Thursday, January 21, 2010

Author Interview ~ Keri Wyatt Kent

Keri Wyatt Kent worked as a reporter for fifteen years before writing her first book and is the author of several books, including Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity (Zondervan) Breathe (Revell) and Listen (Jossey-Bass). When she’s not busy traveling around the country to speak and lead retreats, she’s writing. She’s a regular contributor to several magazines, including MomSense and Outreach magazine, as well as several websites and blogs. She’s a member of Willow Creek Community Church, where she has taught, led groups and volunteered in a variety of ministries over the last 22 years. She and her husband Scot have two teenage children and live in Illinois.

Hi, Keri. Welcome to Novel Journey. Tell me a little bit about your background and your family.

Scot, my husband of 18 years, and I have two amazing kids: Melanie, 15, and Aaron, 13. I totally love being a parent of teens. I was born and raised in the Chicago area, where we still live. We’re members at Willow Creek community church, where Scot & I met 20 years ago.

What do you like to do in your spare time? Hobbies?

I’m a huge reader—I’m often reading three books at once, and I finish reading one a week or so. My husband and I both like to play tennis. For me, tennis is also a social outlet—which is so necessary because writing is a solitary venture. I also enjoy gardening, and cooking. Oh, and Scot and I race our sailboat together. We’re a pretty active family. My kids each play one sport, so much of my spare time is spent watching their games.

What has God been teaching you lately?

To be fully present in each moment (in other words, to not be two places at one time!).

Good advice! When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A writer.

Where are you headed next?

I have less than five more years before my youngest goes off to college, so I am very aware that the time with my kids is short. Five years from now, I want to have no regrets about how I made the most of this season. So today, for example, that meant getting up early to write so I would have some time to go to lunch with my daughter this afternoon. But I’m continuing to write and speak. I am writing a book on New Testament words, which will release next year. I also do some speaking and magazine articles.

How did you get involved in writing?

I’ve always loved books. My fifth grade teacher affirmed my skills in writing—I knew then that I was going to be some sort of writer someday. I was a lit major in college, but when I worked on the student newspaper, I fell in love with journalism. I was a newspaper reporter right out of college and continued that until I started freelancing full time, when I had kids. There has never been a time in my life when I wasn’t writing. It’s really the only career I’ve ever had. Even if it were not my job, I would write and journal. Writing helps me understand the world and try to make a little sense of my life.

As busy as you are, how do you find time to write?

If you wait until you “find time” to write, you will never write. You have to MAKE time. I write every day—some days for two hours, others for eight or more. If I have a meeting or a tennis game early in the morning, I schedule my writing for the afternoon. I try to write five days a week. When I’m on a deadline I write at least 1000 words a day. My goal is to write at least that all five days, but I don’t always meet that goal. Other days, I exceed it.

What did you enjoy most about the writing process?

I just love it when the ideas begin to flow as I’m writing, and I just get out of the way. I discover things (or more accurately, God gives them to me) as I write, in the moment. It doesn’t happen every time but it’s very cool when it does. I also love it when I write a really good sentence—it just sings. Again, a rare occurrence—and these serendipitous moments can only happen when you engage in the discipline of sitting down every day to write.

What was the most difficult aspect of the writing process?

Just making the time to do it. I have a lot of interests, I like spending time with friends, I want to be a good mom, I try to serve at my church. Carving out the time is a discipline.

Tell us about your latest novel. Where did you get the idea for the book?

Like many evangelicals, I grew up not hearing very much about living a lifestyle of compassion. We supported missionaries, but no one talked about living missionally here at home. (only about witnessing, which in my tradition was a mostly intellectual exercise). I started reading the Bible with fresh eyes, noticing passges like Isaiah 58, and Matthew 25 (where Jesus says, basically, that how we treat the poor and downtrodden will be a litmus test for heaven). And at first, I had to grieve a little–how come I never heard this growing up in the church? How should I live my life if this is really what Jesus taught? But I didn’t want to get stuck in the grieving/anger stage, and I figured I didn’t want other people to get stuck there either.

I wanted to share my journey of discovery with others. I’m not a social justice expert at all–I’m a suburban soccer mom taking halting, messy baby steps toward a compassionate lifestyle. I’m trying to figure out what it really means to love your neighbor, to reflect God’s heart for the poor, to think about the consequences of my daily consumption and choices, and thought I could share that process with my readers.

What are the major themes of the book?

The main theme is that every person matters to God. So first, I want my readers to realize that each of them matters, and each of them can make a difference. I gently prod them to get over their “little old me” syndrome and realize that even if they do one small thing, it could change them, and change someone else’s life. I also want to help them get over the idea that the world’s problems are so huge and complex that they can’t do anything about them. Yes, the problems are huge, but even helping one person is worth it, because that person matters to God.

The book is divided into four sections, which move outward from realizing your own worth in God’s eyes (part 1), showing compassion to your family and immediate neighbors (part 2), to extending yourself to people in your city or region (part 3) to finally tackling some global issues like hunger, human trafficking, disease, etc. (part 4). The book takes you on a journey. Each chapter is short, and you only read one per week. EAch week also includes reflection questions and action steps for both individuals and groups.

What kind of research did you have to do for the book?

I read the bible, as I said, with fresh eyes. Verses like Micah 6:8, which said “what does the Lord require of you? You know, o people, what is good: to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” I mean, I never heard that growing up. None of those things are in that “four Spiritual Laws” tract that my sunday School teachers told me to pass out to my friends. So I read my bible again, trying to notice what Jesus said about the poor. I realized that he truly lived a life of poverty himself. I did word studies on words like “poor” and found verses, esp. in proverbs, like “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” (Proverbs 14:31) and

Those who shut their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered. (Prov. 21:13). That’s intense, you know? if you ignore the poor, God will ignore you! And I realized in our culture, where we are so oblivious about where our food comes from, where our stuff comes from, that we don’t even realize that we rely on the poor to have STUFF– the factory workers, farm workers, and so on– and that we need to be mindful of their plight, as God is. That our actions may, without our realizing, hurt the poor.

I noticed how many of the Old Testament laws reflect God’s concern for the poor, (things like gleaning, the Jubilee, etc.).

I also read a lot of books on Christian social justice, from people like Ron Sider, John Perkins, Will Samson, and others.

I also got involved with an inner-city ministry. I meet with the director of that ministry, just to hear what challenges she faces living in a very poor neighborhood. I serve breakfast at that ministry’s shelter once a month, I support them financially (tho I don’t want to only write checks, I want to go down there and see the people I’m helping). I am sort of a bridge between my suburban neighborhood and that ministry–I bring people down there to serve, take donations of clothes and stuff down there, let people know about the ministry. I think God wants me to do more volunteering there, so it’s something that is on-going in my life.

I’m a journalist, so my favorite way to do research is to gather true stories. I talked to a lot of people, and many of their stories are included in the book. I interviewed people who are living out the things I’m writing about. Talking with real people who are wrestling with how to live a life of compassion and justice–that was the most compelling research of all. they inspired me.

Why did you decide to use a devotional format?

There are a lot of books out there these days about social justice. I didn’t just want to write a book about social justice. When you read about something, you can keep your distance. I wanted to do so much more than provide information–i wanted to inspire transformation. That’s what all my books are about–connecting faith with real life. A devotional forces you to slow down–especially this one since you really only read one chapter a week. I wanted my readers to reflect on what they are reading, but then take steps to live it out. The compassion step and community step at the end of each chapter really help you to do that. They provide practical steps, things you can do to live out what you’re learning. It’s an intensely practical book–challenging, but very do-able. This format provides the space and practical tools to actually try doing, and doing something transforms us so much more than simply learning about something.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

When I was growing up, there was this unspoken understanding in Christian circles–the really committed people go to China or Africa to be missionaries. And we secretly hoped God wouldn’t call us to that. Today, we secretly hope God won’t call us to say, move to the inner city or to minister to the poor. What I hope my readers realize is that you can live a life of compassion and justice no matter where you are–but we cannot opt out. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors–all of them. I hope they will be motivated to love their neighbor–and that they will realize that their neighbor is not just the people next door, but everyone. I hope they will relaize that living like Jesus isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s the best way to live. I want them to believe that they can make a differnce, and change the world, one life at a time.

What would you say to someone who wants to become a published author?

I would ask them: what are you working on? Because a lot of people want to be an author but they don’t actually write. They just want to write, but they don’t do it. You have to start writing. Then, hone your craft. Take classes to get better at writing. Hire an editor and actually heed their advice. Join a critique group. Even best-selling authors can improve their craft and learn more.

Also, build your platform. Unfortunately, even if you are an excellent writer you need to have a way to publicize your writing. Learn about marketing, publicity, speaking. Publishers today aren’t interested in authors who don’t have some sort of platform. I think a lot of people don’t realize that authors are the ones responsible for marketing their own books. Accept and embrace that reality, and you’re ahead of the game.


Tina said...

Nice interview. And you are so right about making the time. If you just wait around it will never come. Happy Writing.

Jenna said...

Wow, Keri. Thanks for this interview. Your book sounds fantasically practical and inspiring. I think it's wonderful that you're leading others to think about such important issues. I'll be picking up your book. Thanks again.