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Jan Karon: Anything But Ordinary
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Jan Karon knew as a child that she wanted to be a writer, penning her first novel at the age of 10. However, it was not until she turned 50 that she left a successful career in advertising to move to the little town of Blowing Rock, N.C., and seriously pursue her dream of being an author. After struggling to get a novel underway, Karon awoke one night with a mental image of an Episcopal priest walking down a village street. He became Father Tim, the main character of nine novels in the wildly successful Mitford series, as well as two Father Tim novels. The first Mitford novel, At Home in Mitford, has been the only book nominated in three consecutive years for an American Booksellers Book of the Year Award. Other titles in the series have won Christy and Gold Medallion awards and have often debuted on the New York Times list in the No. 1 spot. Gloria connects with Karon to find out what inspires her most as a writer and how she finds fulfillment uncovering the magic hidden within everyday life.

JAN KARON: Hi Gloria!

GLORIA GAITHER: Hey! Thank you so much for doing this; I know you’re in the middle of a million things, but I really appreciate it.

JAN: Well, I’m honored and flattered.

GLORIA: I want to start by saying that this issue is on “life is a picnic,” and you, probably more than anybody else I can think of, have made drama and magic, joy and tragedy and adventure out of everyday life. I want to know what gave you such an appreciation for ordinary life. Why did you think that a series of fiction on regular people doing regular things in a regular town would catch on … or did you?

JAN: Well, I think that God gave me some pathway into seeing more deeply into the regular, the ordinary, even the mundane, and that buried within the mundane is something really extraordinary and delightful. Occasionally people will tell me their life story —somewhat abbreviated, of course — but I don’t care who it is, it’s always fascinating to me — I am enthralled by it. Why did this person make these choices? Why did I, in fact, make some of the choices I’ve made? Where does that lead us? So, I’ve just always seen into the fundamental and the ordinary as something quite extraordinary.

GLORIA: Why do you think Mitford captured the sympathies of so many readers?

JAN: I think readers have been abandoned to contemporary fiction that scares them half to death … a lot of it certainly scares me half to death. Some brilliant work has been done, but I think a lot of it is limping on crutches — crutches of blasphemy and murder and mayhem — all sorts of things that many of us don’t want. So there was this hidden audience out there, thinking, “We want something we can read in our family life, something I can give to my grandmother or my uncle, that would make people smile.”

GLORIA: It’s an interesting thing you bring up here; doesn’t all story, fiction or true, depend on a dramatic tension between right and wrong, accepted and unaccepted, moral and immoral? If we take away all guidelines, if we remove all yardsticks for measuring our behavior, how do we have meaningful fiction?

JAN: Absolutely! That’s a brilliant point to make. When I was starting my fiction writing career after leaving advertising, I was really haunted by the notion of writing a book, just seized by the absolutely driven desire to write a novel, because I’d always loved reading so much. And I went to the library, and I thought, “You know, I’m just going to take a chance here.” There was a bestseller out, and I’d read about it, and so I took it off the shelf. Well, what was on the first page was so horrifying to me that I practically ran from there — I couldn’t take it anymore. Am I a prude? Really, I’m not. I know the bad words, I know the sex scenes, I know the murder and mayhem, but I don’t want to do that. There’s no truth in it for me, and I don’t think God would like it very much.

So, we just got together and said, “Let’s do something that is a complete departure. Let’s just go in the opposite direction, and if we don’t have anybody who will pick it up and read it, well, so be it.” You know, I was so broke and hungry at that time, it hardly mattered. How much more broke and hungry can you be? (Laughs)

GLORIA: (Laughs) You might as well do something you enjoy! I think you’re right about having to keep doing something more horrible and extreme because we have lost the internal drama. You remind me a lot of the Brontës and Jane Austen and those authors who knew that sitting even in a room full of family, all kinds of drama is going on.

JAN: Absolutely right…

GLORIA: By the wink of an eye or the move of a hand … what we’re all hiding or thinking inside is where the real drama goes on. I think you made Mitford so real that you blurred the line between fiction and reality. It was hysterical to me that people started writing for the recipes that you mention in the books — tell me about that.

JAN: Well, the orange marmalade cake, I think, is the most classic example. I wanted a cake baker in this town, because it seemed to me that the population of a town wouldn’t be worth much if there weren’t some passionate cake baker in it. And so, what cake would she bake? Well, chocolate is just too easy. Actually, I’m not a big chocolate lover … I rather prefer toffee; that’s my favorite flavor.

GLORIA: Oh, me too! I love anything butterscotch.

JAN: I came up with this orange marmalade cake because I was mad for orange marmalade. I didn’t know that a cake could be baked from it, because I’m not a baker. Anyway, when I would go out on the road on tour, they’d raise their hands and somebody would always say (right after asking “What is livermush?”), “Could you give me the orange marmalade cake recipe?” So Victoria Magazine, for whom I did a year of writer-in-residence, got in touch with Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis, that wonderful Virginia chef who made a big name for herself in New York — she’s now deceased — and they put those two in the kitchen, and they concocted this recipe. It is the best cake I’ve ever put in my mouth!

GLORIA: That is so funny — that a cookbook came out of this. I’m tickled every time I take it out; it cracks me up that you made these things so real that people thought you had recipes from a story that you made up for the food you made up out of your head. But you did something brilliant with this book, and that is to lift the section out of whichever book the dish was in, so that we could giggle again, seeing where this food appeared in the various stories. One funny recipe for me is “Political Chicken.” That’s not an excerpt from a book, is it? Isn’t that just your commentary?

JAN: Yes, it’s just my commentary…

GLORIA: That piece is hysterical. Tell me why you decided to… politicize the chicken!

JAN: Well, I am absolutely crazy about fried chicken. In fact, we had some recently — fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, and limas, my sister and I and some company — because I am just starved for the old days of Sunday meals, when you’d sit on the back porch and the tablecloth was an oilcloth. Anyway, I was always out for the chicken, as much chicken as I could get off the platter, and I would watch how people ate it — especially company. Nice company would be very modest, and they would take a wing or maybe a thigh. Company you didn’t want to come back would take two breasts and a leg! And the old ladies would just take a wing, or a back…

GLORIA: That’s the conditioning of a mother! “Oh, this’ll be fine … never mind.” (Laughs)

JAN: Exactly, yes! “Don’t worry about me…” (Laughs)

GLORIA: There is sort of a status to what you offer people, you know. If it’s — as my grandma used to say — “the uppity-ups,” you always offer them the breast and the good pieces. And kids always get the drumstick, don’t they?

JAN: The drumstick, yes, yes … because it’s such a playful part of the chicken!

GLORIA: Yes! Well, this cookbook is just hysterical. We did a Homecoming Cookbook. And I did it for the stories, because the Homecoming people are great storytellers. Almost every story that we sit around and tell in catering has to do with foods they remember, and you find out so much about people’s families and their history by what they say about food. A lot of the great memories are hooked to the weirdest food — I mean, things like banana pudding. I always thought that was a funny one for people to get all emotional about … but I just wanted the stories, so we did the cookbook. So you know I’m in love with your cookbook — it’s just fabulous.

JAN: I remember having dinner with Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis, many years ago. Here was this tall, very dignified black woman with gray hair, wearing a dashiki — very queenly. And here’s Scott Peacock — a short, white, young, slightly chubby, darling man. And they were great collaborators and made excellent cookbooks together. So I asked her, “Ms. Lewis, if you were to die tomorrow, what would you request for your last meal?” She thought about this, and said very thoughtfully in her Virginia accent, “I would like country ham, cooked — simmered — in cream.” And I thought wow, country ham simmered in cream, I’ve never heard of that; I’m going to try that! And what Scott Peacock wanted — here’s an up-and-coming young Southern chef, making a name for himself — he said, “I’d want a package of Fig Newtons.” I said “What on earth for?” He said, “Because my father left the home early in my life, and we used to sit at the table and share a package of Fig Newtons.” So yes, the stories that surround food…

GLORIA: That’s exactly what I’ve found! You find these “suck-in-your-breath” insights into people. Now, I want to hear about Roberto’s Osso Buco.

JAN: Miss Sadie gave this glittering ball for Olivia when she married Dr. Harper. She had the whole ballroom in her wonderful house in Mitford restored just for this grand occasion. And everybody was so thrilled to get dressed up — you know, they don’t dress up much in Mitford — and there was an orchestra and dancing, champagne and all of that. And Roberto, the son of the man who painted the angels on her ballroom ceiling, and knew her as a child, came all the way from Italy to be there. And for his visit, they made osso buco.

GLORIA: I love this line that says, “Roberto had put on the rector’s favorite apron, tucked his tie into his shirt pocket and was busy creating the most seductive aromas in the rectory’s history. ‘Osso buco!’ Roberto announced, removing the pot lid with one hand and waving a wooden spoon with the other. ‘Mmmmmm!’ cried Cynthia, coming through the back door with an armload of flowers. ‘Ravishing!’”

JAN: How nice to have an Italian come all the way across the pond to cook in your kitchen!

GLORIA: Oh, well I’d do that…woo hoo!

JAN: Can your handsome husband cook?

GLORIA: He cuts the Spam in little bitty pieces and drops it in a can of spinach. Is that just gross? So I don’t leave home much — I just think he’ll probably destroy himself.

JAN: Oh, you all are so wonderful. I love the photographs of you on every issue of the magazine! You are looking good, you two!

GLORIA: Well, it’s amazing how you can prop up an old corpse and make it look good for a picture! (Laughs)

JAN: (Laughs) Photoshop!

GLORIA: Yes, Photoshop! Well, I want to know about what’s coming next. I know that your publishers may smack me, but can you give us a sneak preview of what’s happening? Now, the pastor has gone back to his past and visited Holly Springs … but now what?

JAN: Well, they’ve been to Ireland, and he went to seek out his ancestral roots, but in fact, he ended up with the ancestral roots all tangled up with another family. So the book opens when they’re home from Ireland, and we’re going to meet all the old characters that my readers have grown to love. I wish we could resurrect Uncle Billy, who died several books back, because I love him and he was my joke teller. So now I’ve got to assign the role of humor to somebody else in the town. Who’s it gonna be? I don’t know, but I’ve got an idea. I’m in chapter four right now, and I find it very challenging, because I know everything is riding on this book. My readers want certain things to happen — my readers are very opinionated. A woman once said to me, early in the series, “Ms. Karon, if you don’t let Father Tim marry Cynthia, I’m gonna quit foolin’ with you!” They just know what they want! They want Lace and Dooley to get married, that’s a must — the list is pretty long! So, I don’t want to disappoint them, but I don’t want to write a book by committee either, so it’s a little bit of a tug-of-war there.

GLORIA: Have you ever told your readers that you are not in charge, that the characters actually “dictate” the story for you?

JAN: Yes, I have tried to tell them that — they don’t believe it!

GLORIA: Every great fiction writer says “I don’t know … they take over and I’m just the pencil.”

JAN: You’re the pencil! Oh, I love that — that’s a great quote! Are you going to write another book, Gloria?

GLORIA: Well, I’m messing with my memoirs — not in the typical, biographical, “I was born in 1942” kind of way, but I’m working on a memoir that tells you about people who shaped me and stories of those people. My dad pastored for 10 years, from the time I was 4 to 14, in our tiny town of 300 people, in Michigan. I always say, “There was one of each, and I haven’t met a stranger since.” So those characters stand large, in my shaping years, and many more since then, of course. But I want to do a memoir, sort of in the “Annie Dillard” sense, where there are pieces of the puzzle and you, as the reader, have to put them together.

JAN: Well good! I’m glad to hear that you’ll be doing that. You’re a wonderful writer, to say the very least. I’m talking now not about your songwriting, which everyone knows about, but your written word between covers. You’re very enthralling and engaging, so good for you!

GLORIA: Well, that’s a lot, coming from you. But I don’t know if I have the guts to tackle fiction before I kick off.

JAN: You know, Gloria, you’ve got everything it takes, everything it takes for a terrific fiction writer.

GLORIA: Everything except patience!

JAN: Well, you’ve got to have that — that’s for sure.

GLORIA: And you know that, because you have stuck with the story through several books. And you just have made people more and more excited about what you’re going to do next with these characters.

JAN: Well, I do think that readers want a kind of universality — or I do, in my reading — Jane Austen had that universality. In fact, it was she who said — and I can only very loosely paraphrase her in a letter to her niece, who was trying to write a novel — ”Well, now you’ve gotten everything together very nicely, my dear…you know, a few people in a close family, set in a small town, a small village.” So she really got that that’s what you want — a certain confinement, so that they can boil and bubble in there together, all of that juice mixing up. I  nd that putting people into a small town with this main character of my novels gives me everything I could possibly want.

GLORIA: Well, thank you so much, Jan. Is there anything else you’d like to tell everybody who is holding their breath for the next installment?

JAN: Let me just say that my readers mean a very great deal to me. I wouldn’t be sitting here on my loveseat in my bedroom talking to Gloria Gaither if it weren’t for my readers. So when I get out there with the next one, I am going to try to give you something you will really enjoy. This is my life’s work — it may look small to many — but to me, what I’ve tried to do is capture this village and its people in amber. You know how you’ll find a chunk of amber, and it’ll have a whole house-fly in it or the bones of a tiny  fish, preserved forever. And so we can say for posterity, “This is the way we were — this is truly the way we interacted with each other, when we loved each other and when we sometimes despised each other.” I’m trying to capture and preserve that, and hope that they will take it out and use it on occasion, like the family silver.

GLORIA: Well, you are a master of that. Let me ask you one more question—what was your favorite picnic ever?

JAN: Oh my goodness … I was on a hillside in France — my first visit to Europe — and I was with a beloved friend and we had nothing between us but a packet of goat cheese. I had never eaten goat cheese in my life — the whole thought was disgusting to me. But when we opened it, and we shared that goat cheese on that hillside in France … well, that was the best.

GLORIA: I bet you love goat cheese, to this day.

JAN: I do!

GLORIA: Well, that’s exactly what this issue’s about, how life is full of the simplest ingredients and you can make a picnic if you want. You certainly have done that for all of us. Thank you for taking the time, and we cannot wait to see what you have next!