From Sports Icons to Left Behind Success Bestselling Author
He wrote the sixteen-book New York Times best-selling series, Left Behind, that sold more than 60 million copies and inspired a few feature films, but many might be surprised to learn that author Jerry Jenkins had written more than one hundred books before that pivotal point in his career. He grew up with a love for sports and a way with words that God quickly parlayed into incredible writing opportunities. Early success landed Jenkins authoring autobiographies of baseball greats like Nolan Ryan and Orel Hershiser. He even assisted Dr. Billy Graham with his memoirs. Many more famous names fill the pages of his non-fiction body of work, but ironically Jenkins has more titles in the fiction sector penning a handful of multi-book, faith-based series. He doesn’t find time, he makes time to be one of the most productive professionals we’ve ever encountered. Risen thanks Jenkins for making time to share about his blessed journey right before dipping into hibernation to write his latest book, The Valley of the Dry Bones, due to hit bookstores in 2016.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: You grew up in a law enforcement family. Your father was a police chief and two of your three brothers became career cops. When did your gift for writing develop and how supportive was your family?
Jerry Jenkins: My mother was a grammarian who enjoyed word games like anagramming and Scrabble™. My father, despite being an ex-Marine and a man’s man, was also a poet who chronicled the special events in our family—and also expressed his devotion to our mother—through hundreds of poems. Their love of words had a huge influence on me.
RM: Naturally with a house full of boys, sports were a big part of everyday life. What was the catalyst that took you from playing sports to writing about them?
JJ: My mother taught me to read before kindergarten, so I began reading the sports pages and Sports Illustrated magazine from a very young age. Baseball became my life, and my dream was to become a major league ballplayer.
When I was injured playing football as a freshman in high school, I approached the sports editor of the local daily newspaper and asked him how he was fixed for sportswriters, “because I am one.”
He auditioned me by assigning me to cover a local high school football game, not realizing my mother was waiting for me in the parking lot, because I was still two years from being old enough to even drive.
He edited me vigorously and paid me one dollar for every inch of copy that survived and wound up appearing in the newspaper. So, I’ve actually been a professional writer for more than 50 years.
Because of how long I had been reading about sports, I had a knack for it, but as a beginning writer, naturally I wasn’t very good at it yet. I had a quarter million clichés to get out of my system, but I realized immediately I had found my niche. I didn’t realize what a tremendous advantage it was to know at such a young age what I wanted to do with my life, and I never looked back. By age 19 I was sports editor of that paper.
RM: You authored several autobiographies including two with baseball icons that ended up on the New York Times Best Seller list; Out of the Blue with World Series MVP and Cy Young Award winner Orel Hershiser, and Miracle Man with eight-time All-Star, Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan. How did you get paired with these pitchers and what was something that impressed you about the way they lived their lives? What do you think resonates most with readers?
JJ: By the time those opportunities came along, I was living a writer’s dream. I had become the sort of go-to guy to write books like that after having had success with similar titles early in my career. My boss at an inspirational publishing house had been asked to write a book with Hank Aaron during his legendary career homerun record chase in 1973, and he tapped me to work with him on it because I was such a baseball freak. At 23, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
Getting to meet and interview one of my childhood idols and have my name appear with his on the cover of a book was beyond anything I ever imagined. But I had no idea what it would mean to my resumè.
By merely mentioning that one credit I was able to land book deals with general managers, coaches, Olympic gold medalists, Grammy award-winning singers like BJ Thomas, Hall of Fame football players like Walter Payton and Mike Singletary, and the list continued to grow.
Soon, as I say, I no longer had to seek out such projects. Publishers would approach me—as they did with Hershiser and Ryan books. Needless to say, I was thrilled.
RM: Both Hershiser and Ryan are outstanding role models for kids as well as top ball players. I understand you became a Christian when you were very young. So when it comes to your own personal faith journey, what did that look like? Have you always been close to the Lord? Was there ever a time when you thought you could do better on your own?
JJ: I was “raised in the church,” as the saying goes, so there came a time as a young teenager where I had to make the faith my own. I was never rebellious, but I did have a bit of a crisis of assurance. It was especially meaningful to me that it had been my mother who had led me to Christ as a six-year-old and then it was my father who walked me through the solidifying process later.
There was never a time I felt I could do better on my own, however that high school injury put my faith back into proper perspective. I had allowed baseball to take over the throne of my life. When my future there became a moot point, I realized that was a blessing in disguise.
At age 15 I had a rather dramatic rededication experience at summer camp and really got serious about sharing my faith. The following summer I felt a definite call to full-time Christian work and thought I would have to give up the writing and become a pastor or missionary.
A wise counselor urged me not to give up the writing too quickly, telling me that often God equips a person before he calls him. He said, “The writing may be the vehicle with which you answer the call.”
That gave me an entirely new perspective on my writing. I’ve never since worried about marketing or sales or reviews or royalties. I have no control over those anyway. I’m not called to succeed; I’m called to obey.
It was as if the enemy knew I was on the front lines and engaged in something threatening. But I have no regrets. It was worth it.
RM: From sports writing to a sports comic strip, editor of a magazine and authoring both non-fiction and fiction books, what went into the transition from sports to novel writing? Was it intentional? What changed about your writing process?
JJ: I really went from newspaper sports writing to the Christian publishing world and continued to dabble in sports-related writing on the side. My first 17 or 18 books were nonfiction, and then the same boss who included me in the Hank Aaron book was editing a line of novels and asked if I wanted to try my hand at writing one.
I had always wanted to write a book length story about a judge who tries a man for a murder that the judge had committed. My boss liked that idea, so I wrote a novel titled Margo, which had a surprisingly healthy debut and became a 13-title series. I found I really enjoyed writing fiction, and since then about two thirds of my books have been novels.
RM: Many would find it extremely interesting that your Left Behind book was actually the 125th book of yours that was published. When you were writing it did you originally plan for 16 books in the series? Was the timing just perfect, or was the world ripe for this type of content, or did you spend each day of writing in prayer? To what do you attribute the wildly successful series?
JJ: Oh, of course I attribute the success to the great writing (kidding)! No, the original intent was to tell the story of the rapture, the seven-year tribulation, and the glorious appearing all in one big volume. I got halfway through the writing of that first volume and realized I’d covered only two weeks. I asked if I could make it a trilogy, then six books, then seven, then finally as many as I needed to tell the story the way it came to me.
In reality, telling a story with so much drama would have been like writing a comic book without some real character development, so it worked out.
As for why it was so successful, several things came into play: First, because the rapture occurs in the first chapter of the first book, all the people who would use Christian lingo are gone and those who remain are desperately searching for what happened—using their own plain language. That means general market crossover readers have someone with whom they can identify, and I included credible skeptical characters, some of whom never come around—which reflects reality.
Second, when that first title released 20 years ago, like today we were living in perilous times. People were scared, looking for something beyond themselves. They were buying books by the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and the Eastern healing gurus. They heard about fiction based on the prophecies of the Bible, and that triggered their hunger and thirst.
Third, for some reason, because we were nearing the end of the millennium, people were thinking about the end times. I don’t know why, but they were.
Fourth, people did tell me that they fell in love with the characters and couldn’t quit turning the pages. That’s gratifying to hear, but I know it was also a God thing. It became way too much of a phenomenon for me to take any earthly credit.
RM: How did you and your co-author Tim LaHaye get connected? Was the writing chemistry instant or what did you have to do to develop your voice together?
JJ: We were introduced by our mutual agent, Rick Christian, and we did have instant chemistry. Dr. LaHaye is 23 years my senior and had been teaching and writing about the subject since before I was born. Fictionalizing an account of the rapture and the last days was his idea, and he served as the theological scholar and authority, and was the best cheerleader a writer could have, but I did all the writing.
RM: Over the next ten years, the two of you would release another one or two books from the series. With such intense writing schedules and deadlines, coupled with the success and subject matter, how did that timeline affect your family and faith? Did you experience any spiritual warfare or times where the enemy tried to steer you off course?
JJ: It was a wild ride and a lot of fun, actually. His family was grown and gone by this time and some of them were working with him. I have always been resolute in not allowing my career to negatively impact my family, so that was not a problem.
I did face spiritual warfare unlike I ever had before or since. When it came time to write, I faced unexplained fatigue, illness, computer glitches, you name it. It was like clockwork. It was as if the enemy knew I was on the front lines and engaged in something threatening. But I have no regrets. It was worth it.
RM: You spent a little more than a year assisting Dr. Billy Graham with his memoirs and you said it was the “privilege of a lifetime.” What was that experience like? What did you learn from him that is now incorporated into your life?
JJ: I found Mr. Graham to be the epitome of Christ-like humility, the same behind closed doors as he is in public. He speaks the same way to people of no rank, people who have little or nothing to offer him, as he does to the wealthy, the famous, or heads of state. I’ve seen him talk to wait staff and doormen with every bit as much patience and eye contact and respect as he would the pastor of the largest church in America.
I’ve seen people fake that, put on a sort of sales persona to try to make a person feel good. But this was not that. He listened and asked questions, and if the occasion arose he would even take a moment and pray with a person about a sick or wayward family member.
RM: You have friends from all walks of life including what some might think is an unlikely friendship with horror-suspense writer Stephen King. Please share the story where you both realized your surprising admiration for each other’s work.
JJ: I don’t want to pretend it’s more than it is, but we had the same audio reader, Frank Muller, who was severely injured in an accident, and eventually died. One day my assistant told me Stephen King was on the phone, and I almost picked up and said, “John Grisham here,” assuming it was a prank.
But Stephen had noticed that I had been contributing to Frank’s rehab fund, and we talked about what else we might do for the family and agreed to visit Frank soon. Then I said, “This may come as a surprise to you, but I’m a reader of yours.” I told him I didn’t read all his stuff, but some of his milder works and that I especially enjoyed The Green Mile.
He said, “This may come as surprise to you, but I’m also a reader of yours.”
I had to admit that was a surprise. He told me Frank had sent him recordings of Left Behind, but that he had also enjoyed my novel Rookie, being a baseball fan.
My wife and I enjoyed a day with him when we visited Frank Muller in rehab. We’ll never forget having Big Macs with Stephen King on the way back to the airport.
RM: What do you think is most powerful about the written word?
JJ: The Bible itself refers to Jesus as the Word, and God chose the power of the written word to communicate with His creation. That’s enough to make me handle it with care.
RM: Is the last book you wrote always your favorite or do certain books remind you of certain time periods in your life and therefore, leave a more lasting impression?
JJ: I usually joke that my favorite is the next one. But in truth I do have a favorite. The one I always wanted to write and which stayed with me the longest as an idea before it finally gushed from my mind was my novel Riven.
RM: You have been married to your wife, Dianna, for nearly 45 years. I’m curious how she plays into your writing process. Is she the first person to read each book before it is published or does she pick and choose which books she reads?
JJ: She is the first and she reads them all, but interestingly, she is not terribly analytical and never critical. She assures me she would tell me if she found one a stinker. But she never has and if I ever imply that she’s biased or being kind for the sake of the relationship, she reminds me, “The public has proved me right, haven’t they?”
The next time one bombs I’ll have to ask her why she didn’t warn me.
RM: The two of you have three sons and eight grandchildren. What do you hope your sons have learned from your marriage and what do you hope your grandkids emulate from your life?
JJ: I like to be funny and engage in repartee, but I have never made Dianna the butt of my jokes and never would. I revere and honor her and have eyes for her alone. I plant hedges around my eyes and mind and heart and hands to protect our marriage.
I also religiously maintained a policy that I never wrote or did any work from the office when my kids were at home and awake. Kids hear what you say, but they believe what you do. I told them they were my priority and proved my love by spelling it T-I-M-E. They remain my best friends to this day.
Kids hear what you say, but they believe what you do. I told them they were my priority and proved my love by spelling it T-I-M-E.
RM: Teaching is something you find value in doing and that is reiterated by your Jerry Jenkins Writers Guild that exists to coach aspiring writers. Why is it important to you to help others and where do you find time?
JJ: I was touched by the kindness of mentors when I was starting out and resolved to pay that forward. There’s nothing more rewarding. And I don’t find the time; I have to make the time. Technology makes that easier. Though I accept only two speaking engagements a year, I teach online and that really multiplies my reach.
RM: As we talk about aspiring writers, training and quality of work, what are your thoughts on the way technology is impacting writing? How do you view blogs, social media, and other opinion-driven content?
JJ: It’s a double-edged sword. I use it daily as I mentioned above. But I also see people writing, writing, writing, and broadcasting their stuff all over the Internet—and often they’re not ready. Just because you’re putting words on the screen doesn’t mean you’re writing. Learn the craft, hone your skills. The cream still rises.
Anyone can “publish” anything these days. To stand out, it still has to be written well.
RM: We have seen tremendous growth in faith-based films hitting mainstream media. What do you have on the horizon for Jenkins Entertainment?
JJ: My son Dallas has just directed a picture titled The Resurrection of Gavin Stone that will release the second half of 2016. Google-search it and see his video blogs about the making of it. I think it’s going to be something special. And if you want to see my favorite short of his, find The Ride, an emotional contemporary take on The Prodigal Son.
RM: You are about to write your next book. What can you tell us about it?
JJ: The Valley of the Dry Bones is set ten years from when you start reading it, in dystopian California where the drought has made the state virtually uninhabitable. God calls an unlikely modern prophet to warn the world of the coming end.