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The writing journey of 2018 Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence Karen Zacharias Spears

By Staff | Oct 5, 2018

Appalachian Heritage Festival's 2018 Writer-in-Residence Karen Spears Zacharias speaks about her writing career at the Erma Ora Byrd Center on Sept. 27. Photo by Tabitha Johnston.

SHEPHERDSTOWN ” “You should be a writer.” Those words, said to Karen Zacharias Spears by one of her graduate school professors, redirected her career path from one in communications and children’s education, to a career in writing.

At that point in her life, Zacharias was a forty-year-old mother. Her four children were all in school, and she had decided it was time to enroll in a master’s degree program. According to Zacharias, she had always loved working with children, and until that moment hadn’t realized her own potential as a journalist, memoirist and novelist.

“I grew up in a trailer in west Georgia — how could I be a writer? I was the kid who grew up and said, ‘I want to stay out of jail,'” Zacharias said. “But that’s the power of a teacher, who can see things in us that no one else can see in us.”

Zacharias was a military kid, and when her father was deployed in the Army, she and her mother would live in east Tennessee, where her parents were from. However, Zacharias was nine-years-old when her father died in the Vietnam War, and sometime after that, Zacharias moved with her mother to Columbus, Georgia. She then graduated from Columbus High School and attended Georgia’s Berry College, before following her family to Oregon and finishing her bachelor’s degree in communications and education at Oregon State University.

During her senior year, Zacharias married Oregon native Timothy Zacharias, and soon after, in 1979, she gave birth to their son, Stephen. The birth of their three daughters — twins Ashley and Shelby and Konnie — followed his birth.

Although Zacharias may have started her writing career later than normal, her professor was right — she was meant for a career in writing. Her new career started in a local newspaper, and, while she spent 15-hour days writing and editing for the newspaper, she found time on weekends and before she began each work day to write her father’s memoir. The memoir took eight years to write, and as she wrote it, Zacharias said she knew she needed to do one thing before she could finish it.

“When I did my father’s memoir, I knew I wanted to return to where my father was in Vietnam,” Zacharias said, mentioning she ran into a few complications at work because of the amount of time off the trip required. “My editor said, ‘Choose the trip or choose the job,’ so I quit. Later on, I went back to work there as an editorial writer, so I’ve seen the rise and fall of journalism.”

The memoir brought Zacharias national acclaim, and since its publication, her writing has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, the Huffington Post, on CNN and on National Public Radio. She has also co-written and written other books, including the Christian Bend Trilogy, which was based upon her memories and research from growing up in eastern Tennessee.

Zacharias’ trilogy made her eligible to become the 2018 Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence and the 2018-2019 West Virginia One Book One West Virginia Common Read author, but Zacharias said she was surprised when Shepherd University Professor English Sylvia Shurbutt asked her to be the writer-in-residence.

“When Sylvia called me a year ago, I just literally that day had come into town from a book tour. She called me and was talking to me about this program, and I thought, ‘Does she need my help?'” Zacharias laughed, before mentioning her reaction when Shurbutt explained her reason for calling. “It shocked me. I sat in my car and wept. It hearkened back to so many people I had loved as a child. I see it as a very honoring thing for my people.”

As the 2018 Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence, Zacharias will be writing a short story to include in The Anthology of Appalachian Writers: Karen Spears Zacharias Volume XI, which will be available for purchase in 2019.