving as writer-in-resident at the Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts in Fairhope, Alabama. It was the perfect place to write this book because at the end of a long day of writing, I would walk down to the pier and watch the sun set over Mobile Bay. Surrounded by the beauty of Creator’s hand, I always felt a cleansing, a renewing, strength for the day and bright hope for tomorrow sort of thing.
12. We love animals…do you have any pets? If so, what can you share about them?
I have two pets. Poe, an AKC registered Beagle, yes, named for Edgar. He’s really my husband’s dog. The one the kids gave Tim to keep him company whenever I’m away on some writing jaunt. Poe bit me in 2010
and nearly took my entire nose off. I’m not kidding. It was a horrifying and very painful experience, but makes for a great dinner party entertainment. That Poe lives after that is only further proof that in this household we practice grace.
Portia is a chocolate-lab rescue dog. She is actually my son’s dog but he is spending his third summer working at Denali Park in Alaska so I informed him before he left that from this point forward Portia is mine. Portia seems delighted by the arrangement. She loves to go for rides and is quite content running errands with me. She often sleeps right under my feet, as she is now, while I write.
Thank you again for giving me this opportunity to share my stories with your readers.
Karen’s Website: http://karenzach.com/
You Tube Video Here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNSu82y8Iek