By Tracy Jones
FEBRUARY 16, 1998: There are dozens of books that promise to deliver a formula for a best-selling novel. Jan Karon didn't follow the advice in any of them.
Create larger-than-life characters. Nope. She built her first novel, At Home in Mitford, around an aging Episcopal priest and his decidedly provincial parishioners. Give readers exotic settings. Again, no. Instead, Karon gave them four novels set in the imaginary hamlet of Mitford, a town of about 1,000, a quiet place with tree-lined streets, mom and pop businesses, and plenty of opportunities for gossip. Construct gripping, spiraling sequences of events. In books where the central character's dilemma might be whether or not to return a casserole dish to the little old lady who's been winking at him from the pews, plot twists aren't the main attraction.
Why then, have readers placed Jan Karon's four novels about Mitford on bestseller lists across the country? And why are they clamoring for more? Has something in Karon's work unexpectedly resonated with readers?
"Honey, has it ever," Karon says. This despite the fact that Father Tim, the main character in the Mitford series, is, as his author describes him, "more than middle-aged."
"I would have thought, okay, we'll pick up readers in that general age category. But guess what? My readers, all across the country, start at about the age of 10." It's no accident that Karon's books, including her newest, the children's book Miss Fannie's Hat, appeal to all generations.
"There's nothing else on the bestseller list that you can do that with," she says. "Not a single thing." A great admirer of Charles Dickens, she compares what she is doing with the days when he published his novels in serial form for a similar all-ages audience.
"The father would go out and buy this serial, then he would bring it home. He would sit down in his study and read it over, looking carefully for any areas that would make his children feel brokenhearted or that would make them curious about something he might not want to answer. He would go over it carefully, then when he thought that he sort of had a grip on it, in the evening, the family would gather round and the father would read the new installment. All ages, the whole family. This is how I write my books."
Although grandmothers and grandchildren are now trading her books with each other, there was a time when Karon wasn't sure that she would have any audience at all. Born in western North Carolina, she began an advertising career that took her to San Francisco, New York, London, and lots of parts in-between. About 10 years ago, she sold everything and moved to back to her home state, to the small tourist haven Blowing Rock. She wanted to write. And since she was supporting herself with her writing, she wanted to write a story that would sell well. At first, At Home in Mitford didn't seem to be that story.
As she wrote it, she says, she berated herself constantly for not coming up with a more marketable idea. "I thought, 'Well, Jan, don't you want to make a living, don't you want to earn enough money to pay your mortgage? Why are you writing this book in which hardly anything happens? You've got a dog, a runaway boy, an [Episcopal] priest, who's not even married. What is happening in this story?' And I thought, 'I like these people, that's what's happening for me.'"
A small Christian publishing house published her first three books: At Home in Mitford, A Light in the Window, and These High, Green Hills. Because distribution was small, Karon became a one-woman sales force for the books, creating a buzz that caught the attention of larger publisher Penguin.
"I called bookstores around the country, I wrote them letters, I sent them copies of my book. I wrote my own publicity stories and sent them to newspapers. If I'm going to write it, I'm going to believe in it," Karon says. "I believe in my books, and I can go anywhere and sell them with the greatest joy. Once the writing is done then you want to get them in a reader's hands."
Getting her first three books into readers' hands is much easier now that Penguin has reissued them, in conjunction with her original publisher. Penguin brought out her fourth book, Out to Canaan, as a hardcover original, and she has a contract with them for five more Mitford books, including three novels, a novella, and a cookbook. Miss Fannie's Hat (Augsburg Fortress Press) is based on the life of her grandmother, whom she calls a very deep influence upon her own life. Her books, Karon says, fill a real need for quieter, optimistic fiction.
"People are absolutely starving to death for it." Although she is careful not to malign any contemporary authors, she doesn't feel the need for the sensationalism many think is required to sell books. Such bestsellers, she says, "have completely disregarded or passed by a huge, wide deep vein of eager readers. I came along and found that vein."
Karon says she has also discovered a reading public who are sick of scandal, sick of pessimism, and tired of being cynical.
"Angst has been the great banner that we have waved over everything. Everybody is spilling their guts out. We all have angst. We've always had angst," she says. "But I'm disgusted and sickened and repelled by it because it's been rubbed in my face year after year by television, radio, newspapers, books. No thanks. And I think there is a real ground swell that says, enough already."
If there is a common criticism of Karon's books, it is that they present a too-sunny view of life, an unearned optimism. Critics accuse her of promising fairy tale solutions, a criticism she says is not valid.
"Mitford has diabetes, Mitford has heart transplants, Mitford has child abuse, Mitford has abandonment. Mitford has the creep, which is drugs." Neither, she says, does she encourage readers to think of Mitford as a place that is magically free from the world's problems. Although her books have attracted a whole new set of tourists to Blowing Rock, she is blunt about their chances of finding what they're seeking in the town she calls home.
"Let me tell you about Mitford. You cannot come here and walk on our streets and have Mitford belong to you. You can't come here and get Mitford. You have to invest something for Mitford to work. In Mitford, you bake a cake for somebody. You pray for somebody. Well, you gossip and backbite, too, but I'm talking about sort of the general foundation on which a village is built. So Mitford will never be visible on a tourist map. We have an enchanting looking town, right out of a book, but Mitford is about heart, about soul, about love, about caring. That you have to help make yourself."
Continual references to her Christian faith come up in Karon's conversation, but hers is not a faith, she says, that has made things easy or comfortable. At least not at the beginning of her quest.
"I gave up my career, health benefits, life insurance and everything else that goes along with an established and successful career. I took a beating, but it was a good beating. It was a divine beating, if you will, that worked for good. There were some very hard times, doing the thing that I had wanted to do since I was 10 years old, and the thing which I feel God called me to do. It was as if he had separated me out from the flock and said, 'You, Jan, are going to be an author.' I was afraid to be that because I didn't know how to be that, and I was entrapped by all the things that entrap the rest of usdebt, the need for money."
Although her career in the advertising business used some of her gifts, she says, she felt the pain of not living up to her potential. For this reason, she encourages her readers to stop using less then their whole selves, to find their true work and do it.
"You need the hurt, and you need the pain to kick your fanny and make you move into the things that are really right for you. In the end, when you're climbing into your casket, you say, 'Was that really important?' What is important is that I lived my dream, I did what I was called to do."
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