Author Karen Kingsbury balances motherhood & books
Christian author Karen Kingsbury and her husband Don are the parents of Sean, EJ, Kelsey, Tyler, Austin and Josh.
Photo courtesy of the Florida Baptist Witness.
Posted on May 8, 2009 | by Joni B. Hannigan
VANCOUVER, Wash. (BP)--Pulling a slimy Gummi Bear out of Gatorade for a science experiment wasn't exactly what Karen Kingsbury, a mother of six, had in mind as she approached a writing deadline for her latest book.
Kingsbury, a Christian fiction author, needed to finish editing the second book in her most recent novel series before leaving for a trip early the next day. But her children needed her that night.
First it was fifth grader Austin who was in the middle of a science project comparing the effect of water versus Gatorade on Gummi Bears. Then Kelsey, 19, reminded her mother that she needed help preparing for a college algebra final.
EJ, 14, had already engaged his father's help in math, and then Sean, also 14, asked Kingsbury to help him understand how the U.S. Constitution impacted homelessness.
"I'm bounding like a pinball between these different kids," Karen, 45, recounted. "It was 10 o'clock before you knew it, and I hadn't even put together my folder for my trip. So I didn't get my book edited."
Perhaps most widely known for the title given to her by Time magazine, the "queen of Christian romance," Kingsbury is the author of more than 40 books with more than 10 million copies in print. In a recent interview with the Florida Baptist Witness newsjournal, she said while that particular school night with her children is an example of her greatest challenge in life, she's up to the task of maintaining balance.
"I'll always err on the side of my family, and I'll never regret that," Kingsbury said. "I won't get a second chance to do that, so that's got to take precedence."
Getting to the heart of life's priorities found its way to the forefront when Kingsbury was working a yearlong stint as a religion editor at the Simi Valley Enterprise (now Ventura County Star) in southern California after graduating with a degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge, in 1986.
Raised to believe in God, play by the rules and attend church occasionally, Kingsbury said covering faith-based events and reading press releases about a multitude of religious ideas converged on her at about the same time she met her future husband Don.
From the start, Kingsbury knew Don was different. He asked her if he could take his Bible on their first date so they could read Scripture together.
"I didn't know Philippians from Colossians," Kingsbury said. "I had no idea what that even was, but he was really cute and I didn't want to lose him right off the bat and so I said, 'Yeah, OK, I mean, bring the Bible.'"
It seemed God was working on her on two fronts.
"I had this great guy trying to show me the Bible and tell me about key verses and that kind of thing. Meanwhile I am also getting a fresh look at things that kind of disturb me about some mainstream traditional faiths and religions," Kingsbury said.
At 22, Kingsbury had already come up with her own version of what faith should resemble.
"Love God, be a good person, don't steal -- and, as long as you are not doing these certain things, then it should be OK, kind of maybe, if you slept with your boyfriend," she said.
Feeling convicted was something new, so when Don pointed out specific verses, she took his precious, earmarked Bible and flung it to the ground where it split apart at the binding.
"It was devastating for him to see his Bible shattered on the ground," Kingsbury said.
He picked up the pieces, gave her a sad look, and left.
Moved by what she had done and feeling like the world's worst person for throwing his Bible in an expression of her beliefs, Kingsbury took her first trip to a Christian bookstore. She purchased a Bible and a Strong's Concordance and began to prepare an effective argument by looking up key words.
"It took about five minutes for God to show me they were completely unfounded biblically, and I could either fall away with all the traditional things I believed or I could grab on to God's Word and never let go.
"It was a dramatic, complete turning point in my life -- a complete transformation where I cried out to the Lord to be my Savior," Kingsbury said. "Everything in the Bible was vividly alive and made complete sense to me, and I literally fell in love with God's Word."
She was back with Don within minutes, and they began looking for a Bible-believing church where they could worship. They celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary last year.
FROM FACT TO FICTION
"God really worked out the details in a very specific way for me," Kingsbury said of that time in her life. "It was amazing."
In fact, she landed the assignment as religion editor because it was considered the least desirable post at the paper and was handed off to the newest hire.
An additional assignment, sports writing, was one in which Kingsbury distinguished herself while completing a college internship with the Los Angeles Times. Continuing work for the Times and for the Los Angeles Daily News, Kingsbury eventually wrote emotional feature stories for the Sunday paper's front pages.
Six weeks after Kelsey was born, Kingsbury received an offer to write a true crime story called "Missy's Murder." She quit work as a fulltime journalist and began writing from home, where she has been ever since. After four true crime books and four books on miracles and answered prayers, Kingsbury wrote her first novel, "Where Yesterday Lives."
Since then, she has written dozens of books including the "Redemption" series with coauthor Gary Smalley, one of America's best-known authors and speakers on family relationships. The five-book series follows a family's everyday trials and triumphs, and it highlights Smalley's key concept that love is a decision.
Kingsbury's "Firstborn" and "Sunrise" series follow the Baxter family as they face life's joys and struggles.
Unlike most fiction, which often is unrealistic, Kingsbury's works often are derived from true stories and drawn from her imagining what it would be like to be in someone else's shoes.
Three of Kingsbury's children are adopted, and when she wrote "Like Dandelion Dust," published in 2005, there were several news items about children being ripped out of the arms of their adoptive parents and given to biological parents under various circumstances.
"I couldn't even fathom that kind of a loss," Kingsbury said.
So compelling was the story, it has been adapted into a movie. The book was based in Palm Beach, Fla., and the movie was filmed in Jacksonville last year. Starring Mira Sorvino and Barry Pepper, it is the story of how far a couple will go to keep their adopted son when the biological father comes back into the picture. Kingsbury said it is a classic parable of King Solomon with two mothers and their child.
The movie garnered "The Best of the Fest" award when it premiered at the Palm Springs Independent Film Festival in January. Kingsbury said she was humbled as she observed people with tearful and somewhat subdued reactions to the movie.
"It was different, definitely. Usually what you're going to see in a movie is beyond violent and gore and sensual overload, and there's nothing to it. It's empty," she said. "But this is so not that. It's so much richer and deeper than that. Watching the audience was just the most rewarding thing because it was what we all prayed for."
For Kingsbury, the movie's message about the need for families to adopt children and the importance of those relationships was intimate and convincing because of her own family's familiarity with such issues.
After Kelsey, 19, and Tyler, 16, were born early in their marriage, Austin, now 11, came along in 1997. A surprise in several ways, Kingsbury said she and her husband first thought Austin was going to be a girl and were shocked when he was a boy. They were saddened to find out he had a severe heart defect and likely would die.
Calling him a miracle child, Kingsbury said he had surgery at three weeks old and now is off the charts in growth and athletic ability.
"He just hit a home run yesterday," Kingsbury said.
At the time, Kingsbury was cautioned by doctors that the same thing or worse could occur in future children. She and Don decided to adopt another child between Austin's age and the others.
"We have room in our hearts and in our home," Kingsbury recalled saying.
Their search for a child turned overseas to a Christian-run orphanage in Haiti, where they saw a photo of Emmanuel Jean, or "EJ," who was 5 years old at the time and now is 13.
"His smile just won our hearts. We looked and we thought, 'You know, different color, different culture, different country, but the same Christ,'" Kingsbury said.
Shortly after the family sent in a down payment to secure the adoption, Kingsbury said the Redemption series contract was finalized and it became apparent God would provide the means for another family member.
"We felt like God was just opening up the floodgates of heaven and saying, 'Yes, yes, I want you to adopt.'"
If one was in the plan, the Kingsburys thought, why not two children? They chose another, Joshua, who was 6 years old. Later they were warned by a woman at the orphanage that they shouldn't choose Joshua because he was a difficult case. They went back online and withdrew their request for him, choosing Sean instead.
Nine months later, when Kingsbury traveled to the orphanage to pick up EJ and Sean, another little boy walked up to her and touched her gently, saying, "Hi, Mommy. I love you."
"All around me, the noise just stopped," Kingsbury said, describing the small area she was in with 40 children surrounding her. "I felt like all of the sounds diminished, and I connected with him."
Kingsbury learned from the older children that the child with the beautiful voice and huge smile was indeed Joshua. Rather than a troublemaker, he was an innocent in a foiled scam by a corrupt worker at the orphanage who had been caught trying to steal him in the process of establishing her own orphanage. The family ended up adopting all three boys, who were best friends.
The Kingsburys are members of New Heights Church in Vancouver, Wash., where Don has coached sports and taught school. Involvement in church is important to the family, Kingsbury said, as is daily Scripture and devotional reading.
Kingsbury said striking a balance in her spiritual, family and professional life means thinking outside the box when the reality of motherhood collides with her career.
"I have a laptop, and I have headphones," Kingsbury said, rejecting the notion that writers must sit on a secluded shore while stories play out in their heads. "I can be sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with the kids while they are watching a playoff game on TV, and I can be writing."
Although Kingsbury has a room upstairs where she heads when her attention is not needed, she can never really anticipate what each day will bring and says her first call of duty is to take care of her family.
Though she can produce a book in just 10 writing days, sometimes Kingsbury will take an extra month to finish a project so that she doesn't neglect her family. For every hour of writing, Kingsbury estimates she spends about 20 hours on publicity and speaking or on charity programs.
Meanwhile, the ideas don't stop coming.
Recently she was watching a music video while working out. In the video, an elderly man who was evicted from his home after losing his job was watching his son fight police. The man fell to his knees with a heart attack.
"I thought, 'My goodness, that's a real thing that's happening to people today,'" Kingsbury said. "People are losing their jobs and their places, and their lives are being financially shattered, and I've never written about that.
"I could feel God saying, 'You need to write about this,'" she said.
In the midst of signing book contracts and watching her New York Times bestsellers be made into movies, Kingsbury gives God the credit.
"I think the bigger it all gets, the smaller I feel," she said. "God puts a movie in my head, and I have the privilege of being a pen in His hand. In a sense, I am able to take that movie and put it on paper. I need to be obedient to what He's calling me to do."
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, newsjournal of the Florida Baptist State Convention, online at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.