Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. A review copy of one of the books mentioned below was provided for free by the publisher in the hopes that I would mention it on my blog.
Carolyn Weber holds M.Phil and D.Phil degrees in Romantic Literature from Oxford University. Recently she published a memoir about her conversion to Christianity while at Oxford.
I had the pleasure of asking Carolyn a few questions about her book and reading habits.
Tell us a little bit about how this book came to be. When did you first get the idea to write it? How did everything come together from there?
I never initially intended to write my conversion story. Rather, after years of sharing it with my students in particular, many of them prompted me again and again to think about putting it down. They reminded me how much it sounded like a novel–which indeed all our lives do when we see them as God does! But I was hesitant at first, because it was an entirely new genre for me as a traditional academic. It also wasn’t, how shall I say, a “widely supported” project in mainstream secular academia. Ha! But as I prayed over it, and looked over my old journals and mementos, I realized how much I had been given, and how much I needed to return it to God’s glory, to the best of my capacity. So I ended up writing most of it during my first formal sabbatical literally in a tiny closet (hiding out from my children) in our small beach rental. It was hard, hard, hard–I had just had twins the year before, and I also had a three year old girl–we had little sleep, and even less money. I faced pressure from nonbelieving colleagues about writing such an “unacademic let alone Christian” work, and I was worn out from years of teaching without a break. But I think the Holy Spirit works best in us when we are weakest, and in a strange, beautiful way, I felt carried through the writing, along with a lot of caffeine.
How did writing a memoir differ from academic writing you’ve done in the past?
It’s a lot harder. Wow. For one, writing memoir is much more vulnerable. Sure, having someone challenge a theory or question a statement is fodder for fair debate. But having someone give you 1 star on Amazon for a rendition of your LIFE? That’s a little painful, no matter how you cut it.
For two, I found it particularly challenging to think about how to select from what really happened and yet weave it together in a way that would matter to an objective reader. It’s tricky to recreate conversion and yet not have it sound stilted. I have a whole new respect for writers and the craft! I think you must always respect your reader’s time and energy. I found myself trying to think of the audience I felt I knew best, and thus was most called to–believers and unbelievers. I grew up a non-believer, and now, as someone who has had an adult conversion, I feel like I have one foot in each world. How to bring the skeptic through the looking glass with me? How to have the cliché but well-meaning Christian realize just how off-putting he or she can be, without selling out God’s truth? These were tightrope negotiations I felt painfully, and prayed over constantly while writing my story.
I’ve commented that your book read almost like a novel to me, and in some ways it had a very fairytale-esque feel. Do you think your love of and familiarity with romantic literature influenced how you told your story in Surprised by Oxford?
Yes, absolutely. I think I tend to be a symbolic, a metaphorical person anyway. God makes us all in many ways, shapes and forms to glorify Him, and I used to be self-conscious of how I saw story in everything, I used to hide this vision. But then becoming a Christian actually freed me into the power of story, made what I was studying even more real and relevant, as it pointed to God’s truth only more for me. And I think that conversion time in my life was particularly influenced by literature because I was so totally immersed in it, as a student of it. Like we all are by certain things in certain seasons of our lives. God’s masterful and such a show off, when we each look back at our day and think, wow, you can’t make this stuff up!
[bctt tweet=”Q&A with @CarolynWeber, Author of Surprised by Oxford | @parchmentgirl37″]
Looking back on your time at Oxford University, what is your fondest memory? Your worst memory?
I have many, many lovely memories of Oxford. My fondest memory by far, however, is when TDH (in the book, my husband Kent in real life 🙂 returned from the States to propose to me. It’s an amazing and funny moment. I don’t chronicle it in Surprised by Oxford, because it didn’t happen in the course of that year. But I have been asked to pen a sequel, which I’m considering, and if I do, it will certainly be detailed there.
Fortunately, I do not have many negative ones. Probably my worst memory involves a falling out with a dear friend who was a complicated, wonderful person, over some sort of miscommunication. I tried to reach this person later to work it out, but was unable to make any contact. Although it was a typical graduate student melodrama, this still pains me, and I pray for healing there.
Funny how things like exams, grades, accomplishments, etc. do pale in contrast to the memory and effect of relationships, eh?
What is the main thing you want readers to take away from your book?
That we are absolutely beloved of God, and we each have meaning in His story.
What are some books that you’ve enjoyed lately?
I continue to read the classics all the time, returning to ones I haven’t yet gotten around to over the years–finally read Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend lately, and greatly enjoyed it, for instance. I also love more modern Christian writers in all sorts of genres: in the last few months in particular, I was moved by Mary Poplin’s Finding Calcutta, Leslie Leyland Fields’ Surviving the Island of Grace, Cindy Crosby’s By Willoway Brook, and Juliet Benner’s Contemplative Vision. But I read across the board all the time. I do remain loyal to fitting in some Canadian content: I’m looking forward to Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, and I just finally cracked into Life of Pi by Yann Martel. My husband is reading 25 Books Every Christian Should Read on his kindle–and while I still can’t bring myself to convert to the electronic page–I do find myself snooping in it and waiting to take it over.
Is there any chance of seeing another book from you in the next few years?
Yes, I hope! I’m actually about to publish a small collection of poems, and I am completing another book for Intervarsity Press by this spring. Its approach combines memoir with spiritual reflection. I also have a few other projects in the works. I will be announcing their publication dates and availability on my website www.pressingsave.com as this information gets firmed up, so do stay tuned! I’m also enjoying writing a blog series right now entitled “I Read Dead People”. I hope to do a larger study on the relevance of reading good literature to our faith lives down the road.