Picture this: The internationally bestselling writer Jan Karon, who celebrated her 80th birthday this month, is leaning over her kitchen sink eating an almond biscotti for breakfast. She will chase it with a cup of decaf coffee and a slice of lemon pound cake.
Not how we tend to think of the author of the beloved Mitford novels, which first began appearing in weekly installments in the Blowing Rocket newspaper in 1989. Karon had gone to the little mountain village to try her hand at fiction after a stunning career in advertising in Raleigh and Charlotte.
Blowing Rock became the fictional town of Mitford, home to Father Tim, Cynthia, Dooley, Lace and a host of dear friends and neighbors.
Since then, the Lenoir native who moved to Charlotte at age 12 has written 13 Mitford novels, as well as several children’s books, a cookbook and inspirational books.
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Now, struggling to meet her April 1 deadline for her 14th Mitford, “To Be Where You Are,” she says the book just keeps getting larger the closer she gets to the end. With a September release date, the latest Mitford focuses on two Kavanagh households: Father Tim and Cynthia, as well as Dooley and Lace.
What will Karon do when she puts this novel to bed? Will Mitford abruptly end?
Karon says she’s not sure.
But she knows one thing: On April 1, she must come out of her foxhole and find out.
Q: This month you turned 80. Which of your many accomplishments makes you most proud?
A: It would be my daughter, Candace Freeland [a former Observer photographer who made the portrait accompanying this story]. One of the joys of my sweet girl is that she is creative and so I get the great bonus of having someone beloved who really gets me and who really understands my processes. That’s not easy to come by. She’s my first reader – even before my editor gets it. Fortunately, so far, she laughs in all the right places.
Q: Is there anything you wish you had done differently or could change about your life?
A: I think in the end, because I’m pretty satisfied with who and what I am and what I’ve become – and that’s taken a long time, believe me – I wouldn’t change anything. If I were to change even the most minute part of my life it would therefore change everything. Even the bad stuff was good.
Q: Your mother recently died at 95. You were born when she was 15 so you had each other for 80 years. What’s life like without her?
A: I miss her very much. I don’t know how God arranges death, but hers came at a time when I needed all of my focus and stamina for this book. Yet I do something I’ve always been warned against. I told myself: You’ve done everything you could. But it didn’t feel like enough. I’m not trying to be a hero. I wish I could have kissed her pain away or somehow removed some of the tragedy of her life. But we made it through.
Q: I was looking at a 2014 New York Times fiction bestseller list. Your novel “Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good” was right there with John Grisham, Ken Follett, Clive Cussler – hardcore detective writers. Your novels contain no murders or espionage. They’re not legal thrillers. What’s their appeal?
A: I think the old, old advertising banner was to find a hole and fill it. What we need is a Ford car and they’d go make one. What we didn’t have was a book that you could read safely, and if you turned a page you wouldn’t be mugged, raped, butchered. There was such so much violence and audacity and, in my opinion, blasphemy, out there in the marketplace that I didn’t want to read. I said, I am going to write a book that I would like to read and that would give readers a safe place to go.
Q: What besides talent makes you suited for the writing life?
A: I go to ground, which is a hunting term. Fox goes into the hole. I go in and don’t come out. I’m suited to the writing life because I’m able to endure solitude. These characters cannot have their full play if I’m constantly wrangling with my life. Therein lies the caveat for the writer. The life is jealous of the work. It’s a battle between the two for my time. When Mother was living, it was a very important to tend to her needs and do her shopping. Now I’m able to wrangle this novel a lot more steadily. I’m going after this thing like a hound dog after a fox. But it’s such an exciting, deeply, profoundly terrifying and joyful gift to be given this gift of making something out of thin air.
Q: You moved from Lenoir to Charlotte when you were 12. Tell me about Charlotte in 1949.
A: The DDT trucks were coming at night, and we were thrilled. We thought it smelled good. My stepfather owned the old Penguin – their soft ice cream was famous. I had to put my hair in a hairnet to serve it. First time I ever turned on that soft ice cream machine it poured out all over the floor.
I saw Elvis Presley at the Carolina Theater. It was just Presley and his guitar. Not any backup. Elvis and his acts. The big fun was to go out Albemarle Road to the Ferris wheel and the merry-go-round. Charlotte was a small town, and it was a good town. And when I’ve been back in recent months, I found it to be a really beautiful town. I regret they tore down so much of its history, but I have to say they have built a shining result out of that.
Q: What are your plans for your next decade? I’ve heard you mention a villa in France or Italy. Will you maybe slow down?
A: I do have at least another book in me and maybe more. I don’t want to stop writing but I do want to stop writing for a contract. For 25 years nonstop, 24-7, I’ve worked under a contract. The pressure of that has been enormous. I would like to write another book when I have another book to write.
Q: What will you do after you turn in this book?
A: I’ve got to come out of the hole and live my life now. That’s going to be really interesting. I’m thinking of going to Florida for a month next winter. Maybe a month in France or Italy. I’m going to get a dog. I love having a dog.
Q: The Library of Virginia awarded you its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. What do you consider your lifetime achievement?
A: Other than my daughter, my Mitford books. That’s my oeuvre. I hear from legions of readers, and if all they say is true, frankly, I don’t know how to do the things I’m given credit for. I don’t know how to save a marriage or give somebody solace at the bedside of a daughter dying of cancer. I don’t really know how to do that. It is by the grace of God completely. I’m not trying to do a Tammy Faye Bakker. That is the truth.
Where to start if you’re new to Karon
“At Home in Mitford” was the first Mitford novel, introducing the winning Father Tim Kavanagh, the N.C. town’s lonely rector who is about to stumble into love with his next-door neighbor Cynthia.
“Jan Karon’s Mitford Cookbook & Kitchen Reader,” edited by Martha McIntosh, includes recipes from Mitford townspeople, including Louella’s cole slaw (using Hellmann’s mayonnaise), Father Tim’s baked ham, Velma’s chili and Esther Bolick’s red pepper soup.
And “Miss Fanny’s Hat,” a children’s book originally published in 1993, was inspired by Karon’s own grandmother, who lived in Dilworth and was a member of Dilworth United Methodist Church.