If you are an author or a reader–or even if your aren’t–you have likely heard of Karen Kingsbury. One of the absolute best storytellers of our time, Karen’s latest book, Love Story, has just been released. And, yes, it is about the Baxter family. (If you haven’t read books in this series, no worries. Karen has included a prequel that will fill you in on all you need to know. It will also answer Baxter-fan questions.)
Karen has taken a bit of time out of her book tour to discuss Love Story with us. Please, pull up a chair and join in.
Kay: Karen, you use grandson Cole’s school heritage project to tell John and Elizabeth Baxter’s story. I thought that was such a clever way to tell a long-ago family tale. How did this approach come to you?
Karen: Thanks! I loved the idea of Cole being curious about his grandparents’ love story. I was brainstorming why John would be doing this, when my sister, Tricia, came up with the idea. “Maybe Cole has a project for class!” I smiled. “Brilliant!” And just like that Cole had a school heritage project! It’s fun when my family has thoughts about the Baxters! I believe that’s because my family is like many of my readers – they feel as though they know these characters personally.
Kay: This unique approach allows for various angles and viewpoints. Does that make your storytelling job easier or more difficult?
Karen: From the beginning I’ve written my novels in multiple points of view. I’m not sure if it’s easier, but it definitely tells a stronger story. It’s film-like. When you’re watching a movie you don’t stay in one character’s point of view. The story builds and becomes impossible to leave because several stories are playing out consecutively, and ultimately they will connect in a way that presents a resolution and ending. Also, I believe alternating character viewpoints allows for a deep third-person point of view. I am able to get into the heart and soul of my characters, complete with internal thoughts and fragments and run-ons where needed. Because that’s how we think. This gives us a deep connection to several key characters – something previously only possible when writing in first person.
Kay: So true! For any who haven’t read earlier Baxter family books, the prequel does a good job of introducing family members. But many already know that background. How did you balance information for new readers without making it redundant to Baxter family followers?
Karen: In some ways, John’s and Elizabeth’s love story never has been told before. We knew bits and pieces, but we were never in John’s point of view when he first laid eyes on Elizabeth. So longtime readers are getting a piece of the story they’ve only wondered about. New readers are getting in at the ground level. It seemed like a win-win either way.
Kay: It certainly does! Did this book inspire you to take a look at your own heritage?
Karen: Actually, yes! My husband and I were sharing a deep conversation on a walk through our neighborhood. We talked about how one day our love story will be a legacy for our children and their children’s children. Our story isn’t like John and Elizabeth’s, but it’s a beautiful story, all the same. Our conversation that day reminded me of the countless readers who over the years have asked for a prequel to the Baxters, the love story of John and Elizabeth. It’s a story that’s lived in my heart for years. Now it’s finally on the page!
Kay: Can you share a story from your background that helped shape who you are today?
Karen: My parents always encouraged my writing. I stapled pages together and wrote my first book when I was five years old. It was simple, the story of a horse and a girl. Most of the words were misspelled, but my parents thought it was a masterpiece. From that day on I wanted to be a novelist. Through my growing up years my dad would say, “Karen, one day the whole world will know your writing.” Or he’d read a short story I’d written and say, “Someone has to be the next bestselling author. It might as well be you!” When I graduated from college, my mom presented me with a wrapped gift. Inside was that original first book. “The Horse” – with its crayoned, misspelled words, and its slanted lines of text. I’ll treasure it forever. But one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received is the gift of their support and belief in my dreams.
Kay: A great gift indeed! So how do you make your characters come to life so effectively?
Karen: Again, thank you. I think this is also the result of writing in deep third-person point of view. Before I begin writing a book I truly get to know the characters. I know so much about them that they feel like real people. This allows me to write about them at the deepest possible level. Another reason is that I’m an extrovert. When I’m tucked away writing, my characters are my only friends. They absolutely need to feel real!
Kay: One of the most beautiful ideas in the book is that of being “beautifully broken.” When Ashley found the old pitcher Elizabeth had glued back together, Ashley said it was an illustration of God’s grace. Not exactly like it was before, but still beautiful. Did this analogy come from something in your own life?
Karen: Glad you liked that! Raising six kids we have had countless opportunities to see how brokenness can be beautiful. Our son Sean had a freak accident where he was catching a football and his ring finger was knocked off his hand. It was hanging by a thread of skin. A doctor’s assistant decided to try to save it. After a half hour of struggling and praying, the finger was saved. Today it has a nasty scar, but it’s a reminder of God’s goodness in bringing healing to Sean. The scar is proof of the miracle. It was that way with the pitcher Ashley found. The vessel was still a pitcher. It still worked. But it bore proof that it had been through much. Same with the Baxter family. Same with each of us. The place where a wound has healed is often the strongest part of us – literally and figuratively.
Kay: How important do you think heritage stories are to families? What about the hard stories that are painful to recall and difficult to tell?
Karen: Heritage stories are so important. They remind us that we belong to a greater story. Our family started sending out a Christmas letter back when we first got married. Ever since then I write a brief history of the year and share it with the people we love. But all along I knew the most important thing about those letters was that we would have the written history. Decades later when we didn’t remember the details anymore, they would be written down in those Christmas letters. This past December, I put thirty Christmas letters into a Shutterfly scrapbook and called it “The Story of Us.” One day our great, great grandchildren will have the story of their heritage because we took the time to share it through the years. These tales of days gone by aren’t just important within our families, but within our faith. The Bible is full of heritage stories, all of which have lessons of belief in God, failure, redemption and grace that we can apply to our own lives.
Kay: This is indeed a love story—actually a compilation of love stories. There are John and Elizabeth, of course, and Cody and Andi. But also Brandon and Bailey, and Landon and Ashley. Do any of these parallel your own story?
Kay: I’ve never really written about a love story like mine and my husband’s. That would be fun, but it’s not in my plans at this time. When I met Don he was seeking a relationship with Jesus. He was tired of the failed marriages in his family line and he wasn’t looking for a religion to solve the problems. He wanted to go straight to God, straight to His word. I was not in that same place. I was part of a denominational religion, but hardly a regular church-attender. Because of that, the greatest drama in our relationship was over this subject. Three months of tumultuous dating resulted in my throwing his precious high-lighted Bible on the ground and breaking the binding down the middle. As soon as that happened, I knew something was wrong with me. I couldn’t defend my man-made beliefs by breaking the Bible. I visited a Christian bookstore that day, bought a Bible and looked up my own thoughts on life. They weren’t there. It was like I could hear God say, “You can either fall away with your worldly views, or you can grab onto My Word and never let go.” I grabbed. Since then through the ups and downs, the highs and lows of having and raising children, dealing with health issues, moving several times because of Don’s jobs, adopting our three boys from Haiti–whatever life held around the next bend, we always had God and each other. I treasure every day.
Kay: Did you consider adding a couple who did not have a happy ending? How would that have changed the story?
Karen: It’s important to have stories without happy endings, because that represents real life. In some ways that was Wilson Gage’s story, and it was also John’s, because these men lost their wives to illness far sooner than they had hoped or dreamed. At the same time, even the most broken story can have a beautiful ending when God’s redemption and grace is figured into the plot. That’s the story of the Baxters, after all. In their trials, triumphs and tragedies, there is always hope. And with God there is always a happy ending.
Kay: Wilson Gage, who fixed John’s car, witnessed to John through words and deeds. His approach was gentle and effective. Is this something you are able to practice in your own life?
Karen: Absolutely this is how our family shares our faith. Every day we pray for divine appointments, so that I might be at the market or the doctor’s office or on an airplane, and a conversation will ensue. I might ask where the person goes to church. That usually opens up a window to their belief system. Some are closed off at that point, but through kindness and love, many people become interested. People get tears in their eyes and sometimes they think they’ve experienced something supernatural, something divine. It happened the other day at a hotel. We were on tour, a group of six of us – five of my sons, including two of our adopted sons from Haiti, and a Liberty University female singer. A girl working at the cafe in the hotel lobby kept staring at us. Finally she asked if we were part of a traveling fitness team. My boys smiled at that. No, we told her, we were mostly a single family touring for the release of my new book. Just spreading hope and encouragement, inspiration that with God there is always a way. The girl grew teary-eyed and shook her head. “I felt drawn to y’all,” she told us. “God is with you. I think He wanted me to meet you.” She went on to say she’d been running from God for a long time, but maybe now it was time to live her life for Him. Amazing moments like that happen weekly in our family. It’s the fun adventure of faith. All people want to know they are loved by the Creator of the Universe, that their lives matter. The gentle, loving approach is the only one we know. It’s what Jesus modeled. We’re never perfect at it, but we certainly have an incredible Mentor.
Kay: What particular message would you most like your readers to take away from Love Story?
Karen: Sometimes I think about that obstinate girl I was in my early twenties, the one who threw the Bible on the ground and broke it just to make a point. I was warring against God and I didn’t even know it. But who would’ve ever thought that stubborn, prideful girl would one day be selling books that pointed people to the same God I was fighting? John and Elizabeth were young and in love. Neither of them had a strong faith, and John was set against following God. But through the brokenness of their story they found their way, not only to the Lord, but to redemption. In the process, Wilson Gage’s prayer was answered. John and Elizabeth would find God and one day all the world would know what faith and family looked like because of the Baxters. I want readers to see that no matter where they are today, God can use them. He can use their story. Not just so that broken can become beautiful, but so that all the world might be changed for the better because of them.
“Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
1 Corinthians 13:13