Sometimes, hope sells
An interview with bestselling author Jan Karon
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"Hope is never out of fashion," says Jan Karon, author of the highly popular Mitford books (At Home in Mitford, A Light in the Window, These High Green Hills, Out to Canaan, and A New Song). To a crowd of about a thousand in a Montgomery church last April, she said, "If I could leave you with one thought, it would be: Miracles do happen. Look for the miracles in your life."
At her grandmother's country home the summer she was six, Miss Karon recalls standing under a mimosa tree when "something came over me and I began to preach up a storm." She told her grandmother she would be a preacher, but was told that girls couldn't preach. Four years later, standing again outside her grandmother's home, she had a sudden, definite insight: "I knew I would be an author; I realized that I wanted to give to others the same joy that so many authors had given me." And now, she says, she is an author writing about a preacher, so "I get to do both!"
However, the road to fulfilling her childhood dream was not direct. Turning away from God as a young single mother, Miss Karon worked as a receptionist in an advertising agency, a lowly beginning for what turned into a highly successful 30-year career. But her success left her empty, trying to fill the vacuum in her life "all the ways people do." She said she didn't want to know Jesus, in spite of that early sense of destiny, because He had been presented to her as a policeman: One wrong move, you go to hell. "But all I could make was wrong moves," she told WORLD in an interview following the Montgomery event.
At age 42, feeling overwhelmed by her need for wholeness, Miss Karon knelt by her bed one night, crying hysterically and asking God, "What am I missing?" That need and her childhood knowledge of Scripture finally brought her to say, "If what it takes is Jesus, I'll take it." At last she understood His love and forgiveness, and God brought her to faith, a change in her life that led her to leave her advertising career for
full-time writing, that childhood dream she was now convinced had come from God.
"This is true," she told the Montgomery crowd with characteristic humor: "I sat down to write and found that I had absolutely nothing to say." Prayer, perseverance, and strict economizing kept her going with freelance magazine articles until one night, two years after leaving her advertising career, she had "a boring mental image" of an Episcopalian priest walking down a village street. That was all, but she decided to follow him to see where he led-and Mitford, N.C., was born.
Some readers complain that the Mitford books are overly sentimental and unrealistic, but the characters encounter trials as diverse and painful as schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, broken families, and violence as well as a solid dose of daily selfishness, petty arguments, and simple human foolishness. The central characters believe not merely in the existence of God but in His loving sovereignty. Father Tim, Cynthia, and others recognize their need for the salvation of Jesus Christ and His daily, moment-by-moment grace to become better people. They see that the "little" sins of selfishness and pride, if given opportunity, lead to the bigger problems suffered by other characters: the drunken bitterness of Buck Leeper, the abandonment of her children by Pauline Barlowe, the brutal abuse of young Lacey when she refuses to steal for her father.
Two more novels (In This Mountain and Light from Heaven), along with a novella about Father Tim and Cynthia's wedding and a Mitford cookbook, will complete the series. Miss Karon says that the titles are all she knows about the final novels, but assures her readers, "Father Tim won't die in one of my books!" Where her career will lead then is uncertain, though she has published one children's book, Miss Fanny's Hat, with another, Jeremy: The Tale of an Honest Bunny, due to be published in February 2000.
Miss Karon herself radiates the love of Jesus: She has a genuine smile and friendly comment for each of hundreds of women who crowd to shake her hand in Montgomery, and in the interview her first words are praise for those who orchestrated the event. She clearly loves to talk about God's work in people's lives, and while being interviewed she often leans forward in her seat with a passionate intensity and an awe for His grace. She tells how, shortly after coming to Christ, she prayed for God to take away her craving for tobacco, a 20-year addiction, and He answered that prayer with an immediate yes. "He didn't owe me a miracle," she said, "but He gave me one anyway."
It hasn't all been so easy, however; Miss Karon readily admits to failures and dark times, though undergirded by a steady growth. An outspoken person, she is tempted to anger and annoyance and has to work at controlling her temper and learning patience. A recent trial, sadly, has had to do with her church affiliation. When the priest of her Episcopalian church denied the deity of Christ, Miss Karon and others confronted him, first individually, then as a group, finally taking their concern to the bishop. After a year with no change, she knew she could no longer stay and for the past few months has been searching for a church home with strong biblical preaching.
Miss Karon is as careful to seek God's way in her work as in the rest of her life. She has refused television and movie contracts for the novels because she "will not sell the rights to anyone who does not understand and honor this work." She has, on the other hand, allowed Hallmark to begin making Mitford products (greeting cards, coffee mugs, etc.), because Hallmark is "an old family-owned company which is driven by the same kind of values that drive Mitford."
In her books, she uses Scripture freely because she loves it. "I was starving for Scripture," she says about the time following her conversion. And she bathes her work in prayer. Not only does she begin every writing session with prayer that the work will honor God, she turns to Him at any difficult point. When she needed to give Father Tim a prayer of concern in A New Song, she felt overwhelmed, praying, "Lord, I feel as if I've been coming all my life to this moment, to this particular prayer, and I don't know what to write. Please help me." The words began coming immediately, she said, and "I was so enthralled and grateful that I bawled like a baby."
The evidence that God has used her work lies in reviews and readers' letters, which tell of people who are not merely entertained but are challenged to live more Christianly in their daily walk. And Miss Karon tells of an incident at a North Carolina promotional event for A New Song. Amidst the many women, a big, shy man, alone, approached to shake her hand. "I was Buck Leeper," he told her simply, referring to the bitter drunkard in the novels who finally gives his life to Christ, and disappeared into the night.
The Mitford books provide a welcome antidote to both the fashionable despair of the cultural elite and the self-help optimism of the New Age. People are desperate for hope, desperate for miracles-and the Mitford books ring true because they are based on the reality of God's work instead of man's. Because they show us ordinary people in ordinary life, they give us hope that we, too, could become better.
The Mitford series is not your usual run of bestsellers: No steamy bed scenes occur, licit or illicit, no graphic violence, and not a single swear word. Miss Karon quotes Jean Henri Fabre, 19th-century French naturalist and writer, "I am convinced that it is possible to say marvelous things without using a barbarous vocabulary."
Good clean stories with a gentle mood and credit given to God by characters and author alike: That such books sell-At Home in Mitford is still on the lower end of The New York Times bestseller list at 30, and A New Song has been in the top 10 since its April publication-suggests a craving within our self-indulgent culture for something better than what the mainstream offers. The Mitford books show us Christians who are very much in the world, enjoying life and relating to believers and unbelievers alike in love, but not of the world, genuinely seeking God's perspective for their actions and attitudes.
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