Jerry, thank you for being here. Please introduce yourself to our readers. Let’s start with a simple question. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, then Elk Grove Village, Illinois.
How many siblings do you have?
I’m the third of four sons. My two older brothers followed in my father’s footsteps and are now retired police officers; my younger brother is a missionary to Africa.
When did you come to know the Lord?
My mother led me to Christ when I was six years old.
Tell us a little about your life now.
I have been married 41 years to Dianna, have three grown sons, eight grandchildren (the last three by adoption last year). I’m writing my 181st book, and I own the Christian Writers Guild and Jenkins Entertainment (a filmmaking company).
About writing: As a child or teenager, did you dream of being an author?
My mother told me I wrote a lot of stories as a child, but I don’t remember much of that. I was a good student (an obnoxiously good speller, because of Mom). My whole life was sports until I was injured as a high school freshman and went into sports writing to stay close to that scene. I realized immediately I had found my niche, and while I was a beginner, because I had read the sports pages nearly since infancy, I had a knack for it. I covered high school sports for a local paper before I was old enough to drive, so my parents had to take me to the games and to the newspaper office. So I’ve been writing professionally since I was 14.
I didn’t dream of becoming an author but rather a sports writer. But I did feel a call to full time Christian work, and when I followed that call, it eventually led to book writing.
Wow! You truly have had a long writing career! Tell us about the journey to getting published. How many years did it take to sell your first book?
I was editor of a Sunday school paper at Scripture Press Publications and interviewed a young evangelist who, though he was only 25 and I 23, was worthy of a book. He was a Southern Baptist, so I called Broadman Press and pitched it. They said they had been talking about him and were thinking of assigning someone to write his story. Sammy Tippit: God’s Love in Action became my first book and was published in 1974. (Sammy and I are now both grandfathers, he remains my spiritual hero, I serve on his board, and he speaks at my conferences.)
What was your biggest obstacle?
Just being brand new at it. I had a lot of experience writing first-person-as-told-to stories, so I just brought that to the book format. Sammy spoiled me, though, because he was ready with notes, his outline, a good memory, etc. I’ve done dozens of such books since, and not one subject since Sammy has been that prepared. Usually I have to do all the work.
Where do you get ideas for your books?
I make them up. I know that sounds glib, but with my nonfiction books, many have come from my sports background, seeing players with potential or who have already achieved greatness and knowing they’re worthy of a book. With fiction, I don’t know where they come from. Reading, watching, listening, letting disparate ideas bounce off each other. I don’t worry about coming up with ideas; I worry about having too few years left to write the ones I have.
You have accomplished so much and I am sure you will accomplish much more! Do you have a favorite book out of your 180+?
Riven, a novel, I consider my magnum opus. It’s the story I wanted to write for more than 20 years and finally did.
Tell us about the inspiration behind this book.
At a Christian conference at a Catholic retreat center I stayed in a room with a crucifix on the wall. I had never really taken a close look at one before. I realized that our Catholic friends do not try to hide the horror of the crucifixion. I was struck by the thorns, the spikes, the protruding ribs, the riven side. That stayed with me. Then months later I read a magazine retrospective about Gary Gilmore, a death row inmate who chose firing squad as his method of execution.
I began noodling the idea of a man choosing crucifixion as his method of execution, not to atone for his sins but to show what Christ really went through on the cross. The idea grew over several years, but I was buried under other deadlines and responsibilities—like the Left Behind series and others. So I didn’t get to the writing for more than 20 years. By then the story seemed to gush from me, and I was happy with the result.
That is a chilling story! Now I first became acquainted with you through your Left Behind books and then through the Christian Writers Guild. I met you at the Cove in North Carolina at the Writing for the Soul conference. I was a new graduate of the writing course. What prompted you to bring your years of experience to the Guild?
The original owner of the Guild, Norm Rohrer, was an inspiration (still is). I benefitted from mentoring and coaching and wanted to offer the same to people who followed me. I love to teach but was busy writing, so the Guild offered a way to do both. My goal is to restock the pool of Christian writers.
Norm Rohrer was my writing mentor! He has been such an inspiration to me. Jenkins Entertainment produces movies for families. What led you to launch into moviemaking and why is it important to you to produce things suitable for families?
My son Dallas is the moviemaker and runs the company. Our goal is not to curse Hollywood but to compete with it and make movies that can hold their own in secular theaters. To us the worst response is that a picture is “good, for a Christian movie.” We’re seeking respect from secular audiences, even if in the end they disagree with our world view. We feel we have a better chance of opening their eyes to the truth of the Gospel if we make quality movies.
Most of our movies are family-oriented because that is the widest audience we can reach. Yet we had one (Midnight Clear starring Stephen Baldwin) that was about suicide and would not be considered family fare.
What was it like working with Billy Graham on his book?
The privilege of a lifetime. He’s the same humble servant behind closed doors as he appears in public. His impact has informed all my writing since.
What are you working on right now?
An epic two-volume novel based on the life of Paul. I, Saul and I, Paul will be 150,000 words each, and my plan is to flesh out all the stories hinted at in the Bible. For instance, a few verses indicate that Paul’s nephew overheard a murder plot against Paul and was able to help thwart it. That just begs for a few chapters of who the nephew was, what was his name, how did he hear this, etc. So while I have the artistic license to make such things up, I will make certain none of the fiction violates the truth of Scripture.
I know this will be a best seller! What inspired you to write it?
Having written the Jesus Chronicles for Penguin (Matthew’s Story, Mark’s Story, Luke’s Story, and John’s Story) naturally exposed me to the apostle Paul. Especially in Luke’s Story, much of it dealt with the early church and Paul’s place in it. It seemed the most natural next place to go.
Is there a scene you’ve written that came from a real-life happening?
My latest work is the Precinct 11 trilogy of police thriller novels. All are based on real cases from my dad and brothers’ careers, and many of the scenarios are based personal experiences of mine. The titles are The Brotherhood (2010), The Betrayal (2011), and The Breakthrough (September 2012).
In three words describe your style of writing.
Tight. Tight. Tight.
I also try to write visually and emotionally, but the original answer is paramount. I’m a devotee of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and their rule that follows its own advice: Omit needless words.
Oh, I am working daily on tightening up my writing. I agree that The Elements of Style is a book every writer needs to own. So you’re a tight writer. Are you a plotter, a pantster, or somewhere in between, and can you elaborate on your answer?
Total pantster. I’m from the Stephen King school of writing where you try to put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens. I call it writing as a process of discovery. I’m often as surprised, shocked, disappointed, moved, etc., as the reader is. There are times when I’m on this high wire that I wish I had an outline so I knew where I was going, but I grew up on television and seem to be an intuitive plotter. I figure that if the story unravels serendipitously for me, it will also for the reader. I don’t want to be predictable.
This also gives me an out when readers demand to know how I could have killed off their favorite character. I say, “I didn’t kill him off; I found him dead.”
About half the novelists I know are pantsters and the others are outliners. Neither is right or wrong. You must use what works best for you and your novel.
Oh, I LOVE what you said about finding your characters dead!!! What is your writing schedule and where do you write?
I write only on deadline, getting away to my writing cave in the middle of Colorado. There I am without excuse, with 360° mountain views and a custom-made horseshoe desk. There I can only procrastinate or write (and I usually do a good deal of both).
Find more cave pictures here: http://jerry-jenkins.com/2010/04/08/eliminating-distractions/
About you: Tell us three things about you that would surprise your readers.
Just before I was married, and while I was still a sportswriter, I moonlighted as a narc, an undercover drug buyer who busted dope sellers and testified against them in court. Scary, short term stuff, but when I’m writing I never have to dig far to remember what real fear feels like.
I have Scrabble championships in five states.
I was once a tournament table tennis player.
You really have been around! Your reputation for being funny precedes you. Has your humor ever gotten you into trouble?
Twice, but not seriously. Once while handling the offering at a big Moody Bible Institute conference, I was told to ask the “ushers and usherettes to come forward.” So I did. Then I said, “What is an usherette anyway, a little tiny usher?” The students howled, but the Moody president tugged on the back of my suit coat as if to remind me to get on with it.
Another time I found that I ran into the same fellow employee whenever I returned to the office to work late. I said, “No matter when I get here, you’re here. Is this the result of a bad marriage or the cause of one?”
He said, “She filed this morning.”
We’ve been very lucky because our personalities are such that we don’t fight. I hear so often how tough marriage is supposed to be, but ours has been idyllic. I think it’s because if a difference arises we don’t slam doors or give cold shoulders or silent treatments. We compete to see which of us can clear the air first. It’s a lot better way to live. It also helps that we share an obsession with our sons, our daughters-in-law, and our grandkids. One of my wedding vows was to make her laugh every day. We smile a lot, do little things for each other all the time, love life.
What would you be doing if you weren’t writing?
Maybe coaching. I don’t know. I haven’t even considered anything else for 48 years. (Grief, I’m old.)
You’re not old. Just seasoned.
Do you have a favorite scripture? If so, why is it your favorite?
Psalm 91:1-2 is one of the most beautiful passages ever translated into English. Besides the truth of it, the image it invokes is so poignant: “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in Him I will trust.’”
I also love John 11:25-26, where Jesus Himself explains who He is and poses the question of the ages: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
What is the coolest, wackiest, most risk-taking thing you’ve ever done?
Two happened the same day. Dianna and I climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Then, a few hours later, legs aching, I chased three teenage thugs down the street and took back all the straws they had just stolen from a McDonald’s. They were as stunned as Dianna was. She said, “I can see the headline now: ‘Christian Author Slain in Australia.’”
What was your greatest fear as a child and have you written something like that into your book(s)?
Being kidnapped or abandoned. And yes, in The Breakthrough, which releases in September.
What is your number one spiritual gift?
Seriously, I suppose it’s teaching. I don’t mean to sound falsely modest, but I write so much because I feel obligated to exercise the only gift I’ve been given. I don’t sing or dance or preach; this is all I do.
Well, you do it well! Is there anything else you’d like to tell us? Maybe a writing tip or advice for aspiring authors?
Forget the trends. Write from your passion.
And writers are readers; good writers are good readers; great writers are great readers.
Thank you for that!!! So often we feel the pressure to write only what publishers say is trendy.
Here is a post Jerry posted on March 15th – Fifty-six years ago today my two older brothers and my dad were at a father/son thing at church. I was too young to go. Mom let me ride the back of the couch like a cowboy on his horse, which she said spoke less about her parenting than the quality of the couch.
My dash across the imaginary plains put me at eye level with the famous Warner Sallman (most known for his Head of Christ) painting of Jesus knocking at the door. Though just six years old, I thought I knew all the Bible stories, but what did this one depict? I asked Mom. She told me it was symbolic. I didn’t know what that meant (pretty much still don’t), but she took me to the kitchen table and showed me Revelation 3:20, where Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”
Mom explained that the door in the picture was like the door of my heart and that I should notice that there was no handle on it. For Jesus to come into my heart and life, I had to open the door. I couldn’t wait.
As life progressed I heard theologians and preachers say that that verse is not really about personal salvation. Well, it was for me. Ironically, 15 years later I met the woman who would become my wife and learned that her grandfather was an artist and personal friend of Sallman’s; Dianna’s grandmother recalled Sallman visiting their apartment for references when he had been assigned those famous paintings. Small world.
Jerry, this is a beautiful story and a wonderful interview! Thank you for spending time with us!
You can find out more about Jerry at his website: http://jerry-jenkins.com/
Jerry is generously giving away several copies of his book Riven. Please leave a comment with your email address for a chance to win. (US only).