'A God-Given Story'
Jan Karon explains how God led her to write about a 'balding, pudgy, sixty-something cleric,' and what comes after 'Mitford.'
BY: Interview by Lauren Winner
Eighteen years ago, Jan Karon, now 68, traded in an award-winning advertising career to write novels. Setting up shop in tiny Blowing Rock. North Carolina, she struggled to write a novel about a woman who moved to western North Carolina and opened an inn, but the book never came together. Then one night, Karon got a new idea--keep the setting, but instead tell the tale of a balding, middle-aged Episcopal priest. The Mitford series, which would eventually sell more than 20 million copies, was born. Karon's first Mitford novel was published in 1994. In November 2005, the final novel in the series, "Light from Heaven," arrived in bookstores. Longtime Mitford fan Lauren Winner talked with Karon over email about her inspiration for the books, the effect of fame on her spiritual life, and what comes next for her.
What led you to write the Mitford novels?
God. On my own, I would never have considered writing about a balding, pudgy, sixty-something cleric!
It seems to me the main character of the novels is not Father Tim, or Mitford itself, but Jesus Christ. How does that claim strike you?
It strikes me very well, indeed.
A major theme of the books is Father Tim's retirement. He wrestles with the decision to retire, and with what a good retirement looks like. Are you asking similar questions as you "retire" from Mitford?
Actually, I'm so fired up for the next series, called "The Father Tim Novels," that I don't feel bereft or pokey-faced or bewildered about what to do now that the Mitford chronicle is completed. I'm very excited to climb into Father Tim's red Mustang convertible and drive with him and his good dog to Holly Springs, Mississippi--with the top down. This first book in the series will be called "Home to Holly Springs," and it's new territory for me, a whole new landscape of feeling and surprise. Yet, I'll be writing about a character who's comfortable and familiar and easy to be with.
Agatha Christie wrote forty books about [Hercule] Poirot, and admits she didn't even like the fellow. I like Father Tim quite a lot, he's such a decent sort, and will be happy to pen three more books with him.
As you know, I have read each of the Mitford novels at least five times. A few months ago, I was listening to Mitford on audio, and came to the scene where you describe the town's early response to Miss Sadie's death. I began to cry. In "Light from Heaven," several other beloved Mitfordians die, and those scenes are some of the most vivid in the book. I imagine you have to go to a deep, maybe even dark, place when you write about death--or maybe you go to a joyful place, a promise of Heaven. Could you comment on writing these death and funeral scenes?
I also wept when Miss Sadie died. Indeed, I mourned her death. People say, "You're the author, you're in control, why let characters die if it makes you sad?" Ah, but the story called for it, that's what the story wanted, and once I let go and let it happen, I knew it was right. At the beginning of "Light From Heaven," I had the sense that someone must be lost to us, and it was Uncle Billy. I didn't fight this or try to reason it away. Indeed, he is one of my very favorite characters, but I knew it had to happen. Who can fathom the mystery of the God-given story? I felt very uncertain about Uncle Billy's funeral. As you know, Father Tim was also feeling uncertain. Jokes at a funeral? What if this tribute to a beloved soul were to bomb--utterly? A disgrace to the departed and to the foolish priest who perpetrated such blasphemy. But I let the story loose and it worked. It was right; nothing else would have been right. And yes, because I know where Uncle Billy was headed when he floated up through the hospital room ceiling, I was completely at peace about his loss.
Since I published my first book, publishing itself has been a major theme of my spiritual life. Trying to deal sanely, and humbly, and prayerfully with publication has been full of spiritual challenges and opportunities. How has publishing played a role in your spiritual life?
Publishing is, by its nature, about deadlines, and deadlines are toxic. I have raced against the clock since I went into advertising at the age of eighteen. As for my work, I wish I had what Charles Frazier had with "Cold Mountain," which was precisely eight years to develop his story line and narrative. Eight years! For a very long time, I wrote a book a year, and was eager and willing to do it, to put bread on the table, to have my work out there. Now I must write a book every two years, and that's never enough time, either. My life is extremely full and wretchedly busy, and I feel that while my life drains energy from my work, my work in turn drains energy from my life. The result is, I am always playing catch-up spiritually. That is my thorn.
What's next for Karon after "Mitford?"
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