Jan Karon, Author of Best - Selling Mitford Series

"Two of Karon’s books have reached the No. 5 spot on the New York Times Best-Seller list."

by Elizabeth Moll Stalcup

Christian author Jan Karon is taking her genre of spiritual fiction to places such works don’t often go—the top of secular best-sellers’ charts. More importantly, her success represents her ability to share gospel truth with an audience in search of spiritual answers.

Two of Karon’s Mitford books—four novels about a fictitious town in the North Carolina mountains—have reached the No. 5 spot on the New York Times Bestseller List. They are At Home in Mitford (Penguin) and Out to Canaan (Viking).

That’s quite an achievement for fiction that openly quotes Scripture; espouses a moral, Christian way of life; and contains at least one story of a conversion.

Speaking recently at a function sponsored by the Richmond Women’s Club, Karon told jokes, talked about writing her first novel at age 10 and recalled the whipping her grandmother gave her for the single curse word it contained.

She also read from her account of Buck Leper’s surrender to Jesus. Leper, a profane, alcoholic construction worker, is a familiar character in Karon’s novels. She said she wanted to be sure each woman present knew how to give her life to Jesus.

Ten years ago, Karon was a highly successful advertising executive living and working in Raleigh, N.C.

"I was working myself to a frazzle in a career I never wanted and never enjoyed," Karon said. "I was desperate to get out."

For years she had sensed God calling her to write, but she couldn’t imagine leaving the financial security of her advertising career. At 51, Karon was single with a grown daughter and had only eight years of formal education. She was vice president of the ad agency, having worked her way to the top from a receptionist’s job she landed at age 18.

"I didn’t know how to leave advertising," she said. For two years, she asked the Lord to show her how.

"When I left advertising, I cut my lifestyle in half," she recalled. "No one was writing me a check. No one was paying my health benefits. Nothing. It was the Lord and me."

Karon took her brother up on an offer to move in with his family in Blowing Rock, N.C. a village in the Blue Ridge Mountains, until she regained financial stability. She fell in love with the town, she said, and thought she knew what she was supposed to write, but it wouldn’t come.

Her struggle became a crisis of faith, she said. In desperation she told God: "I can’t do it. I’m doomed. I’m going down with this ship."

She said the Lord gave her a simple reply: "Don’t look back."

Karon said a few days later she was lying in bed when the Lord gave her "a simple mental image of a priest walking down the street. He was met by a black dog the size of a Buick. It was Father Tim and Barnabas."

Karon wrote what she saw. "I started on faith, and I marched on faith for the next two or three years."

She still wasn’t sure what she was writing. In time, she approached Jerry Burns, editor of The Blowing Rocket, a local newspaper. He agreed to run a half-page a week of Karon’s work. It ran for two years.

People in Blowing Rock—a small town much like Mitford—were hooked. Residents would stop Karon at the post office to say, "You’d better find Barnabas!"

Her payment was a free copy of the newspaper, which sold for 10 cents.

After Karon had written 170,000 words, she started sending the manuscript to publishers. It was a formidable stack of typewritten sheets more than 2 inches thick.

Lion, a Christian publisher, bought the book and published it in 1994. They had very little distribution so Karon put her advertising background to work and began distributing her own book. She called booksellers, faxed press releases, and traveled to women’s clubs, libraries and book signings.

Today Karon again keeps a busy pace. She has a contract for three more Mitford novels, a novella about Father Tim’s wedding and a cookbook.

In January 1998, Augsburg released Karon’s first children’s book, Miss Fannie’s Hat, a story about her Bible-reading grandmother. After 10 days the book was already in its second printing and has recently gone into a third.

Karon continues to follow the instructions the Lord gave her when she struggled to leave her high-pressure career in ad sales: "God just spoke to my heart and said, ‘Walk. I am with you, and I will never leave you.’ And I did."

Reprinted by Permission Virtue Magazine.