When New Zealander Kara Isaac couldn’t find a Christian novel she wanted to read, she wrote one herself, which led to some wonderful developments in her own life. She has just released her third book, and is a nominee at the international ‘Oscars of romance writing’, writes Ingrid Barratt.
Kara Isaac’s life is glamorous for “one week a year”, she laughs. That’s when she attends the ‘RITAs’, or the Romance Writers of America Awards—considered the Oscars of the billion-dollar industry.
To be nominated from 2,000 entries, a book must be scored as outstanding by all five anonymous judges. In this context, it is stunning that a book which openly wrestles with faith, and 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 New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, with duties including attending APEC in Russia, and being helicoptered onto an oil rig off the Norwegian coast.
Having grown up as a pastor’s kid in her hometown of New Plymouth, she had also re-committed to her Christian faith. Hurt by the way her parents had been treated at times, Kara stopped going to church when she went to university.
Kara later moved to Wellington, where she began her career in the public service, and found a church to call home—which she still attends today.
One day, Kara was sharing with a friend her frustration that Christian romances were cringeworthy, 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.
Kara began writing again—in the evenings, after what were often long days working at Parliament. Eight years later, it became her third novel, Then There Was You, 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 took Kara 10 years to be published, making her question whether she had any real talent.
“But every time I felt ready to give up, God gave me enough encouragement to keep going.”
Meanwhile, Kara’s own life took an unexpected turn.
“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.
Returning from a conference in Sydney, the pastors at Kara’s Street City Church took her aside and 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.”
While on holiday in New Zealand, Josh and Kara met and have now been married for seven years with three children—Judah, Ellie and Ari. 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 writers’ 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.
Kara set her new 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. Close to You became her first novel and the book was nominated for the RITAs, as well as three different Christian writer’s awards.
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. It has made some 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 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, 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.
“If we can shine a bit of light into the multi-million-dollar romance book industry 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.”
With thanks to War Cry New Zealand.
Find out more about Kara and her books at karaisaac.com.