Karen Halvorsen Schreck is the author of two previous novels, Dream Journal and While He Was Away. She received her doctorate in English and Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her short stories and articles have appeared in Literal Latté, Other Voices, Image, as well as other literary journals and magazines, and have received various awards, including a Pushcart Prize, an Illinois State Arts Council Grant, and in 2009, first prize awards for memoir and devotional magazine writing from the Evangelical Press Association. A freelance writer and frequent visiting professor of English at Wheaton College, Karen lives with her husband and two children in Wheaton, Illinois.
Hello, Karen! Welcome to Novel Rocket. I love Illinois. Tell me a bit about where you’re from.
I was born and raised in the western suburbs just outside of Chicago, near Wheaton, Illinois. I grew up in the kind of subdivisions that were springing up everywhere in the 1960s and 1970s, where aluminum-sided colonials and ranches butted up against cornfields. I’d look out my bedroom window, and there (for a few years at least, would be cornstalks, springing up tall and green, or rattling dry and brown in the wind, or hidden by the snow, depending on the season.
My parents were musicians who taught in the Conservatory at Wheaton College, where my husband teaches photography today, and where I sometimes teach writing and literature. That academic setting has been a kind of second home to me. We spent (and spend) a great deal of time in Chicago as well, and to say that I love that city is a bit of an understatement. Chicago is very much interwoven with my personal history, and the history of the generations of my family that have gone before.
How did you become a novelist, and did you always want to write?
I was an only child of two working parents, and often had to keep myself occupied, so if I wasn’t reading a book or writing a story in a spiral bound notebook (a la Harriet the Spy and her ilk), I was pretending a story, realizing it through my play all around the house and in the yard. Sometimes my parents would come upon me, standing on a chair, imaging I was about to swing from a vine or leap from a cliff or swim to an island, and as I grew older and self-consciousness kicked in, that became a little embarrassing, so I turned to writing and reading more. But before that time, when I was younger, I treated the world around me pretty much like a page for me to write on with my play.
Tell me three things about yourself that would surprise your readers.
When I was seventeen I had lunch with the Queen of Holland.
I received my favorite compliment from my 16 year old daughter around about New Year’s Eve, 2013, and it was: “Considering your age and your RA and everything, you are still a really good dancer, Mom.”
Gladioli are my favorite flowers.
Now let’s talk about your writing…
List three of your favorite opening lines to novels. In what ways did each captivate you?
1. “The gravel pit was about a mile east of town, and the size of a small lake, and so deep that boys under sixteen were forbidden by their parents to swim there.” From So Long, See You Tomorrow by
William Maxwell was the editor of the New Yorker for a long time, (and the editor of my teacher and another one of my favorite writers, Larry Woiwode). I love the clarity and simplicity of this opening line. I love its gentle understatement, and the way it makes me think about what’s underneath the words, the issues of desire and danger and loss and memory which the slim, beautiful novel will reveal. Plus, how beautifully does it establish the key element of setting? This novel, like Sing for Me, is set in Illinois, and Maxwell teaches me in that very first sentence how important it is to ground your readers in the place where your characters live and move and have their being.
2. “My name is Ruth.” From Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.
I could have picked the first lines of Robinson’s more recent novels, Glead and Home, as well, but I thought I’d go with Housekeeping, her first novel, published many years before these other two better known books came out. There it is, plain Jane, four words to launch a novel that has the weight and depth of a once in a lifetime dream.
“My name is Ruth.”
The prose to follow is graceful and gorgeous, all filtered through the visionary character of Ruth. As a reader and a writer, I fell into Ruth’s point of view the first time I read that first sentence (and I’ve read it and the rest of the book many times since). Ruth taught me that less is sometimes more, and that less also allows more to be more, when more should be.
“My name is Ruth.”
Hello. Nice to meet you. I’ll follow you anywhere.
3. “124 was spiteful.” From Beloved by Toni Morrison.
As a writer, Toni Morrison teaches me about fearlessness. Right there, in that first sentence of Beloved, she’s fearless. A number is a subject, a character? What the heck does that mean? Who, where, what is 124, and why is 124 spiteful? Why do I feel unsettled, possibly afraid? (Because I did, first reading those words, and I still do, reading them now.)
Three words, mysteriously brief, charged with emotion and tension, compel into the next sentence, and the next, and now I’m hearing a story I’ve never heard before, that I so desperately needed to hear, about race and these United States, and how we are all, on some level, haunted.
Where did you get the idea, as well as continued inspiration, for your novel?
“Tell me a story,” I’d say to my dad as a child, and he would whole-heartedly oblige. I grew up laughing with his stories, and learning from them, too. I was fourteen when my quiet, lady-like mother died, and her passing cemented my desire to search out stories from the past—most particularly hers, but also those of others. It became my habit to seek out stories, a kind of sustenance, and a way to bridge the chasm of forgetfulness and loss.
Howard Books, April 2014
SING FOR ME was inspired in part by my dad’s stories of growing up as the child of Danish immigrants in the first part of the twentieth century, his childhood and young manhood in Oak Park and Chicago, the reality of having a beloved younger sister with cerebral palsy at that time, and his nostalgia for what had been abandoned—most specifically, a more pastoral life in the upper reaches of Wisconsin.
This novel is also inspired by my love for music, and my desire as a white woman to try and understand as best I’m able the experiences of African-Americans in these United States, and my belief that one’s calling is a divine gift. Accepting one’s calling—or, sadly in some cases, being able to accept it—is all other very human matter.
Tell me a bit about your main characters. Who did you have the most fun creating? Why?
Rose Sorensen, the central character, has a gift that she feels like she has to qualify or suppress because of the demands of her life. I felt deeply for Rose, as I was writing her. I longed for her to embrace her gift and seek out her desire. It was a challenge and a joy to work out this hard and wonderful season of her life on the page—in part, because I realize that many women (and men, too) have been in Rose’s position—certainly in the past, but even now, today. I care about this kind of struggle deeply, and I wanted to write one woman’s journey through it.
Theo Chastain, the pianist with whom Rose falls in love, was also a joy to write. I came to love him, too—his grief and anger, his gentle and creative spirit.
Probably the hardest character for me to write was the character of Sophy Sorensen, Rose’s younger sister who has cerebral palsy. I tried my best to understand what it would be like to live in her body. Just trying was an honor.
Introduce us to your villain. Is there a flicker of good within him/her?
I don’t really think in terms of villains. I think in terms of people. All of us have good and bad inside of us, and I work as a writer to explore complex characters with strong desires without judgment. I work to do justice to them, whether they make good or bad choices. I guess Rose’s dad, Jacob Sorensen, makes some bad choices over the course of the book—choices which up the stakes for Rose, and make her desire harder to attain. But I like to think Jacob also reveals his good side by the end.
Share a little about your faith.
My parents were both Christians, and I was raised in many different kinds of churches because my parents were also musicians, and always had church jobs (my mother was an organist; my father a choir director). I grew up attending Christian schools, chose a more liturgical tradition in my 20s, and in the last year or so have returned to a more traditional church setting, where the message and the music and the community are all deeply connected, engaged with matters of social justice and art and worship. I find God in this community, and in prayer, and in my writing.
Who does your intended audience include? Believers and nonbelievers? In what ways do you believe your story reaches each?
I write from my heart for readers of all kinds—women and men, believers and nonbelievers. A good story reaches every one, I believe.
What do you think is significant about Christian Fiction?
I think we are all spiritual people, and Christian Fiction openly acknowledges that fact.
What message do you hope your readers will take away after reading your novel?
Embrace your gifts and follow your calling.
How has being a novelist impacted your relationship with Christ?
As a writer, I try to understand the stories all around me in the world and on the page. It is a gift to do this work, but it is really hard too, and it makes me reflect all the more on the life of Christ. Jesus walked through the press of a crowd, and turned to a suffering woman when she touched the hem of his garment. He wept at the loss of a friend. He sat down with people who were otherwise shunned. He listened to children. He took time, saw people, accepted and embraced people, and He understood their stories. He is my greatest example of how to live life in this world.
And finally…what has surprised you most about being an author?
That really, being an author is all about keeping the faith.
Learn more about Karen and her writing by visiting her at:
Elizabeth Ludwig is the award-winning author of the EDGE OF FREEDOM series from Bethany House Publishers. She is an accomplished speaker and teacher, often attending conferences and seminars where she lectures on editing for fiction writers, crafting effective novel proposals, and conducting successful editor/agent interviews. Along with her husband and children, she makes her home in the great state of Texas. To learn more, visit ElizabethLudwig.com.