Coming Home to Jan Karon

Posted by Lori Walsh on

A read a lot for my job as host of In the Moment.

A lot.

But I also crave time to read merely for the sink-into-your-chair, lose-your-phone-and-yourself joy of reading.

Jan Karon's books fall into the joy category. We've been meeting her in Mitford for decades. We are never disappointed with the journey.

The author has spent much of her life under contract and under deadline. She spoke eloquently of the aggressive act of carving out time for a life that has meaning.

Doesn't life challenge all of us in this way ... the expectations, the pressures, the outside world clamboring to pile priorities without permission onto our stooped backs?

I encouage you to stretch yourself and allow those expectations to slip away. Sprinkle today with moments of authenticity. Live, if only for a few moments, as you long to live. Pause to ponder. Rest in conversation. Populate your to-do list with that which nourishes your soul.

And if you falter?

Take heart, Dear Listener.

Even Jan Karon feels overwhelmed sometime.

The following is an edited version of the conversation. To listen to it in its entirety, click here.

Lori Walsh:

Welcome back to In the Moment. I'm Lori Walsh. If you've ever been to Mitford, you might not want to leave. The number one New York Times best selling Mitford series has brought delight and comfort to fans around the world and across generations. This week a new entry into the Mitford series hits the shelves. It's fittingly called To Be Where You Are. Author, Jan Karon joins us today from Virginia. Jan Karon, welcome.

Jan Karon:

Oh, hello, Lori. And thank you so much for having me on.

Lori Walsh:

It is such a delight to have you on the program. I've gotten so many people who are excited in South Dakota to hear your voice today, so thank you.

Jan Karon:

Oh, wonderful. I appreciate that.

Lori Walsh:

Wait now, I received the book in the mail, opened it up and there's Father Tim Kavanagh. It just feels, and Cynthia's there. It feels like coming home. When you sit down to write a new story, does it feel like that to you? Do you just sink to it and relax?

Jan Karon:

It does. It does. Yes, it's good medicine for me, actually, to get away from even the stresses of writing a book, which are definitely there with any book. They seem to go away when I'm head down at the computer. I love them. I wonder when I'm away, "What's happening to them?" What's up over there?" And I never really know until I get to the keyboard.

Lori Walsh:

Which you now know how to work whereas when you first began tackling that computer was not second nature to you, right?

Jan Karon:

I had to teach myself to use a computer, which was, I had no heads of that kind of thing at all. So it's a miracle that I was able to do it, and much less teach myself. I thought I would never give up my royal manual typewriter. Of course, some authors haven't. They still use them.

Lori Walsh:

The first time I received your book, the first one in the series, At Home in Mitford was my Aunt Jackie who lives in Minnesota, and I live in South Dakota, and we talked about how it felt in some ways like the story could be transported right here to the Midwest, but yet it is so specific to space and place. Is that something that you do intentionally? Or did you just try to tell the story as specifically to the place of North Carolina as you could?

Jan Karon:

No, I just tell the story. The dialect that I use is, of course, North Carolinian. I'm sorry, Lori. I've had a frog all day. I don't know why.

Lori Walsh:

That's all right.

Jan Karon:

I'm gonna blame it on Autumn coming and some new sweet pollen in the air. But, yes, the dialect is very genuine to my native mountain region. It came over with the Scots and the Irish and all those who immigrated here in the 1700's. They brought their music, too, and I've very, very fond of the kind of music that we've been able to preserve, because it was kind of preserved back in the coves and hollers. Anyway, what did you ask me?

Lori Walsh:

I'm making this connection between ... Not everybody writes stories that are gentle that could be rural in nature and trying to get at the universality of that, whatever that word is.

Jan Karon:

Yes. Very good. Well, I do feel that Mitford is the universal small town, and I've had people in other countries, where my books are published, write and say they feel that the books feel very familiar to them. The settings and the people feel familiar. So, yes, I like your idea of universality.

Lori Walsh:

What does fan and reader feedback mean for you over the career that you've had, over the 14 books of Mitford stories? What has that feedback meant?

Jan Karon:

It has meant a very great deal. I've felt a lot of support and encouragement. My readers are often quite passionate about Mitford. They own it. They have some ownership in it. And I think, Lori, one reason is because I grew up on radio. Not grew up, but it was very much a part of our family when I was a young child. Radio doesn't tell you what dress somebody's wearing or what color their hair is or what they had for dinner. The reader and the listener to that radio have to come up with their own versions of things. They have to participate. They have to use their imaginations, too. So I don't tell the reader everything. I think the reader needs to do some work in order to own the story.

Lori Walsh:

Do you remember your first experience as a writer? Do you remember wanting to be a writer?

Jan Karon:

I definitely remember it very clearly. I started reading when I was five years old at home and taught my little sister to read before she went to school, in fact. I was a very stern teacher. I had learned that well, and I would wrap her knuckles lightly, of course, with a ruler just like mine were wrapped at school, if she didn't get everything correctly said and punctuated. So we were all about learning. I was all about learning. I read books that were far in advance of my reading level, shouldn't even have been reading at that age. But in any case, at around 10 I started really waking up to the fact that I not only wanted to be a writer, but in fact I was going to be.

Lori Walsh:

And what were your earliest experiences of faith? Do you remember that? Because faith plays a big part in this series.

Jan Karon:

Yes. I do remember that. My grandmother would read to us from the bible, and she had a lovely, soft southern voice. She made the stories come alive to my little sister and myself. So that was really my first brush with great literature. So I know that must have influenced me, Lori, in ways that I can't even quite understand, but I was hungry. It was like I came out of the womb half starved for language.

Lori Walsh:

Tell me about wanting to be a preacher as a child. Is that a true story?

Jan Karon:

It's a true story. I was out on the back porch at my grandmother's house, and the mimosa tree was in bloom. Are you familiar with the mimosa?

Lori Walsh:

Not well.

Jan Karon:

Okay. Maybe it doesn't grow in your part of the country, but it has a very beautiful pink blossom like a powder puff, and it has the sweetest fragrance. So it was in bloom, and I was turning around and round and round, whirling around like a dervish for some reason on the porch and looking up at the blue sky and the pink blossoms, and then I just started to preach. It just started pouring out of me like a small river. I don't remember what I said, but I was impassioned and my grandmother was concerned, and she came to the door and she says, "Janice, what's going on out here?" I said, "Mama, I'm gonna be a preacher." She said, "Well, you're not gonna be any such thing, because girls don't preacher." Well, whatever my grandmother said was the law.

I was mildly disappointed, but not completely devastated. So I just went on and then some years later, I think, in my early 50's I was, I started writing about a preacher. I thought, "Well, I'm gonna do this one way or the other."

Lori Walsh:

She had no problem with you being a writer. Women wrote, though?

Jan Karon:

That's right.

Lori Walsh:

That was okay. The door was open then. Well, lucky for the rest of us it was, right? Has your faith changed and deepened as you have written these books?

Jan Karon:

I think whether I had written these books or not if my faith would have deepened and changed as it does as we grow, and certainly Father Tim's faith has been helpful to me, because there are many times when I take this stuff seriously. It sends me to scripture. I sends me to the concordance. It sends me to studies of a certain passage. He prays fairly often throughout these books, sometimes from The Book of Common Prayer and then other times just from the heart. So, yes. That's a very profound question, actually, and I think that my work has influenced my own private faith.

Lori Walsh:

Are there other characters that have influenced you in a similar way who sort of changed the fabric of who you are?

Jan Karon:

Well, I think it became interesting to me to learn how much I am like Mrs. Rose, who is now deceased. She wore modest clothes, all of which I wanted to do, but never quite have. Her deceased brother's old military jacket and a cocktail hat with a smashed feather. She was among my more interesting characters. People have to die in life and in fiction, so I've lost some of my favorite characters like Uncle Billy, who was Mrs. Rose's husband. Uncle Billy was the great joke teller, and I had to go hunting desperately to find clean funny jokes. It is so easy to find the other kind. They're all over the internet, but the clean, really funny jokes are like little gems that must be mined. So that kept me on my toes for a few years, and then I lost him. But there's always one or two characters who keep me alert.

Lori Walsh:

So I'm curious. I want to go back to what you said about maybe wanting to dress like Mrs. Rose, but not. You're Jan Karon. You sold more than 20 million books. You can dress however you want. What's holding you back?

Jan Karon:

Actually, those are old figures. It's actually about 40 million now.

Lori Walsh:

Wow.

Jan Karon:

Just saying, because sometimes numbers get into a computer system, and you can't get rid of them.

Lori Walsh:

Maybe that was the first book that sold 20 million. I apologize. I should have had that updated.

Jan Karon:

No, no, no, no. You don't need to apologize. I'm sure you were furnished with that information. I know I can dress any way I want to, but I still am too timid to dress like Mrs. Rose. I mean, I'm too timid to wear a fascinator. Are you?

Lori Walsh:

To wear a what?

Jan Karon:

A fascinator. You know those wonderful, delightful dancing things that British women wear to the Ascot.

Lori Walsh:

Oh, I don't know that I could pull-

Jan Karon:

That's a whole other world.

Lori Walsh:

Yeah. I don't think I could pull that off either. Yeah. When you're writing a character when do they become real to you? You've talked about just sort of going through life with some of these people. At what point did they come from the page to sort of walk around and inhabit space?

Jan Karon:

That's such a beautifully phrased question. It doesn't take long, doesn't take long. I met Buck Leper in book two right at the very beginning when he almost ran over Father Tim, who was trying to cross the street. And I knew I had a serious trouble maker on my hands, and I thought maybe ... I'm gonna have to cough. Just a sec.

Lori Walsh:

Go right ahead. If you're just tuning in, you're listening to author, Jan Karon. Her new book in the Mitford series is called- To Be Where You Are. 

Jan Karon:

But I didn't. I just said, "Let's keep him." He's going to be blasphemous. I knew that, and he's going to have a serious drinking problem. He's come to build Hope House, which is the nursing unit up on the hill that Ms. Sadie left money to build, and he did a great job, but he was a very, very wounded man. And I just kept going with him, because he meant so much to me for some reason. He became ... Anyway, I discovered that he didn't have to curse and be blasphemous. All I had to do was open him up and show the reader how hurt he was, how shattered he was, and that did the job. I have to tell you, do we have time for just really a quick story about Buck Leper?

I was at a book event some years ago. It was a large crowd, about 500 people, and I said goodbye to everybody. And then there was a man, a big tall muscular man who sort of stood at the back and waited for the crowd to leave. And then he came up to me, and he shook my hand, and it was like as big as a ham, and it was calloused. He was a beautiful man. He had a very worn face, but it was sculptural, almost. And he said, "Ms. Karon, I just want to thank you. I was Buck Leper." And he turned and left, and I didn't get to have any further conversation. I'll never forget that encounter. I was so deeply moved by it. So that book went out into the world and captured the attention of a man who himself had been shattered in some way, and he had found something that I didn't even know was in there. There are many stories like that. And I don't know how to do this stuff.

Lori Walsh:

That's humbling. I mean, it has to be humbling for an author to have that kind of encounter.

Jan Karon:

It is. And I've had two couples tell me on separate occasions in separate cities how I've saved their marriage. And believe me, I don't know how to do that. I could never save mine. So that, too. You don't sit down and say, "I'm gonna write a book that saves somebody's marriage" or that heals a man or helps a man like Buck Leper. You can't do that. So I am as surprised by the mystery of a book and how it gets written as anybody else. It's a mystery.

Lori Walsh:

Do you feel like you're tapping into something sacred or holy?

Jan Karon:

Absolutely. Yes, definitely.

Lori Walsh:

Tell me about the intersection between your prayer life and your writing life.

Jan Karon:

Well, they are pretty side by side, pretty good roommates. I pray ardently for my work and rarely sit down without bringing some kind of prayer and gratitude, and gratitude to the table.

Lori Walsh:

What's the message-

Jan Karon:

I do think that shapes and molds the work.

Lori Walsh:

What do you think the message is for readers from Mitford? From the town itself? From the people who live there? How does it inform how we live our lives?

Jan Karon:

Well, I think part of it has to do with time. We really have to carve out time, and carving is an aggressive thing. You have to be aggressive with a knife to carve a bird from a chunk of wood. You have to be aggressive to carve out time for what's important, like stopping on the street just to say hello to somebody. I mean, I know, okay, I'm realistic. In New York you don't just stop somebody on the street. You'll be in jail. You don't just say, "Hello," or, "How you feeling today?" That would be too crazy. But there has to be incidences in every single day of our lives where we have an opportunity that presents itself. If we will take the blinders off and recognize it, it may be an insignificant opportunity, but it may be a life-changing opportunity.

It's easy for me to say, too, because I'm older. I am much more of a tourer than when I began writing the books, and suddenly, suddenly after a very, very busy and even tumultual recent few years, I have time to really think what I want to do next, and I have time to say hello to the butcher. 

So I just rambled on a bit there. I don't know where that was going. I was chasing a rabbit.

Lori Walsh:

We were talking about carving time out and just the challenges of that. Was that hard for you?

Jan Karon:

I think that my life and my writing are in battle all the time. It's just a battle to disentangle the two. Each one wants to own me and be in complete control. Yeah, it's hard to get to a place where I can sit down. My life probably has been over busy. I have moved three times in a short period of time. My mother died just a little less than a year ago. I had a book to finish and a house to, not gut, but do some very serious interior work in. But I had to write a book during that time. It's so interesting what you can do under pressure. You know. You're under pressure. You're in the broadcasting business.

Lori Walsh:

Right. I'm sorry to hear about your mother.

Jan Karon:

Thanks. Thank you. I dedicated this book to her.

Lori Walsh:

Yes. What's next for you?

Jan Karon:

I really don't know, and I'm so happy not to know. It's been a huge concern of mine for years on end that I always know what's next, as if we could. It could be a historical novel. It could be short stories. I've talked to my publisher, Ivan Held, who's a wonderful, wonderful man, old school publisher, and they want me to write from the heart. They don't want me to be under pressure, and I don't want to be anymore. I've actually had a contract for 23 years at all times, which has been difficult.

Lori Walsh:

Wow. Yeah.

Jan Karon:

So I want to write. I want to continue writing, but I'm not yet ready to make a commitment, if that makes sense.

Lori Walsh:

Yeah. Ms. Jan Karon, I want to say thank you for a lifetime of wonderful stories and books and for your time today. Truly, you are a national treasure.

Jan Karon:

Thank you so much. Thank you.

Lori Walsh:

You've been listening to Jan Karon, author of the Mitford series. The 14th volume in the series is called To Be Where You Are. It spotlights three generations of the Kavanagh family, as well as the colorful characters of Mitford, North Carolina. It's in bookstores and available online this week.

 

Button_ITMargins_328x76_0817.png

I have always been a devoted scribbler in the margins of books. As a reader, I underline and highlight. I add questions marks and exclamation points. I argue with the author. But where are the margins in a radio program like In the Moment? 

You have to create them. 

Welcome to In the Margins. It’s a place for behind-the-scenes. It’s a place for expanding the conversation.

It’s a place for just one more question.

Button_WhatIRead_328x76_0817.png books.JPG

Meet me in the Hills! In the Moment heads to the South Dakota Festival of Books for a live broadcast from the Deadwood Mountain Grand. It's my favorite event of the year, and much reading awaits. I'm currently deep into the sweetness of "Braiding Sweetgrass." Here are a few other titles waiting on the nightstand.