2016-06-30
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?"
Read more on page 2 >>


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  • What about being a "professional Christian"? Has the professionalization of your faith, or the scrutiny you might be under now that you're so often in the public eye, affected you spiritually?
    At the age of six, I believed I would grow up and be a preacher. At the age of ten, I knew without any doubt that I would be an author. Half a century later, I am an author writing about a preacher. So I guess I am a kind of "professional Christian." But of course, I'm also a private Christian. In other words, what I am, anyway, just rolls out into the world in a larger sense. So it's good; it feels safe and comfortable to me. And unless there's clergy around, I get asked to say the blessing!

    Do you understand writing as a spiritual discipline?
    I wrote for several decades in advertising, a profession requiring the strictest discipline. I don't think of writing as a spiritual discipline, though I am writing about things of the spirit. I work in a disciplined way because that's the way I was trained to write. While I found advertising to be somewhat brutal and unfeeling, all things considered, it has taught me many wise and useful ways to work. The take-out of this is that God never wastes anything. Nothing. The years I spent pouring my heart into work that would be thrown away, recycled, or ignored were years He was teaching me how to put my shoulder to the wheel and get the job done, no matter what. And as you know, getting the job done is no easy accomplishment. I find I must fight for every hour at my desk, or my life would devour it quite whole.

    Father Tim is an Episcopal priest, yet the current contretemps over human sexuality in the Episcopal Church are never mentioned in your novels. I imagine you've not dealt with this in the novels because it might detract from the core message. You did, in 1998, have a few sharp-tongued things to say to The Living Church about ECUSA:

    "An open letter to the Episcopal Church: Dear Bride of Christ:
    You have abandoned your headship. You are a bride who has married, deserted the union, and run away to lead a life based on vain, new creeds that suit your fancy. Come home, I pray, and feed your people."

    What would your open letter say today? Are you still able to joyfully be a part of an Episcopal community, or have you found a church home elsewhere?

    Still loving the beautiful and powerful liturgy--a gift!--and the hymns and the possibilities that lie ahead for us as God's people. The letter you mention is still very much in effect, however.

    A recent article in the Charlotte Observer delved more deeply into your own biography than many previous profiles. What led you to open up and offer fans a more vulnerable look into your life?
    The journalist, Sam Hodges, was completely determined to get a more in-depth story about my life. I found I liked him immensely, he was a gentleman, and absolutely devoted to the accomplishment of his mission. I admired that so much that I just said, "OK, here we go, I'm tired of trying to hold back the ocean, and if anyone is going to do this thing, I would like it to be you." It was painful for me, and embarrassing. I literally despise the modern horror of baring one's soul publicly. I bare my soul publicly in every book I write, and that seems enough for me. But the deed is done, and I find I'm greatly relieved.

    "Light from Heaven" is being presented as the "last Mitford novel" but you are planning three more novels with Tim and Cynthia--novels, that I presume, are not set in Mitford. Can you divulge anything about your plans? Do you have any plans to publish nonfiction? Certainly Jan Karon's spiritual autobiography would be an instant best-seller.
    I have no plans to write and publish any nonfiction. Though if I had time, I would write a book called "The New Georgians." It would be about people like me (hordes of them!) who move to Albemarle County, into the countryside, to create their own version of a bucolic, eighteenth-century paradise. As for an autobiography (by the way, Agatha Christie's autobiography is among my all-time favorites), I can't say, because I don't know. I have so much work before me--a book about the building of a mid-eighteenth century house in Virginia (requiring two years of research and four of writing), a children's book about a boy and his mother who go visit relatives in their RV, a book about... you get the idea. As for my plans for the next series, suffice it to say that in the first of the Father Tim Novels, he goes "Home to Holly Springs," and is given a gift that could cost his life.

    What books are on your I-can't-wait-to-read-this list? If you were heading to a desert island, what few books--in addition to a Bible and a Book of Common Prayer, of course--would you bring along?
    I never do well with this question. Let me just tell you what I'm reading now. Or re-reading after forty years. Knut Hamsun's "Growth of the Soil." A masterpiece. If I thought creating an entire town was hard work...

    At the end of your life, when you look back on your writing career, how will you understand "success"? What fruits will you look for to determine if you have "succeeded" as a writer?
    While antiquing along Virginia's famed Route 11, I found a sampler. It says, "Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get." Happiness is what I look for as a first fruit of success, which, as you know, is a thorn all its own.

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