by C.J. Darlington
Karen Ball Interview
think I may have been writing in utero."
-- Karen Ball
Karen Ball is the bestselling author of several novels, including fan-favorites A Test of Faith and The Breaking Point and the Family Honor series. Ball has also worked in the Christian publishing industry for more than twenty years, and is the editor behind several of today’s bestselling Christian novels.
Ball lives in Southern
Oregon with her husband, Don, and their “kids,” Dasha, a
mischievious Siberian husky, and Dakota, an
Aussie-Terrier mix that should have been named Psycho.
C.J.: Have you always wanted to write, or did you discover your desire later in life?
I think I may have been writing in utero. Seriously, I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember. From grade school through high school, my best friend and I used to fill notebooks with stories based on our favorite TV series. Alias Smith and Jones was the best, because there were two heroes! One night I’d take the notebook home and write, then the next night she’d take it. I still have those notebooks, and they’re fun to read. (Thank goodness I’ve improved in my craft since then. At least…I hope I have!) I hadn’t thought much about being published until I was editing and a number of my authors (Francine Rivers, Gilbert Morris, and others) kept telling me I should be writing my own books. With encouragers like that, who could resist?
Were books a big part of your life growing up? If so, what books would you say influenced you most as a child?
Absolutely. My folks read books to us when we were little, and I had books in my hands from the time I learned how to read. My favorite place was the library, either in school or the public library. And we had our own library of books at home, too. As for what books influenced me…the Winnie the Pooh books (I still have the 1924 editions my mom bought when my older brother and I were little), The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (which I read in our Sunday school handout paper as a serial—I could hardly wait for Sunday to come!), the Miss Bianca books (which are vastly different from the Disney movies!), and Madeline L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Very early on I was captivated by the power of story.
Let’s talk about your Justice series. What first inspired you to write these stories?
Well, my editor, Julee Schwarzburg, asked me to consider writing a series, which I’d never done before. As I thought it over, I asked myself what I wanted to promote with a series, and I realized I wanted to share the blessing of family and the legacy of faith. My parents named my brothers and me intentionally, giving us names with special meaning. Karen means pure one, and Michelle (my middle name) means who is like God. How’s that for high hopes for a kid? So I had my characters’ parents give them names intentionally, praying that God would manifest those names in their lives and faith. Hence, in Shattered Justice, the protagonist is the elder brother, Avidan (Dan), whose name means God is just. Dan’s story is about understanding the realities of God’s justice in an unjust world. Kaleidoscope Eyes features the youngest sister, Annot (Annie), whose name means God is light. Her story is about seeing yourself clearly in the light of God’s love. And the final book, which I’m working on now, What Lies Within, is about the middle sibling, Kyla. Her name means God is victorious, and her story is about finding victory in God, not our works. Something I’m working on myself…
What did you find most fascinating in your research on K-9 search and rescue?
How the different breeds work based on their personalities. I was in SAR (search and rescue) for a number of years, but hadn’t ever spent time with the K-9 group. (I would have loved to be part of the K-9 SAR team, but I have Siberian huskies. They couldn’t care less if someone is lost. Tell them to find someone and they’ll just stare at you like, “You want ‘em, you go find ‘em yourself.” All they want to do is run…) So I called the K-9 team leader and she let me spend a day with them while they were training. The first dog up was a stunning German shepherd, who was happy and playful until the handler put the dog’s shabrack (SAR search vest) on him. The transformation was amazing. Suddenly the dog was all business, getting down to air scenting, working the air and ground with precision. And determination. It was definitely “see the hill, take the hill.” Then came the golden, and I swear, it was like the dog was going to a party, shabrack or not. She was equally proficient, but did her work with such ENTHUSIASM! Practically danced while she was working. I’d expected the dogs to be skilled at finding the hidden “lost person”, which they all were. But I had no idea the breed personalities would be so evident as they worked.
I was also intrigued at the way the handlers celebrate what the dogs are doing, especially when they find the “lost” person during training. They praise the dog, and have the “lost” person throw a ball so the dog is rewarded with a play session. The dogs care so much about pleasing their handlers, and the connection between handler and dog is just amazing.
I videotaped the whole thing and have gone back a couple of times to watch the dogs working. It’s really fascinating.
What’s been the hardest part about writing this series?
Making sure the characters’ voices are distinct and authentic. Especially the women. I have to be sure Kyla and Annie are true to themselves, not to me. It’s tough to write a woman character like Kyla, who is so different from me. I think that’s why I’ve had a harder time finishing What Lies Within. I’ve struggled with understanding Kyla, who she is and why she does what she does. I’ll write a scene and end up not being able to sleep that night because I know there’s something wrong. When I go back and read it again, I realize I’ve written the scene as Annie would react, not Kyla. So I have to go back and rework it.
You’ve been on both sides of the desk, as an editor and author. What’s the number one thing you’ve learned in your editing that you’ve applied to your own writing?
You can’t write and edit at the same time. The editor has to go away while the writer comes out to play, otherwise you’ll drive yourself nuts. When you’re writing, just WRITE. Then, when it’s time to revise and refine, let the editor loose. Editing and writing are two completely different functions.
Is it ever a struggle to balance your day job and writing? How do you manage?
Only all the time. Sigh…
It’s been getting worse these last few years. I’ve turned my last three or four books in terribly late. Some of the problem has been due to health issues, but the biggest challenge is exactly what you said, balancing all the demands. I don’t have an 8-hour-a-day job. I can work until 10 or 11 pm and still not get everything done. So that doesn’t leave a lot of time for writing. And even if I have the time, finding the mental energy to create and write…it’s been tough. Which isn’t to say I’m complaining or that I don’t enjoy writing. Not at all. But believe me, it stresses the editor and publisher when an author turns a manuscript in late. I’ve been on the editor side of that, and it’s probably the biggest frustration we face in publishing: Authors who don’t meet their dates. So when you’re the one messing things up because you can’t get a book done, that means you’re weighed down with guilt and a sense of failure…
Yeah. Doesn’t exactly help you be creative.
So how do I manage? I haven’t lately. Which is why I decided that I’m not going to seek a contract for my next book until I’m at least 2/3 of the way. Maybe not until it’s completely done. I’m tired of letting my editor and publisher down. They’ve been great about it, but it’s still something that eats at me. So I’ll just write the new book, praying God will help me find the joy in writing again. And then, when it’s done, if He wants it published, it’ll happen. Either way, I’ll keep writing.
What authors or books have had the most influence on you as a writer?
Francine Rivers has had a huge impact on me, as a writer and just as a person. I not only love and like her, I respect her a great deal. I long to be as faithful and grounded as she is. To have my priorities straight like she does. She and her husband, Rick, have also been a wonderful help and resource for Don and me in our marriage. I keep telling her, “I wanna be you when I grow up.”
As for books, Frani’s Redeeming Love is still my idea of a truly anointed novel. And I will never forget how I was impacted by the scene of Aslan’s death in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. By the whole book, really. Such deep truth so beautifully written.
Do you ever find it challenging to head to your keyboard every day? What do you do when the words don’t seem to come?
I didn’t use to, but lately it’s been a struggle. I’ve found myself sitting there, hands on the keyboard, waiting…and waiting… Drives me mad! What’s been helping is walking away from the keyboard and reading something that moves me, such as the Bible or a book I love. It hasn’t solved the issue, but it helps.
Where is your favorite place to write?
In my office. I can look out the window and see my yard, watch the doggies play, or look up at the mountain range and watch the play of light on clouds. I’m surrounded by pictures and stuffed animals and knickknacks that hold special meaning to me, and I have my favorite “writing” music playing. It’s a wonderful place to create.
What was the lowest point in your writing career, and how did you get out of it?
Right now. I’ve never been so late with a manuscript, nor had so much trouble finding the story to finish it. I remember, a number of years ago, when I worked as an editor with a writer who turned in manuscripts later and later. This writer had a host of reasons, one after another, and I dreaded receiving the next phone call telling me why the manuscript would be late again. And now…I’ve become that writer! I wish I could say I’m out of it, but I’m smack in the middle of it. I even woke up just this morning and realized I’ve spent 2/3 of the book getting my heroine into the core of the conflict. That’s too much time setting the stage! But I’m so far behind, how do I fix the story without messing up the publishers’ schedule even more? I hate being where I am right now, but I’m doing my best to stay focused on God—asking Him to show me what I’m doing that’s creating obstacles to this story He’s given me, why I can’t do what I want to do….hmmm. Sounds familiar, huh? I’ll tell you, I relate to Paul more and more lately: “I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?” And I cling to this promise: “Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
If one such as Paul can be plagued by these things, then I know there’s hope. That God has His hand on me, even in the midst of my own struggles and sense of failure. Which, ironically enough, is what my heroine in What Lies Within is learning, too. Don’t you love God’s irony?
Are there any authors or books you consistently turn to for inspiration?
Scripture. I love reading Scripture. And hymns. I love the writing and heart in the old hymns. I don’t read those things every day, but when I need to read something that stirs me, that’s where I go.
As for daily readings, you’re going to laugh at me, but I absolutely love the cartoon collections, particularly the Peanuts, For Better or For Worse, or Zits collections. I read one of these at night before I go to sleep. They make me laugh. And they make me think about how people are together, how we impact one another, be it for good or ill. I also love the devotional Streams in the Desert. I’ve read it for the last six or seven years. The readings are so honest, and so on target. Timeless. Powerful.
Some Christian authors don’t believe there even should be the label “Christian fiction”. What do you think?
I don’t like labels, but I understand the need for them. Better to let a reader know what’s inside a story than to have her feel duped. I equate this to a box of chocolates (and no, I’m not Forest Gump’s mama). I love chocolates, but I despise coconut. I didn’t use to have to worry about getting a coconut chocolate because boxes had those handy little descriptions on the inside of the lid, identifying what each piece was. Now, though, more and more boxes of candy don’t tell you what’s what. So I choose what I’m sure will be a coconut-free piece only to realize with my first bite that I’ve been fooled. And my anticipation is not just spoiled, it’s annihilated. (Seriously. I HATE coconut.) As a consumer, I want to know what I’m getting. And from the research I’ve seen, most consumers are like that.
What most inspires your imagination?
Beauty. Whether in nature, music, art, or human interaction, beauty stirs my heart. The power of the Pacific ocean; a piece of music with intricate harmonies; a painting or sculpture that captures the essence of a moment; an elderly couple walking hand-in-hand, soft smiles reflecting years of love and friendship…they all stir my heart and imagination.
What would you love to write someday but haven’t yet?
A book of prayers.
What’s next for you?
I have absolutely no idea. You may think I’m kidding, but I learned long ago that whatever plans I make are usually displaced by God’s plans. I found a saying that I put on the back window of both our vehicles: “Life’s a journey…enjoy the ride.” I can’t tell you how many times God seems to be taking me on a detour, only to discover it wasn’t a detour at all but the road he wanted me on. So I’ve learned to just let Him decide what’s next and, as best I can, enjoy the ride.
As an animal lover myself, I must ask you to tell us about your four-legged children. Their pictures are adorable on your website.
Oh! They’re wonderful. Well…most days. Bo especially is a darlin’. He’s our Siberian, and he just showed up on our doorstep almost 10 years ago, while we were living in Illinois. Don connected with Bo almost instantly, which was the first time I’d ever seen him do that. So we call Bo our “boy” and give him loads of love. He’s almost 13 now, which is geriatric for a Siberian. But he still looks and acts like a puppy. I hope I age with as much grace and enthusiasm as he has! [Editor Note: Since this interview first appeared, Bo has gone to doggie heaven and Dasha has been added to the Ball household.]
Dakota is our crazy dog. Truly. Insane. But there’s something so loveable about her, you forgive the quirks. She loves to cuddle and get as close to you as she can. But she’s a shelter dog, brought to us by my niece, Heather, who was a vet student at the time (she’s full-fledged vet now. How cool is that?) And like many shelter dogs, Dakota has…um…issues. But we’re working with her, and she’s improving a bit each day. It’s a good lesson in patience and loving no matter what. But I’ll tell you, when she cuddles up and gazes at you with those blue eyes…you know it’s worth it. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
Who influenced you to become a Christian?
No question, my parents. They did it by living their faith every day, by filling our home with warmth and laughter, by showing me everyday that they loved me and my brothers and each other, with no reserve. I will never forget seeing my dad standing there, his hand on the top of my mom’s curly hair, landing smacking kisses on her laughing mouth. Or the way Mom always patted Dad’s knee as they rode in the car. Just as soft pat with her small hand, as if to say, “I’m always here for you.” Little things that had a huge impact.
What are two things people might be surprised to know about you?
I studied Karate for awhile, and even placed in a couple of competitions. I used to keep the plaques on my office wall and point them out when people from other departments gave me a hard time.
I totally tanked when I competed in a voice competition in high school. I did a song in French, and had it memorized, as you were required to do, but when it was time to sing I was so nervous I blanked. Couldn't remember a word. I received the worst score possible. (Want to know the greatest irony? I remembered the words on the drive home, and still remember them to this day...)
When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
Playing with the dogs, sitting outside and enjoying the fact that God’s let me come back home to Oregon, gardening (we have GREAT roses), playing Boggle.
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Well, those health issues I mentioned are giving me fits with anything I eat, so I had a breakfast that is relatively “safe”: SlimFast.
Three things always found in your refrigerator:
Adam’s peanut butter, Silk soymilk, and a variety of cheeses.
You’re next in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?
A venti Mocha Valencia with a scoop of brownie bits added. (Trust me, it’s won-derful.) And then I do the Snoopy dance if they actually have the orange syrup. Starbucks has, for some unfathomable reason, stopped carrying orange syrup. But a number of the Starbucks around here stocked up on it before it was completely discontinued, so I know where to go to get what I want.
What’s left unchecked in your “goals for life” list?
To learn how to rest in God, to not try to do it all and then beat myself up when I can’t.
What’s currently in your CD player/iPod?
Oh dear, there’s not enough room to list it all. I got a Zune at Christmas, so I’ve got hundreds of songs both on my computer and on the Zune. But some of the albums I listen to over and over: Streams (an album inspired by the devotional Streams in the Desert), the Il Divo albums (talk about harmony that’s so beautiful it makes you want to weep!), albums by Adiemus, Illumination by Lesiem, and most anything by Montgomery Gentry and Rascall Flatts.
When was the last time you cried?
Anything else you’d like to share with TitleTrakk.com readers?
How much I appreciate those who read my books. Shoot, how much I appreciate those who just read fiction, whether it’s my books or not! But I love hearing from my readers. It energizes me and helps me remember why I’m doing this.
C.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.