Leaving Mitford: Jan Karon on Life and Writing
By Belinda Elliott
CBN.com Daily Life Producer
There is a peace and a joy that comes when one knows they are doing what God created them to do. This is the joy that radiates from bestselling author Jan Karon.
Karon wrote her first novel at the age of 10. Although her writing career initially took her into the field of advertising, and one of her print advertising campaigns won a prestigious award, her true dream was to become a novelist.
At age 50, after feeling that the Lord had showed her it was time to finally pursue that dream, she left her lucrative advertising career and began writing fiction. Her journey was not an easy one. After two years of struggling to find a suitable idea for a novel, and two more years of rejections from publishers, Karon’s first book, At Home in Mitford, was published in 1996. Since that time fans have grown to love her Mitford series, a collection of nine novels about Episcopal priest Father Tim Cavanaugh and his life in the small town of Mitford, North Carolina.
Karon’s fiction is best known for its small-town charm and its lack of profanity, violence, and sex. Several books in the series have won God Medallion Awards, and her last five books have all landed on the New York Times bestseller list.
In November of last year, when Karon announced she would be ending the much-loved Mitford series with the publication of Light From Heaven, many of her fans expressed disappointment. I recently had the opportunity to speak with the author about her decision to end the series, as well as what lies ahead in her career.
BELINDA ELLIOTT: What made you decide that it was time to end the series?
JAN KARON: I just knew. I don’t know how to tell you that a writer knows these things, but because my books are His books, I try to pay attention and sit up and listen to His guidance and direction on all that I do. Certainly, perhaps even foremost in these books because they are going to such a wide audience and it’s so important to get it right.
I just had said everything I had to say, done everything I had to do with Mitford -- which is a character all of its own in these books -- and it was time to move on to something fresh for me the author. I decided to move on to a series of three books, called The Father Tim novels, none of which will be set in Mitford, but will find Father Tim and Cynthia on the road. He has clung to Mitford like moss to a log all of these years, with one or two exceptions, and he needs to go home to Holly Springs. There is a lot of his earlier life, a lot of things with His father that still need to be reckoned with. Then (he will go) on to Ireland to look into his ancestral past, and then with the final book called, A Family Faith, ending in a village in England.
ELLIOTT: Will any of the old characters make an appearance in the new books?
KARON: No. We’re done. Of course Father Tim now has a cell phone in Light From Heaven, so we will certainly know what is going on among the important characters in Mitford, but none of them will be making any appearances, no.
ELLIOTT: In this last book, you actually introduced some new characters. How have readers responded to that? Have they embraced them as warmly as the others?
KARON: Well, the reviews are mixed. Some wanted me to stick strictly with Mitford. Many of my readers don’t want Father Tim to have an authentic life. They want him to just do one thing, and it’s formulaic, to stay right where he was. They don’t want anything to change. They don’t want the grill to close. They don’t want Uncle Billy to die. In other words, they want a stagnant and unrealistic life. What I’ve tried so hard to do is to give my readers an authentic life with an authentic ordinary man living an ordinary life. I’ve tried to sort of freeze in time a portrait of a man who I hope feels and reads as authentic. I’ve given all of our readers insight into his private thoughts, ambitions, dreams, fears, and failures, which you don’t often get in a book. And for nine books, we let people see inside this character, and therefore, be able to view the entire village in a much more intimate way.
ELLIOTT: A lot of fans have said they were sad to see it end, and you mentioned earlier that many of your readers were also sad to see Uncle Billy die. Was that a difficult decision for you to make as the writer?
KARON: Not a difficult decision, I knew we had to lose someone. Uncle Billy had been ill, and I just knew it had to be Uncle Billy. For example, when Miss Sadie died in Book 3, it broke my heart. I was very grief stricken actually, if you can believe that, about this fictional character, as were many of my readers. And people say, “Well, you are the author. You are in control. If you are so grief stricken when they die, what do you let them die for?” And I say, “Well, the story demands it.” You know, stories have a life of their own. I don’t even want to be in complete control. I want the story to surprise me as well.
ELLIOTT: You write about a lot of important issues like depression in this series of books, was that difficult for you? I would imagine that you have to put yourself into the mind of the character and really experience it along with them to write about it accurately.
KARON: Yes it was difficult, but I understand depression because I have been depressed and will very likely be depressed again. It’s something that is rampant in our society for many good and obvious reasons. And as a Christian, yes, even I become discouraged and sometimes sink, especially when I’m driven by pretty wicked deadlines and I’ll have to write constantly in order to meet those deadlines and yet live a life with some sanity in it. It’s hard to make some of those things come into balance.
ELLIOTT: In your latest book Father Tim has retired, but we see him wanting to do more than hang around the house and go out to buy groceries. Is there a message here maybe for your older readers?
KARON: Well, I think some people are very happy in retirement. And in a year and a half I’m going to see how happy I feel in retirement. I’m just going to not work quite so hard, but I’ll continue to write as long as God gives me breath. But I wanted also to say, I know a lot of people in his age category and older who are doing wonderfully inspired active things, continuing an important role in their lives. And he is just not cut out for sitting around. He needed to do some sitting around because he has pushed himself pretty hard for a number of years. But, yes, I do think there is a message. I didn’t write it to have a message, but there is a message to people in Father Tim’s category: Get up and get going!
ELLIOTT: You have several quirky or unusual characters in your books, are any of them based on real people?
KARON: Well, I can’t say they are based on any one individual, but they are certainly based on many people I’ve had the great privilege to come in contact with. And I love to write about ordinary people as you can see. I love the mountains of North Carolina and the descendants of those who came over here from the British Isles in the 1700s and populated these shores all up and down the eastern shore and up into the mountains of North Carolina, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Because they’ve lived in such remote areas for so long, the lovely music of the early British speech rings in their voices even today. And I’ve visited back in the mountains among the coves and “hollers” and listened to them sing and know their music, which was also brought over from the British Isles and preserved. I have a great respect for all of that, so I loved writing about characters not from a small village down in the flatter lands but up in the mountains.
ELLIOTT: Which of the characters from the series do you relate to the most?
KARON: Well, actually, I love all my characters. I loved Uncle Billy very, very much, because Uncle Billy remained brave and cheerful in the face of a desperately debilitating relationship. Miss Rose is a schizophrenic. I lived with a schizophrenic in the heart of our family for many, many years, with my aunt Helen. It is a brutal disease, and very little money is spent on research for schizophrenia. Uncle Billy’s ministry was to tell jokes and to make people laugh. Oh, he loved it when people laughed. So yes, he was one of my great favorites.
I think Cynthia has a lot of courage. She too, is a pretty brave warrior. She sees the bright side and tries to see to it that Father Tim has his share of fun, which he was not very good at providing for himself as a bachelor. Miss Sadie was also a great favorite. Miss Sadie, I suppose, reminded me a lot of my grandmother, so I enjoyed so much writing about her because it made me feel happy.
ELLIOTT: What do you think you will miss most about Mitford?
KARON: I know everyone will be surprised at the way I’m saying this, but I’m not going to miss Mitford. I don’t plan to miss Mitford. I’ve put everything I had and I’ve given my readers 120 percent, and that’s the truth. I’ve given them everything I could possibly give about Mitford, and it’s just over. I mean, you know, our lives -- and I’m sure your life also – our lives change. Do you cling to everything in your past?
ELLIOTT: You can’t, because you would never move forward.
KARON: You would never move forward. You could never grow. And that’s why I was saying that so many of my readers wanted the author not to grow, the books not to grow. They just wanted to stay in the same comfortable little puddle. I don’t even live my life that way, much less my fictional life. So, I don’t think I’m going to miss Mitford. I was there. I lived among those people, and they were very real to me for 12 years.
ELLIOTT: Is there one book that has been your favorite out of the series?
KARON: Let me say that I absolutely loved writing A Common Life, because it was a book about love. And it was a book about the confusions of love, and the complexities of love, and the challenges of love, as well as its pleasures. I couldn’t wait to get to my desk to find out what was going on and what was happening in that little book. It’s a novella really. And that was a book that I’d never intended to write. At the end of Book 2, A Light in the Window, we’d posted the marriage bands and we knew that Father Tim and Cynthia were going to marry. And when we get to Book 3, These High Green Hills, they are married and living comfortably at the rectory. People were just all up in arms because, “Oh, my goodness, you didn’t let us go to the wedding!” “What did Cynthia wear?” “How did Father Tim feel when he went to the altar?” “Did Dooley sing?” And on and on…so I said, “Okay, I’ll just write a book.” I’m so glad I did because I loved it. Let’s put it this way, it was my pet book.
But the books that gave me the greatest challenges were In This Mountain and A Light From Heaven. Light From Heaven was a particular challenge because I had to resolve a community in which there were more than 700 characters. Actually the population was over 1,000, but we have had over 700 characters in the nine Mitford novels. I had to lay that whole Mitford thread to rest. Then, because the bishop gave him (Father Tim) this wonderful new commission to come up higher and gave him that church that had been closed 40 years that had to be revived, then that introduced a whole other set of characters. I had to introduce them, develop those characters, and conclude or resolve their conflicts, plus settle Father Tim and Cynthia quite comfortably into the valley there at Meadow Gate Farm. It was a book that really posed many challenges. It was hard work to craft, and that is an important word, I had to really work at crafting that book.
ELLIOTT: How long did it take you?
KARON: Two years.
ELLIOTT: Wow, two years.
KARON: But I had many interruptions. My mother had a long illness, which carved out a lot of time in that two years. I would say that probably I had about a year and three months of actual working time.
ELLIOTT: Have you been surprised at the success of this series through the years?
KARON: I have. All I did in the beginning was to write a book that I wanted to read because I had found books to be generally speaking -- not by any means always, but generally speaking -- contemporary authors are using every trick of the trade, every sensationalism available to make their books stand out from the clutter. And of course hardly anything is really standing out from the clutter, because the clutter is all alike now. It is profanity and graphic sex and violence, and I just could not bare it. Yet, I loved to read, so what was I going to do? I was tired of reading dead authors. So I just wrote a book that I wanted to read. I figured that we would have a small vein of interested readers. Little did I know that 25 million people would want to read a clean, decent book that made them laugh, made them feel good, and that I hope was instructive in some way. And perhaps what I wanted to do most, and I hope that I’ve accomplished this, was simply to let people know that God really does love us.
ELLIOTT: You left a lucrative advertising career when you decided to write novels, and while you were writing your first book you really struggled financially. Having lived on both ends of the spectrum, what advice would you give to people who maybe have a dream in their heart just like you did, but for whatever reason they have not pursued it yet?
KARON: Well, there is a passage in Scripture in which God tells us, “I will give you the desires of your heart.” Now, I always thought that meant -- before I became a believer and was born again -- I interpreted that to mean that God, being a good God, was like a Santa Claus. Whatever were the desires in our hearts, He would give them to us. Well, how foolish is that? I mean it’s insanity. I think a lot of us do think that well, if God is such a good God, then He is going to give us what we want. So we beg and whine and pitch a fit and think we are going to get it, but indeed that means such a wondrous, marvelous thing. It means that He will place upon our hearts those desires, which He deems it favorable for us to have.
So as a believer, I had to trust that this great longing, which He placed upon my heart at the age of 10, was true and from him. So I began to say this, “God, if you want me to be an author, you are going to have to show me how to do it. I don’t know how to do it.” How would I make a living until I wrote a book? In truth, how would I even write a book? I’d never written a book. I was a writer in advertising, but that’s a very different ball of wax. So I prayed for two years very fervently, that God would show me how He wanted me to step out on faith and live my dream. And I said over and over again, “Lord, if you don’t want this for me, don’t just close the door, slam it in my face. Give me a good, strong, clear signal that you don’t want me to proceed down this path.”
After two years, I feel that He gave me the green light, and he said, “Go and don’t look back.” And I went, and I didn’t look back. I have never once, even for a moment, looked back. But I did suffer some real tough economic times for about two and a half years, because the country went into quite an economic decline about that time. It was a big recession, and it was hard for me to make a living as a freelance copywriter. But I did have a good reputation in the advertising realm and was able to scrape together enough work just to keep body and soul together. So there were many, many daunting hours and I kept saying, “Lord, did I hear you right? Am I doing what you wanted me to do? Have I made a terrible mistake? Instead of leaping out on faith, have I jumped off a cliff?” But He encouraged me, and finally my dream began coming together and actually coming true, above anything that I could ever ask or think.
So here is what my advice would be: If God has given you a dream, you’d better get cracking because He wants you to use it. That’s why He gives them to us in the first place. Has anyone ever given you a gift and maybe you put it in a drawer or a cabinet, and later you learn that the person is coming to see you so you hasten to dig it out and set it up on the mantel? God wants us to think highly of the gifts He gives us. I believe He gives everybody at least one gift, and I think some people have multiple gifts. It gives Him joy and pleasure to see that gift set up on the mantle and thought much of. So we’d better get moving. We can’t say, “I’m too fat,” or “I’m too thin,” or “My husband wouldn’t like it,” or “My kids wouldn’t like it,” or “I’m too old,” or “I’m too young,” or “I’m too tired.” Just get moving!
ELLIOTT: I’ve heard other people say that often when God gives you something to do it is usually something that you can’t do on your own – so that you have to rely on Him. Have you found that to be the case in your life?
KARON: I have. If somebody had said to me for example, “God told me that He gave you a gift to write nine novels, and a number of other related books, and to do it in a very compressed period of time,” I would say, ‘No way, I can’t do that. I cannot do that.’” And to make an even finer point, people say to me, “Miss Karon, your books have helped to change my life.” “Your books have brought me back into relationship with God,” or “Your books led me to pray that prayer of conversion, and I have become a believer.” Or “Miss Karon,” as I was told by two lovely young couples on my recent book tour, “your books helped saved my marriage.” I have to say, “I can’t help save your marriage. I don’t have any idea how to help save your marriage.” As you have probably read in articles about all that happened before I was saved, I don’t even know how to have a marriage myself. So, it should be obvious that these are God’s books. Only God can save marriages and change lives and draw people to repentance. I just feel privileged that He gave me the gift and the honor of being the one to write these books, but without Him there is no way.
ELLIOTT: Is there any chance that we will see either the Mitford series or Father Tim in a movie or television series?
KARON: Well, that idea has come and gone over the last few years. I’ve tried hard and succeeded so far in keeping those very valuable rights out of the hands of the wrong people. There is even a question about books that have been loved in the way that mine are loved as to whether they should even be converted to something on the screen, because people have a very clear notion of what Father Tim, and Cynthia, and Dooley, and Barnabus, and all the rest look like and how they sound. And, you know, a movie can sometimes break your heart if you love the book. So there is a good case for it and a good case against it. There is something underway right now that has more promise than anything in the past. I would be very hands-on if this comes to pass, and we will know more later. It has taken years to get as close as we are now.
ELLIOTT: Well, that’s exciting! Do you have any parting thoughts for our readers?
KARON: Yes, I would say one thing. People say to me quite plaintively, “Oh, how I wish Mitford could be real.” Well, Mitford can be real. Mitford is real, but we have to do our part. Mitford doesn’t just come to us like some cute little idyllic, cozy Kincaid greeting card. We have to pitch in. We have to keep our eyes and ears and hearts open to others. We have to be willing to put ourselves out there. It doesn’t all come to us. We have to go out to it. If we go out to greet it, we will find it. Do something for somebody else. Give somebody a hug, and do it with a full heart. Listen to the humor. Watch and observe the humor in other people’s lives and in your own. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Just get out there and wade in up to your neck into that sea of humanity, which is so needy. Smile at somebody for goodness sake!
ELLIOTT: Right. And you don’t need a small town setting to do those things.
KARON: Amen! You hit the nail on the head. It’s all over New York City. When I go to New York, I find it everywhere. New York is not just a big city; it’s really just a community of small neighborhoods. So Mitford is real, all over the country. I’ve been in hundreds of Mitfords on my many book tours and excursions. And typically, where you really find a great concentration of Mitford is a Mitford event where I’m speaking and so many people come to be there. They are all there for many of the same reasons, and it is wonderful the feeling that emerges in a room full of Mitford fans. It’s truly, truly magical in the most divine sense.
ELLIOTT: Thank you so much for talking with me today.
KARON: Well, thank you. I appreciate it.
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