I wrote this article in 1998 after spending the day with Jan Karon. It is out of date, but since Miss Karon no longer grants interviews, I thought there were some who might be interested in the story of how she came to faith. ES.
You need more endurance than the Energizer bunny to interview Jan Karon, best-selling author of the Mitford books–four novels about life in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina.
Jan starts early and goes late without taking a break. Before 10 a.m. she’s at the Richmond Women’s Club mingling with the crowd before she speaks to a packed audience. Then the ladies of the Richmond Women’s Club whisk us off to lunch at the five-star Jefferson Hotel.
During lunch, all eyes are on Jan, all conversation directed her way. I ease my notebook out of my purse and begin to take notes. Though I’m not scheduled to interview Jan until later in the day, our hostesses are asking her so many great questions! Then we’re off again, this time to a book signing at Barnes and Noble in Midlothian, a suburb of Richmond. We enter the store at 2 p.m. to find hundreds of fans lined up, some waiting since morning to meet the author who brought them the little town with the big heart.
I’m scheduled to interview Jan after the book signing, before she heads off to yet another engagement. I look at the lines of people waiting for her to autograph their books and know I can’t interview her near the bookstore without being mobbed by her fans.
By 6 p.m. we are in a back room of the bookstore amidst boxes, piles of books, desks, and empty pans of orange marmalade cake. Suddenly Jan, who was so vibrant a moment ago while speaking to a ten-year-old fan, looks exhausted. Looking closely I see that her eyes are red around the rims. It has been a long day. I am tired and I haven’t been in the spotlight all day.
Jan’s popular books about small town life are the fulfillment of her childhood dreams to be a preacher and a writer. She started preaching on the front porch of her grandma’s house in rural North Carolina at the age of six. But she stopped short when her grandmother, who raised her, said, “Girls can’t be preachers.”
She wrote her first novel at age ten, then hid it under her vanity so no one would find the one cuss word it contained. “I figured Rhett Butler had gotten away with one, so I could, too,” she recalls with a smile. “But my sister told on me. We called my grandmother Mama. ‘Mama,’ my sister said, ‘Janice wrote a book and it has Damn in it!’ Mama gave me a whipping. There are spankings and whippings. This was a whipping. That was the last time I put a cuss word in a book.”
By the time Jan was seventeen she was married with a baby girl, and divorced four years later. Jan, who has only eight years of formal education, found a job as a receptionist for an advertising firm. Over three decades, she worked her way to the top, rising to the position of creative vice president. Worldly sucess, however, did not fill the hole in her heart. At the age of 42, Jan gave her life to Jesus. Six years later, she left advertising to embrace God’s call to write.
“It wasn’t easy,” she recalls, but eventually her first novel, At Home in Mitford (Penguin) and her fourth novel, Out to Canaan (Viking) reached the number five spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Her publisher, Viking-Penguin, says her four novels have sold more than three million copies. And there is more to come. Her next novel in the Mitford series, A New Song, will be in bookstores on April 12, 1999. Her children’s book, Miss Fannie’s Hat–a book about her Grandmother–was released by Augsburg Fortress in February. Miss Fannie’s Hat is already in its third printing and recently hit the Publisher’s Weekly bestseller list.
Karon’s success is especially remarkable because her books contain a charming cast of characters who openly quote scripture and espouse a moral, Christian way of life. In each novel, someone says the sinner’s prayer–in book one, a convict who is hiding in the church attic; in book four, a profane, alcoholic construction superintendent.
Karon is a popular speaker at women’s clubs, churches, and bookstores where she often reads a passage from one of her books where a character gives their life to Jesus. She wants the people who hears her speak to know how they can give their lives to Christ, too.
Today Jan, age 61, lives in a pink cottage filled with antiques in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, a town much like the fictitious town of Mitford. After a decade in Blowing Rock, the town has become home. Her daughter Candace, a photojournalist, lives over the mountain in Asheville. Her seventy-seven-year-old mother lives in nearby Boone, home of the Franklin Graham family.
Virtue joined Jan during a whirlwind book tour of Richmond, Virginia. Watching her interact with her fans, one thing is clear: She loves them– especially the children. “If you love people,” she told me, “they will love you back.”
Our interview focused on two life-changing events–her decision to give her life to Jesus and her decision to leave a successful career in advertising to embrace God’s call to write.
ES: How did you come to faith in Christ?
JK: I was forty-two years old, when I came totally, brutally to the end of myself. I came out of a torn family where there was lots of divorce. I married young and had a daughter by the time I was seventeen, then divorced. I have only eight years of formal education, so life hasn’t been easy.
I was at the point where I didn’t even know how to feel pain or how to deal with pain. I would just choke it down and go on. The pain was killing me. I knew something was terribly, terribly wrong. Something was missing in my spirit.
Pascal once said that we are all born with a God-shaped vacuum. I was feeling the enormity of that vacuum. The vacuum was getting bigger and deeper and more painful all the time.
I had tried nearly everything including Eastern religions and Judaism. I began to ask all the questions that an unbeliever asks. Looking back, I see that the Holy Spirit was working on me, guiding me.
Lying in bed one night, I asked Christ to come into my heart. I just said, “Lord Jesus, I don’t know what this is all about. I just want you to save me, to touch me. Please, I can’t do this anymore.” And he did.
ES: How did you know what to say? Had someone told you how to give your life to Jesus?
JK: My grandmother had told me about Jesus Christ when I was young, but I had no ears to hear. Christ is often depicted as a policeman, you pick your nose and you are going to hell, honey. Not always, of course. For years, I just didn’t get it with Jesus.
Even after I prayed that night in bed, I didn’t know if Jesus had come into my heart or not. I didn’t know what it was supposed to feel like to be saved. I didn’t know exactly what I had done.
ES: Were you going to church at the time?
JK: No, but the first thing I did was start looking for a church. I realized that I wanted to go to church. I took my eleven-year-old niece, Jennifer, and started visiting churches.
I was starving for the word of God. Thirsty as a dry sponge. I started hearing the word of God and soaking it up. And something began to swell up in me and I realized how lost I had been.
Thanks be to God, I ended up in a Bible-teaching church that gave altar calls. It was by God’s grace that I found this church because no one was telling me where to go. I didn’t know any born-again Christians who could tell me where to go to church because I didn’t live in that realm.
Thank God for altar calls. When I die, I have requested in my will that the preacher given a soul-saving sermon with an altar call at my funeral.
I remember praying the night I was saved, “Lord, be easy with me, be gradual. Please don’t put me out on the street corner with a tambourine and a bunch of tracts in my hand. I will be so embarrassed, I will be so humiliated, please don’t do that!”
ES: We all have something in our lives that we are afraid God might ask us to do.
JK: Oh yes! Of course, the Lord Jesus is a gentleman, so he was very gradual. He began to reveal himself to me in wondrous, wondrous ways. I had been smoking unfiltered Pall Malls for twenty-two years. Right at the time of my salvation he took the craving from me. That’s a miracle. He removed the craving to demonstrate himself. He didn’t have to show himself to me. He didn’t have to prove himself to me, but he did.
Slowly, gradually, my life began to change. It is still changing.
ES: This morning at the Richmond Women’s Club you read the place in your book: Out to Canaan where Buck Leeper, the profane, violent construction superintendent, prays the sinner’s prayer. It made me cry. I almost expected you to give an altar call at the end.
JK: I’m learning that everybody wants to hear the gospel. We think nobody wants to hear that old stuff, but they want–they are waiting–for you to tell them.
I knew pretty early on in my Christian walk that it better be for Him if I am going to do anything. Otherwise, why bother? Why bother? Why even get out of bed, if I can’t do it for Him who has done everything for me?
ES: Can you tell us about your decision to leave advertising and write novels?
JK: I was 48 years old. I was working myself to a frazzle in advertising, a career I had never wanted and never enjoyed. But I had just eight years of formal education, so I had no ability to say, Oh, I’ll just leave my job and go teach at the University or do this or that profession. God had equipped me to write. How do you make a living writing? You go into advertising. Stumbled into it, actually.
I was very good at it. I made enough money to raise my daughter and to keep body and soul together. I won all the right awards, because, there again, why do it if you can’t win the awards? Why do it if you can’t be the very best you can be? It is terribly important to me to be as good as I can possibly be, no matter what the cost.
I just started praying, saying, “Lord, I don’ t know how to do this. I don’t have a clue.” I was in debt, like most people. I had a nice home and a SUV. I said, “If you want me to do this, Lord, show me how.”
I began to keep a journal. It is very, very important to keep a journal. Everyone needs to keep a journal. You hear it all the time, but we think, that’s for somebody else, I don’t know how. I tell women, “You’re not writing to win an award, you’re writing to express something deep in your soul. If you want to hide it from your family, you don’t have to feel guilty about it. You may hide it from your family. You have the privilege of doing that, the liberty to do that.”
For two years I prayed fervently. There was no thunderbolt, God just spoke to my heart and said, “Walk, I am with you and I will never leave you.” And I did.
I quit my job and cut my lifestyle in half. I sold my home in Raleigh, traded my new jeep Cherokee for a rusty Toyota and learned to make soup from chicken bones! Riding around in that car with rusty fenders was a blow to my pride and a good lesson. I hope I never forget the lessons I learned. I still make soup from chicken bones. I eat all the meat off the bones, then put them in a pot with onions and spices and simmer. Then I add potatoes or rice or vegetables. This is how all of us should be living, even if we have increased means.
I frantically started announcing all over the country that I was out, that I was freelancing. I was on my own. No one was writing me a check. No one was paying my health benefits. Nothing. It was the Lord and me.
I got plenty of moral support from my family. My brother said, come live with us. I moved from Raleigh to his home in the mountains of North Carolina, to the little town of Blowing Rock. I lived with them for three to four months.
I struggled and struggled. I tried to write the book that I thought I was supposed to write and I couldn’t write it. It was just the worst old thing you ever want to see. It was a mess.
I said, “I can’t do this. I’m going to go down with this ship. I’m doomed.” Then the Lord said, “Keep going and don’t look back.”
Then one night lying in bed I saw a simple mental image of a priest walking down the road. He was met by a dog the size of a Buick. It was Father Tim and Barnabas.
I started to write what I saw. I started on faith and I marched on faith for the next two or three years. I am still marching on faith.
I wasn’t sure if what I was writing was a book. I didn’t know that I had anything that anybody would want to read, but I wrote what I felt was right. I wrote what I felt people–a few people–might want to read.
When I had written two chapters, I went to the editor of the local paper, The Blowing Rocket, and asked him, “What do you think I have here?” He said, “I don’t know, let’s run it.” He ran a half-page every week for two years. In payment, I got a free copy of the newspaper, which costs 10 cents.
After I had written 170,000 words I started sending the manuscript to publishers. Finally somebody–a Christian publisher–bought it. They had very little distribution so I started distributing my own book. I talked to book sellers and faxed press releases. I would call bookstores and say, “Do you have At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon?” If they said, “No,” I would say, “I’m the author, I’ll send you a copy.” Then God sent me an agent, and a wonderful editor at Viking.
ES: What did you feel during those years when you were struggling to write and sell your book?
JK: It was hard, very hard. I sometimes despaired so bitterly. But I just knew that God was with me. I just knew it. I tell people now, “Keep going, don’t look back, never give up, never give up No matter what. Never.”
God used my experience in advertising to help me endure. Now, I thank God I was in advertising. In advertising you pour your heart and soul into something, then you send it to the client and the account executive comes back and says, “We’re starting over.”
I would say, “Do you mean we have been working until two in the morning, giving it everything we’ve got–and we know this is the right campaign and the right strategy–and we’re starting over?”
He would say, “They don’t like it. We’re starting over. ”
God doesn’t waste anything. He used that bitter time to make me a better writer. Also, He used all those hours and days and weeks that I spent in recording studios in New York, directing and producing, to prepare me to be in the studio reading my own books when the time came. I learned to pick the music and to work with the producers. God didn’t waste that experience. He doesn’t waste anything.
Today I know, whatever agony, whatever angst we may have, whatever valley we may be going through, God will use this dark time for good. No matter what happens, God has promised that He will be with us in whatever tribulation or trial that comes. He may not remove us from it, but He will be with us in it.
ES: What is next?
JK: In my contract, I’ve agreed to write three more Mitford novels, a novella about Father Tim’s wedding, and a cookbook. A book every eighteen months. I really would like to write one every eight years.
ES: That is a lot of pressure.
JK: A lot of pressure.
ES: The characters in your books seem so real. I found myself wondering if some of them are real people. I especially wondered if you are Father Tim’s wife, Cynthia?
JK: People ask me that all the time. Cynthia and I have a lot in common. We both have blond hair, we both are involved in artistic, creative endeavors, but she is younger than I am and she has better legs. Quite frankly, I’m jealous.
After watching Jan share the gospel with the women in Richmond and speak with me in the back room of Barnes and Noble, I concluded that she’s right. She’s not Cynthia, she’s Father Tim. Two years ago, I left a successful career in science to write. After talking to Jan, I feel so encouraged. I felt that she was speaking to me personally–as well as to millions of her fans–when she said, “keep going.” Fifty years after Jan preached her first sermon on her grandmother’s porch, she has fulfilled, through her books, her childhood dreams of preaching. She is the heart and voice behind Father Tim. Through his words, she offers hope and consolation to a congregation of millions.
Originally published as At Home with Mitford’s Jan Karon, a cover story for Virtue Magazine, Dec/Jan 1998.
©1998 Elizabeth Stalcup