Best-selling Christian author Karen Kingsbury has written more than 50 novels, ten of which have hit #1 on national lists. Her most recent novel, The Chance, released yesterday, and discusses the importance of forgiveness, taking risks, and unconditional love. TCW talked with Karen about how God has blessed her for stepping out in faith and taking chances, and discussed what it's been like to trust God throughout her career—from covering murder stories in the pages of People magazine to Christian publishing.
What's the story behind The Chance, your new novel that just released yesterday?
The Chance stems from the idea of taking someone like a Tim Tebow—strong faith, helps disadvantaged kids, an all-around great guy who the whole country is fascinated with. My husband was a basketball coach for 25 years, so my thought was, what if there was a guy like Tim Tebow who played basketball, and what if he had a girl he'd left behind because everything went wrong. The story centers on this moment when, at 15 years old, these two need to say goodbye, and they decide to write letters to each other. They're not ready to say how they feel—they've been friends, and they're not ready to express more—but they say how they feel in the letters, and they bury them in an old metal box underneath an oak tree dripping with Spanish moss. What if they made a plan that in 11 years, if nothing else, this will be our chance—we'll come back and find those letters?
Now it's 11 years later, and they've completely lost touch. Her life took a difficult turn with a lot of hurts, bitterness, and unforgiveness piled up, while he was this glorious star celebrated in the press. What if it turned out that the one girl he can't stop thinking about is now a single mom in Savannah, Georgia? The idea of the kind of forgiveness and brokenness that would need to be worked through was intriguing to me as an author, and it's beyond any book I've ever written. So I'm thrilled with it.
What sort of risks or chances have you taken in your lifetime?
On my husband and my six month wedding anniversary, I found out I was pregnant. That was definitely not our plan. We had no money—we lived in a garage apartment with no windows or heat. This is fine if you're young, newly married, and on an adventure together, but not if you're pregnant. So mainly I had this pressing prayer through my pregnancy, that I would find a way to be home with the baby who eventually would be our daughter, Kelsey.
I prayed doubtfully, I have to say, but my husband prayed faithfully that God would provide a way to replace my salary at the paper where I worked. I didn't earn much, but I really was blessed to be working where I was. I ended up selling one of the crime stories I had done for the paper to People magazine as a freelance article (read "Karen Severson Swore She'd Find Her Best Friend's Murderer—Now She Stands Accused of the Crime" here).
It made next to nothing for it, but it received amazing exposure. An agent saw the story and contacted me from New York. He said, "That's a great story—true crime books are really selling well. Would you be interested in writing a proposal and sending that to me, and we'll see what we can do?"
I was 26 years old and had no clue how to write a proposal. But I found myself saying yes, so I kind of winged a proposal and a couple of sample chapters on the tragic murder story I had broken and covered in L.A.
Six days before my maternity leave, my agent called with the news that he'd gotten into a bidding war with two publishers over my book proposal. He asked if I was sitting down—the advance was three times my annual salary and would be paid out in three installments! So here we are praying for my salary to be replaced so I could be home, then the Lord literally provided that. I can't tell people this is how you become an author because this was God's mighty blessing that we didn't deserve. After signing the contract, I received a check that was $12.89 more than I made per year. So I went in the next day and quit my job at the paper, and I've been at home writing books ever since. It really came out of a love for my child, that I could be home with her instead of in an office with her at day care.
How did you go from writing true crime books to Christian fiction?
I wrote four true crime books from 1990 to 1995. Then I had about a two-year break because I just couldn't write another true crime book—it wasn't my passion. I'd read Francine Rivers' book Redeeming Love, and it dropped me to my knees. I said, "Lord, that's what I want to write. I want to write stories that would really move people and come in through the back door of the heart." I wanted to write fiction that would touch people's hearts, entertain them, take them on a ride, make them laugh, make them cry, and draw them closer to their families, and closer to God.
When I told my agent my passion was to write life-changing fiction, he thought I was crazy. He was not a Christian, and he tried to scare me by saying a lot of different things: "You're not going to make any money, you're going to end up back in an office somewhere."
I began to write my first novel anyway—Where Yesterday Lives. It was a two-year project, and it released in 1997. God led me through a classroom of patience in seeking him and in being a mom during that time. We had a second child by then, a son, and I was doing play dates, packing picnic lunches, and just being with my kids. I loved it. I would write during their naps.
I finally got a call from Multnomah Publishing, and my first six books with them sold about 15,000 copies each. It was barely enough to survive. We lived in a condo that was really old and broken down, but it was a fun adventure, and I was doing what I wanted to do.
Around 2002, I began writing a Redemption series that really took off. That was about the same time we adopted three boys from Haiti. I experienced a whole transition from being this news reporter at the top of my game—I loved the camaraderie and being a light in that place as much as I could—to being a mom who worked from home. But this is my passion, and only God could have made that transition for me.
How do you develop your story ideas?
Characters sometimes come to me first, and as I live with these characters in my heart, a theme rises out of that. You tend to write what you know in terms of types of characters and people, but a lot of times they are people I've met in passing. I'm struck by their humor, or whatever it might be, and I think, there's a good character. I don't usually say, I should write a book about depression, or finding hope—those things sort of emerge out of the heart of the characters.
I think if God creates you to write fiction, there are a couple of things that are part of your makeup: one is empathy toward someone else's situation. I can spend time talking to a complete stranger in an airport, and the wheels start to turn, and I feel for them at such a deep level. Then that 'what if' is also part of being a novelist. You start to think, okay, that's their story, but what if … and then it spins in dramatic directions. It's like God puts a movie in my heart, and I get a chance to put it on paper for so many other hearts. That's the part only he can do.
How would you encourage women to live missionally?
Wherever God places you, you're a missionary. You're going to run across all kinds of people and situations every day, and as clichÉ as it might seem, you might be the only Bible or Jesus they see. That was true for me working at the front page at the daily newspaper. I was one of the only believers on staff, and I felt like it was a real calling. I had all these coworkers who would just look at me because I had a Bible on my desk.
I was involved in an area where people's mindsets and beliefs were so different than mine. I tried to be fun and funny, and to connect with them. Before I knew it, I had a couple of friends who said, "I want to know what you have. The joy you have doesn't seem real."
Eventually I ended up getting into a Bible study with some of them. It seemed like a small thing in the moment, but it's something that could change the world. It's so important we don't let the enemy try to lie to us and say there's some sort of dullness about our lives. In the midst of doing dishes and laundry, getting to work on time, working out, and eating healthy, there can become this "ugh," this sameness about life, but not at all. Life is an adventure. Every step of every day, we wake up and there's a chance to explore and seek out the adventure God has planned for us. You have one chance to write the story of your life, so make it a best seller.