Interview on the Rhine
September 2005

B.K.: Why Eden?

SHARON: All mysteries for me start with “what ifs?” Obviously, I was closely watching the beginning of the Iraq War back in 2003. When it came out that the Iraq Museum and the museum in Mosul had been robbed simultaneously, by pros who knew exactly what they wanted, the questions were immediate. Who did it? What did they want? Why? How did they have access? How did they know when? Why were there no guards? How powerful were the men who made it possible for this robbery to take place? Powerful enough to make sure the museums were unguarded? Powerful enough to start a war?

Also, for centuries, humankind has told stories about, and been intrigued by, the idea of Eden, which was undoubtedly located in Mesopotamia—perhaps in the Iraq/Iran/Kuwait Gulf area. I love subjects, where the more you research, the more intriguing the material becomes.

Eden aside, suddenly the evening news was filled with images of the Tigris and Euphrates, talking about Ur and Babylon and Nineveh. Holy cow! These places are real—and we’re there.

Finally, of course, you were over there and I wanted to know, in some small portion, what it was like when you seemingly disappeared behind what felt like a veil of white smoke. Again, questions.

SHARON: Since we were young, you always seemed to have a keen sense of adventure. How did that inform your life as a kid?

B.K.: Games we played always had a hint of danger: we climbed through upper branches of a tree like the mast of a ship at sea. I wasn’t afraid to try new things, like SCUBA diving when I was in high school.

SHARON: Your choices as an adult?

B.K.: I didn’t ever feel limited in my choices for school or profession simply because of my gender. Also, I’ve been all over the world, sometimes in “not so nice” places that could be quite dangerous, but even in the midst of some very scary experiences, it was possible to recognize that this truly is an adventure. LIFE is an adventure.

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SHARON: How did your sense of adventure contribute to your decision to become a chaplain?

B.K.: I can’t say I always knew I wanted to be a chaplain, but I can certainly look back and see how so much of my early life prepared me for it.  Someone who wants a predictable daily schedule and roots in one, comfortable location will not be happy with military life.  The adventure of military chaplaincy comes not from driving in night convoys, sleeping on the ground, or visiting exotic locations (although you do sometimes do those things), the adventure lies in the daily challenges that require you to use all the resources you have at hand.  You deal with such a wide variety of people from diverse economic, cultural, and religious backgrounds, each new issue provides a unique challenge. 

SHARON: How do you feel when facing a deployment to a combat zone? 

B.K.: This is why I am here.  This is what I have trained for.  If I can’t stand in the midst of my fellow soldiers when they are scared or hurting and remind them that they are not alone, that God will never forsake them...then I don’t deserve to be here.

SHARON: Have you found that war is a time when soldiers often question, or rely on, their faith?  

B.K.: There is an old saying that goes “there are no atheists in foxholes,” but I think that is a little too simplistic.  There are moments in all our lives when we are reminded of our mortality.  Each of us will respond to those moments in different ways.  For many soldiers in combat that response includes seeking to strengthen their faith, to grow closer to God.  And when they do, they discover others who will stand with them and help face the uncertain times.     

SHARON: How do you approach being a chaplain to all faiths, when you yourself have a specific faith?

B.K.: My first step is to make sure I am very grounded and confident in my own faith, in my relationship with God.  This frees me to focus on the needs of the soldier, and figure out the best way to meet those needs.  Often that may mean providing a specific kind of worship service through another chaplain or a certified lay leader.  Sometimes it may simply mean ordering some special study materials or linking them up with others with similar beliefs.  As a chaplain, I am never expected to perform religious rites or services that are outside the tenets of my faith, but I am expected to help provide for those needs through other chaplain and military resources.    

SHARON:  Do you have any thoughts about how family and friends can support their loved one in the military when they haven't shared the experiences in a combat zone? How about for the soldier when well meaning loved ones seem clueless about what they've gone through?

B.K.: Just know that every little thing you do in support of them helps them get through the scary, uncertain times.  Every letter, every picture, every prayer, keeps you connected, helps you keep grounded in reality, when everything around you seems, well, bizarre and unreal.    And don’t worry about feeling “clueless” about what the soldier has experienced.  Sometimes knowing all the details leads to needless worry.  I don’t need for my family to understand everything I am going through.  I just need them to know I am going to be okay, and not to worry.  Then I can focus on the job at hand.

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B.K.: Okay, your turn. How did your sense of adventure contribute to your decision to become a writer?

SHARON: All my life I’ve told stories, either to entertain my friends, or simply to entertain myself. In one way, I grew up in Park Forest, Illinois, and Springfield, Missouri, but in another way, I grew up in my imagination. I was an U.N.C.L.E. agent through most of my youth. It was really scary at times, but truly exhilarating. As you can imagine, it was very helpful to the organization to have such a skilled agent who was so very young.

But there were also so many other things I wanted to be, that before long I realized I didn’t really want to make the sacrifices and lifestyle choices necessary to become a doctor, or a covert agent, or an actress, or a “bad guy,” or royalty. What I really wanted was to have the experience of being those things. I wanted to try on the emotions. I didn’t want to have to commit to the actual responsibilities and daily tedium of any one profession, I wanted to have the “good parts version” of many life choices—then move on.

The only way to have a lifestyle of becoming other people that you create yourself is to be a writer. What a great gig!

B.K.: In other words, I go to the desert; you stay home and write about it? 

SHARON: Well, of course, you write too. But that’s pretty much the program. Um, how do you feel about that?

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B.K.: What are the most fulfilling parts of being a writer for you?

SHARON: I’m going to answer this about fiction, since the answer about nonfiction would be completely different.

For me, during the process of writing, the most fulfilling part is getting to truly know all the characters. When I look at each novel I’ve written, it’s like remembering a part of your life when you were really intimately involved with a small group of people, and you all loved and fought and made fools of yourself and grew together. Each cast of characters brings me back to a very specific time and place in my life journey. We all went through so much together.

But then, once the book is out, it’s very fulfilling to talk to people who have read it. It’s like you now have friends in common. And it’s fulfilling to talk to people who want to write, and to help them figure out how to go about it. I never feel threatened by new writers, in my mind, no two writers are the same or bring the same experience to the page. There’s room enough for everybody, and I love to help people realize their potential.

B.K.: How do you feel when deploying your gifts to, well, write a novel?

SHARON: I’ve always thought that writing a novel is a lot like having a baby. The impulse that gets you into the whole process is so exciting and well intentioned. It’s not till you’re in the thick of it that you truly realize what you’ve gotten yourself into, and by then it’s too late. When you’re finally finished, it’s like coming through labor—the pain is excruciating, all your energy is expended, the world has seen very private parts of you, and your emotions are all over the place. It wasn’t fun. You swear up and down that you will never, ever do it again.

But then you forget. And one day you have this great idea...

B.K.: How do you create your characters?

SHARON: Parts of me, in this case, parts of you, and parts of other people we know or have heard about.

I know the character has a life of her own when she or he starts speaking naturally in my head—when I recognize the voice, the cadence, the thought processes, the sense of humor, or lack thereof. We’ve joked that Jaime is the perfect woman—the best parts of each of us. But then she leapt to life and became her own person. I can envision circumstances in which she and I could get into a good argument. In fact, I think we have. But she’d be a good friend. I could hang out with her.

Yani was an enjoyable challenge because he speaks in several different cadences, carrying several different personas, yet each one has to be true to itself, but believable as Yani.

SHARON: Who is your favorite character in the book?

B.K.: Col. Abraham Derry. He is a strong leader, good, caring, man—the best part of every great commander I have ever known. I would follow him to Hell and back.

B.K.: What were your favorite parts of the book to write?

SHARON: I like the relationship stuff. Between Jaime and Jenkins the XO; between Jaime and Adara, Jaime and Colonel Derry, Jaime and Gerik, Jaime and Yani. Especially Jaime and Yani.

The characters not only have their own voices and personalities in my mind, they have their own relationships with each other and their own ways of interacting. Mostly I just stand back and transcribe.

SHARON: What were your favorite parts to work on?

B.K.: The chase scene with Satis Coleman. For some reason, I can see that location [the bombed-out palace] in my mind as if I had actually been there. I also enjoyed working out how Jaime and Yani do the handcuff thing.

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B.K.: You want to talk about how we met and became friends? And talk about if this is our first literary creation together?

SHARON: We met in Mrs. Conard’s sixth grade class in Eugene Field Elementary School in Springfield, Missouri. We’d both moved there from other places: my family from the Chicago area, and yours from New York State. At first, I was ticked off with you because your family had moved into Kirby Ellston’s house, and I’d been counting on finishing his collection of Hardy Boys books. Also, you were irritatingly smart and competitive and you’d purposely catch up to me and surpass me in the color-coded SRA reading folders. Drove me nuts.

But at some point we realized that if we joined forces, we’d be both dangerous and unstoppable. That was probably shortly after I discovered you were not only very smart, you were also nuts.

Our collaborations began immediately.

SHARON: What do you remember about the French Underground play we did for the sixth grade talent show?

B.K.: At a crucial part in the play, dynamite was supposed to explode. But the person doing our sound effects record mistakenly put the needle on the wrong track, and there was like 2 minutes of burning fuse instead.

SHARON: Why do you think we ended up being friends?

B.K.: It had to be the birthdays—we’re both Leos. If you had looked at both of us, watched us in class, you never would have expected we’d end up friends for life. But deep down inside we had a sense of purpose that connected and grew.

SHARON: How are we both alike?

B.K.: We are both dreamers and we both understand that some dreams can be made to happen—they can come true, you just may have to help them along a little.

SHARON: How are we different?

B.K.: I am willing to admit my age.

B.K.: How would you say we’re different?

SHARON: You like Diet Vanilla Coke and I prefer Diet Vanilla Pepsi.

SHARON: What did you tease me about?

B.K.: Your many boyfriends (some of whom you were dating simultaneously).

B.K.: What did you tease me about?

SHARON: Do you remember that orange purse you had in junior high?

But now, I usually tease you about your love life. Jaime’s man of mystery is much more believable.

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SHARON: Since we were teenagers, we’ve written and produced movies and plays together. How would you say we usually work together?

B.K.: We brainstorm well. One gets an idea. The other adds on, and it gets rolling until you can’t really identify where anything originated. Ultimately, though, you are the one who normally writes it down. I am the kinetic expression who likes to act out the motion and action of the scene. Then you can take those pictures and present them in a clear, exciting, verbal way. 

B.K.: What aspect of your childhood/youth most prepared you to write this book?

SHARON: We didn’t just write stories about people in the French Underground—which to us was the height of courage and daring and fighting tyranny—we became the characters and acted out very intense dramas.

Years later, when I was writing Spider-Man Comics, the head of Marvel said to me, “I don’t want kids to read these comics and sit in their room and think about Spider-Man. I want them to go out in the backyard, put a towel around their neck and become a superhero. I want them to know what it’s like to try on those emotions, to find that courage, that hero within themselves.”

I really believe our early adventure play helped awaken those emotions. I’ve spent most of my adult life writing about real-life heroes, such as Raoul Wallenberg and Princess Ka’iulani. I was also the principle biographer of the Heroes Curriculum for the Wallenberg Committee of the United States, which has now been used in classrooms with more than a million kids.

Psychologists like Jon Hait have found that heroic emotions are every bit as contagious as the negative emotions. So we need to hear—and tell—stories of courageous people who stand up for what they believe, even if the cost is high.

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B.K.: Do you consider Jaime a hero?

SHARON: Yes. Absolutely. Heroes are not invincible automatons who are never afraid and never screw up.

Heroes are real people who face difficult circumstances and find the courage to become their best selves.

 What I love about Jaime is that she confronts the most difficult experiences possible—she doesn’t ignore them or skirt around them, she confronts them and deals with them to the best of her ability. Which doesn’t mean she won’t break down occasionally. For me, that means she’s in there fighting, she’s dealing and growing to the best of her ability. My guess is that she’s one of the only action heroes who needs to take time to cry.

I also love that in the beginning of the book, she says she prays that in a crisis, she’d have the courage not to pick up a gun—and by the end of the book, those convictions have been put to the test. I love that in the square at Quarnah, both Jaime and Gerik are put to the test, and both show their true colors.

SHARON: Do you consider Jaime a hero?

B.K.: In a literary sense, I suppose she is. In life, no more so than any other person trying to do her best to live the life God called us to. She has faced some real hardships, overcome some big hurdles, managed to pick herself up and drive on. If that makes her a hero, then there are a lot of everyday heroes out there who go unrecognized. She has chosen to serve her God and her country by wearing a uniform and going with the troops to some difficult places, but others have also been called to serve God and country in no less difficult or important ways.

I think we both said the same thing in different ways.

SHARON: What have you learned from me?

B.K.: Motherhood is not easy. In fact, it is hard, exhausting work.

But also that time and distance separation does not doom a friendship. It is possible to maintain close ties and actually grow in the relationship.

B.K.: Okay, back at you: what have you learned from me?

SHARON: I learned how to live a courageous life. That you never stopped to look at the obstacles, you look at the great results beyond the obstacles, and you get past them as they come up.

By the time we were in high school, I think, we were having so much fun, doing so many creative things, with each other for support that it never occurred to us to worry what groups we fit or didn’t fit into. Nerds, jocks, popular kids, politically aware kids, unpopular kids, we had friends in every group, but we were our own group—we didn’t answer to them or worry about fitting in with them. It was an invaluable lesson for later life, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have had that kind of courage to just be comfortable with who God wanted me to be, if B.K. had cared a fig about idiotic peer pressure. We egged each other on. We still do.

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B.K.: As a matter of fact, how do you juggle your profession with family life? Is it a struggle? If so, does one aspect inhibit the other?

SHARON: Finding a balance is a constantly moving target because kids and schedules and workload and bank accounts are always in flux. So you’ve never “succeeded,” you’re never “there,” because there keeps changing. But you’re always in pursuit and sometimes you come close. I had children fairly late in the game, and I know how important it is to be a big part of their life—but I also know I can’t be the best for them if I don’t feel I’m using the gifts and talents that make me uniquely me.

I can’t complain, even though I do. Pretty steadily, too, hunh? But I get to work from home and pretty much set my own hours. Lots of women have it much harder. I know enough to be grateful.

SHARON: I know people are going to ask: Why do you think it’s important to have women ministers?

B.K.: This question could be written as fill-in-the-blank (_____ ministers) and my answer would still be the same. Men/women, ministers from different cultures, married/single, and on and on.

We are each unique individuals, given a variety of gifts by God, but different gifts to different persons, not all the same. To deprive any one group of serving as a minister simply because they fit into some pre-designated category is to place a stumbling block in the world, hindering the growth of some who might better understand the work of God through those ministers.

As a white female who grew up in a midwestern community, I have a particular understanding of God’s Word that will be evident in my preaching and counseling and relating. God uses that, just as God used every woman in the Bible to serve a special purpose, whether Mary Magdalene, or Deborah, or Martha, the women of the Bible had important roles to play. Women of today have important roles as well.

B.K.: Any hobbies? Favorite music?

SHARON: I used to have hobbies.  Now I have children and animals. Sneaking time off with my husband is a hobby. And decorating our house is my hobby. I’ve been at it since we moved in 6 years ago and I’m almost half done. I hope to have it finished by the time my son brings home his college girlfriend.  He’s 10.

SHARON: How about you? Any hobbies? Favorite music?

B.K.: Music is actually a hobby, along with dog training...(my dog Derry is a perfect example of my skill in that arena...not!). I also enjoy photography (especially computer graphics/photo editing).

The music question is hard to answer...if you looked at my ipod you would have a hard time figuring my favorite. I love pop, rock, easy listening, classical, opera, musical theater, a little jazz...Billy Joel, Eagles, Josh Groban figure big in my list.

It's easier to say what I don't like...punk rock, really hard-line country, and rap.

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B.K.: You want to steal those questions from Actors’ Studio? What profession, other than your own, would you most like to do?

SHARON: Heiress. Princess (That comes from being the daughter of a minister who had a large church. You have to learn many of the same people skills.) Travel writer. Food critic. Equestrienne. Vintner. Nazi-fighter.

SHARON: How about you? What other profession would you do?

B.K.: Professional golfer (if I was any good at it) or film editor.

SHARON: Would least like to do?

B.K.: Factory work (same thing over and over and over....)

B.K.: What would you least like to do?

SHARON: Anything involving a boss, strict hours, pantyhose and kissing up. I’m abysmal at kissing up. Way too much of a smart aleck.

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B.K.: What has been your favorite thing we’ve done while you’ve been here visiting Germany, specifically Wiesbaden and the Rhinegau?

SHARON: First, let me say that you are a terrific tour guide. You know just when to stop at charming cafes, and how to have work sessions on boats going up and down the Rhine.

But I’d say my favorite adventure was when we were attempting to get to the Castle Liebenstein, which is perched precariously on top of a mountain. Great view of course, ancient castle, good restaurant. However, the road was one-lane, a series of hairpin turns at what seemed to be 180 degree angles. What made it interesting was that at the time, your car, for all intents and purposes, did not have a clutch. So, driving up the mountain, then sliding back down off the mountain, as we did several times, was really quite exciting and bracing.

But hey, if we’re going to go, we might as well go together, in search of a really good meal.

End of Interview

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