The Story Behind the Book:
President Jimmy Carter's Living Faith
was to share the sources of Carter's religious convictions. Carter was convinced that his draft conveyed innermost religious beliefs. I felt that Carter was actually keeping readers at arms' length by using routine scripture disguised as intimacy.
“Ultimately, with the help of two editorial colleagues and several very stiff exchanges around the dining room table in Plains, we got what I thought was a book worth reading that, for example, explained Carter's views on how in his post-presidential career he could negotiate with despots (in North Korea, Ethiopia, and Haiti, among other places). As a white southerner and the descendent of a community of slave-owners, he found a capacity for forgiveness and tolerance incorporated in his devotion to God. Carter also explained in great detail what it meant to be ‘born again,’ which he was, as I recall, at the age of 11. From a collection of bromides out of Baptist handbooks, the book evolved into an exploration of what it meant to be truly faithful to belief in redemption.”
When people learn that I’ve worked on several books with a former president of the United States, they generally ask me two questions: “How did that happen?” and “What is he really like?”
As for how it happened, publisher Peter Osnos tells part of the story in one of his fine columns for the Century Foundation:
“I was privileged to work closely with Jimmy Carter from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s on a number of books . . . The last, and for me the most challenging book by far, was called Living Faith, which began as edited versions of the homilies Carter would deliver at the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. The purpose of the book
I was one of the “two editorial colleagues” Peter mentions (the other was Nessa Rappaport, a fine editor who had worked with Carter on his first presidential memoir, Keeping Faith). After Peter and Nessa left Plains, I stayed for a week, living in the nearest hotel (an old-fashioned inn in the next town over, Albany) and spending my days in the Carters’ modest ranch-style home, talking through individual chapters with the former president. Each day’s conversation yielded a rough draft chapter which we then tweaked and revised the
following morning. By the end of the week, we had crafted several chapters that became the heart of the book.
And because of President Carter’s enormous popularity (something you’d never even know existed if you relied on mainstream political punditry for all your information), Living Faith became a huge number one bestseller. Later, I helped Carter create a sequel, Sources of Strength, that hewed a little more closely to his original plan for a book built on scriptural themes and stories, and also provided editorial advice on An Hour Before Daylight, his memoir of childhood during the Great Depression. Both of these books were also major bestsellers.
As for what President Carter is really like, he is very smart, very methodical and businesslike in his work habits, as befits an Annapolis grad and one-time navy officer (he served in the submarine fleet under Admiral Rickover), and very down-to-earth and unassuming. By the time we’d spent a day or two working together, it was obvious that he was not only willing but eager to hear my editorial suggestions, even when they ran counter to his assumptions--and while it was always very clear that it was his book, to be shaped and written strictly in his voice and with his message, he was very appreciative of the small improvements I was able to provide by virtue of my different background and experiences.
Another thing few people realize about President Carter is that he prides himself on his writing. He has authored dozens of books, including a children’s book, a book of poetry, and an historical novel. Most have been very commercially successful, and the income they generate helps fund Carter’s humanitarian work through the Carter Center in Atlanta.
When President Carter won the (well-deserved) Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, I sent him a congratulatory message in which I remarked, tongue in cheek, “I’d been hoping you might receive the Nobel Prize in Literature!” He emailed me back, “It would be very hard for me to choose between the two!”