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A Bumper Crop on God's Little Acre
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 12, 1998

  Style Showcase


    cover Paberbound cover of Jan Karon's "Out to Canaan."
Mostly older, mostly whiter, mostly female and mostly Christian folks stand in a long line at the Smoketown Super Crown bookstore in Dale City on a recent Saturday morning to meet the most successful author you've probably never heard of – Jan Karon.

More than 100 souls have shown up to pay homage to Karon's quartet of novels about life in the fictional town of Mitford, N.C. Like an old-fashioned miniaturist, Karon has painted a quiet yet bustling world where women bake marmalade cakes, men wash the dishes, dogs listen to poetry, criminals preach sermons and the central character, Father Tim, quotes lots of Scripture and tries to hold everything together. The novels contemplate the mysteries and surprises of slow-paced, small-place life. Not the kind of stuff you'd hear about on "This Week With Sam Donaldson & Cokie Roberts."

According to her publisher, Viking Penguin, there are more than 2 million Karon books in print. In 1996 the American Booksellers Association voted "At Home in Mitford," the first in the series, its favorite book to recommend to customers. In 1997 and 1998, booksellers nominated the novel again. This is phenomenal, really, considering that the books are not bodice-rippers, techno-shockers or legal thrillers. Still people respond.

No one is more mystified or more determined not to blow her success than Karon. She has somehow filled a Mitford-shaped void in lots of people. "The fan mail comes in bales," she says. And Mitfordian festivals, like the one in Dale City, are not unusual. At one Los Angeles bookstore, fans formed the Mitford Appreciation Society to discuss the books. Though they've topped religious bestseller lists, they are mainstream successes, too. "Out to Canaan," the fourth Mitford novel published by Viking Penguin, reached No. 5 on the New York Times bestseller list. The novel was released in paperback last month.

Kirkus Reviews described "Out to Canaan" as "a heart-warmer that diverts the spirit as it uncloyingly celebrates life in all its quirkiness in a small town."

A raft of readers gave it stellar reviews on the message board at Amazon.com, the online bookstore. "These books have renewed my faith in God and made me value my friends even more," wrote one woman from Texas. The Mitford books are also finding their way into contemporary theology. Dennis M. Campbell, headmaster of Woodberry Forest School in Virginia, used Karon's books when he taught the theology of ministry at Duke Divinity School. "Her novels provide a remarkable and very insightful picture of the dailyness of pastoral ministry," Campbell says. "One could read her books just for the story. But if you have the eyes to see what's going on there, it is very remarkable Christian theology."

Everywhere she goes, Karon says she bumps into people who are mad about Mitford. They come from all over the world to see her in Blowing Rock, N.C., where she now lives. To share a cup of tea, to bring her a marmalade cake, to ask about the characters.

So, Karon is asked at one point, how does it feel to have people seeking you out? Karon doesn't answer the question head-on. She smiles a sweet smile, opens her mouth wide, leans her head forward, pretends to jam her finger down her throat and quietly makes this particular noise: cack cack cack.

Sweet and Sour


Despite the big hair and chronic smile, Jan Karon, 61, is – like her work – more complex than first appears. On the surface, she's all lighty-light and sweety-sweet. Beneath the surface, she's got a wry outlook and an acerbic wit. She says she believes in leaving things in the hands of God, but she also engages in city-to-city self-promotion.

On this morning she sits at a dark wood table in Dale City, beneath a trellis of fake flowers and flanked by paperbacks of murder and terror. She signs her little entertainments and chats about her characters as if they were in the room.

Lo and behold, they are in the room. Sort of. To celebrate Karon's quirky worldview, bookstore employees have dressed up as the people in her books. There is Father Tim, the Episcopal priest who's at the heart of each novel; Cynthia, his wife; Uncle Billy Watson and his schizophrenic wife, Miss Rose; and J.C. Hogan, the mistake-prone owner of the Mitford Muse newspaper. One game young bookseller portrays Father Tim's dog, the stray bouvier known as Barnabas.

Despite her rosy exterior and words of encouragement, Karon appears slightly uncomfortable with some of the hoopla. "I prefer not to see my main characters impersonated," she says at one point.

Dressed in a Father Tim sport coat and clerical collar, Rick Gleason, 52, says Mitford (population 1,000) is "the town you wish you had grown up in."

Karon hears that from a lot of people, people who pine for small-town values and for a simpler, more positive approach to life. "There's more of Mitford in America than you'd realize," she says. Mitford, she explains, is based on Blowing Rock. It is a mostly white, mostly Christian town, she says.

Book club pals Marcia Pendleton, 71, and Diana McConnell, 46, hold copies of the Mitford books. They are, Pendleton says, "very wholesome."

That does seem to be one of the secrets. The books lack explicit sex and violence, profanity and sarcasm. They also lack cultural diversity. Some would say they lack literary pretension; others might say they lack literary anything. But they provide comfort and calm to many readers whose lives are chaotic and cacophonic.

"She just charms you to pieces," says Dorothy O'Keefe, 86, who read all four novels – totaling more than 1,500 pages – last summer when she was in the hospital. O'Keefe has ridden over to the store in a van with nine other residents of her Lake Ridge retirement home. She is dressed sensibly in a modernistic patterned blouse, striped pants, a wooden necklace and glasses.

Karon writes such "wonderful clean" stories, O'Keefe explains.

"I'm sure there are people who find Mitford utterly disgusting," says Karon. "Sap and pap and gag me with a forklift."

She's right. One Santa Barbara, Calif., man wrote on the Amazon.com board, " . . . with this book I found myself feeling manipulated and quite unmoved. What was the time and place supposed to be – an English village of 50 years ago? It was not believable as a present day American town, I don't care how rural it is!"

At the Super Crown, Dale City dwellers Debbie Carr, 47, and her son Anthony, 17, make up 50 percent of the black people in the line. Debbie Carr enjoys the Mitford books because "everything is so terrible, you need something pleasant."

But, it is pointed out to her, there's not a word in the books about race.

"I hadn't noticed," Carr says.

Past History


A pair of Karons: On one hand, Karon is a gracious, funny, engaging person who tells good stories and enjoys hearing them. On the other, she is a take-no-prisoners survivor of a troubled childhood and a busted marriage.

She doesn't like to talk about her distant past. "It draws shine from Mitford," she says. She will say that she was born Janice Meredith Wilson in Lenoir, N.C. Her father was in the Air Force. He left home when she was 3. "There was a lot of brokenness in my family," she says.

When pressed, she adds, "Let's just say that I was raised by my grandparents."

Perhaps the true Mitford miracle is that a contemporary woman driven by demons is writing instead about angels. Exploring the mind of a sane and self-assured priest who brings order to a troubled, confused world is cathartic, Karon says. "Writing is a way of processing our lives," she says. "And it can be a way of healing."

Named for a character in a popular novel of the 1930s, Janice Meredith dreamed of being a writer from a very early age. She wrote her first novel when she was 10. Her grandmother discovered it had the word "damn" in it and was aghast. Karon never used cursing in her work again, she says.

She married very young, became a mother at 17 and a single mother soon after that. Eventually Karon landed a job as an advertising copywriter. She toiled away at agencies in New York, San Francisco and Raleigh.

By the mid-'80s, she had a big house, a Mercedes and award plaques on her office wall. But she was not fulfilled. In fact, she says, "I felt lost." She wanted to rediscover that dream of her youth. She prayed for direction.

In 1988, Karon quit her job and moved to Blowing Rock. She took on some freelance ad work and started writing the first Mitford novel. It appeared in weekly installments over two years in the local newspaper – the Blowing Rocket.

The tales were collected and published by a small Christian company in the Midwest. They did well in religious book stores and, North Carolina booksellers discovered, in mainstream shops as well. Nancy Olson, owner of Quail Ridge Book Store in Raleigh, says her shop has sold about 4,000 copies of Karon's books. Another bookstore owner, closer to Blowing Rock, estimates she's sold more than 10,000.

"I was very skeptical at first," says Olson, "because it was done by a Christian publisher."

But after reading "At Home in Mitford," Olson continues, "I knew there was a niche for this sort of fiction."

Olson alerted agent Liz Darhansoff, who liked the books and took on Karon as a client. Darhansoff passed the first Mitford book along to Viking Penguin editor Carolyn Carlson. "I'm a Lutheran minister's daughter," says Carlson. "When I read the books, I felt like a lot of people I have known over the years in the church would love them."

Carlson says: "We were not buying these books as Christian books. We really responded to her wonderful writing, the characters, the humor, the small-town community feel of the book."

She adds: "I am struck by how passionately her fans feel about the books."

They sure enough arrive by the busload in Blowing Rock, says Karon. "I live right on the road," Karon says. "I'm going to have to move." She's hoping to find a farm close by. After all, she depends on her surroundings for fictional fodder. She drives 35 miles to Hickory to get her hair done by Harold at Hair Benders salon. Once a week she meets with a small group of Episcopalians in the American Legion Hall to worship, using the 1928 Prayer Book.

She likes being close to her daughter, Candace Freeland, 44, a photographer in nearby Asheville, and to her 77-year-old mother. The generations, living within shouting distance of one another, provide grist for Karon's mill.

She is, in fact, very like a mill. Eventually, she says, there will be seven Mitford novels, a cookbook, a novella about the wedding between Father Tim and Cynthia Coppersmith, and a bedside companion. Ten volumes in all. Just released is a children's book, "Miss Fannie's Hat," based on Karon's grandmother. There is some talk in Hollywood about putting Mitford on the big screen. Hallmark is developing a line of greeting cards based on the series.

This year she is serving as Victoria magazine's writer in residence, and she puts out a Mitford newsletter. She visits scores of cities each year pumping her books, pressing the flesh, tasting homemade marmalade cakes. She hates marmalade.

In January, Publishers Weekly referred to Karon as a "major cash cow at Viking."

"That is not how we think of her," says Carlson, though the company is looking forward to the next Mitford Novel, "A New Song," which is scheduled for release next April.

And after the Mitford series is done? Karon prays to God to show her the right direction. But, as Carlson says, "she's a go-getter." She doesn't leave everything up to the Lord.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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