How to love God and love books: an interview with Kara Martin

Wednesday 29th October 2013

Kara MartinKara Martin is Eternity’s resident book reviewer, who manages to be prolific while also juggling her role as Associate Dean of the Marketplace Institute, at Ridley College in Melbourne, being on the board of the Australian College of Theology, and a family. Since we’re now planning to feature more book reviews in Eternity, both print and online, I interviewed Kara about books, how and why she writes book reviews, and why she read Fifty Shades of Grey.

We meet for coffee and Kara is immediately friendly; only hesitating as she orders coffee: “Um … I’ll have a mocha today.”

When we sit down, Kara watches me with bright reader’s eyes underlined by a smatter of freckles, and hair streaked with a graceful grey. Throughout the conversation, she has this ready, ascending laugh that brings you up into it.

And it’s quickly apparent as we talk that she loves books, and she loves sharing that she loves them. And this is partly because it was books that helped her to grasp the gospel.

“I became Christian when I was 11 on a camp. I went on this horse-riding camp, someone drew a cartoon of Jesus standing at the door and knocking. And it was completely out of the scriptural context, however, that image of Jesus knocking at my heart talked to me and that night I just prayed the prayer and I knew. I sensed the warmth of Jesus coming into my heart, had no idea what it meant, and just knew that I believed.

“But I had no other resources, no Bible, no connections. So it was through books. I kept reading books and started making connections. So Madeline L’Engle—A Wrinkle in Time— [Classic YA novel published in 1962 that won numerous awards, including the Newbery Medal] there was just such a beautiful gospel message that flowed through that that I could recognise, I could see, and it just warmed my heart.”

“So much so, that down the track, when I did come into more contact with Christians and I started reading the Bible, it just made sense to me. I was just thinking, ‘What a richness there was and what a preparation I had through those books.’”

After doing a degree in media at university, she worked variously in radio and print, and later became a lecturer at the Macquarie Christian Studies Institute. It was there that she stumbled into book reviewing.

Sheridan Voysey, the producer of the radio program on Hope 103.2’s Open House, was after a fiction reviewer, and a friend recommended Kara. So she wrote a review and brought it into the studio. Sheridan assured her that they would stop and start, and have a practice run.

One conversation later, Sheridan pressed the stop button.

“And I said, ‘Is there more to do?’

“And he said ‘That’s the first ever time, that I’ve interviewed someone for the first time and I’ve done a one-take, and I won’t have to edit it, and it’s going to air on Sunday night.’

“And I said, ‘Oh. Does this mean I get the job?’

It’s evident that Kara loves books, and loves sharing her love of books with others—she recounts with joy the story of someone who heard Kara’s effusive review of The Book Thief on the radio, read it, and was converted from non-reader to reader—but also that she’s thoughtful about what she’s doing in a review. Rather than just list the amount of swearing, sex and language, she believes that Christian reviews can do more.

She’s been influenced by Romanowski, a Christian critic who wrote an influential book called Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture. In line with him, she looks for three things: to see the art as the artist produced it, to think about it in its form and context, and then what the artist is trying to communicate.

“What I’m interested is thinking: “What are the timeless truths that are maybe not at the forefront of this book, but are part of the gospel narrative that I can connect with?” That’s the sort of thing that I look for.”

Kara even forced herself to read Fifty Shades of Grey. She admits “it was poorly written and tawdry”, yet it was also an opportunity because of the way that books can work as an avenue for conversation: “I had a lot of conversations with people who I couldn’t talk about the gospel with in any other way, but I was able to start talking about the messages I felt it was sending, and how it wasn’t really … good for human flourishing.”

We move through the questions that you have to ask a bookworm: Favourite character? Jo from Little Women. “I love her feistiness, I love that she was a writer, I love that she was a bit of a tomboy … she helped me to have a lot of courage to do things that I might not otherwise have done.” Favourite book? The Bible, then Lord of the Rings. Worst book? Fifty Shades of Grey. “I burnt it, so nobody else could read it.”

As the interview is winding down, I ask her if ever finds it difficult when someone says “I’m not a reader.” She laughs and says that she will share her love of books, any way she can:

“I think people will connect with stories, if they’re given the opportunity. If someone tells me they don’t read much because of lack of time or whatever the reason is, I try and find out what the reason is … and then I try and find a way to sneak something to them.”

Photo credit: Ridley College.