Mostly older, mostly whiter, mostly female and mostly Christian folks stand in a long line at the Smoketown Super Crown bookstore in Dale City, Va., on a recent Saturday morning to meet the most successful author you've probably never heard of - Jan Karon.
More than 100 souls have shown up to pay homage to Karon's quartet of novels about life in the fictional town of Mitford, N.C. Like an old-fashioned miniaturist, Karon has painted a quiet yet bustling world where women bake marmalade cakes, men wash the dishes, dogs listen to poetry, criminals preach sermons and the central character, Father Tim, quotes lots of scripture and tries to hold everything together. The novels contemplate the mysteries and surprises of slow-paced, small-place life.According to her publisher, Viking Penguin, there are more than 2 million Karon books in print. In 1996 the American Booksellers Association voted "At Home in Mitford," the first in the series, its favorite book to recommend to customers. In 1997 and 1998, booksellers nominated the novel again.
No one is more mystified or more determined not to blow her success than Karon. She has somehow filled a Mitford-shaped void in lots of people. "The fan mail comes in bales," she says. At one Los Angeles bookstore, fans formed the
Mitford Appreciation Society. Though they've topped religious best-seller lists, they are mainstream successes, too. "Out to Canaan," the fourth Mitford novel published by Viking Penguin, reached No. 5 on the New York Times best-seller list. The novel was released in paperback last month.
Kirkus Reviews described "Out to Canaan" as "a heart-warmer that diverts the spirit as it uncloyingly celebrates life in all its quirkiness in a small town."
A raft of readers gave it stellar reviews on the message board at Amazon.com, the online bookstore. "These books have renewed my faith in God and made me value my friends even more," wrote one woman from Texas. Dennis M. Campbell, headmaster of Woodberry Forest School in Virginia, used Karon's books when he taught the theology of ministry at Duke Divinity School. "Her novels provide a remarkable and very insightful picture of the dailyness of pastoral ministry," Campbell says. "One could read her books just for the story. But if you have the eyes to see what's going on there, it is very remarkable Christian theology."
Everywhere she goes, Karon says she bumps into people who are mad about Mitford. They come from all over the world to see her in Blowing Rock, N.C., where she lives. To share a cup of tea, to bring her a marmalade cake, to ask about the characters.
So, Karon is asked at one point, how does it feel to have people seeking you out?
Karon doesn't answer the question head-on. She smiles a sweet smile, opens her mouth wide, leans her head forward, pretends to jam her finger down her throat and quietly makes this particular noise: cack cack cack.
Despite the big hair and chronic smile, Jan Karon, 61, is - like her work - more complex than first appears. On the surface, she's all lighty-light and sweety-sweet. Beneath the surface, she's got a wry outlook and an acerbic wit. She says she believes in leaving things in the hands of God, but she engages in city-to-city self-promotion.
Karon doesn't like to talk about her distant past. "It draws shine from Mitford," she says. She will say she was born Janice Meredith Wilson in Lenoir, N.C. Her father was in the Air Force. He left home when she was 3. "There was a lot of brokenness in my family," she says.
When pressed, she adds, "Let's just say that I was raised by my grandparents."
Exploring the mind of a sane and self-assured Episcopal priest, Father Tim, who brings order to a troubled, confused world is cathartic, Karon says. "Writing is a way of processing our lives," she says. "And it can be a way of healing."
Janice Meredith wrote her first novel when she was 10. Her grandmother discovered it had the word "damn" in it and was aghast. Karon never used cursing in her work again, she says.
She married very young, became a mother at 17 and a single mother soon after that. Eventually Karon landed a job as an advertising copywriter. She toiled at agencies in New York, San Francisco and Raleigh.
By the mid-'80s, she had a big house, a Mercedes and award plaques on her office wall. But, she says, "I felt lost." She prayed for direction.
In 1988, Karon quit her job and moved to Blowing Rock. She took on freelance ad work and started writing the first Mitford novel. It appeared in weekly installments over two years in the local newspaper - the Blowing Rocket.
The tales were collected and published by a small Christian company in the Midwest. They did well in religious book stores and, North Carolina booksellers discovered, in mainstream shops. Nancy Olson, owner of Quail Ridge Book Store in Raleigh, says her shop has sold about 4,000 copies of Karon's books. Another bookstore owner, closer to Blowing Rock, estimates she's sold more than 10,000.
And people arrive by the busload in Blowing Rock as well, says Karon. "I live right on the road," Karon says. "I'm going to have to move." She's hoping to find a farm close by. After all, she depends on her surroundings for fictional fodder.
Eventually, she says, there will be seven Mitford novels, a cookbook, a novella about the wedding between Father Tim and Cynthia Coppersmith and a bedside companion. Ten volumes in all. Just released is a children's book, "Miss Fannie's Hat," based on Karon's grandmother. There is some talk in Hollywood about putting Mitford on the big screen. Hallmark is developing a line of greeting cards based on the series.
And after the Mitford series is done? Karon prays to God to show her the right direction. But, as Carlson says, "she's a go-getter." She doesn't leave everything up to the Lord.