Karen Barnett talks about Out of the Ruins

An Interview with Karen Barnett
Author of Out of the Ruins

Whether because of grief, guilt or a feeling of inadequacy, many of us find ourselves pushing God away during the time we need Him most. Abby Fischer, the heroine in Karen Barnett’s new novel, Out of the Ruins (Abingdon/May 6, 2014/ISBN: 978-1-4267-8057-8/$14.99), comes face to face with grief and anger that causes her to question her faith, something the author herself has done for similar reasons.

Q: How do you decide the setting — both time period and location — for your stories? When and where are readers transported to in Out of the Ruins?

Out of the Ruins takes place during the San Francisco earthquake and fires of 1906. The inspiration for the novel struck when I was watching a documentary on American Experience about the earthquake. Survivors who had experienced the disaster as children were interviewed, and I remember thinking, “What must it have been like to walk the streets during such an epic event?” As I did more research, I became enchanted with this time period. Much like today, the early 20th century was a time when technology was changing faster than people could keep up. The future looked bright but probably a little frightening, as well.

Q: In Out of the Ruins, your heroine’s answer to prayer comes in an unexpected way. How has God answered one of your prayers in an unexpected way?

He often answers my prayers differently than I expect. Just recently, I was working on the second novel in the Golden Gate Chronicles and started feeling overwhelmed and inadequate to tackle the difficult plot and theme I’d originally outlined. After stumbling around on my own for a couple of months, I finally turned it over to God and asked Him if He really thought I should be attempting this book. A few days later, my husband handed me an envelope. When I opened it, I nearly fell over. It was a $0.15 meal ticket from the Red Cross earthquake refugee camps, dated 1906. My brother-in-law had found it while going through some old family papers. As I held it in my hands, I felt God’s presence. It was as if He were saying, “Don’t worry. I was there for my people in 1906, and I’m here now. I’ll supply your needs.”

Q: In this novel, you explore the idea that even when we push Him away, God never leaves our side or stops loving us. How have you experienced this truth in your own life?

In Out of the Ruins, Abby pushes God away out of grief and anger. There was a time in my life where I pushed God away, but it was because of guilt rather than grief. I knew God would never approve of the choices I was making at the time, so I played Jonah and hid from Him, thinking I could return once I fixed all my problems. The result? I continued falling further into sin because I was incapable of changing myself. It took a time before I realized I needed God’s strength to overcome my weakness.

Q: Was there anything especially interesting or surprising you learned in your research for Out of the Ruins?

There is an incredible wealth of written information and images about the 1906 disaster. I loved reading people’s personal recollections, letters and journals. I found it particularly fascinating how after the initial earthquake, many San Franciscans breathed a sigh of relief, believing the event was over. They had no idea of the looming disaster to come — the flames that would consume a large swath of the city. Most sat down to breakfast, not understanding they might soon be fleeing for their lives. It reminded me of a horror movie. We watch a character step into a dark room, and we all scream “Nooooo!” because we know what’s coming. It also took me back to the events of September 11. I remember watching the news, horrified that an airplane had hit the tower in New York, but with no clue how much more was yet to come that day and all the days that followed. We often view history as a complete picture, but when you’re in the thick of it, you have no concept of the scope of events.

Q: Tell us a bit about your heroine, Abby Fischer. What will readers love about her, and how is she challenged throughout the course of this book?

When I wrote Abby’s story, I was determined to step away from the typical heroine mold of the confident and beautiful woman. Abby is shy, socially awkward and stubborn — like me. She envies her sister’s beauty and talents, while being completely blind to her own. She’s spent much of her life hiding in her sister Cecelia’s shadow, but when her sister becomes ill, Abby draws on a well of inner strength she never realized she possessed.

Q: How about your leading man, Dr. Robert King? Is he patterned after anyone you know in real life, and what will make readers fall in love with him?

Robert is partially based on my husband — his generous nature, his kind spirit and his beautiful brown eyes. But Robert also struggles with pride and a desire for recognition, as well as a tendency to put God on the shelf in favor of science and self. I’ve seen many people struggle with these issues, and it felt very natural to work them into Robert’s character. He desperately wants to be the hero but needs to learn to step back and let God work.

Q: Are you an author who draws on real-life experiences to create your characters or is this work of fiction entirely from your imagination?

I definitely take from real life. Abby is a mirror of my younger self: a complete lack of self-confidence and struggling with extreme shyness. I base many of my plots on anecdotes I discover in historical research, but I always spin them in a new direction. My first novel, Mistaken, is actually based on an old family story, whereas Out of the Ruins was originally inspired by a documentary.

Q: Out of the Ruins is the first in a series. What can readers expect as the series continues? Will you pick up with the same characters or will readers meet new characters in each book?

It’s actually a little of both. I’ve always loved reading series because I grow attached to the characters and hate letting them go.  Robert and Abby will appear in all three books, but new characters (or side-characters) will take the main stage. In the next two novels, a beloved character from Out of the Ruins will have a chance at love, and we’ll also be meeting two of Robert’s sisters.

Q: Both Out of the Ruins and the next book in The Golden Gate Chronicles series touch on medical research at the turn of the 20th century. How did that element come about and did you learn anything interesting in your research?

I’m fascinated by this early 20th-century time period because technology was changing so quickly — automobiles, telephones, electricity, early airplanes, etc. When X-rays were discovered in 1895, it changed the face of medicine. By 1906, doctors were toying with the concept that X-ray radiation could be used to treat cancer. This research is what brings several of my characters together. I remember a cold chill washing over me when I read how early doctors tested the equipment before using it on their patients. The correct radiation level was achieved by testing the rays on their own skin; you wanted the skin to be slightly pink but not burned. As you can imagine, many of these early researchers ended up dying of the very cancers they were trying to cure. Tragic, yes, but their research led to many of the treatments used to treat cancer today.

Q: This is your second novel, but your first time writing a series. How does that change the way you approach the writing process?

Writing is sort of like gardening. With a single novel, you plant seeds (like themes and characters), nurture those ideas and collect the harvest at the end of the book. I learned that when you write a series, you have to plan ahead. Each book needs to stand alone and complete, but you also sprinkle in a few story lines that will last throughout several books. I planted ideas and themes in the first novel that won’t play out until the second and third. I can’t wait to see that happen!

Q: What do you hope readers will walk away with after reading Out of the Ruins?

My dream is for readers to recognize that despite our feelings at the moment — joy, grief, anger, etc. — God is always beside us, as close as our next breath. He desires a deep relationship with us. Not just basic belief, but intimacy. As a young person, I thought of God as more of a Santa Claus; if I were good, He’d answer my prayers. Now that I’ve walked with Him for years, I’ve learned God wants more than my recognition; he wants my heart.

Q: How does a former park ranger become an author? Can you tell us a little something about your “former life”?

I think what’s unique about me is how much I love both research and teaching. As a park ranger, I was fascinated by nature, especially what made specific plants or animals unique and how they thrived in their own niche. I also loved sharing that information with others, putting it together in an entertaining package through guided hikes, evening campfire programs and school programs. The trouble with park careers is you have to be available to work when everyone else has their playtime: weekends, evenings and holidays. Since my husband worked an office job, it was challenging being on opposite schedules. I turned to writing at that time but didn’t get serious about it until our kids were both in school. I found that my thirst for knowledge fed well into writing. I could throw myself into historical research and put what I learned into story form. It’s not so different, really, except now I can wear my slippers to work.

To learn more about Karen Barnett and her books, visit karenbarnettbooks.com, become a fan on Facebook (KarenBarnettAuthor) or follow her on Twitter (KarenMBarnett).