The last train to Mitford, N.C., pulls out November 8, when Light from Heaven—the final volume in a nine-book series of novels chronicling the life of smalltown clergyman Timothy Kavanagh—lands in bookstores. Author Jan Karon, creator of the Episcopal priest and a sharply etched supporting cast of dozens of characters, is turning out the lights in the fictional town tucked in the hills of North Carolina. She says it's time.
"I just didn't have anything else to say of vital importance," Karon tells PW in a telephone interview from her farm in Charlottesville, Va. "I had told the story."
That story of aging, balding Father Tim; his faithful big, black dog Barnabas; and the mostly good, and a couple of bad, citizens of Mitford began more than a decade ago, when At Home in Mitford was published. With more than 20 million Mitford books in print, the series has engaged legions of readers. In addition to the novels, Mitfordiana includes two Christmas-themed books, The Mitford Snowmen (2001) and Esther's Gift (2002); a cookbook, Jan Karon's Mitford Cookbook & Kitchen Reader (2004); and two collections of Father Tim's wisdom, Patches of Godlight: Father Tim's Favorite Quotes (2001) and A Continual Feast: Words of Comfort and Celebration (2005).
Karon's roots are in the evangelical Christian market, and she created Mitford with faith as its axis. Father Tim; his wife, Cynthia Coppersmith Kavanagh; and the townspeople of Mitford spend lots of time in prayer and at Father Tim's church services, coffee hours and "covered dishes" (church suppers). The first three Mitford books were published by Lion, a small evangelical house, before Viking became Karon's exclusive publisher with book number four, Out to Canaan.
Yet Karon resists being placed in the religion category. "I really don't write for Christians," she says. "I write for a secular audience, specifically to let them know, however I might, that God really does love us." While that message sounds as if it might come from a pulpit, it doesn't. Though she once wanted to be a preacher, Karon writes novels rather than homilies. "People can say to me, 'You're not preachy, and that's how I can approach your books.' "
Crossing the Divide
Karon's fiction is challenging to label. It was the first to cross over in a major way what can be a River Jordan—like divide between the evangelical Christian market and the general mainstream. Her books have won Christy and Gold Medallion awards, distinctions in the evangelical market. At Home in Mitfordwas also nominated three years running—1996, 1997 and 1998—for an ABBY (American Booksellers Book of the Year Award), which honors titles that bookstore owners most enjoy recommending to customers. Out to Canaan made the bestseller lists, as have all the subsequent novels.
The divide in bookstores is a literal one. Fiction and Christian fiction are shelved in different places, and the label "Christian fiction" can be pretty sticky. Authors are "kind of pigeonholed once they come out as a Christian fiction author," says Sally Dumont, health and well-being buyer at Joseph Beth Booksellers, an eight-store chain in three southeastern states. "They end up getting shelved continually where they first came out."
While Karon's work is filled with religious characters and traditional values, the words wholesome, clean or gentle also fit. Those are some of the terms Viking editor Carolyn Carlson used when she first pitched the books more than a decade ago, after agent Liz Darhansoff presented her with Karon's early Mitford books. "It was different, and it still is different, from anything else on the bestseller list," says Carlson, an executive editor. "When I brought this up, people had a real hard time getting what I was saying." Carlson herself recognized the world of Mitford immediately from her own childhood. She is the daughter of a retired Lutheran minister. "I know that church community world, so I just fell in love" with Karon's work, Carlson says.
The good folks at Viking/Penguin got it eventually, persuaded in part by the author's own vigorous efforts to market her early novels. Karon brought to the publisher not only books but a following and a talent for promotion. A former advertising executive, Karon had developed her own marketing materials and visited booksellers. "She worked very, very hard to get the word of mouth and bookstore sales going in her region," says Carlson. And though it has a strong Southern mountain flavor, the appeal of the Mitford saga quickly spread far from its home turf. "We found Mitford lovers from coast to coast," says Carlson.
Spreading the Word
For her part, Karon, 68, with classic disarming Southern graciousness, offers words of affection for Viking. "I was thrilled and quite surprised when Penguin, quite clearly a secular publisher, got behind these books with the most extraordinary and ardent enthusiasm," Karon says.
Karon is also helping get her last Mitford novel before readers. A fall tour includes stops from Brookdale Baptist Church in Bloomfield, N.J., to Washington National Cathedral, as well as benefit events. Karon enjoys interaction with readers and has heard from thousands. Her Web site, www.mitfordbooks.com, includes a membership community and a bulletin board. The biggest topic contains more than 62,000 posts. "I really do enjoy meeting my readers, and I enjoy speaking very, very much," she says.
For a time, Hallmark also got behind Mitford. A line of collectibles from the greeting card and gift giant brought to shelf life the world of Mitford. But that relationship, somewhat like a marriage, ended after a few years. Karon says it didn't work out. "It was kind of odd, even a bit confusing for readers," she says.
Even though the curtain is going down on Mitford, Father Tim's fans get a reprieve. His story goes on, as the clergyman hits the road in a planned series of three books about his travels. The first novel, called Home to Holly Springs, takes Father Tim back to his Mississippi hometown. Karon promises that Father Tim will have a life-changing experience there. "He'll be given a gift that could cost him everything," she says mysteriously. That hint will have to suffice until 2007, the expected publication date. Until then, fans can dream of the possibilities with the Mitford Bedside Companion, a compilation of readers' favorite scenes, due out in fall 2006.
If there is more Jan Karon to come, are there more Jan Karons out there? Carlson says Karon's work only looks easy. "In a few sentences she can introduce a new character and you are intrigued by this person," Carlson says. "That is in some ways like a Jane Austen." Karon's language and sense of humor are also part of what makes her difficult to clone. Not that others haven't tried. "I have gotten a lot of submissions," Carlson says.
Karon seems a little puzzled herself that there aren't more like her. "I think you just have to have a heart for wanting to write clean books," she says. "It's in many ways—short-term ways—more exciting to use barbarous language and write about violence, but it's really much more wonderful to write on the bright side of the moon. I'm just way over the dark side of literature."
Father Tim may be growing and moving on, but some character changes are unlikely. Karon prefers happy endings. She acknowledges that her work has been called sentimental, but says happy endings are as real as the less cheerful kind. "Any ending is about timing," the novelist says. "It all depends on where you stop the clock. We stop the clock at a happy place."