`The River' Caught My Interest

Feb 9, 2015

The latest book in our 2015 Winter Book Series is a novel set during a time when evangelical authors and publishers pushed for wider recognition of books with a Christian perspective.

In the early 1980s, these books had a built-in readership but, according to author Katie Andraski, the industry was still a "ghetto." Andraski was a publicist at the time. "People went to Christian bookstores," she says, "and publicized books through Christianity Today, Moody Press and the Christian Herald."

Fresh out of grad school, Andraski wanted to turn quality Christian literature into "crossover books." She asked her employer, a small publisher, to send her to New York City where she convinced The New York Times, US News and World Report and Publishers Weekly to write about the authors she pitched.

Years later, she convinced this reporter to include her novel, The River Caught Sunlight, in this series. While Andraski remains a persuasive book advocate, my decision was based on her book's merits, one of which is this: It provides an insider's view (however fictionalized) of a small and sometimes radical industry struggling to gain mainstream acceptance.

Andraski's protagonist, Janice Wesftahl, is a publicist for a small publisher called Godspeed. It's 1983 and Janice is promoting anti-abortion writer Jeremiah Sackfield, who challenges readers to "take back their government" by refusing to pay taxes. While Jeremiah advocates revolution, he stops short of calling for violence. Nevertheless, Janice is worried that Jeremiah's words might inspire others to become violent.

Janice's concerns reach a critical stage when she and Jeremiah meet a businessman named Matthew Sparks. Sparks promised to buy Jeremiah's books and distribute them to "action groups." The trio lunch at a restaurant on Tybee Island, Georgia, and Janice listens as the men share their anger at Roe v. Wade. Then something happens that terrifies her:

"Do you know what these are?" Matthew Sparks leaned towards Jeremiah, holding innocuous-looking twists of wire and paper. His eyes, his hair, his slightly sunburned skin, seemed more off-color than she first thought. Janice hadn't gotten a bead on him because his face kept slipping from one emotion to another even though his voice remained jovial and relaxed.

"Blasting caps," Janice blurted, recognizing the dangerous sticks powerful enough to blow off their faces.

After this, Janice decides to shed light on the movement Jeremiah helped inspire. She schedules him for an interview with a nationally known journalist, Jim Sanders, who seeks to expose religious extremists. Jim is based on Kenneth L. Woodward of Newsweek, who pressed Andraski to "do your job" by exposing radicals. "That's how you stop revolutions," Andraski says, quoting Woodward. "It's powerful if it's a secret, but if you get the word out it's a good thing."

This plot development, and Janice's mixed feelings about undermining Jeremiah, mirrors Andraski's experience promoting the work of Francis Schaeffer and his son Frank, both of whom urged civil disobedience in opposition to abortion. "It became a litmus test for how true people were to their Christianity," Andraski says. "I hated that."

Frank Schaeffer, who left the religious right in the mid-1980s, is the model for the character Jeremiah. Andraski says she lifted parts of her conversations with Frank from her journals, using them in scenes like this one, right before an appearance on the Today show:

"What are you doing?" Jeremiah said, exasperated.

"Praying," Janice said. "Praying for you because you'll need all the prayers you can get in this interview."

"I'm going to start out by saying, `Hey Ellen Adams, you bitch.'"

"Jeremiah, don't wreck what you've worked for. People look up to you. You don't scare me," she blurted out the words, not sure how she was supposed to respond, but knowing part of her job was convincing him to behave, so Godspeed could sell his books.

"I'll be good." Jeremiah folded his hands in front of him and smiled. The shine off his hair practically sent a column of light into the pre-dawn darkness.

"Show compassion. Throw them off guard," Janice said. "Now that's a thought. A conservative who actually cares about the liberal sitting across from them."

Andraski tells WNIJ that Frank and the elder Schaeffer were kind and generous to her, even though they knew she didn't support their politics. Andraski also disagreed with Frank's contention, one shared by many evangelicals, that the "liberal" media shut out Christian books.

"I remember being furious, because I certainly had the media's ear," Andraski says. She says the absence of Christian best-sellers from the New York Times list wasn't due to censorship. "Christian books being ignored was a matter of evangelical publishers not sending their books to the general media."

Andraski expands on this, and other topics relating to her book, in the interview link below.

In the novel, Janice Westfahl leaves the Christian books industry to become a teacher. In real life, Andraski was fired.

"There was a book that I disagreed with about AIDS, and it was very troubling," Andraski says, noting she thought the book promoted fear and hate. "I had asked the author some questions like, `How do you earn your money?'" The next week, she says, the publisher told her she couldn't promote their books anymore. Andraski says the company was also releasing a book that would become a best-seller, called This Present Darkness. "It gave me nightmares," she says, "because it was a Christian horror story that emphasized demons. And I think Christians should emphasize Jesus."

Andraski is a faculty member at Northern Illinois University. Her novel is published by Koehler Books.

Katie Andraski will join fellow writers Charles Blackstone and G.K. Wuori for a panel discussion called "Writing the Novel," Monday, Feb. 16, at the Nordlof Center in Rockford. This free event, which starts at 7 p.m., is co-sponsored by WNIJ and the Rockford Public Library.

A similar free event will be held at WNIJ's newly-refurbished Studio A, in DeKalb, on Wednesday, Feb. 18, at 7 p.m.

Katie Andraski prepares to read from her novel `The River Caught Sunlight' for WNIJ.
Credit Dan Klefstad

The next author in our series is Jesus Correa, a Rockford poet and visual artist. Hear the interview next Monday, Feb. 16, during Morning Edition. Listen at 6:52 and 8:52 a.m., and then return here for more information, including an excerpt read by the author.

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