Interview: Author Susan Elaine Jenkins (Scandalon: Running From Shame and Finding God’s Scandalous Love)

I recently conducted an interview with author Susan Elaine Jenkins.

Susan grew up in California as a PK, (“Preacher’s Kid.”) The eldest of three children in a parsonage gave her an early passion for knowing the Lord and studying the Scriptures. She was also given a unique view into what goes into church life behind the scenes.

She began to travel the globe in 1980, as a part of a Study Quest, where she – along with forty-nine other young graduate students – spent three months traveling to twenty-eight countries, studying leadership styles of people making a spiritual impact in the world. In fact, it was on this trip that her love affair with China began.

Susan moved to Asia in 1997, where she taught performing arts, first at the International School of Tianjin and then in the southern region of the country at The American International School of Guangzhou. She is now beginning her twelfth year of teaching in China, at a school not far from Shanghai.

Prior to moving to Asia, she taught for nineteen years, mostly at The Dorris-Eaton School in Walnut Creek and the San Ramon Valley Christian Academy in Danville, near San Francisco. She also served a public school district as a Resource Specialist and coordinator of a Gifted and Talented Program for public school district in northern California.

Susan recently spent one year back in America, living, teaching and writing in the ski resort community of Park City, nestled in the Wasatch Mountains. She taught music in a mountain school where classes ended every Friday just after lunch so that students could hit the slopes.
(From her biography)

You can buy Scandalon by clicking HERE. A review of the book is HERE as well as until 3/9/2012 get a free Kindle download by clicking HERE .

Question One: Tell us about yourself, your family growing up, and your interests in life.
Answer One: I grew up in a family of preachers and teachers. I used to play school as a child and always knew I’d become a teacher when I grew up, just like my imaginative, story-telling Mother. I was encouraged and surrounded with books, and I grew up loving to read and write stories. My favorite toy was an old, heavy, black typewriter and I lugged it around with me everywhere I went, typing stories like mad to share with schoolmates and patient grandparents.

My family was also a very musical group – creating music was something my parents did all the time and my brothers and I sang together from the time we were small children – in three-part harmony.

My father was a preacher and my two brothers and I loved going to church three times a week (or more). Church was fun! We enjoyed the atmosphere of loving support and spiritual joy, never dreaming that all would be changed dramatically someday.

I naturally followed in my Mother’s footsteps and became a teacher after graduating from Point Loma Nazarene University in 1977. My career has taken me into the hearts and lives of many unforgettable students. Much of my time is occupied with continuing education and professional development opportunities, which opens up new areas of thinking and learning as I go.

After teaching in California private schools for 19 years, I moved to China, where I have focused on teaching performing arts in 3 different international schools. I am a seasoned foreign expatriate these days and yet, the daily adventures of living in Asia continue to surprise me.

Question Two: What motivated you to write your book?
Answer Two: A friend from the UK convinced me to begin a blog. The idea of sharing my stories was inconceivable, at first, but as time went by, I got to know my readers. Little by little, I opened up the pages of my journals with them, interspersed with a few of the details of daily life in Asia. To my surprise, my online friends began commenting and sending me private letters filled with their own pain. I wanted to let them know that there really is healing and light ahead, that God’s promise really is authentic: He is a God who heals.

Question Three: Do you journal? When I read your book some sections seemed like I was getting an intimate look into your private thoughts. Did you use your journals as a primary source?
Answer Three: Yes, I have always journaled, for as long as I can remember. And, yes, much of my book was taken directly from those journals – especially the conversations between Dr. Travis and me. Those three difficult months were mind-numbing days. Writing everything that happened at the end of every confusing day helped me make more sense of it all.

Later, once I was in China, the conversations with Ouyang were important to me, as well, and I also kept detailed accounts. I knew I needed to have those talks recorded somewhere where I could retrieve them – they were too special to forget. The experiences I was having with my Chinese friends were very precious; China was rapidly developing and nothing would be the same again. I recently visited Tianjin and was stunned to see the progress made – the sleek commercial buildings and tall apartments that have replaced the ancient hutongs near the streets where I once lived and worked.

Question Four: In your book did you change any of the person’s names to protect their privacy?
Answer Four: I did change most of the names, yes. The only names I did not change were Ouyang’s and Mrs. Hua’s. I gave Ouyang a list of three possible names I wanted him to choose from, and he said he preferred I use his real name. My brothers each selected their names for the book, as well. It was important to me to allow for as much anonymity as possible, as the issues in this book are very intimate and potentially embarrassing.

Question Five: Your mother has passed away since you wrote the book. Was she supportive and/or understanding of you writing such a personal memoir?
Answer Five: My Mother was extremely supportive of this book, absolutely. She always encouraged my dream to become a writer, ever since I was a child at play. Later, when I mused about writing a book someday about the changes our family life encountered, I’d express hesitancy at discussing my Father’s issues in such a public way and she used to dismiss that, saying, “I don’t think you should worry too much about that, Susan.” When I was finally busy compiling all my journal notes into the actual book, I did much of the work while visiting her that last summer. She lay very ill in bed and encouraged me throughout the process. I left a copy of the manuscript with her when I returned to China and she told me a week before she died that she had read it. She gave her blessing to me, expressing that she hoped its message would find its way to the hearts of those who needed encouragement.

Question Six: The obvious follow up question is how did your two brothers and father respond/react to the book?
Answer Six: Do you know if your ex-husband has read the book or had any comments concerning the book? I sent both of my brothers copies of the manuscript and asked them to make any editorial changes before it went to print. I really desired their input and suggestions, because I knew that my point of view might differ from their recollections. ‘Steve’ who teaches in China, chose not to read it at all and says he probably won’t ever read it. He has been very positive, however, and has told me many times, “Whenever someone writes a book about their family, someone is bound to have hurt feelings.” Steve is not just a brother; he’s probably my best “male” friend and confidante. He has been so supportive.

My youngest brother, ‘Paul’, also elected not to read the manuscript, giving me a verbal “go-ahead”. At the time, I questioned, “Are you absolutely certain you don’t want to check it first?” He said, “Don’t worry about my opinion. Just focus on the message of the book.” I thought that was quite generous of him at the time. Later, when he actually picked up a copy, he was very upset with me for putting so much of our family’s private story into the book. He didn’t read any of the sections about China at all – he only read the portions that referred to our family life. I have phoned and written to him many times this year in an effort to understand his thinking and to discuss his feelings, but he has been unwilling to communicate. He is really quite upset. I am praying about this and hoping our relationship can heal from this pain the book has caused him.

I emailed my former husband to tell him the book was coming out and sent an additional message to him via Facebook (that incredible social phenomenon). He has not replied to my letters. I do not know if he has read it or not, but I would doubt that he would. He remarried four years after our divorce and is, by all accounts, happy. I hope he is and I wish him well.

My Dad has been truly incredible. Very supportive and understanding. He and I have a very special closeness that I treasure and this book has only brought us closer together. I am grateful.

I was disappointed that the final version of the book had the last chapter completely omitted. In that chapter, I explained the way my Dad had been taking such amazing care of Mom during her last days. I also talked about the wonderful changes in my Dad. I am still sorry those pages were left out of the final copy. I have had to learn that publishers make decisions based on many factors, and some of those might not be to my liking…but I am still thrilled with Cladach Publishing and the spiritual approach they took towards this book.

Question Seven: While your book tells of your personal journey it is a book about China. Why a book about China?
Answer Seven: I used the double journal literary device to portray my story as it occurred both in America and in China, where I’ve lived for the past twelve years. It is really a combination of two lives: my life in California and my life in Asia; two very different worlds.

I think it seemed very natural at some point, to write of a remarkably poignant journey that met in a healing point while living in a crumbled country, broken by its own history. My life at that point seemed very much the same – broken, falling apart, and dark.

Question Eight: You moved to China. How has living away from the United States assisted in dealing with the memories of the difficult situations you have experienced?
Answer Eight: Living in Asia has been wonderfully healing for me. I am certain God would have gradually healed me wherever I was living on this earth, but life in China gave me a unique perspective. There was space, for one thing, which helped me to gain both emotional and physical distance, affording me a better look at what had happened to me in California and what God wanted to do within me. The new friends I made in China taught me all kinds of lessons that illuminated God’s truth from Scripture and caused me to see the person of Jesus Christ more clearly.

I was surprised to finally feel “at home” in China. That, for me, involved a great spiritual healing and coming back to a point of rest within God’s heart; being glad to be in His loving presence; knowing that all my sins are utterly forgiven and cast away; and, sensing His divine heart of grace. Home has literally – for me – become His own Heart.

I am so thankful that God used some humble people in this vast country to teach me so much about His love and grace.

Question Nine: Music is very important in your life. Please share what music and the piano mean to you.
Answer Nine: Yes, music is important to me! Especially the piano, which is my instrument of choice. I have found that God speaks through music, and especially so – at least for me – here in China. When I sit down by myself and play through the old gospel tunes and hymns I learned as a child, it’s as if the words that He wrote into my heart come back to mind on fresh winds of renewal. I often teach these same songs to worshipers at house or countryside gatherings of praise. It sometimes feels as if God has taken all the early interests of my childhood – teaching, music and writing – and is weaving an unexpected tapestry of ministry and beauty that I can share with many.

Question Ten: Your experiences are such that you may have questioned your faith in God and decided that men cannot be trusted. Have you given up on God or every having a meaning relationship with men?
Answer Ten: Another good question. (you ask hard questions, by the way!) As Scandalon points out, I have struggled with my faith in God, yes. But, never to the point where I stopped believing. I believed He was God, I just didn’t believe I was “welcomed” into His presence anymore. But as the book also reveals, I learned the glory of His grace in specific ways and began to enjoy a close walk with God once again.

I have known a string of men who were not trustworthy, yes. That is sadly true. My father, my former husband, and “Dr. Travis”. And there have been others along the way who have shocked me in one way or another, as well.

I am circumspect when it comes to relationships, yes, but I have not given up, by any means. I still hold dreams of a wonderfully strong and happy intimate marriage. I pray for the right man to come into my life, although it is difficult meeting people while living here in a semi-remote region of China. I pray about this and trust God. I really do.

I have hope in the future because I hope in the Lord. Without Him, I have nothing and with Him, I have everything. That brings me huge joy and great hope.

Author: Jimmie Aaron Kepler, Ed.D.

Jimmie Aaron Kepler is a full-time writer. He was born in San Antonio, Texas, to a career military father and stay at home mother. He lived in six states and attended eight different schools before graduating high school. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in History with minors in English and Military Science from The University of Texas at Arlington, Master of Arts and Master of Religious Education degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as the Doctor of Education degree. Before writing full-time, he worked as a US Army officer for 10-years, religious educator for 18-years, and as an IT software application engineer for over 20-years. He is a widower. He lives in North Texas with his cat Lacey.