When New Zealander Kara Isaac couldn’t find a Christian novel she wanted to read, she decided to write one herself. This month she releases her third book, and is a nominee at the international ‘Oscars of romance writing’.
Author Kara Isaac’s life is glamorous for ‘one week a year,’ she laughs. That week will be in July, when she attends the ‘RITAs’, or the Romance Writers of America Awards—considered the Oscars of the billion-dollar industry.
The fact that a Christian romance writer is a finalist is startling in its achievement. To be nominated of the 2000 entries, a book must be scored as outstanding by all five anonymous judges. This is in an industry that since the ludicrous success of Fifty Shades of Grey has seen the explosion of erotica, and where the current top sellers are often LGBT+ romances.
In this context, it is stunning that a book which openly wrestles with faith, and that is free of sex, rippling abs and Lotharios, has been noticed by industry leaders. Kara is nominated not only in the ‘Best Romance with Spiritual or Religious Elements’ category, but in the general market ‘Best First Book’ category.
If the idea of a Christian romance novel makes you cringe, you’re not alone—it made Kara cringe, too. ‘I’ve always been a huge reader, but I reached a point where there was just nothing in Christian fiction that I could relate to—there was a lot of historical, Amish-bonnet fiction,’ she explains. ‘There was also a lot of Bridget Jones style chic-lit, but Christian chic-lit tended to have the same heroine—in her 30s and desperate for a husband, and that didn’t resonate with me.’
At the time, Kara was a high-achieving career woman, working as Private Secretary to then Prime Minister John Key, followed by roles with other government ministers. Her role included attending APEC in Russia, and being helicoptered onto an oil rig off the Norwegian coast.
She had also re-committed to her Christian faith, having grown up as a pastor’s kid in her hometown of New Plymouth. Hurt by the way her parents had been treated at times, Kara stopped going to church when she went to university. But she felt a pull back towards her faith, despite meeting a ‘wonderful guy’ that she had fallen in love with.
‘I felt convicted that either I was “in” or I was “out”, but I couldn’t keep saying I had a faith without it having any relevance to my life,’ she recalls. ‘One night, [my boyfriend] asked me, “If I asked you to marry me, what would you say?” and I realised that I couldn’t say yes. I wanted my faith to influence my whole life.’
Recovering from a broken heart, Kara moved to Wellington, where she began her career in the public service, and found a church to call home—which she still attends today.
And there was still a passion for books. ‘I remember reading a romance book one day that had a bit of a steamy scene, and I thought, “If my dad read over my shoulder right now, he would be mortified!” I used to skip the sex scenes, but I felt convicted that I wasn’t meant to be reading romance novels anymore.’
One day, Kara was sharing with a friend her frustration that Christian romances were cringy, while general market romances were inappropriate. Her friend responded, ‘So, why don’t you write something that you would want to read?’
Kara worked on her first manuscript for over two years, and ended up with a 500-page novel she describes as ‘rubbish’. ‘I realised very quickly that I had no idea how to plot, write backstory, edit what was on the page, or any of the basics,’ she laughs.
But Kara also had a literary milestone: her first rejection letter. ‘I got a very nice rejection that said, “This writing thing is a marathon not a sprint, and it might not be this one, or the one after that, or the one after that.” It forced me to uncurl my fingers around my first manuscript and try something new.’
Kara began writing again—in the evenings, after what were often long days working at Parliament. Eight years later, it has become her third novel, Then There Was You, being released on 22 June.
The novel is set in a megachurch in Sydney, where Josh is a worship pastor. Meanwhile, Paige’s life has imploded and she has escaped America for a job organising the worship band’s tour. It’s a fun rom-com, sums up Kara. ‘They both have a lot of history. It’s also a story about hurts within the church, forgiving yourself, and seeing yourself the way God sees you.’
It was 10 years from when Kara first started writing to getting published. Along the way, she questioned whether she had any real talent. ‘But every time I felt ready to give up, it was like God gave me enough encouragement to keep going.’ Despite huge success in unpublished author competitions, including several awards, there were also more rejection letters from agents.
Meanwhile, Kara’s own life took such as unexpected turn, that if it was a novel the plot twist might beggar belief.
‘I remember when I was writing Then There Was You, just lying on my bed one time and praying, “God, when is my Josh going to turn up?” ’ she recalls. Soon after, the pastors at The Street City Church where she worships took her aside. ‘They had just come back from a conference in Sydney, and they said, “Kara, we met a guy in Sydney and I think you should meet him. His name is Josh and he’s the worship pastor at his church.” ’
A few months later, Josh was on holiday in New Zealand and the pair met. They have now been married for seven years with three children—Judah, Ellie and Ari—and Josh is the worship and services pastor at their church. ‘I sometimes joke that I wrote my husband into existence,’ laughs Kara.
Since they were beginning a family, Kara decided to give writing one last shot before giving up on her dreams. She pitched her manuscript at a writer’s conference in the States. ‘I literally finished writing the book on the plane on the way over, and I said, “Okay God, if this is something you have for me, something big needs to happen at this conference.” ’ On the last night, in a bar at the conference venue, she met a literary agent who signed her.
This time, Kara set her novel in New Zealand, based around a Lord of the Rings tour. In 2016, she was signed to publishers Howard Books with a two-book contract. This Kiwi romance, Close to You, became her first novel—and the book that has been nominated for the RITAs, as well as three different Christian writer’s awards.
So, does Kara encounter people who think writing romances are easy? She laughs. ‘My favourite is, “Oh, I have lots of book ideas; I’m just waiting for the right time to get published.” ’ But she tactfully suggests it’s hard to know what really goes into it until you try it for yourself. ‘I just say to people, “If you think you have a book in you, give it a go.” ’
For Kara, it is the readers that make writing a calling. ‘One letter I got really stood out for me—she was at university, in her early 20s. She had been ready to give up on ever meeting a Christian guy. But after reading my books, she’d been really encouraged to hold out for whoever it was that God was going to put on her path, at the right time.’
Kara also gets letters from readers who don’t have a faith. For some, it has made them think more deeply about Christianity. ‘For others, it has made them want to throw the book across the room,’ she says.
And then there are those Christians who are against the whole concept of romance. Surprisingly, Kara agrees that the romance genre is not for everyone. ‘If you’re a Christian and you’re reading a romance that leaves you feeling frustrated and discontented with your life or marriage, I would suggest this is not something you should be reading,’ she says. ‘But the Bible is a love letter between God and us, and if you read Song of Songs, you know that romantic love is a part of being human.’
Ultimately, Kara feels romance does have a place in Christian literature. ‘I’ve had feedback from Christians who are appalled at “the lust”, because my characters are attracted to each other. But there is nothing wrong with attraction. I don’t write my characters as supermodels, but if Christians didn’t believe in attraction, we’d all be signing up for arranged marriages,’ she reflects.
‘The romance book industry is a multi-multi-million dollar industry! So if we can shine a bit of light into that and write stories that aren’t about purely physical attraction, that aren’t R18, but that have God and faith as part of the story, I think that’s a really important message.’
by Ingrid Barratt (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 3 June 2017, pp7-9
You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.
Pre-order the eBook from Amazon ahead of its 22 June release for the special price of $USD 3.99. Paperback available from mid-June—if you live in New Zealand, there’s a special New Zealand print run.
Contact Kara to ask about ordering a signed copy direct. Go to www.karaisaac.com/contact