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Interview with Jana Kelley

Hi Jana! The first line in your book’s back cover copy tells us that your story is about, “Three women. Three impossible circumstances. One merciful God.” Tell me more…What or who inspired you to write this story? Why did you call it Mercy Triumphs?

Two sets of women inspired me to write this story.

First, Muslim women in Sudan and countries like it. They are strong and beautiful women and are quite varied in their ambitions. Some are completely satisfied with Islam, and some are seeking answers that Islam doesn’t have. Most women from Western countries will never have the chance to meet these wonderful women, so I wanted to introduce some of my friends by telling their stories through fiction.

Second are the Christian women who live in Muslim countries like Sudan. They are also strong and courageous. They are beautiful, though they don’t always feel that way because of many struggles that they face. I wanted to share honest but encouraging characters that were realistic so that readers living in their own countries can see what it might be like to live in a place like Sudan.

I chose James 2:13 for the theme verse of this book. “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Muslims say that Allah is merciful. Christians say God is full of mercy. The Bible speaks a lot about mercy. I wanted to explore this theme through the pages of the book.

Share your character creation process for this story.
I wanted the characters of this story to be realistic and I wanted to show the good and bad. I combined the personalities and struggles of many people I have known through years of living in North Africa and the Middle East. It was not difficult to come up with the characters and my research was mostly from my own friendships and experience.

Where is the setting for this story? Why did you choose it?
Mercy Triumphs takes place in several countries. I chose Sudan because I wanted readers to have an inside look at a little-known society. Kenya was the logical place for one of the characters to escape to. Dubai is a fascinating place and a logical location for Rania to go. And then Texas, my home state. Of course, I had to choose Texas!

Was it difficult to write about three very different women in the same story?
Yes, it was difficult to go deep with three separate characters in the somewhat-short length of the novel. I enjoyed the variety when it came to writing, but my challenge was to create a story that looked like a tapestry of interwoven plots and not a scattered collection of scenes. God’s greater story involves all of us, weaving in and out of each other’s lives. I did not feel that I could write an accurate account of God’s work in Sudan without several perspectives.

Describe the research that you did for this story. How much time did it take?
Before beginning to write Mercy Triumphs, I spent a couple of months studying the word “mercy” in Scripture. I thoroughly enjoyed diving into God’s word and seeing what His mercy looked like in the Old Testament and then in the New Testament.

I like to read at least one or more entire books on subjects I’ll be writing about, so I read a book on re-entry (the issues of expatriates returning to their home country after living for years in a foreign country) as well as several articles and short stories. I also read an interesting fiction novel called Minaret, written by the Sudanese-born Muslim novelist Leila Aboulela.

After three months or so of this preparation, I began to write, and the rest of my research took place alongside writing my first draft. This research involved polling women with overseas experience and talking to a close Sudanese friend to check on the accuracy of details. I used my own journals as reference for some of Mia’s feelings and used pictures and old letters to help bring up old memories that I wanted to write about. The Internet is awesome, of course, and I used several sources to research refugee work as well as places I’ve only visited for short times like Kenya and Dubai.

Let’s talk about your three heroines (Mia, Halimah and Rania). Describe their background, faith, character flaws, motivations, outlook on life and significant roles in your story.

Mia grew up in a Christian home. Her parents, however, are unsure of the wisdom of Mia and Michael living in a strict Muslim country such as Sudan. Mia herself struggles once the family has set up home in Khartoum. But by the time Mercy Triumphs takes place, Mia feels at home in Sudan.

Halimah is brave and strong. But when confronted with the new freedom she finds as a Christian, she loses sight of the most important things in life. Halimah is lonely and deeply desires a mentor.

Rania, Halimah’s sister, is a talented art student. But what no one knows is that she is also a follower of Jesus. Rania’s arranged marriage to a Muslim man is imminent, and before long, her secret will be known. Rania doesn’t think she is as courageous as her sister, so she struggles to find a solution to her problem.

What role does the God’s Mercy play in this story? Why does it matter to your three heroines?
As I studied the Scripture in preparation for writing Mercy Triumphs, I noticed a uniqueness in how God displayed His mercy before the cross of Christ and how He displays it now, after the cross.

I began to ponder how I have seen God display His mercy to those who don’t yet believe in Christ and those who do.

Mia, Halimah, and Rania are in unique circumstances and all three women experience true loneliness. Amid difficult circumstances, some of which are created by their own mistakes, they experience God’s mercy. Mercy matters to all three women because, as they learn through the pages of Mercy Triumphs, no one makes the right decisions all the time. Sometimes we fall, and we need God’s mercy to catch us. And when we experience this beautiful mercy of God, we can extend it to others.

This story is based on real-life events. Do you know the real-life versions of these characters? Or did you get your story idea from watching the news?
Almost all the characters in Mercy Triumphs are a combination of several of my friends. For their sake and for the sake of a manageable cast of characters, I did not write any one character exactly as the person I knew. I combined characteristics from several people, but I saw the faces of my friends in my mind when writing the story. My story ideas came from my own experiences living in North Africa and the Middle East for 13 years.

Mercy Triumphs is book number three in a trilogy. What can you tell us (briefly) of the first two books that were published before this one?
Side By Side is Book One. This story (based on Hebrews 10:33) tells the story of Mia and Halimah and its theme is the persecution of Christians in Muslim countries. This was the only book I ever planned to write. The further I got in writing the story, however, the more I realized what hadn’t been told yet. By the time this first novel was released, I was ready to start on a sequel.

Door to Freedom is Book Two. This story (based on 1 Corinthians 16:9) continues the story of Mia, and tells the story of Rania, Halimah’s younger sister. Mia has made her peace with living in Sudan but struggles to trust God when persecution touches her family. Rania remembers the night that Halimah was forced to leave home and this memory brings up a lot of questions for her because Halimah left a mysterious book for Rania and told her to read it.

What message are you trying to get across to your readers?
Muslims have families and goals and fears and love, just like you and me. I want my readers to consider what it might be like for a Muslim to be confronted with the truth of Jesus. I want Christian readers to desire to pray for and reach out in Christian love to Muslims.

Did you enjoy writing this book?
I enjoyed writing this book because I could finally wrap up the stories that I began in my first novel, Side By Side. I also enjoyed writing about what it is like to return to the United States after being away for a long time. I’ve never written about that experience before and I wanted to, because it is such a “normal” part of my own life.

What were your biggest challenges in writing this book?
I decided early on that Mercy Triumphs, would be the final book about these characters. I had two challenges in writing this third book. First, I wanted to wrap up the stories enough to satisfy the readers while leaving them open-ended enough to be realistic. No person’s story is ever finished, especially when Jesus is working in his or her life. I did not want a “happily ever after” ending, but I did want to provide some closure. Second, if this was going to be my last book about these characters, and maybe my last one about Sudan, I wanted to make sure I had said everything I wanted to say about the matter! I still have countless stories and scenes in my head, but I am satisfied with all that has been written in this trilogy and I feel good about saying, “The End.”

You’ve lived in Texas, Africa and Southeast Asia. How have your different cultural experiences shaped your worldview and impacted your writing?
I live as an outsider in every country I live in, including the United States: my passport country. Because of this, I have a unique perspective. I think that I can probably observe people and the going on of life in an objective manner. I find it easy to describe culture and scenes because I have never been completely immersed in any one culture. I can observe the limitations of Muslim women in Sudan, but also appreciate the beauty and strength of those same women. I can celebrate the freedoms of families in the United States, while lamenting the fact that many American families have lost the kinds of traditions that hold African and Asian families together. My favorite subject to write about is culture and how God uses that in my life to strengthen my walk with Him.

Paint a picture of your family life.
My husband and I have three boys. Our oldest is now in college in Texas and we are learning how to be family across 10,000 miles. That’s not easy! Our younger two boys are in high school. One of my favorite times of day is when we are all in our living/dining area. Someone is reading, someone is doing homework, someone is on Facebook…but we are all together and being together is my favorite! When we can, we try to end the day with a conversation of some sort or by watching a TV show together. Then we pray before telling each other goodnight. It’s a great way to connect at the end of the day.

What are your favorite past times?
You will probably not be surprised to read that my favorite past time is travel. I love to visit new locations. This year I added two new country stamps to my passport and I am so happy about that! At any moment, you can probably ask me and I’ll have plans for some upcoming trip that I am hoping my family will agree to take. Currently, I am exploring activities like kayaking and hiking on a nearby island, and also I am beginning to research a volcano hike for next summer.

Describe your writing space. What makes it special to you?
I have a lovely little spot tucked away in a nook in the master bedroom. It is perfect…for an introvert. Unfortunately, I am an extrovert. It is torture to shut myself upstairs in a lonely spot. So, while my books on writing and all my supplies (notebooks, notecards, posters, and other bits of inspiration) are upstairs in my nice little writing spot, my computer and I are downstairs on the sofa or at the dining table (like right now, for example). These locations are better for me because I can write…while still knowing what is going on around the house. If I am upstairs, I am worried I might miss out on something! However, if I am working on a strict deadline, I do use my lonely spot and I make myself stay there until I get my wordcount in.

What do you want your legacy as an author to be?
If people could read my books and say, “Well, my goodness, if that Jana Kelley could do it, maybe I could too,” then I would be very happy. My writing journey has grown me in many ways and I would love for others to have that same experience through writing.


Alexis A. Goring is a passionate writer with a degree in Print Journalism and an MFA in Creative Writing. She loves the art of storytelling and hopes that her stories will connect readers with the enduring, forever love of Jesus Christ.

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