Talk about a risky career move.
Jan Karon quit her ad executive job at age 51. She moved to a small town in the Appalachians to write books, but not the kind of books that make the New York Times best-seller lists.
She wrote gentle novels about a 60-ish Episcopal priest who tries to do right by his flock; about women who pride themselves on their lemon squares; and about the hubbub surrounding the season’s big event, the Primrose Tea.
“I wrote the books I wanted to read,” said Karon, who will do a reading and signing at Auntie’s Bookstore on Monday. “I kind of grew up on English novels. The English have a very strong village novel genre, and we don’t have that.”
So she wrote her own American village novel, “At Home in Mitford,” and followed it with three more Mitford novels, “A Light in the Window,” “These High, Green Hills” and the just-released “Out to Canaan.”
Who would have ever guessed? It ITAL was UNITAL a smart career move. Turns out, these books ITAL do UNITAL make the best-seller list.
“Out to Canaan” is currently sitting at No. 5 on the New York Times hardback fiction chart.
“I’ve never been on the New York Times best-seller list before!” said Karon, bubbling over with joy. “My editor called me and said, ‘Jan, are you sitting down?’ “
Undoubtedly, Karon has filled a niche in American fiction, a niche which for lack of a better word might be called Clean Fiction. The books not only are free of sex and obscenities, but the characters can often be found praying for guidance. The religious theme is strong, as you might expect from a book whose main character is Father Tim, rector of the Lord’s Chapel.
“I could only write a clean book because that’s who I am,” said Karon. “I would not … I ITAL could UNITAL not, give them that other stuff. With all my heart, I try to write a book that is a clean read that makes people laugh, and lets them walk away from the book feeling a certain consolation, if you will.
“Let’s have some decency, here, people,” she said. “I’m decent, and you’re decent, and my readers are decent, but we look at television and we pick up a book and we open certain women’s magazines, and we don’t find ourselves reflected back at all.”
Apparently, plenty of people see themselves reflected back in the Mitford novels. She said she feels as if she has discovered a “vein of gold,” meaning an audience of readers who were waiting there all along. It’s a vein that is as wide and deep in California (one of the strongest regions for Karon’s sales) as it is in North Carolina, where the books are set. It is also wide and deep in Spokane, where “At Home in Mitford” is Auntie’s No. 1 best-selling paperback.
“My readers cannot thank me enough,” she said. “I have 10-, 11- and 12-year-old readers; I have 84-year-old readers. I have a large male audience, too. And one thing that tickles me to death, I’ve got a lot of husband-wife readers; they read aloud to each other, they share the books, and they come together to my readings.”
Her readings for this book tour have sometimes turned into genuine Mitford-like celebrations. In Grand Rapids, the reading was accompanied by a Primrose Tea. In Shreveport, La., the reading was held in a cathedral.
“What a wonderful setting for reading the Mitford books,” she said.
If all of this attention and adoration sounds like a writer’s dream, it didn’t come until after Karon had paid some dues.
First of all, even though she said she knew at age 10 that she was destined to write books, she spent the first half of her life in the advertising business.
“You know how we stumble into things that we don’t really want to be in, but we’re pretty good at it, so we can’t get out?” said Karon. “Advertising is enormously - I’m going to use this word - brutalizing. So, after praying for two years in a very focused way about it, I found that the door opened for me and I walked out and literally never once looked back.”
She took her dog, Rosie Potter, and her cat, Bennie, and moved to Blowing Rock, N.C., a town which bears a fair resemblance to Mitford. She wrote for two years and collected rejection slips for two more.
Only since 1995, when Viking Penguin picked up the trade paperback rights for her first two books, did Mitford-mania begin in earnest. She has written a book a year since then and plans to keep on doing more.
“I do pray that I live a long life, since I got started late in life,” said the 60-year-old Karon.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos (1 color)
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: A READING Jan Karon will read from “Out to Canaan” and sign autographs at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Auntie’s Bookstore, 402 W. Main.