Q&A with Jerry Jenkins

Jerry Jenkins is the author of more than 100 books, including the best-selling Left Behind series. He is former vice president for publishing and current writer-at-large for Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and is the former editor of Moody Magazine. He is a former EPA president (1980-81) and his writing has appeared in Reader's Digest, Parade and dozens of Christian periodicals.

For the interview below, EPA members submitted questions by e-mail, and Jenkins responded by e-mail. Although the interview is intended primarily for the enjoyment of EPA members, all quotes are "on the record" and available for use in EPA publications.

EPA: How did you make the transition from magazine editor to book author?
Jenkins: Actually, I made the opposite transition. When I became editor of Moody Monthly (now Moody Magazine) in October of 1974, I was working on my eighth or ninth book. I quit counting at 100, but I think the next Left Behind title will be my 135th.

EPA: How easy or difficult was that transition?
Jenkins: For many, many years I did both. My wife and I set a policy with the birth of our first son (our three are now 25, 23, and 18) that I would do no writing or work from the office from the time I got home from work until the time the kids went to bed (sometimes we put them to bed at 4:30 in the afternoon). So, from 1974 until I went full-time freelance in 1990, I did all my own writing from 9 p.m. to midnight.

Meanwhile, I went from editor to publisher and finally to VP for Publishing at Moody. I very much looked forward to being able to write all day at home (though Moody has kept me on as writer-in-residence and then writer-at-large -- I lobbied for writer-at-medium), but I have found that the business of writing has become my new full-time job, and I'm still looking for time to write.

EPA: What advice could you give to current EPA editors who want to try their hand at writing a book?
Jenkins: Take everything you've learned editing others' copy and become a ferocious self-editor. Realize that about one percent of book manuscripts actually come in on deadline, so commit yourself to that. Deliver the cleanest manuscript you can, on time, and your publisher will love you.

EPA: Has the Left Behind series taken over your professional life, or are you still working on other projects?
Jenkins: Yes and yes. There's no denying that the series is my primary work (including everything that goes with its success), but I wrote a Christmas novel ('Twas the Night Before) two years ago for Viking (scheduled to be a CBS-TV movie in 2001), and I wrote a standalone novel (Though None Go with Me) for Zondervan last year.

When I began doing two Left Behind titles a year, I found it all-consuming and grueling and decided to not try to do anything else until the end of the series. But Tyndale recently decided to go back to one Left Behind title a year (to preserve my life, I think), and so I look forward to at least one other project annually.

I have lost no enthusiasm for the series, but variety keeps me fresh and helps recharge the batteries. I'll write a standalone novel this year and write a baseball memoir for a friend next year. I confess I'm looking forward to the eventual end of the Left Behind series, as I have some fiction ideas I'd love to tackle when I can give myself to them.

EPA: What was the catalyst that spawned the Left Behind series?
Jenkins: Since about 1985, Dr. Tim LaHaye had the title and the idea for fictionalizing an account of the Rapture and the Tribulation. He looked for years for a novelist to run with his idea, and our mutual agent introduced us in 1991.

EPA: Did you plan such a long series when you began it, or have you broadened the scope of the project because of the popularity of the books?
Jenkins: No and no. I actually intended to write the entire story in one book. When I was halfway through the writing of that manuscript, I had covered one week of the seven years. Tyndale agreed to make it a trilogy.

When the first book covered two weeks, we decided on six, then seven titles. When I finished book four and was only two-and-a-half years in to the Tribulation, Tyndale asked if I really thought I could squeeze four-and-a-half more years into three books.

I said I could if I changed the pace and made the books more action-oriented than character-driven. Tyndale asked how many titles it would take to maintain the same pace (which they saw as one of the reasons for the success). I said six to get to the halfway point and six more to finish.

These books are selling a million copies a month. There's no reason to "milk" it, though of course it appears that way to some and likely prompted this question.

EPA: Are you and Tim LaHaye both active in researching for the stories? Who does what?
Jenkins: He has studied the biblical prophecies for longer than I have been alive. He provides a chart of the chronology of the biblical events and commentaries (his and others') on the passages I will cover in a particular novel.

I get the fun part, writing novels to fit his interpretation of Scripture. Basically, I try to put realistic characters in the way of biblical events and see what happens. I research technology, weaponry, aviation, etc., to make the stories credible, but Dr. LaHaye is the greatest resource I could have to stay on track theologically and biblically.

EPA: How long does it take you and Tim to write a book?
Jenkins: I do all the writing. When I'm cooking I produce about five pages an hour (pages I wouldn't show my worst enemy). The heavy edit/rewrite/polish takes longer than the first draft, but I'm generally finished in two drafts. I don't submit it until I'm happy with it.

EPA: Is notoriety fun or a pain in the neck?
Jenkins: Both. It's nice to be recognized and appreciated for what you do, but whenever there is a gap between your "image" and who you really are, there is dissonance in your spirit. I feel a responsibility at times to be what people think a novelist should be, but being "on" can be wearying.

I long ago lost any desire to be any more visible than I am now--because I have worked with enough enormously famous people (Billy Graham, Nolan Ryan, Walter Payton, Hank Aaron, et al) to see what a prison that can be. It can be a pain to realize that I can't throw on sweats or grubbies before showering and run to the store expecting to not be recognized. I would never want to find myself unable to live a normal life, as is the case with the above-mentioned stars. They can't go to dinner or run to the convenience store except in disguise. Being a household name or universally recognized may seem attractive to young people, but I don't covet that an iota.

EPA: How does it feel to see your books being sold in every airport and bookstore in the nation?
Jenkins: Surreal. Any writer has dreamed of that, I assume. It's all happened so fast, it may not have really sunk in yet. The first title in the series is only five years old, released in September of 1995. Books five, six and seven reached numbers two, two and one on the New York Times list, and those three have all been released within 1999 and 2000.

There are always enough humbling experiences to keep me sane, however. I'll buy a magazine at an airport shop and ask the clerk how "those Left Behind books" are doing. Most often they say, "I don't know. Do we sell them here?"

EPA: Please share a favorite story of someone coming to know Christ as a result of the Left Behind series.
Jenkins: Between Dr. LaHaye and me we have heard personally from more than 2,000 people who tell us they have become believers through reading these books. I know it sounds like a cliche, but anyone in Christian publishing must understand how that makes sales figures pale.

My favorite story is of an 80-year-old man who said someone in his family gave him Left Behind, and because of his aging eyes he had to read it through a magnifying glass. He said he realized at the end of it that if Christ came back, he would be left behind. So he asked one of his children to pray with him, and he received Christ. He said, "It wasn't because of what I read through the glass but because of what I saw through my heart."

EPA: Please share some other stories of Christians being touched by God through the Left Behind books.
Jenkins: Here's a letter from a prisoner: "My cousin sent me the first book and I didn't want nothing to do with it. Then I started reading it and I couldn't put it down … Now I'm following in the Lord's footsteps."

We also heard the story of a young woman (about 20), still living at home, who had quit going to church and was--her parents feared--running with the wrong people. Her parents gave her Left Behind, but never saw her reading it. Her mother kept putting it where her daughter would notice, and sure enough, one night they noticed the light on in her room until the wee hours.

At dawn she woke them, told them she had read the book and that they didn't have to worry about her anymore.

A touching story is of a Christian young man who was a rascal in high school, though he knew better. He read Left Behind, rededicated his life to the Lord, and told his parents he was saving to buy a box of the books to give to the friends he used to hang with. Before he made the purchase he was killed in a car wreck. His parents bought boxes of the book and gave copies to everyone who came to the funeral. They tell us that several of their son's friends came to Christ as a result. They say, "He was an evangelist in death."

Nearly every day we hear of people of all ages coming back to God, back to church, back to the Bible.

EPA: The Left Behind books have been cross-marketed by ABA and CBA publishers. Is this a trend you see becoming more common, beyond top-selling authors? What are the pluses and minuses of such an arrangement?
Jenkins: In truth this is not a new trend. All Christian books are made available to both markets. The Left Behind series has not been successful in the ABA because it was promoted there. It has been promoted because it started to become successful there. It has been gratifying to hear that many other Christian titles (especially fiction) have been welcomed into the ABA market due to the success of Left Behind, but their success or lack thereof will be due to content and reader response, as with any book.

EPA: The Left Behind books present one approach to eschatology. Is there a danger that evangelicals may not be aware of other views, or may dismiss them without examining them?
Jenkins: I hope so. Kidding! The word "eschatology" does not appear in the books. They are novels, and so it would be illogical to present all the possible views. The story can happen in only one way. This happens to be what we believe will happen some day. The Rapture occurs in the first chapter of the first book and the Tribulation follows, so it would be illogical to have terrified, desperate characters sit around discussing other scenarios. We don't insist ours is the only interpretation, but fortunately it makes for the best fiction too.

EPA: What reaction have you received from believers who are not in the premillennial, pretrib persuasion?
Jenkins: Surprisingly little. We really expected more. There is a book called The Left Behind Delusion, and occasionally we get letters saying that we are heretics, leading people astray, etc. But most letters from those who disagree with the theology say they still love the books and the impact of them.

EPA: How have you responded to critics who take issue with the Left Behind books on theological grounds?
Jenkins: I have no problem with sincere disagreement. I do bristle at the questioning of our motives. Say they were right and we were wrong; what possible reason would we have for intentionally misleading people?

To those with sincere disagreements and questions, I try to engage them and explain our position, asking that they pray for us even if we never agree. To those who ascribe evil motives to us, I confess I have wasted time asking them how they can question people's characters just because they disagree with them. I understand how some can take issue with Dr. LaHaye's interpretations, but I don't tolerate the attacking of the character of man who has devoted his entire life to evangelism and the building up of the church.

Fortunately, the vast majority of our mail is positive and encouraging, and even much of the response from opponents is fair and cordial.

EPA: We've heard that the entire series of Left Behind books will ultimately consist of 12 books. How far along on that project are you and Tim LaHaye, and when do you anticipate publishing the final book in the series?
Jenkins: Book eight (The Mark) is on the press now and will release November 14 (with 2.5 million pre-sold at this writing). My deadline for book nine (working title Operation Eagle) is April 2001 with an October release, with each succeeding title due approximately a year apart. Book 12 (Glorious Appearing) is scheduled to release the day before Easter 2004.

EPA: What editorial control did you and Tim have in the scripting process for the movie version of Left Behind?
Jenkins: How about those Cubs this year, eh?

EPA: Has the Lord told you He won't return until the Left Behind series is completed, and if so could you please write faster?
Jenkins: Actually He has. We feel such a sense of control, going back to one book a year to kind of stretch things out. Dr. LaHaye believes the Lord could return in his lifetime, which means, I enjoy telling him, it could be very soon.

EPA: A two-part question: (A) How much money have you made from the Left Behind books, and (B) may I have some please?
Jenkins: (A) You wouldn't believe it, and (B) take a number, pal