Interview: July 1, 2002
July 1, 2002
The Left Behind series, co-authored by Jerry B. Jenkins and Dr. Tim F. LaHaye, has been breaking sales records in the book industry for the past few years. Even those not familiar with the material in the books know the titles of the most recent books --- THE INDWELLING, THE MARK and DESECRATION --- each of which topped the New York Times Bestseller list for many weeks.
Bookreporter.com co-Founder Carol Fitzgerald and Bookreporter.com writer Jimmy Watson teamed up to interview Jerry Jenkins on the origin of the series, the Book of Revelation, his thoughts on the current strife in the Middle East and what readers can look forward to next.
BRC: How did the Left Behind Series originate?
JJ: The idea was Dr. LaHaye's. He had written nonfiction on the subject of Bible prophecy and the end of the world and thought putting it into a fiction format would make it understandable and accessible to more people.
He and his agent had been looking for a novelist for quite a while when I signed with the same agent, Rick Christian of Colorado Springs, in 1992.
BRC: What made you decide to write the series?
JJ: Rick introduced me to Dr. LaHaye, who is almost exactly the age of my mother. Besides the sort of father-son dynamic, we hit it off, I loved the idea, and we decided to give it a try.
BRC: How do you and Dr. LaHaye write together? Do you each write specific characters?
JJ: We don't. Dr. LaHaye provides his commentary on the prophecies and the Scripture passages that will be dealt with in the novel. I do all the writing.
BRC: The scripture text of The Book of Revelation is intensely metaphorical and thus has many interpretations, but your books do not. Instead you create a narrative with recognizable characters. Why did you handle it this way? Do you disagree with others who leave the interpretation up to the reader?
JJ: We disagree. That's the point. If it is taken metaphorically or figuratively or symbolically, it could be interpreted 200 different ways. Yet the Bible says, "Blessed (or happy) is the one who reads this book." Dr. LaHaye reasons that a person won't be happy reading a book he or she can't understand. He also decided that if the Old Testament prophecies about the first coming of Christ were fulfilled literally, we should assume that the New Testament prophecies concerning his Second Coming should be taken literally too.
He experimented, interpreting the prophecies literally, unless they were clearly couched in comparative language (i.e. "like unto..." or "as"). His literal interpretation seemed to bring the prophecies to life and makes a great framework for fiction.
BRC: Okay, but how do you turn that into a narrative with recognizable characters?
JJ: I put normal people in the way of extraordinary events and see how they respond.
BRC: Christian fiction is not new. Why do you think your books sell so well?
JJ: The great writing. (Just kidding.) I believe there is a great base of people out there who agree with us and are encouraged by the books. And there is also a vast universe of people looking for something beyond themselves. They buy inner healing titles, books on eastern religions, books by the Pope, books by the Dalai Lama, etc. They may not call this a God hunger, but I believe that's what it is. And when they learn of novels based on biblical prophecy, it fits that hunger and gives them something else to consider.
BRC: When did you know you were onto a bestselling series?
JJ: Almost immediately Left Behind took off in the Christian market, but by book 4, it had really become a crossover hit, and soon a phenomenon. We're as astounded as anyone.
BRC: Looking ahead, have the last two Left Behind books been outlined?
JJ: I have received from Dr. LaHaye a fairly ambitious workup concerning the prophecies and passages that give me a framework for book 11.
BRC: How much has been written?
JJ: That manuscript is due to the publisher 9/3.
BRC: What can we look forward to in Book Eleven and what is the timing on that book?
JJ: It will release in June, I believe, of 2003. It's entitled Armageddon and will take us right up to the point just before the end of the seven-year Tribulation period that follows the Rapture of the church.
BRC: As with any series, as time goes on you need to spend a significant about of the book catching new readers up with past content. How difficult is it to keep the facts consistent?
JJ: Very. I need to speed read the entire series each time I write a new one and spend a good bit of time with the previous one.
BRC: What would you say to people unfamiliar with The Book Of Revelation about its influence on the book? Is there a companion anywhere on how to read Left Behind for religious significance or a recommended theological analysis that laymen can understand?
JJ: We have a nonfiction book called Are We Living in the End Times? (Tyndale), and Dr. LaHaye has one called Revelation Unveiled (Zondervan). There is a book of charts published by Harvest House, and Tyndale has a companion book scheduled for later this year.
BRC: There has been some criticism from the Jewish community that these titles are anti-Semitic, or at the least insensitive to the Jewish perspective regarding Jesus, the gospel, and the End Times? What is your reaction to this?
JJ: The entire foundation of our faith is based on Judaism. Where we differ from the practicing Jew is that we believe Jesus is the prophesied and long-awaited Messiah. We believe the Jews are God's chosen people, and thus we love them and support Israel. We believe there is a solid argument for Jesus as the Messiah in our stories and ask only that the fair-minded will read and consider this. While we are not naive to the fact that Jesus is anathema to many Jews, we do not mean to offend. Indeed, we believe the entire story of the Bible centers on the Jewish people.
BRC: A number of readers have been asking what you will do after the Series ends?
JJ: I'll probably sit in a corner and quiver for a two or three years. :) Actually, each of us have several other projects in the works.
BRC: Is there any thought on doing a series about the Millennium?
JJ: No. As this is to be 1,000 years of peace, there is no conflict, a major element of fiction. (I was afraid Tyndale might ask for one book for each year of the millennium.)
BRC: What are your thoughts on 9/11 and the renewed violence in the Middle East?
JJ: The Bible says that there will be wars and rumors of wars and nation will rise against nation, but that this is not the end, only the beginning of the end.
BRC: Do you see this as the beginning of the period before the Tribulation?
JJ: Not necessarily, as we have had this kind of turmoil for centuries. But it certainly has highlighted the truth that no one knows when his or her last day on earth might be, and thus we owe it to ourselves to be ready.
BRC: Do you see any current middle-eastern leaders that you feel could become "peacemakers" in the region?
JJ: No. In fact, the prophecies imply that there will never really be peace until Jesus returns.
BRC: When I meet with New York publishers --- and readers in the New York metro area --- many have never heard of Left Behind. Given that you sold more book than Grisham last year, what is your reaction to this?
JJ: If New York publishers claim they have never heard of Left Behind, they're pulling your leg. Do they really expect you to believe they are not aware of the last three titles, each of which debuted number one on the bestseller lists of the NY Times, The Wall St. Journal, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly, and the most recent, which outsold the second biggest fiction seller in the world last year by 900,000 copies?
There will always be readers who haven't heard of bestsellers; I'm sure Grisham, King, Clancy, and others face the same frustration. But I recently visited NY and met with several agents and publishers, and while they may not have read the books and may have had preconceived notions of what they were about, they were well aware of titles that kept their own authors out of the number one spot for several weeks.
Bottom line, ignorance of the titles just means there's still plenty of market penetration available.
BRC: What has Left Behind done for the growth of the Christian market?
JJ: Publishers Weekly has an extensive piece on this very subject in its current issue, and it credits the series with tripling the number of novels offered in the last few years.
BRC: Is it the first crossover title with mass appeal?
BRC: Were you happy with the movie?
JJ: I thought it was good as a Christian video, but I was disappointed that it was not the type of a movie that would compete in the general marketplace.
BRC: Are any more planned?
JJ: I understand the second is going straight to video this fall. Dr. LaHaye is in litigation, trying to get back the rights to the rest of the titles.