Despite humble beginnings, Janice Meredith Wilson wasted no time in living an eventful life.
Her childhood was spent in the small textile town of Hudson at her grandmother’s feet, listening to her stories.
“She was rolling knots in my hair, telling the stories of her five dates,” Karon recalled. “She kept all the letters.”
Like most children in the farming community, young Janice and her sister grew up churning butter and collecting eggs. But she distinguished herself by being an avid reader, skipping class, developing a fascination with dialects and displaying a gift for drawing. Inspired by ‘Gone with the Wind’, she wrote her first book at age 10 and ‘had a change’ for including the word ‘damn’. Around the same time, she won a short story contest.
When she was 12, Karon moved to Charlotte to join her mother, who had remarried after Karon’s father left. Two years later, Karon dropped out of school and ran away across the state line to South Carolina. At the age of 15, she had a daughter named Candace, but the marriage did not last. Karon found herself alone at 18 with a dependent child.
Karon found a job as an office assistant at an advertising agency. Executives quickly noticed his intelligence and wit, helped by the fact that Karon left handwriting samples on his boss’s desk. Soon the auburn-haired, largely self-taught young woman was writing publicity copy.
She was also a bohemian in the classic sense of the term. Karon read poetry, took his daughter to foreign movies, listened to jazz, and was part of a protest at Charlotte’s lunch counter for desegregation in 1960. Two more short marriages would follow, the last bringing him to Berkeley, in California, before she returned south again. , ending up in Raleigh, North Carolina, working at an ad agency.
Then a fortuitous thing happened. In the late 80s, Karon won an industry award along with a cash prize. She knew her future was not in advertising, so she quit her job and moved to Blowing Rock, North Carolina to become a writer.
“I left a career in which I had been very successful,” Karon said. “God spoke to my heart and said, ‘Go and don’t look back.’ Timing is really everything.
A nod to Dickens
At that time, Blowing Rock was a village of about 1,000 people, and it had many of the qualities that Karon readers would identify with the fictional town of Mitford: sidewalks lined with shops, merchants who knew the name of every client, churches full of parishioners. And it was on one of these sidewalks that Karon imagined his main character, an Episcopal priest named Father Tim Kavanagh, walking.
Other characters would soon follow: Emma, the opinionated church secretary; Miss Sadie, the elderly philanthropist; Dooley, the wayward boy; and Cynthia, Father Tom’s love interest. And, of course, Barnabus, the huge black dog to adopt.
The idea to publish his first book in installments came from Karon’s friend, Jerry Burns, then editor of the Blowing Rocket. In 1990, the newspaper began publishing his “Father Tim” tales, filled with humor, kitchen table warmth and illustrations by Karon. The newspaper’s circulation jumped 30%.
She found a literary agent but received only rejections from publishers until she decided to shop around for the book. A small Christian press published “At Home in Mitford” in 1994, and Karon used his marketing background to promote it, calling and visiting bookstores and sending out his own press releases, while writing the next book.
In 1996, Viking Penguin purchased her first three books and reissued them as paperbacks, and Karon once again promoted herself. This time she took off. Championed by independent bookstores and word-of-mouth from readers, the books began to hit the New York Times bestseller list.
With the rewards of her success, Mitford purchased an 1816 farmhouse on 100 acres in Albemarle County, Virginia in 2000. She lived there for 14 years, lovingly renovating the property and writing her books.
Side projects followed: children’s books, a deal with Hallmark, several compilations of Father Tim’s favorite scriptures. An illustrated cookbook, “Jan Karon’s Mitford Cookbook & Kitchen Reader”, was published in 2004.
Karon published Mitford’s last book, “Light from Heaven”, in 2005, ending Father Tim’s story. But fans and publishers craved more, so she penned five more novels featuring Mitford characters, including “Home to Holly Springs,” detailing Father Tim’s childhood in Mississippi.
His books have a universal quality that crosses genres. Readers who have never taken a peek at Christian fiction find themselves fascinated by small-town tales, where the occasional quote from Scripture and praying characters are not off-putting.
“I write for the lay audience,” Karon said, “It makes medicine go down happily.”
Ivan Held, his editor at Putnam, agreed. “The best books defy categorization or make beautiful blends of many elements,” he said. And Karon’s books continue to resonate with new readers.
“The books remain popular because they address very real issues – broken families, drug addiction and poverty. Because of this, they always feel up to date,” said Karon editor Danielle Dieterich.
A place for readers
Today, Karon lives in a townhouse in Charlottesville, Virginia. His daughter Candace Freedland, who became an award-winning photojournalist for AP and the Charlotte Observer, died of pancreatic cancer in July 2021. (“She was the light of my life,” Karon said.)
Finished with Father Tim’s story and resisting suggestions that she should write an autobiography, Karon knew she was far from done connecting with her readers. She found the opportunity to “tell my readers about my life in Hudson” in 2018, when she learned that the former Hudson Elementary School, where she attended grades one through seven, had been turned into a event space and a community arts center.
The project rekindled Karon’s fond memories of his first grade teacher, Nan Downs. “She loved us little country kids in flour sack dresses and overalls,” Karon said. “That was the first real encouragement I got.” She happily donated money to the cause.
Later, Karon was told that the organizers wanted to give her the freshman class because they knew how important it was to her. “I was thrilled,” she recalls.
Called the Hudson Uptown Building (HUB), the building is now the crown jewel of the city, housing an art gallery, mid-century style bar, boutique, day spa, and community theater. And, of course, there is the Mitford Museum and Happy Endings Bookstore, named after the store in the books.
Visitors are greeted by enlarged images of a primary school-aged Karon, her early artwork, and her writings. Containing items carefully curated by Karon, the room includes a bench from his grandparents’ porch, worn crockery, and his grandmother’s well-seasoned cookie tin. The chalkboard at the front of the classroom adds authenticity and serves as a portal for Karon fans to write messages.
But the small museum is much more than nostalgia. Not only capturing a vanished mountain way of life, it also depicts a young girl’s dreams and a creative woman’s life journey through a tumultuous and changing America. From the poster advertising his community theater production to his grandmother’s handwritten story of the murder of a giant chicken hawk, these are the events that shaped the writer.
Descriptions of the exhibition are intentionally in the first person. “I tell my story to my readers,” Karon said. “Readers come in and feel at home. They know they can find refuge. This is what I want the museum to offer: a refuge.
The second exhibit adjoining the classroom is devoted to Karon’s “Mitford years”. Her desk, vintage typewriter and framed book covers sit near Father Tim’s clothes and a display case containing Karon’s “favorite things” – a plate of aqua antique oysters, a pair of embellished pink heels jewelry. Readers will also recognize an oversized vintage nativity scene that inspired the one Father Tim painstakingly restores for his wife in “Shepherd’s Abiding” (Mitford Series #8). Also on display is Cynthia’s emerald wedding suit, which Karon had a seamstress replicate. “It’s even his size,” Karon said.
Across the hall, the well-appointed Happy Endings Bookstore sells autographed copies of Karon’s books as well as exclusive items including aprons, soaps, holiday ornaments, and T-shirts.
In its first year, the museum hosted a sold-out tea party, quilt exhibit, summer reading program, and literary weekend. Upcoming events include Candlelight Christmas Tours, Cynthia’s Primrose Tea Party and the launch of the Candace Freeland Photography Award of Merit for young people with a $5,000 prize.
Karon admits she missed her Mitford characters, but instead of writing another novel, she used her creative energy to create the museum. It took its place among other literary sites in the state, such as novelist Thomas Wolfe’s home in Asheville and poet/biographer Carl Sandburg’s estate in Flat Rock. Museum director Sarah Thomas gives the author credit: “Don’t plant a seed with Jan Karon unless you want to see it grow.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO
The Mitford Museum. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday. 145 Cedar Valley Road, Hudson, North Carolina. $10. 828-572-4898, www.themitfordmuseum.org.