Focus on Fiction is pleased to feature
Karen has been making people smile in both the writing and the reading world for over twenty years. Her delightful sense of humor, combined with her deep love for faith and family, brings hope and encouragement to readers in her books A Test of Faith, The Breaking Point , the upcoming Shattered Justice, and others. When she’s not writing or working as an editor for Zondervan, Karen enjoys laughing, reading, sports, nature, wildlife, and finding wonder in everyday life. Karen makes her home in Southern Oregon with her husband, Don, and their "kids," Bodhan, a trouble-making Siberian Husky, and Dakota, a cuddle-prone Australian Shepherd.
Focus: Karen, thank you so much for joining us! You first began your writing career when you were in seventh grade. Can you tell us a little about the first story you can remember writing?
Karen Ball: It was a story based on my favorite TV series, Alias Smith and Jones. (Which is back, now, on cable! Woo-hoo!) I was madly “in love” with Smith, played by actor Peter Duell. My best friend and I decided to write a story together, so we bought a spiral bound notebook, and I started writing the story. The next day at school, I gave it to her, and she took it from where I left off. The next day, she passed it off to me, and so it went. I still have the notebooks we filled. And the stories aren’t half bad…for junior highers.
Focus: Your love for the written word became a career in book publishing in the 80’s. Then the authors you supported started encouraging you to write fiction, and in 1996, your first book, Reunion, was published. After helping birth the books of so many others, what was it like for you to hold your own in your hands?
Karen Ball: Kind of surreal. But really, really, good. To be able to share a story incorporating my love of my family, of God, and of wolves…it was just beyond anything I’d hoped. My only disappointment was that the wolf on the Trade Paper cover looked like a mutant Martian dog. So I was really pleased when we went from Trade Paper to Mass Market, because the wolf on the mass market cover was outstanding!
Focus: In Reunion, your character, Taylor Sorenson, struggles to pardon the young man responsible for her husband’s death. Some of our readers may be facing their own struggles with forgiveness. What advice would you offer someone trying to let go of the rage and desire for vengeance created by a terrible wrong like the one in your story?
Karen Ball: Boy, you ask hard questions! There aren’t any simple answers to a situation like this. Really, the only way I’ve found to deal with such deep hurt and anger is to look to God. Bottom line, He’s the only One who has a real right to be angry, to seek vengeance. I mean, He created us for fellowship and what do we do? Turn our backs on Him at the first whisper of “You shall not surely die.” But He didn’t take that right. Instead, He sent Christ to die for us. How can I, then, hold fast to anger and a desire for vengeance against anyone else? It’s not my place. Nor my right.
And cliché or not, I can testify that deep, abiding anger eats you alive. It keeps you from seeing anyone, even yourself, through God’s eyes. So I guess my vote is to recognize that the desire for vengeance is a deadly poison, one that will course through your soul until it shrivels up into nothing. And the best thing you can do is surrender it to God and let HIM deal with everyone involved. Including you.
Focus: Your upcoming release, Shattered Justice, also addresses loss, and the painful questions we face during times of suffering. Can you give our readers a brief synopsis of the story?
Karen Ball: It’s the first book in the Family Honor series, which is about living up to a legacy of faith in God. Dan Justice, the main protagonist, has spent his life trying to live up to the meaning of the name his parents gave him: justice. He became a sheriff’s deputy and volunteers working with troubled kids all in the name of justice. Then something happens—something brutally unjust—that shatters his world. Suddenly he has to decide if he really buys it—really believes that God is just and loving, even when everything seems to prove He isn’t.
Focus: Since the first name of your main protagonist in this story means “Justice”, will “Light” and “Victorious”, the name meanings of Dan’s siblings, be pivotal in books two and three of the Family Honor series? Could you give us a sneak peek of what we have to look forward to in these next two books?
Karen Ball: You’re so smart! Yes, absolutely. Annie, Dan’s youngest sister, is the main protagonist in the second book, which is tentatively titled Kaleidescope Eyes. Her issue is that she sees things in ways no one else does, that she has amazing sight and insight into the world and people. That come out in both her work as a successful stained glass artist and her volunteer work as part of a K-9 Search and Rescue team with her black German Shepherd, Kodi. But a crisis comes that makes her face what she’s run from all her life: the one thing she doesn’t see clearly is herself. So she has to reach a place of seeing herself with God’s truth, His eyes.
Kyla, the middle sister, is the protagonist in the third book. She’s been victorious in many ways, but especially in her career. She took over her dad’s construction business, and has made a name for herself in what is pretty much a man’s world. But she feels empty, like she’s not really doing what she should be. Then an old friend of the family comes along and presents her with a challenge that changes her life and teaches her that real victory is based on obedience, not on success.
Focus: Before you wrote Shattered Justice, you penned your bestselling book, The Breaking Point, the story of Renee and Gabe Roman, a couple struggling to hold on to love in a difficult marriage. In the book you include a quote from Gary Thomas: “Marriage… is the crucible that grinds us and shapes us into the character of Jesus Christ.” Both this quote and your story convey a picture of marriage that is vastly different from what’s portrayed in most romantic fiction novels. Can you tell us why you chose to present this side of marriage, and what kind of responses you have received as a result?
Karen Ball: It’s the only kind of picture I could portray. I mean, I know I write fiction, but it’s got to be honest. That book is my story. My husband’s and mine. Don likes to say “we’ve been happily married for 15 years, and that ain’t bad outta 25.” And he’s only half kidding. The journal entries in Breaking Point came out of my journals. All that anger, that despair…I was awash in it for years. A number of the scenes were right our of our lives. Some of it was fictional, sure, but the core message is one Don and I have learned the hard way. It’s the message Gary Thomas gives in his amazing book Sacred Marriage, that marriage isn’t about making you happy, but making you holy. It’s not about my rights, but about surrendering to the Master and being a servant.
You’d think that wouldn’t be a very popular idea in today’s “What’s-in-it-for-me” world, but the response I’ve had to The Breaking Point has been amazing. I’ve received letter after letter from men and women saying how it was exactly what they needed to hear, and how it’s changed their marriages. How it’s even saved their marriages. Not because of me, but because it’s truth. And I’m so grateful to be able to help others after all God has done to help Don and me. I don’t know if you can understand this, but being able to say that Don is my best friend, and mean it, is a miracle.
Focus: In The Breaking Point and several of your other stories, you feature lovable animals—particularly dogs—as characters, Would you tell us a bit about Bodhan and Dakota, the two lovable characters in your life? Having a Siberian Husky and Australian Terrier mix must keep life very… eventful?
Karen Ball: Can you say “controlled chaos”?? Yeah, they’re a hoot. And they get into more trouble than I’ve got time to tell. But they’re also a great source of laughter and joy and humility. God teaches me something through them almost every day.
Bo is our sweet boy. He’s almost 13, which is pretty well up there for a Sibe. And he’s all love—on his own terms. Unlike some breeds—Labs and Golden Retrievers, for example--Siberians aren’t motivated by devotion to their owners. Not by a longshot! They’re lookin’ for something more substantial. Like food. And stubborn? Man, you ain’t met stubborn until you’ve tried to train a Siberian to heel. Think about it! Every instinct in that dog is to pull and run ahead. And you want him to just walk along beside you? Yeah…okay. But for all those instincts, if you take the time and meet ‘em where they’re at, giving them the kind of motivation they need, it works! Bo not only heels, I can actually walk him off leash, which is pretty unusual.
And God showed me as I was working with him that I’m not that different. I’m stubborn and motivated by things that aren’t even remotely altruistic, and yet He understands and loves me all the same. And He meets me where I’m at, taking the time to work with me until I finally, at long last, trust Him.
As for Dakota, well, she’s a terror. Chews, yips, runs around like her tail is on fire. But if you want a great cuddler, she’s your dog. I keep telling her it’s a good thing God made her so adorable, or she’d never survive.
And then He reminds me that I’ve got my own quirks and weaknesses, and yet He loves me all the same. So they enrich our lives.
Besides, we don’t have kids. So we’ve got to have SOMEONE to buy toys for!
Focus: Besides lovable canines, two other common threads in your stories are strong family and strong faith. What was your childhood like as a pastor’s daughter, and how have your family members influenced your writing?
Karen Ball: Oh, gosh! Did I ever warn you that my first editor called me “O Verbose One?” Especially when it comes to talking about my family. Man, my childhood was golden. No kidding. My experience as a PK (preacher’s kid) was vastly different than many other PKs, because my dad made his family his first ministry. As a result, I grew up in a home full of love and laughter with a foundation of solid faith. I never felt the church came before I did.
Mom and Dad were always available, always honest and encouraging. They loved it when I wrote poems and stories as a kid, and encouraged me to find God’s path for the gifts He gave me. They supported me in so many ways. They’ve been my best friends for as long as I can remember. Which doesn’t mean they weren’t strict. They were, but they always tempered that with love and laughter.
My brother are my buds, too. We all get along really well, especially now that we’re grown. We love to tease and joke and play games (especially Croquet!), and just spend time together. And all of that shows up in my books, in the interplay the characters have, the laughter and humor, and in the depth of faith. It’s like one of those posters: Everything I Know About Life…I learned from my family. And it’s all good.
Focus: One of the things your family has in common is a love for music. Your duets with your dad during the Mt. Hermon Writers Conference brought many to tears! Is there a story or special personal significance behind the hymn you included in Shattered Justice?
Karen Ball: Not that particular one, though I love the song and the message. But I chose it because the lyrics fit the story well. But the hymn I used in A Test of Faith, “Shepherd of Love” was very personal. It was the song my mom most loved to hear me sing.
Focus: You’ve been quoted as saying, "Authors who are effective with humor are often those who have seen very dark times, and still hang on to that sense of irony and wit." You share some pretty effective humor in your novella, Bride on the Run. Would you tell our readers a little about the real history behind the cayenne pepper chili scene you included in this fun story?
Karen Ball: This is one of those stories I should let my hubby, Don tell. I almost did the poor man in.
His mom is a great cook. I mean, really, really good. And I heard over and over how great her chili was. So shortly after Don and I were married, I got the recipe from her. Unfortunately, my experiences in the kitchen prior to marriage had more to do with baking cookies and brownies than with cooking meals. So when I came to the Chili Powder ingredient on the recipe, I went to the cabinet and scanned the shelf. No Chili Powder. But hey, there’s a can of something called Cayenne Pepper—that starts with a “C” and it’s red…So out of the cabinet it came, and into the Chili went SIX TABLESPOONS of the stuff. Now, being newlyweds, Don was doing all he could to encourage my culinary efforts. I, on the other hand, was on a diet. So I served him up a nice big bowl, settling for just some of the cornbread for myself. Poor dear forced down two whole bowls—you can’t say no to seconds, now can you?—before he jumped up and bolted for the bathroom.
He came out, his face a tad white, and told me we had a bit of a problem. I took a tiny taste and almost passed out. I come from a Pennsylvanian Dutch family—spiciest thing we eat is applesauce with cinnamon! After we put out the blaze in my mouth, I walked Don through what I’d done, and when he realized I’d used the Cayenne Pepper, he turned even whiter. I explained my “logic,” and to his credit, all he said was, “Hon, they’re not really the same.” And then there was that tuna omelette I made for him…
Needless to say, it was good there was a McDonald’s nearby.
Focus: Writers are frequently told to “Write what you know”, and at times that knowledge can bring about humorous scenes. But sometimes writing what you know requires an honesty that can be painful. Your book, A Test of Faith, is a deeply emotional journey of longing and loss, forgiveness and faith. Were there parts of that story that were especially challenging or difficult to write?
Karen Ball: The first half of the book was based on a close friend and her daughter, so though it was hard, it didn’t tear me up. The second half…that was based on what I went through when my mom died three years ago. I was devastated when Mom died. It took more than a year to be able to talk about it without breaking down. So writing about Anne’s sickness—and especially the scene when she died—that was tough. I did a lot of crying. A lot of walking away from the computer and going outside to play with the dogs. And I hugged my dad a lot.
Focus: In all your stories, is there one particular message of hope you want to convey?
Karen Ball: That God is sufficient. No matter what, regardless of what circumstances seem to prove, God is sufficient. And He’s in control. You can trust that, rest in it, and take it to the bank.
Focus: When you’re not dealing with the joys and challenges of writing, you have another hobby—quilting! Can you tell us about your photo quilts?
Karen Ball: I was going through Mom’s clothes shortly after she died, and there were so many memories flooding my heart that I couldn’t bear the thought of just giving them away.
I had a friend, Jane Conrad, with whom I grew up in our church, and she is a wonderful quilter. A real craftsman. I went to her and asked if she’d help me make picture quilts for my dad and brothers for Christmas. Now, mind you, this was May when I asked her! She was great. Gave me wonderful tips, helped me learn what to do and how.
So I dug through all our photo albums—we have an entire bookcase of them, going from Mom and Dad’s teen years through this year—and found pix of Mom with Dad or Kevin, or Kirk. In many of those pictures, she was wearing the clothes I used to make the quilts. I scanned the photos into the computer, printed them out on iron-on transfer paper, then put them on fabric, which I used for some of the quilt squares. I used the material from Mom’s clothes for the other squares.
Each quilt featured Mom’s favorite things: a tufted Puffin, a cardinal, a panda, and pansies. For the back, I used printed fleece blanket material with images each of them loved, such as the beach for Dad (his and Mom’s favorite place to go was the Oregon coast).
It was a wonderful way to work through my grief, to turn it to something positive, something that I hoped would be a blessing to my family. God blessed me in the making of the quilts (I actually got all three done by Christmas--as well as one for Kevin’s eldest, Heather, Mom’s first granddaughter!) and Dad and my brothers all loved their quilts.
I had such fun, I made another one for my best friends, Julee Schwarzburg. Julee loves the Word, so I worked up Scripture on the computer, then put those on iron-on transfers. I combined those with picture squares with of us through our friendship of over 20 years. I’ve got others in the works, too.
Focus: Besides being a very creative quilter and a bestselling author, you’ve also worked as an editor of Christian fiction for over twenty years. Is it a surreal experience being an author and editor at the same time? How do you maintain a balance between writing, editing and your other responsibilities?
Karen Ball: It’s really not that hard, because it’s two entirely different functions of the brain. As an editor, or when I speak at writers’ conferences, I’m constantly telling people to just write when they’re writing. Don’t let the editor come out to play until you’re done writing. And that’s what I do every day. When I’m editing, I just edit. Then when I write, the editor goes back to her corner and waits for the right time to come out again. I think it’s made me a better editor, because I understand all the struggles writers face—insecurity, deadline pressures, writers’ block, and on and on--firsthand. And I know working with all these amazing writers has refined my skills and craftsmanship. Really, I feel as though God has given me the best of both worlds—and I’m grateful!
Focus: In the early 90’s, you were the editor of Francine River’s Redeeming Love, a book that’s been on the bestseller list for more than a decade. Since those early days, how have you seen Christian fiction change, and what do you hope to see in the Christian fiction field in the years to come?
Karen Ball: I’ve been working with Christian fiction for over 20 years, and I’ll tell you something that hasn’t changed: the heart of the writer. These authors are the best of the best. They have hearts for God, and for their readers. They want to tell great stories—not just good stories. And they want to do so in a way that brings new understanding and awareness of God. I’m so proud and honored to be a part of this adventure of Christian fiction, to partner with so many of these people in bringing readers stories that will not only entertain and move, but actually change lives.
As for the writing, well, there the changes have been remarkable. We’ve gone from simplistic storylines to complex and gritty, from sometimes mediocre writing to craftsmanship that rivals anything in the general market. You can’t believe the minds, the off-the-scale creativity of the people who are writing Christian fiction. I just finished editing Brandilyn Collins’s newest offering in her Hidden Faces series—Christian thriller/chiller stuff—and it was so good! I would have read it even if I didn’t have to!
The writing we’re seeing today in Christian fiction is top notch—and it just keeps getting better. And the content is more honest than ever, which is even more exciting. We’re not so afraid to face our human frailties, to address the struggles of living in this world as a follower of Christ, to admit how often we fall and how God forgives and lifts us up in spite of ourselves. Sure, there are still some boundaries we don’t cross, but I think that just forces Christian novelists to higher levels of craftsmanship. After all, you have to be one heck of a writer to show the full gamut of evil without graphic language or violence. Christian novelists have learned how to create stories that are evocative rather than explicit. How to show all of life—the good and the bad—without crossing the line into gratuitous writing. That takes a lot of skill.
Focus: Commitment and loyalty are clearly values that you and your family cherish. Your amazing dad was pastor of the same church for forty-five years. You and your husband have been married for twenty-five years, and as an author you’ve stayed with a single publishing house, Mutnomah, since your first book. What are your thoughts about the current “house-hopping” trend amongst Christian authors?
Karen Ball: I don’t think it’s really a trend among most authors to house-hop. Not with the authors I know, anyway. And I know a lot of ‘em. I think it happens more often out of necessity than out of desire, either on the author’s part or the publishing house’s part. As an editor, I hate losing authors, but sometimes you just can’t avoid it. Their needs—either financial or content wise—don’t mesh with what the house is able to do. As an author, I love working with my editor, Julee Schwarzburg. I don’t ever want to write without her. Does that mean I’ll always be with Multnomah? That’s in God’s hands. I can only say I’m happy there, and that’s in large part because of my editor.
Focus: Besides sending you dark chocolate, or pictures of wolves and tigers, how can your readers and fans encourage you?
Karen Ball: LOL! Hey, dark chocolate ALWAYS lifts my spirit. But the best thing they can do is pray for me. To know there are people out there lifting me to the throne of Heaven…well, that means more than I can say. And I always love hearing from people, either through letters or email. I haven’t always been the best about answering back, but I’m trying to do better. In fact, I’ll let you in on a secret so you and the readers can hold me accountable… I consider it an honor when someone writes me, but I know I haven’t lived up to that honor in the past. Though I answered most of my readers’ letters, there were some I didn’t answer. Not because they said anything bad, but just because I set them aside and never got back to them. So I’ve promised God that I’ll answer anyone who writes me from now on. Because I want to treat those who write with the same respect they’ve treated me. So if anyone writes me and doesn’t get an answer, call me on it. Kindly, please. <smile> But call me on it. I want to do what’s right.
Focus: Is there anything else you would like your readers to know?
Karen Ball: Just how much I appreciate them. Writing is such a solitary experience. You spend all this time, craft this story, let these characters come to life in your head and show you what happens to them…and then you have to let it go, hoping against hope that it will bless someone, maybe even meet a need. So when I hear that one of my books has accomplished that, it lifts my heart. I’ve made it a policy not to read reviews of my own work. A good review can swell your head; a bad review can lacerate your spirit. Both pull your focus off of what really matters: that God gave you this gift and has asked you to use it for HIS glory. So I rely on my readers to tell me whether or not I’ve used this gift well. They’re the ones I trust.