Finding Success in Writing + Life

Many of us desire success in our professions and personal lives. Hear from the most prolific and successful Christian author of our day, Jerry Jenkins. A novelist and biographer with over 180 books to date, best known as co-author of the Left Behind series, Jerry shares his tips for success in writing and life with Michael Easley in studio.

About Jerry

Author of more than 180 books with sales of more than 70 million copies, including the best-selling Left Behind series, Jerry B. Jenkins is former vice president for publishing and currently chairman of the board of trustees for the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Jerry’s writing has appeared in Time, Reader’s Digest, Parade, Guideposts, and dozens of Christian periodicals. Twenty of his books have reached The New York Times best-seller list (seven debuting number one).  I, Saul, Jenkins’s most recent book, released from Worthy Publishing in August 2013 and has been described as “The DaVinci Code meets The Robe“, as it combines a modern day thriller with a historical novel.

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EASLEY: We are privileged to be talking to Jerry B. Jenkins. By the way, what’s the B stand for?

JENKINS: It stands for Bruce. He was one of my mother’s brothers. So he was my Uncle and great raconteur of the family.

EASLEY: Jerry, also a family name?

JENKINS: No, but it’s unusual in that’s it my full name, and a lot of people assume it’s Gerome or Jerald but it’s just Jerry on the birth certificate.

EASLEY: My wife has the same problem. It’s Cindy, not Cynthia. She gets so irritated if you say that.

So, Jerry Bruce Jenkins, one hundred and eighty one books to your credit. You wrote them one page at a time I presume?

JENKINS: Yeah, my kids tease me that I’ve written more books than I’ve ever read.

EASLEY: Well with your deadlines, I suspect there’s some truth in that.

JENKINS: Well if I’m not writing, I’m reading. Anybody that writes needs to be a reader.

EASLEY: We’ll talk more about that. Now you’re series, Left Behind, of course is what- if people know the name Jerry Jenkins, they’re going to associate it probably with the Left Behind series and that series is now what? Seventy million copies and counting?

JENKINS: Yeah, that’s most of my total sales. Of all of the books I’ve written, that’s probably ninety percent of my sales, right there.

EASLEY: You told me at one time that any one book of Left Behind would outsell pretty much everything  else?

JENKINS: That’s true. In fact, I was looking at a Publishing Companies annual sales, this was a company that sold, I think one hundred and twenty new books a year, and a big back list too. I realized that one title of Left Behind had outsold their entire thing for the whole year. It’s humbling, really. You can start feeling pretty good about yourself until you realize that’s a phenomenon has to be a God thing. You can’t be too proud of yourself at that point.

EASLEY: Jerry’s writing has appeared in Time magazine, Reader’s Digest, Parade, Guide Post, dozens of periodicals. Twenty of your books have reached the New York Times best seller list (seven debuting as number one.)The Breakthrough, the final book in Jerry’s precinct, 11 Trilogy from Tyndale House, came out in September 2012. We’re going to talk about your newest book, I Saul, in a little bit.

You’ve asked this question and I’ve asked you this question many times. Some writers are creative and they sit down as the as the Spirit moves and they write like a banshee and they stop, but Jerry doesn’t write that way.

JENKINS: No, I’m more of a business like writer. I treat it as a job. Alot of times, people say, “What do you do, when you have writer’s block?” I say, “I just think that, that’s a myth.” I know what it is, and I’m sympathetic to writers who say, “You know that some days you don’t feel like producing.” But that’s true of any job, but no other job seems to get this privilege of saying, “I have block.” I mean if a pastor or an executive, or a factory worker called in and said, “I have worker’s block.” They don’t get to not come to work. They’d probably be told to, “Just stay home forever.” So when I get up in the morning and say, “I just don’t’ feel like writing,” I just plant my rear end in front of the computer and do something else. I research or I take care of basic logistics of e-mail and correspondence or I take a walk, do something, because I don’t have time to not do anything. So I have a little sign that says, “The only way to write a book is with seat and chair.” I put my seat in the chair everyday and get to work.

EASLEY: When you help folks with your Writer’s Guild that you also have, is that the common message: “I’m going to write a book one day?”

JENKINS: Yeah, and so often you hear people say things like, “I have a book in me if I just had the time.” As if that’s anything holding them back. It would be like me saying, “I have a sermon in me if I just had time.” Its something you’re called to and something you’re gifted for. I’m not gifted in the pulpit so I don’t try to do that. People who tell me they they have a book in them if they just had the time are saying to me, “they could do what I do if they simply had the time.” In the Guild, we’re trying to say, “Look, there’s a lot more to it. It’s not just a hobby; you can’t be a dilatant at this; It’s a discipline; It needs to be a skill that’s honed and polished and there’s a lot to it.” There’s an awful lot that goes into it.

EASLEY: Let’s talk a little bit about your Writer’s Guild. You’ve had a heart to help other people obviously. Anyone who’s successful in writing, you have groupees, for lack of a better term. Jerry help me do this. What is the Guild about?

JENKINS: Well I bought the Guild probably twelve, thirteen years ago from a man named Norm Rohrer, who had started it back in the 1960’s and he used to have these little ads in Christian papers and magazines that said, “I fire writers ..”

EASLEY: Yes, I remember that.

JENKINS: He had another one that looked like a post-it note and it said, “Hon look.” It had a little arrow and it was pointed at that ad, that said, “I fire writers.” He was teaching writers through a correspondence course and he wrote the course and then people would fill out a lesson and send it to them and he would grade their writing and help them along. He was very pastoral about this.

He stayed in our home one time, and we were on a board of Evangelical Board Association for a while. I watched him work and he would use a typewriter and use the U.S. Postal Service and he had several hundred students. I thought, “That’s an interesting way to teach and I can’t get to all the Writer’s conferences I’d like to and I was a busy writer and young at the time. I told him, “I’d love to do that someday, if you ever need help, or a partner or whatever.” Years later, when he got up in years and he wanted to get out from under the business side, he said, “If you’re still interested, I’m looking to get out from under this.” Left Behind had hit and I had some means and I said, “If you’d like to sell it, I’ll buy it from you and keep you on as Dean of Instruction. You know let’s take another run at this and do it maybe a little different way.” So we had fun. I had some courses rewritten and we went via e-mail instead of the postal service. I tried to reproduce Norm; tried to get writing instructors that were not just teachers, but were also very pastoral. It’s hard to do; it’s hard to find people like that. But we’re basically trying to restock the pool of Christian writers. We’re all passing off the scene eventually and we want to teach people how to do it right and not just write devotionally, inspirationally, gospel tract type stuff, but to compete with the secular market, to have excellence in quality. We have the best message, we know that, but we don’t have the best technique and ability. It’s just like in the film industry,my son runs our film company; he say’s “It’s one thing to curse Hollywood; that’s easy, it’s another thing to light a candle in the darkness and compete with them in their own level and have the same technology, with actresses, and scripts. So we want to do that on the writing side too. That’s our goal.

EASLEY: Well this is a place to tell folks that. If you go to christianwritersguild.com. All one word. com.You can find out more about the program. What is it six months, I think it is?

JENKINS: Some are six, some are a little longer. We have different courses for different ages and different disciplines too.

EASLEY: Again, christianwritersguild.com.  Jerry, when you started writing early on, what was the emphasis? As a kid, were you the one always writing stories and reading books over in the corner?

JENKINS: I was one who, I loved to read. My mother taught me to read even before I started Kindergarten. So I was the obnoxious one in Elementary school. The joke in our family was, I was reading a fourth grade level in first grade, but in college I was also reading at the fourth grade level. But I read the sports pages; I was a sports nut. When I got into high school, I wanted to be a big league baseball player. I got hurt playing football, and that kind of ended the dream for playing baseball too. I started sports writing to keep up with the sports world. I was actually writing and making a little money on the side, writing sports for local paper before I was old enough to drive. So I’ve been a professional writer now for fifty years. My parents had to drive me to the games, and drive me to the newspaper office. That’s how I really got started. I wasn’t very good when I started, but I kind of had a knack for it because I had been reading for so long and reading the sports pages and I really just never looked back. I felt called to full time Christian work soon after that, and I thought I’d have to give up the writing and become a pastor or a missionary or something and somebody counseled me and said, “You know, sometimes God equips you before He calls you. So don’t turn your back on that writing, maybe that’s your angle on fulfilling this call.” That proved to be the case.

EASLEY: Well your love of sports shows up in some of the books you’ve written as well. Hank Aaron, a biography, had to be a highlight?

JENKINS: That was a big break for me. I was early twenties when I got to write one of Hank Aaron’s biographies. It was really fun; I was just about speechless because I was such a fan. Yeah, it was amazing experience. It opened up so many doors for other books like that and lots of Christian athletes. I’ve probably done twenty of those big name athletes that, in fact, I used to kid people and say, “So many of the guys I’ve written about have gone onto become “Hall of Famers.” I think that I’m the key.

EASLEY: You’re the expector.

JENKINS: Bill Gaither, Orel Hershiser, Luis Palau, Joe Gibbs, Walter Payton, Nolan Ryan. Nolan is an interesting cat.

JENKINS: He really is. One of the things that was really interesting about him: I was watching him warm up in the bull pen and  I couldn’t believe a human being could generate that kind of speed. I had bought a batting pitching machine for my son when he was in high school; he was quite a hitter. That thing could crank up to one hundred miles an hour and I saw how it would shake and vibrate; here’s the human being doing the same thing. He asked me, “If I wanted to stand in and give him perspective?” I said, “I would but I only brought one pair of pants.” The catcher said, “Yeah, like we would allow a civilian to stand against a guy like that.” Their insurance would be through the roof! But I saw him pitch also in one of these family games they did before one of the big league games that kids and wives would play against the big leaguers; his wife just stood in there against him, and you assume a guy would slow it down and let her hit the ball. He was firing ninety miles an hour fastball.

EASLEY: Really?

JENKINS: You know what? She grounded the ball right back to him.

EASLEY: Wow!

JENKINS: Then you think maybe he’d toss it over to first base, no he fired it down there and got her out.

EASLEY: No mercy, no quarter.

JENKINS: Nope, these guys are competitors from day one, I tell ya.

EASLEY: Moving from athletes, perhaps another highlight spending over a year with Billy Graham?

JENKINS: That was the privilege of a lifetime.

EASLEY: to assist him with his memoir. He’s the same guy behind closed doors as he is in public and just the humility. I think his major characteristic is his humility of Christ. For all the power in that preaching in his prime and the way he is clearly gifted and anointed, what really attracts people to him is the very humility he exudes. I saw him with people and he would be the same with a busboy or a waitress as he would be with a head of state. Truly inspiring person and I still remember most of these details to this day.

EASLEY: Let’s jump forward in time. You have just released a book, I Saul. You and I have talked a lot about that book. That has been an interesting labor for you.

JENKINS: To do a book about the apostle, Paul, from the time he was more known as Saul; when you’ve had success like I’ve had and had some NY Times Bestsellers  and made some lists and that kind of thing; you can start feeling good about yourself as a writer until you’re writing about a writer, whose writing has lasted over two thousand years. That quickly puts you in your place.

One of the things I’ve done, because I’m not a theologian or a scholar, I’ve always made it a point to be careful not to let the Scripture becoming academic when I’m writing about it  and trying to write fiction surrounding it. When you’re writing about things that were written by the apostle Paul, they’re so majestic, that I found them to be a devotional even while I was writing fiction to flesh out those stories. They just lift you out of your seat everyday. I found them just thrilling. It’s been great and I’m working on the sequel, I Paul Now and finding the same experience.

EASLEY: You have your critics just like pastors have their critics. “There are those that don’t like Christian fiction.” They don’t even use those two words together. How do you respond to that?

JENKINS: I always point back to the greatest example of all: I believe Jesus was a fiction teller, not a writer, necessarily. His parables were clearly fictitious stories. He was telling truth with a capital T, so that’s a great example. If I can write fiction that tells the truth, that’s crucial. One thing that I have to be very careful about, especially when writing fiction about Biblical characters, I’m very careful about the Scripture that talks about ‘adding to or taking away’ from the Gospel. To me that means, I’m not to write anything that would violate Scripture or would change what the Gospel means. So I’m not going to write a scene that would not make sense based on what the Bible says, but when Scripture hints at a story; there’s a two or three verse passage that mentions that Paul’s nephew overheard a plot to have him killed,

EASLEY: Right

JENKINS: and it’s taken to the authorities, and the plot is thwarted. Now that’s two or three verses. It doesn’t even name the nephew, but to a novelist that’s two or three chapters. I can’t wait to get to that one because I want to know who the nephew was. We know that Paul had a sister and so in my story I give her a name; I talk about how he and she interacted as they were growing up. But at the time this happens, Paul has become a believer and so he’s turned his back on his family, on his faith from growing up. You’d think that the family would be terribly estranged from him. Where would the nephew have been to over hear a plot? Would he be a zealot on the other side? Would he be still loyal to Paul for some reason, and why? So, I’m going to have fun flushing out that story. Now clearly, it’s fictitious. We don’t know. We don’t’ know the name; where the kid would be; how old he would be; why he would do this. But I’ll have fun with this, to flush out Scripture to me is interesting; and it’s fun; and it adds to the enjoyment of it.

EASLEY: You and I have critics. You and I have fans. I often say on the bell curve, you have those that think you’re the best and you ignore their comments and you have those on the far side of the bell curve that think you’re evil, and you ignore their comments, but you also have a fan base. Maybe some of them are good critics, some of them are unfair critics, and they write you incessantly and with technology they can get a hold of you. How do you process that data?

JENKINS: It’s tough.I find that my best critics really love me and will tell me the truth. I think some of my best critics are my own family. Often times, criticism hurts the first few days. I make it a practice not to respond immediately. Usually, even after a few days if I find myself reacting defensively, I kind of vent, get it out of my system, and then a week later I find I’m doing what they have suggested that I do. I come around. That’s valuable.

One of the things I’ve done too and people find this hard to believe. I made a commitment to myself years ago, because I was so taken with a couple of my idols in the writing business. There were guys that were doing what I wanted to do when I was a late teen. They were writing these “as told to biographies of Sports Heroes” in writing fiction, and I would write to them and compliment them and they would write back. I thought, “If I ever get there I’m going to answer every letter I get. If somebody calls me, writes me a note, (at that time I didn’t know anything about e-mail; there was no such thing,) I decided I would personally do that and not hire somebody or have people to do that or send form letters. Well I didn’t realize I was going to write something that was going to hit like Left Behind did. So I’ve probably answered, and I’ve maintained that now, so I’ve answered every personal message that I’ve ever gotten, probably talking over one hundred thousand messages.

EASLEY: Wow!

JENKINS: Now some of them are a line or two. Now, I won’t say that I haven’t used some pasted paragraphs now and then because some people ask the same thing: How did you get started? What inspires you? or certain questions about writing. I always do a personal greeting and something about them or something that’s really for me. People always say, “I don’t suppose you’ll really see this yourself.” and I often say, “Believe it or not, this really is me, and I’m answering you.” That’s one way I answer people  and I do answer the critic. If they’re really vitriolic, I take a lesson from Billy Graham, which is something I really learned from him that was special. You talk about somebody who has critics; when he started out, he was criticized so vehemently for being too ecumenicle and people would say, “You’re sending people to hell and you’ve got people on your platform that aren’t you know of our stripe,etc.etc.” And he was so wounded by that and he had such great motives that he tried to defend himself, and he said, “You can’t win.” You try to defend yourself and they keep coming back so he finally said that what he does, especially the more vitriolic the criticism, he responds by saying, “Thank you for caring enough to be so forthright with me. I trust I can count on you to continue to pray for me.” That’s it. Sometimes they write back and say, “Don’t you realize what I’ve said to you?” I’ve done that on some where they just, you know you’re never going to convince them anyway. The Scripture is true, that a soft answer turns away wrath. Most of the time people will write back and say, “I really was overbearing and I  need you to forgive me on how I came at you.” So it’s interesting.

EASLEY: I remember a caller, when I was in the Dallas area and he would often call the Christian Radio program and he was pretty over the top. They just loved this guy, and loved this guy, and every time I would say,”Why do they take his call? Why do they take his call?” Later I found out about his condition. I actually met the man. Boy! Did it change my perspective. These are human beings and they’ve got stories and a lot of them are hurt; a lot of them have been have betrayed by the church and they take it out on people like you or the local pastor. That’s a good lesson.

Jerry when you look down the next ten, fifteen or twenty years, of course you and Diana will live probably to be a hundred. But as you look down, and you and I had this conversation; the water going out and coming in has changed; and you’re looking at grandkids and you’re loving this season of life; what’s the legacy?

JENKINS: I want to finish well. I see people that are finishing well and I see people that are not finishing well. I don’t want to become a curmudgeon. I see things that don’t make me happy. I see trends that are you know…I see myself getting old and becoming critical and I dont’ want to do that. So I try to watch for people that are finishing well and make them examples to me. I want my legacy to be: Diana says to me she’s going to put on my tombstone, “Never an unpublished thought.” But I really want to be remembered as a good husband and father, and grandfather. That really means a lot to me so I’m going for best grandpa.

EASLEY: How many grandkids do you have now?

JENKINS: We have eight and the last three are adopted which makes me so proud I can hardly talk about it. You know my generation sent checks and the next generation takes these kids in and they mean it. It’s been great fun to see that happen and we love grandparenting and helping out. We were just in Kansas City because my one son is a Sports Information Director and had to travel with one of the ball teams and so we were with our daughter in law and their four kids under age seven. Boy, we remember; we hadn’t remembered actually what kind of energy it takes to watch kids.

EASLEY: Manage all those moving parts?

JENKINS: It’s a good thing that we were young when we had kids, but it’s fun.

EASLEY: Jerry, when you look back at all that God has done, you obviously have had enormous success from the world’s standpoint. You’ve got a great bride,she is no doubt your treasure; you’ve got great sons and grandchildren, what do you tell a person that maybe they don’t’ know who this God is; they don’t know who this Jesus is; maybe they look at you and me as these successful white guys; maybe they just don’t like what they see. What do you tell them about your God?

JENKINS: You know one of the things that I try to tell people because so often what people say indicates that they are either suspicious or resentful; or maybe jealous and they talk about success; and they wonder what’s important to you or how do you emulate that; how does a person be successful? I realize that our kind of success is sort of antithetical to societies view. I try to say especially to young people, “It really isn’t about success. I never set out to be a success in the eyes of the world.” The point isn’t success, the point is obedience. I want to be obedient. I feel I’ve been called to do something and whether it turns into material success, or popularity, or visibility, is irrelevant. Sometimes that can be nice and it can be gratifying, but even if it didn’t, if I was obedient I would feel like I was a success. But the point is in the end, and I’ve heard you say this, “You know we are really nothing more than dirty rotten sinners saved by grace,” and it doesn’t make any difference whether we’re successful or not, we all start and end in the same place. Whatever we are, we are because Christ died on the cross for our sins and forgave us. We were saved when we were yet dead in our sins. I mean, that’s the end all. That’s it. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we do what we do.

EASLEY: Jerry B Jenkins, author, board chairman, owner of the Christian Writers Guild Publishing, continuing to write great works. Thanks for your time, my friend, love you, appreciate you, and just delighted you came on the program.

JENKINS: Thanks Michael. Always great to be with you.

EASLEY: To find out more about Jerry Jenkins, Jerry-Jenkins.com. That’s his website or the christianwritersguild.com. You can find out more about courses where mentors will actually help you in your writing skills. You can submit manuscripts to them back and forth and they will teach you how to improve your writing. If your goal, your dream, your hope, is to be a published author someday. Thank you for listening to Michael Easley inContext.

  • “The point isn’t success. The point is obedience.” Thanks for this reminder, Jerry. Great interview, Michael. Sharing this with my writing community now.

    • michaelincontext

      Thanks, Keely! Glad you enjoyed the interview. Jerry is a fascinating “writing-machine” and an all around great guy. 🙂

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