Karen Halvorsen Schreck‘s 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 2008, first prize awards for memoir and devotional magazine writing from the Evangelical Press Association.
Karen’s latest historical novel, Broken Ground, released from Simon & Schuster/Howard Books in May, 2016. Her recently published historical novel, Sing for Me, was called by Publisher’s Weekly in a Starred Review: “impressive…a well-wrought and edifying page-turner.” Karen’s Young Adult novel, While He Was Away (Sourcebooks), was a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award. She’s also the author of Dream Journal (Hyperion), which was a 2006 Young Adult BookSense Pick, and the award-winning children’s book Lucy’s Family Tree (Tilbury House).
Karen received her doctorate in English and Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She works as a freelance writer and editor, teaches writing and literature, and lives with her husband, the photographer Greg Halvorsen Schreck, and their two children in Wheaton, Illinois.
The following is a May 2016 interview with Karen Halvorsen Schreck.
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Tell us a little about yourself.
Although I enjoy travelling and spent a portion of my twenties on the East Coast, I’m a Midwesterner, through and through. I now live in the same town in which I grew up, right outside of Chicago. I have two teenage children, a daughter and a son. My husband is a photographer, and teaches photography at Wheaton College. I’ve also taught writing classes as a visiting professor there (among other colleges and universities), and I now work part-time at our local library. We have a dog, a sweet, shy, stubborn Shiba Inu named Kitsu. And, thanks to my son, we have two tortoises, typically still and quiet as stones. I love good food, movies, music, and books, and especially sharing these things with my family and friends.
What inspired you to become a novelist, and did you always want to write?
I was the only child of two older, working parents, and for much of my early life, my companions were books and my imagination. I’d spend hours combing the stacks of the local library in which I now work. Narnia, Oz, Medieval England, a little house on the big prairie—elements of everything I read worked their way into the stories I imagined and acted out in the privacy of my bedroom, basement, and backyard. Inspired by Harriet the Spy, I started writing my own journals and novels in an orange spiral-bound notebook when I was in third grade. (Unicorns and horses figured greatly.) I really hunkered down and tried my hand at fiction and poetry in college, and though there have been seasons where I’ve not written much at all (life has a way of making that happen), I’ve returned to the task ever since.
What do you think is significant about Christian fiction?
What I love about this genre is that, unlike the general market—which I’ve written for as well—Christian fiction invites writers and readers to reflect on the whole person. Characters are fully developed as physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual beings, whose struggles are not disconnected from their faith. As a believer I find Christian fiction expansive in this way.
How do you hope your readers react to the stories you write?
Heavens, I’m honored that people would even read my stories! That said, I hope that having made the commitment and taken the time and energy to do so, I hope each person reacts as only he or she can, from the deep center of who they are as an individual—someone who brings distinct experiences, beliefs, and values to each word on the page. I really believe that reading is a form of writing—the way you approach and interpret a book will be different from the way I do, or anyone else, and your thoughtful response extends the story and makes it something new. So that’s my biggest hope, I guess, that each reader brings him or herself to the experience of reading, and with an open mind engages and responds honestly to the story, and then, if compelled, shares that response so others, including myself, can gather more wisdom and understanding.
What responses to your novels have affected you the most and why?
It means a great deal to me when readers comment that my books have inspired them to make meaningful connections in their own lives. Sometimes those connections have been related to family—reignited interest in stories passed down through generations, for example. Or the connections have been related to more immediate experiences of relationship: a renewed appreciation of parents, or a new perspective on being parented, or an affirmation of the love felt for a sister, brother, or friend. People have also said that my books inspire them to reflect on their own sense of calling, prompting them to consider what they are passionate about, or drawn to do in a profound way—for themselves, for others, for God.
How has being a novelist impacted your relationship with Christ?
More so: my relationship with Christ has impacted my work as a novelist! Jesus’s empathy and connection, His willingness to love and know people who, in their brokenness and isolation, others would scorn, His fearlessness in the face of anger, pain, loss, and grief . . . well, His life, His story, is the primary example of how to enter story for me. In terms of the effect of my work on my relationship with Christ: I think writing has confirmed for me that the biggest truths are found in the details. I have learned to look for God in small, specific things, in people and the world around me. And writing is an act of faith, an act of endurance, a long race to run, marked by relatively few rewards. So too can faith be. Writing has taught me to believe, even in my moments of unbelief, and wait for revelation.
Other than being a novelist, what other goals do you have for your life?
I want to continue to grow as a mom. My kids are teenagers now, but every day they teach me so much about what it means to parent, and, simply, a human being. I hope to walk with them in love through everything that comes our way. That is my biggest goal, and it is also my goal for my marriage. Someone once said that the idea of “I married you” is false one. More it is, “I am marrying you” everyday. I love that. In this regard, my goal is to choose to continue marrying my husband, for better, for worse, for richer and poorer. Also, and honestly this is hardest for me, I want to better learn how to embrace and be embraced by community—specifically my church community. It’s challenging for me to do this, to take the risks this entails. Not sure, but I think it might be related to my particular legacy as an only kid. I’m used to small families, not big ones.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Lots of stuff! I like to be outside, garden, go for long walks, ride my bicycle with its bell. I LOVE to travel. And read, of course, and go to museums, theaters, plays, movies, and concerts with friends and family. And if someone wants to play a game—Scrabble, Charades, ping pong—well, count me in.
What can you tell us about your latest novels?
While they are very different stories, there are a few connections between my most recent novel, BROKEN GROUND, and my previous book, SING FOR ME. Both are set during the 1930s; the Great Depression has a big impact on the events, so much so that it could be called a character itself. And both books interweave family stories, or, perhaps more accurately, had as their initial inspiration stories told to me by members of my family. SING FOR ME carries traces of my father’s heritage; BROKEN GROUND, my mother’s. Finally, both books explore what it means to pursue a calling despite costs and constraints, and explore issues of social justice. To be a little more specific about plot (without giving anything away): In SING FOR ME, the central character, Rose Sorensen, is gifted with a beautiful voice and a passion for singing, as well as a deep love for the jazz music of her era. But her strict Danish immigrant family believes that all music besides sacred music is “bad;” she is only to sing in church. Only her cousin Rob and her sister Sophy, who has cerebral palsy, believe otherwise. When Rob whisks Rose away to a south side jazz club, and she meets a young African-American pianist, Theo Chastain, her world turns upside down. Suddenly, she is torn between family loyalty and her dreams for her future. In BROKEN GROUND, Ruth Warren, in the wake of great grief, leaves Oklahoma and heads west to California like so many Dust Bowl Refugees of the 1930s. When her plans for an education are thwarted, her life takes a surprising turn, thanks to her connection with Thomas Everly, a young WPA worker, and her involvement in a community of Mexican migrant workers, who, like so many people of Mexican heritage at the time, including a great many U.S. citizens, are living under the threat of deportation without due process.
What stories can your fans expect from you in the days ahead?
Lately, I’ve felt called to write about mental health—the way people, who through no fault of their own, struggle with these illnesses, and are so often stigmatized. How do families deal with it, and churches, and towns? Why is there still so much shame and secrecy attached to certain disorders? This concerns me on a very deep level. It’s where the pressure is, right now. I want to better understand it all, and to better understand, I need to enter into it through story. On a very basic level, I’d love to write a novel with shifting points of view. And I’d love to write a mystery. Not sure this can all happen at once though!
What would you like to say to your fans in New Zealand, and others worldwide?
Could I please come and visit you? Or would you please come and visit me? I’d love that.
Do you have any parting words?
Sing for Me
- Howard Books
- April 2014
- ISBN: 9781476705484
When a good church girl starts singing in a jazz club and falls for the music—as well as a handsome African American man—she struggles to reconcile her childhood faith with her newfound passions.
Raised in the Danish Baptist Church, Rose Sorensen knows it’s wrong to sing worldly songs. But Rose still yearns for those she hears on the radio—“Cheek to Cheek,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”—and sings them when no one is around.
One day, Rose’s cousin takes her to Calliope’s, a jazz club, where she discovers an exciting world she never knew existed. Here, blacks and whites mingle, brought together by their shared love of music. And though Rose worries it’s wrong—her parents already have a stable husband in mind for her—she can’t stop thinking about the African American pianist of the Chess Men, Theo Chastain. When Rose returns to the jazz club, she is offered the role of singer for the Chess Men. The job would provide money to care for her sister, Sophy, who has cerebral palsy—but at what cost?
As Rose gets to know Theo, their fledgling relationship faces prejudices she never imagined. And as she struggles to balance the dream world of Calliope’s with her cold, hard reality, she also wrestles with God’s call for her life. Can she be a jazz singer? Or will her faith suffer because of her worldly ways?
Set in Depression-era Chicago and rich in historical detail, Sing for Me is a beautiful, evocative story about finding real, unflinching love and embracing—at all costs—your calling.
(A Short Story)
- Karen Halvorsen Schreck
- February 2016
- ASIN: B01BFJ9ZDM
Thomas Everly and his family, like so many other Dust Bowl refugees of the 1930s, are chasing another harvest in California. This time, they find themselves in a camp outside of Lemon Grove—a town in which they hope to stay for a while. Their bodies are worn out, their tempers worn thin. They need the rest and shelter a decent cabin can provide. And here, Thomas’s little sister Grace can finally return to school. Hard times have transformed her into a shadow of her former self; Thomas wants his little sister back again. And she just might return—if other migrant workers, particularly those of Mexican heritage, don’t stand in the way. For these people labor in the local fields as well—efficiently, capably, swiftly, and Thomas and his father quickly learn that they have no real chance of keeping up with their pace. Any day the boss might tell the Everlys it’s time to hit the road.
For Thomas, things might have remained a competition between Us and Them. But at school Grace becomes friends with Ana, the littlest sister in the Reyes family—successful, longtime residents of Lemon Grove, who happen to be of Mexican heritage and United States citizens, too. When the future education of Mexican and Mexican-American children like Ana is threatened by the principal of the local elementary school, and Thomas encounters Ana’s beautiful older sister, Lupe, their lives become further intertwined. Soon assumptions about who is the real American and who isn’t, who gives and who takes, are up for question.
Inspired by the Lemon Grove Incident, one of the earliest court cases concerning school desegregation, and in anticipation of Karen Halvorsen Schreck’s novel Broken Ground (Simon & Schuster/Howard Books May 2016), Good Harvest will transport readers to the setting immortalized in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and further expand understanding of the diversity of people who inhabited this era, while establishing connections to some of today’s most heated conflicts concerning race, ethnicity, and immigration.
When a young oil rig widow escapes her grief and the Texas Dust Bowl, she discovers a surprising future—and new passion—awaiting her in California in this lyrically written romance by the author of Sing for Me.
Newly married to her childhood sweetheart, twenty-one-year-old Ruth Warren is settling into life in a Depression-era, East Texas oil town. She’s making a home when she learns that her young husband, Charlie, has been killed in an oil rig accident. Ruth is devastated, but then gets a chance for a fresh start: a scholarship from a college in Pasadena, CA. Ruth decides to take a risk and travel west, to pursue her one remaining dream to become a teacher.
At college Ruth tries to fit into campus life, but her grief holds her back. When she spends Christmas with some old family friends, she meets the striking and compelling Thomas Everly, whose own losses and struggles have instilled in him a commitment to social justice, and led him to work with Mexican migrant farmworkers in a camp just east of Los Angeles. With Thomas, Ruth sees another side of town, and another side of current events: the numerous forced deportations without due process of Mexicans, along with United States citizens of Mexican descent.
After Ruth is forced to leave school, she goes to visit Thomas and sees that he has cobbled together a night school for the farmworkers’ children. Ruth begins to work with the children, and establishes deep friendships with people in the camp. When the camp is raided and the workers and their families are rounded up and shipped back to Mexico, Ruth and Thomas decide to take a stand for the workers’ rights—all while promising to love and cherish one another.
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One copy was won, US only, and ended June 3, 2016 EST