Interview with Karen Zacarias

May 29th, 2013

The excerpts below are from the article “Paging the Playwright: A Conversation with Karen Zacarias” published by Arena Stage. To read the full article click here.

karen-featureThe Books and Questions in the Play

David: How many books are read in the course of the play?

Karen: There are six meetings, so there are six books that are supposed to be read, but about 30 books are mentioned.

Pablo: How did you choose the books read in the play?

Karen: First, they couldn’t be unknown. The popular ones are The Da Vinci Code – one of the top ten most popular books in the world. Even if it’s old, a lot of people have read it. Twilight is not just a book, it’s a phenomenon, like Harry Potter. I also knew I had to find a book about people feeling trapped and not being able to breathe and when I came across Age of Innocence, I knew it was perfect. Moby Dick because it’s a dense, hard read, and everybody feels they know Moby Dick. It’s a great American classic, but if you ask who has read Moby Dick, very few people have. They’re all American books. It took a lot of time to figure out, and there’s still a part of me that’s thinks, “Oh, is Twilight too current. In ten years will this play be irrelevant?” But I’ll worry about that later.
Pablo: What are the questions that the film maker asks in the play?

Karen: “What had the biggest impact on you as a young kid?” I find that to be a great blog question. Everybody has an answer for that – or “What book that changed your life?”Because oddly enough The Da Vinci Code changes Will’s life.
Amrita: What other questions do you think the play raises?

Karen: Why do people come to theater? What’s the last good book you read? A good book will do two things – it will make you feel connected to the characters and it will make you feel connected to real people.

About Book Clubs

Amrita: After hearing about your book club, I also loved learning just how many book clubs there are out there.

Karen: It turns out that five out of ten people belong to a book club of some sort.There’s also a very big online book club called Beauty and the Book. It’s a Southern book club and the woman who runs it owns a hair salon. I think they’ve started chapters all over the country. It’s the biggest book club in the nation. She does the hair of all these stars, but her salon is half books.  It’s listed as “The only hair salon/bookstore in the world” and “headquarters of The Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys Book Clubs … as seen on Good Morning America.” They’re huge!

Amrita:  In learning about book clubs, I went from thinking it was this underground thing to realizing how many types of book clubs exist and how long people have been in book clubs.

Karen: I think Bible study is really a book club. People love Bible study.  Some people go to church so they can go to Bible study.
Amrita:  I know when I read the play, I thought about joining a book club.

Karen: The book club is a bit of an excuse. It’s a conduit. Sometimes it works and sometimes you have your best discussions about books nobody has read.

Pablo: My wife tells me that in her book club, some people who haven’t read the book still go.

Karen: Right, because you want to hear what other people thought of the book. It just brings out something. We don’t connect with each other very much anymore. We don’t have dinner parties as often. We’re connecting through social media but not talking about things that are soulful or interesting. That’s what literature does. It brings up soulful questions.

High Culture/Low Culture

Aaron: One thing I’m most interested in about the play is the conversation about what it means to be “cultured” – high culture vs. low culture – and can you be “cultured”?

Karen: A lot of us can get snobby about what culture is. The other day someone said to me, “Rap music is just trash.”I thought, “Well, some of it is, but the good rap music is poetry. It’s really, really good.” This is a person who had never been exposed to it, so I think, “Well, that person is not cultured.” He may have read all the classics – which is important, I’m not saying that isn’t – but if you’re oblivious to a huge part of what’s going on in the United States, then you’re willfully choosing to be ignorant.

I work with students all the time, and if I have read a book that they have read, then that is part of the “pop culture” that connects us. If I said, “Well, Heathcliff blah blah blah,”they’d be like “What?” But if I said, “Edward Cullen” – who is Heathcliff now – then suddenly the eyes pop open and they say, “Oh, that’s what my character is.” If culture is about being connected, then pop culture is important. Should that be the only thing you’re eating? No. But I find it interesting when people willfully close the door on something, so I ask, “Isn’t being cultured, truly cultured, being curious?”

I read all the Twilight books. They’re really bad – but they’re really good.    I was so surprised that it tapped into something I could talk about to people everywhere. It is a guilty pleasure. It’s interesting that if you meet someone who has read Twilight, you’re part of a secret.  You are part of a secret if you’ve read that book, and that’s what’s fun with book club.  I am a religious reader of Entertainment Weekly, and it’s the same thing.

I also find it funny that some of the greatest people in the world are people who never existed – the characters in books who we use for comparisons and metaphors. When you sit back and think about it, we are so invested in them – but they live in everyone’s imagination. They are like celebrities. If Harry Potter had died, I’m telling you millions of people would go into mourning. Having an understanding of pop culture helps you connect.

This play is not a “high culture” – and that’s intentional. I hope people have a good time and laugh, but I also hope they’ve…

Amrita: They’ve gained that sense in a way?

Karen: Yes.

Book Club Dynamics

Amrita: I find the intensity with which people embrace their book clubs interesting.

Karen:  A friend once told my husband, “Oh, you’ll have to become ruthless to keep your book club alive.” We thought that was funny, until we did have to become ruthless. We had a guy join who was not a good match, so we started having meetings without him – after some people stopped coming. When he realized he wasn’t invited, half the book club broke off, and there were two book clubs. One member of our book club still goes to both.

Pablo:  In my book club, we kicked a guy out completely. We just kicked him out. It’s a very intense experience.
Karen: It’s like high school.

Pablo: It’s incredible. It’s very hard for people who haven’t been through that to understand, but it’s way beyond just reading books and reflecting on them, way beyond.

Karen: It almost becomes like a therapy session sometimes – or like being at college at two o’clock in the morning after you’ve had some beers. A book club is the closest thing you’ll get to that in your adult life.   When you bring in someone who makes it feel unsafe or, every time someone says something important, they crack a joke, then they need to be eliminated as soon as possible. So, you do become ruthless, because it’s a group dynamic. It happens in a lot of different places but especially places where there’s art, something emotional like literature.

Did You Know?

Karen: It turns out that Southern women are the biggest readers in the whole country. I would have never known that. There are some interesting facts about how many people read, etc., but Southern women read more books per year than any other population, mostly romance novels. Some of them average 200 books.

David: Per year? Wow.

Karen: Yes, and Harlequin sells four books per second.