Visit karenzach.com for more information on Karen Spears Zacharias.
While many authors tend to stick to a similar theme, Karen Spears Zacharias has touched on a variety of topics in her eight books.
That, partly, has to do with the experiences Zacharias, 61, has gone through before moving to Redmond last year. The loss of her father in the Vietnam War, time spent in rural Appalachia and the murders of friends have all been reflected in her work.
Visit karenzach.com for more information on Karen Spears Zacharias.
“Publishers like you to stay in one genre,” she said. “It’s easier to market someone like (John) Grisham, where you write the same thing over and over. I’m trained that if you can write, you can write in any genre.”
But the differing themes haven’t kept Zacharias from being recognized. Her 2013 novel, “Mother of Rain,” recently received the Appalachian Heritage Writers Award from the West Virginia Humanities Council and Shepherd University. She will go to Shepherdstown, West Virginia, to serve as writer-in-residence for a week in September, when she will also appear at the Appalachian Heritage Festival. Previous participants in the writer-in-residence program include Henry Louis Gates Jr., Denise Giardina and Jayne Ann Phillips
“They felt the book captures what it means to be part of the landscape and community of Appalachia,” she said.
The book, which was the first in Zacharias’ Appalachian trilogy, also received the 2014 Weatherford Award for best in Appalachian fiction from the Appalachian Studies Association and Berea College in Kentucky. The series, which also included 2015’s “Burdy” and last year’s “Christian Bend,” was Zacharias’s first attempt at fiction books.
The books are written in Appalachian dialogue with a dictionary in the back to help readers decipher the terms. Zacharias was inspired to write in the native tongue after attending a conference with Michael Montgomery, a University of South Carolina professor who wrote a dictionary on the linguistics of the area.
“As he spoke, I could hear the voices of my grandparents, my kin from Hawkins County, Tennessee,” she said. “He was speaking a language I was familiar with.”
She was further inspired to write in the fading language after covering the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla while reporting for the East Oregonian newspaper in Pendleton. Just as the tribe was struggling to keep its native language alive, Zacharias felt a responsibility to do that for the Appalachian dialect.
That led Zacharias to base the books in Christian Bend, Tennessee. The name had nothing to do with the Bend that was closer to her Oregon home, but was a small community in Hawkins County where Zacharias, along with her grieving mother and brother, spent time after her father, David Spears, was killed in 1966 in the la Drang Valley.
She calls Christian Bend a holler that’s about the size of Antelope, Oregon. And everyone has the last name Christian.
“Because it was a holler, there was nothing to do, you’re out in the wayback, so there is a lot of storytelling,” Zacharias said. “It felt like a really safe place to me in a really traumatic time in my life.”
The book trilogy, published by Mercer University Press in Zacharias’ native Georgia, is historical fiction set between 1942 and 1987, she said. It includes the story of the community bringing healing to a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The books caught on so much that a theater company in her native Columbus, Georgia, adapted “Mother of Rain” for a stage show.
This isn’t the first time Zacharias wrote about how she was impacted by her father’s death, which happened when she was 9. She explored the topic in-depth in her 2006 memoir “After the Flag has been Folded,” which was published by the well-known HarperCollins.
The book deals with Zacharias’ life from the time of her father’s death, which her mother refused to talk about, until she went to visit the battlefield where her father died in 2003.
“There is nothing I would recommend more highly for a child who has lost a family member in a war than to go to the country where that took place, if it’s safe enough,” she said.
On her trip, Zacharias learned how beautiful the country and people of Vietnam are. She also remembers flying back through Singapore and seeing news reports about the start of the Iraq War.
“I knew, in that moment, all these years later, we’d still be looking at the chaos of war,” she said. “I knew, what I had gone through as a child, other children were about to experience.”
While the book received a tremendous response from military families, Zacharias was disappointed by the lack of interest those outside the military had in the story, which she said was likely because they found the subject matter too painful.
“They would come up to my table at book events and say, ‘I would never read that,’” Zacharias said. “I said, ‘Try living it.’ ”
That’s why she wanted to include issues like PTSD in her fiction books, which appeal to a larger audience, Zacharias said.
“I wanted to write it in a way that even a non-military family can read it, whereas, with the memoir, my primary readers were people who lost family in Vietnam,” she said.
Zacharias has traveled often for Gold Star family events, visiting Washington, D.C., twice a year until recently. She met former President Barack Obama twice, once while he was a senator and again in 2016, his last year as president. She keeps photos of both meetings in her home.
Obama’s persona on television is exactly what he is like in real life, Zacharias said.
“He is just good-hearted,” she said.
Zacharias also wrote two Christian-themed books — 2008’s “Where’s Your Jesus Now?”and 2010’s “Will Jesus Buy Me a Doublewide?” She wrote the latter, one of her better selling books, while working as a reporter in North Carolina during the economic collapse.
“It is really a look at the wrongheaded theology that is a result of what is known as the prosperity gospel,” she said.
Along with working as a reporter from North Carolina to Oregon, Zacharias taught journalism and feature writing at Central Washington University, specializing in First Amendment rights.
For her next book, due later this year, Zacharias plans to revisit the true crime genre she first explored in 2014’s “Karly Sheehan: The True Crime Behind Karly’s Law.” That book told the story behind the 2005 beating death of a 3-year-old Corvallis girl.
Zacharias helped spread word of Karly’s Law, the first such law in the country, said Shelly Smith, executive director of KIDS Center Bend, one of 21 child abuse intervention centers in the state. The law imposes specific requirements on law enforcement, state human services employees and medical providers for assessing injuries caused by child abuse.
“Karen had a personal relationship with Karly’s biological mother,” Smith said. “It made the story more poignant to the complexity of family systems...She’s an amazing person and an amazing writer.”
Zacharias also knows the family of the victim in her next book — “The Murder Gene.” It tells the story of Lukah Probzeb Chang, a Marine Corps deserter who made his way to Pendleton, Oregon, where he killed a motel housekeeper in 2012 and used a metal pipe to attempt to kill another woman a year later on a jogging path. Police were able to use DNA collected in the second attack to connect Chang to the first one.
To keep her in the timeframe, Zacharias plays music from the early 2000s in her office, with songs like Katy’ Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” She typically plays period music based on what she is writing, with bluegrass songs from Ricky Skaggs and Ralph Stanley being among her favorites during her Appalachia writings.
“Music in our lives ties us back to those moments,” she said. “When I hear Elton John, I think of high school, because he became well known in my high school years. If I hear U2, I think of raising my kids.”
Zacharias spends a good bit of time away from home, either at book events or events for military families or other charities. She once spoke at an event that raised $210,000 for the education of impoverished children.
Zacharias and her husband chose to come to Redmond partly because of their love for the outdoors and also because they love independent bookstores. They were impressed by downtown’s Herringbone Books.
They liked the commitment to the arts shown in Redmond and Bend, which Zacharias said is important in times when the economy goes south.
“Through all of my travels, I have always found the communities committed to the arts did not suffer the same loss as the communities not committed to the arts,” she said.
While Zacharias has kept Oregon stories to her nonfiction books, she said she is considering some ideas for historical fiction for her new home.
“I actually have some ideas I’m looking at for Redmond,” she said.
Zacharias says it’s impossible to decide which of her books is her favorite.
“I have four kids,” she said. “If you ask me which of the four is my favorite — I love them all the same but different. That’s how I feel about my books. My books always teach me something.”
Though she deals with different subjects, Zacharias said all her books, including “Benched,” her 1997 debut that was a memoir of a Georgia county’s first female judge, deal with strong women and the issue of redemption.
“I don’t want to live in a world of despair,” she said. “I always want to believe that we can be a better people.”
— Reporter: 541-548-2186, email@example.com