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Jan Karon was driven, daring and lived in the fast lane

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Jan Karon lives on a $2 million rural Virginia estate, a few miles from John Grisham. Her Mitford novels, set in a fictional N.C. mountain town of that name, feature a 60-something Episcopal priest and his colorful parishioners. They have sold 20 million copies.

The Karon phenomenon has occurred in just over a decade, without a movie version, Oprah endorsement or single review in The New York Times. Her Mitford books make mainstream and Christian best-seller lists, embraced by readers hungry for well-told fiction that avoids profanity and sex, and positively shows a life of faith.

Newspaper and magazine profiles have told how, at age 50 and as a recent born-again Christian, Karon left a flourishing advertising career in Raleigh, N.C., for the mountain village of Blowing Rock, where she pursued her dream of writing fiction. After struggle came stupendous success.

It's a true story, and inspiring. But it's incomplete.

Karon, 68, has been guarded about her early life, saying she doesn't want to steal "shine" from Mitford. But she recently opened up to the Charlotte Observer on certain subjects, some painful.

Family and old friends - unanimously recalling the young Karon as beautiful, bright, driven, daring - provided a fuller picture of an author's life that has been more dramatic than her fiction.

The road to Mitford was long and full of curves. And it ran right through Charlotte.

Karon was born in 1937, in the Blue Ridge foothills town of Lenoir. Fittingly, she was named Janice Meredith Wilson, after the novel "Janice Meredith."

Before Karon was 4, her parents split up and left her with her maternal grandparents. Mother Wanda - 15 at Karon's birth - went to Charlotte. Father Robert Wilson joined the Royal Canadian Air Force.

"My father - how to put it? In the lexicon of the family, we just say he ran off," Karon said, adding that sister Brenda was in the cradle and the family learned of his departure from an item in the Lenoir paper.

Karon and her father - who died in 1977 - re-established ties when she was grown. But she recalls his absence with pain, and it does not seem coincidental that her Episcopal priest hero has troubles forgiving his own difficult father.

On the whole, Karon recalls a happy early childhood, once conducive to a writer. Raised on her grandparents' farm near Hudson, a few miles from Lenoir, she credits her descriptive powers to early, near-constant exposure to nature. She grew up hearing the mountain dialect she draws on for her Mitford novels. She absorbed story-telling skills from grandmother Fannie Cloer.

What's more, a Bookmobile regularly rumbled by. Karon recalls reading at age 9 the novels of John Steinbeck and short stories of Guy de Maupassant.

The next year, she wrote her first novel. Influenced by "Gone With the Wind," the future author of profanity-free fiction used the word "damn." And - as she tells it - got a switching.

At 12, Karon moved to Charlotte to rejoin her mother, who had married Toby Setzer and had two more children. The family lived in a working-class neighborhood. Karon acknowledges the shock of coming from the quiet, protective care on her grandparents' farm into the closer quarters of Charlotte, where children seemed worldlier.

"It was like being shot out of a cannon," Karon said. "I went from one world to a vastly different world."

Karon, who had skipped a grade in Hudson, attended Piedmont Junior High in Charlotte. One of her teachers was Irving Edelman. He recalls Janice Wilson, as she was known, as "getting with the wrong crowd."

"Here was a lovely, bright kid who seemed to be going off the deep end," he said, adding that he was worried enough to call in Karon's mother for a conference.

Karon dropped out in ninth grade, at 14, and married Robert Freeland. They wed in South Carolina, where girls her age could do so legally. Freeland, five years older, worked at a Charlotte tire store. She sold stockings, shoes and handkerchiefs at a store in Charlotte.

At 15, she gave birth to her only child, Candace Freeland.

"I did not have to get married," Karon said. "That is the God's truth. I got married."

Pressed on why she dropped out and married so young, Karon choked up for the only time in multiple interviews. "I thought that was the way I could get out of some difficult circumstances," was all she would say.

Karon described Freeland, who died in 1995, as a "dear man." But their marriage was troubled from the beginning, and tragedy rocked it further.

Younger brother Alan Freeland recalls that he and Robert were at Charlotte's Stork Drive In when friends showed up, having been shooting a pistol at the Catawba River. They handed the gun through the window to Alan Freeland.

"Nobody mentioned it was still loaded," he said. "In the interchange of me handing it over (to Robert), it went off."

The bullet punctured one of Robert Freeland's lungs and chipped his spine, nearly killing him and leaving him paralyzed.

Alan Freeland said Karon, distraught, tried again to make the marriage work. It didn't, and the couple divorced.

"It wasn't a case where she abandoned him," Freeland said. "I thought a lot of her for giving it one more try."

Karon, 18, was on her own with little Candace. She took a receptionist job at Walter J. Klein Co., an advertising agency.

Bored with answering the phone, she submitted writing examples. Klein soon had her writing advertising copy.

"We had her moving fast from video scripts to trade magazines to press releases," Klein said. "Never had to ask her to rewrite. Funny as hell."

These were still lean times. At one point, Karon had no car and one pair of shoes, she said. Candace too recalls financial stress, but also a home filled with jazz records and books.

Candace said she and her mother sang often, and owned a cheap, hard-to-play guitar. When Candace complained, Karon phoned Berger & Howren's Music for a better model. "They delivered it like a pizza," Candace said.

Another time, she woke to find her mother and friend Max Frye in the living room, reading aloud Dylan Thomas' play "Under Milk Wood." Rather than put the girl to bed, Karon gave her a part.

"She wasn't Donna Reed, thank God," said Candace, a Hawaii wedding photographer and former photojournalist who worked at the Observer along the way. "I give thanks for the example of her creativity, and her encouragement of mine."

In her early 20s, Karon married Bill Orth, a Duke Power chemist who sported a goatee and drove a Karmann Ghia. He provided financial security (enough for her to leave advertising for a while) and is recalled as a wonderful stepfather by Candace. Orth also was active with Karon in theater and the Unitarian Church. Indeed, Charlotte had a circle of artistically inclined, political liberals. Karon led the way.

As Jan Orth, she acted with the Charlotte Little Theater and Mint Museum Golden Circle Theatre. Karon starred in "Rashomon," "Anastasia" and "The Trojan Women," a part that got her Mint Drama Guild "actress of the year" honors in 1965.

Her skill at slipping into another persona - which she has done in creating hundreds of characters for her novels - was honed on the Charlotte stage.

"When she took a part and began acting it, she began practically living it," said fellow actress Gladys Lavitan.

Around this time, Karon founded a literary magazine. "Response" lasted a few issues, Karon selling popcorn at the Visulite Theatre to cover expenses. Contributors included composer Loonis McGlohan, who wrote about jazz and sacred music, and the great black writer Langston Hughes, who submitted a piece called "Color at Chapel Hill." Financial backers included best-selling Charlotte author Harry Golden, who, Karon said, once chased her around a desk three times.

Karon published her own comic short story, "The Day Aunt Maude Left," in which the eccentric title character sets her behind on fire while flicking a cigarette in the toilet bowl.

In July 1960, Karon joined a handful of white Charlotteans, mostly women but led by local Unitarian minister Sidney Freeman, who demonstrated with black college students on Tryon Street for the desegregation of lunch counters.

"My feeling was that segregation was wrong; they wanted to sit at that dad-gum Woolworth lunch counter and have a hamburger like the rest of us, and they ought to be able to do it," Karon said.

J. Charles Jones, now a Charlotte lawyer, then a Johnson C. Smith theology student and leader of the protests, recalled Karon's involvement.

"She was a strikingly attractive young lady, and she carried herself with class. She was unequivocally committed."

One of Karon's bases in this period was the Visulite, where she did publicity for the foreign film series and watched Bergman and Fellini films with young Candace. Another was the Unitarian Church, which has many members who question Jesus' divinity, and which has long been associated with liberal political and social causes.

Karon friend Lee Stewart recalled attending a service with her and Bill Orth. "My background was Southern Baptist, and I couldn't get over that they were drinking wine and discussing photography."

Karon acknowledged living in the "fast lane" - her term - for years. Stewart verifies a hard partying scene, including an evening at the Orths where police kept showing up because of the loud music.

"When they came the third time, Max Frye said, What's the trouble, officer?' The officer said,You. And if you don't shut up, I'm going to haul all of you in,''' Stewart recalled.

He added: "It wasn't like a night in Mitford."

By the late '60s, Karon and Orth were divorced, and she had married a third time, to Arthur Karon. A clothing salesman, Jewish, remembered by Jan Karon's Charlotte friends as having a voice as smooth as a jazz DJ's, he moved his wife and her daughter to Berkeley, Calif., where they lived for three years. This was the height of the hippie and anti-Vietnam War movements. Candace remembers covering Black Panther rallies as a high school photographer.

Meanwhile, her mother worked at Dancer Fitzgerald, a leading San Francisco advertising agency. Her accounts, she recalled ruefully, included the California prune growers.

Karon wanted to be a novelist, and tried all through the 1960s. "All I could dredge forth from my beleaguered self was fragments. There was no connecting tissue, nothing linear," she said. "But I never lost the dream."

In California, Karon practiced Judaism. She notes that she didn't convert from Christianity. ("There was nothing to convert from. I'd been raised to be a Christian by my grandmother, but it hadn't taken.") She also insists Judaism wasn't a fad.

"I did this seriously and very soberly. I had instruction from the rabbi, and I had to pass that. They didn't want just any foolish shiksa coming in."

A conservative now, Karon reluctantly discusses the liberal politics of her past. But daughter Candace said her mother joined her at a 1971 protest of the Vietnam War, in Washington.

"These are things I'm proud of," Candace said. "What's not to be proud of that?"

When Karon's third marriage ended (she has survived all her ex-husbands) she returned to Charlotte and again worked in advertising. In 1975, she sailed to Europe on a freighter, traveling the continent by rail, briefly working on a farm in Germany.

Such adventures burnished old friends' impressions of her.

"`Ebullient' would be the word," said Sidney Freeman. "She was just a fascinating personality. This was a strait-laced era in Charlotte's history, and there weren't many people like her around."

But Karon recalls her youth and middle age differently. "I was lost," she said. She remembers a persistent hollowness that romance, work and art couldn't assuage. Then in 1982, she was fired from a Charlotte ad agency.

"My boss was a horrific alcoholic," she said. "I couldn't function under him. He fired me, and he should have."

Karon feared she might lose her Sharon Road home - the first she'd bought on her own. In her bedroom, she got on her knees and prayed, spilling "oceans of tears" but also feeling self-conscious.

"I distrusted Jesus, because he'd been presented to me as a kind of policeman," she said. "I wanted to know him, but I was afraid. That night, the spirit of what I said was, `I don't know who you are, but I'm willing to take my chance with you. But be gradual with me. I don't want to end up on a street corner handing out pamphlets and beating a tambourine.'''

Karon awoke the next morning feeling some better. She prayed for help to quit smoking, and the urge went away. She began to support herself as a freelance advertising copywriter. She visited churches, settling on Charlotte's Calvary Church.

That evangelical congregation was pastored by Ross Rhoads. Karon credits him with stimulating her Bible study-a crucial development, since her Mitford novels are filled with Father Tim's favorite verses.

"If it had not been for his wonderful teaching, I probably would not be writing the Mitford books," Karon said.

Rhoads recalls Karon as a bright, avid parishioner.

"If she had to miss the service, she'd get the tape."

By 1985, Karon had moved to Raleigh and the McKinney & Silver advertising agency, where she had worked in the late 1970s.

"Our decor at the agency was all black and white," said Michael Winslow, then a McKinney designer. "She painted her office mauve, and had an Oriental rug."

Karon and Winslow collaborated on an N.C. tourism campaign, interviewing artisans, musicians and others for print ads aimed at showing that the state was special beyond theme parks and big hotels. One ad featured mountain musicians under the headline, "The Best Place to Hear Old English Music Is 3,000 Miles West of London."

The daringly sloganless campaign, which ran in National Geographic and other magazines, won the 1987 Kelly Award - the print advertising equivalent of the Academy Award.

Karon and Winslow split a $100,000 prize. Karon said she tithed her portion, and prayed for courage to leave advertising for full-time fiction writing. In 1988, she quit her job, traded her Mercedes for a used Toyota and moved to Blowing Rock.

In that picturesque village, elevation 4,000 feet, Karon moved into a small gray house which she painted pink and dubbed Rose Gate. She planned to support herself by freelance copywriting, but a bad economy made work scarce. She got extra meals from every chicken, and discovered that cutting a toothpaste tube in half helps with squeezing out every bit of paste.

Figuring out her novel was tougher.

"I tried to write about a woman who moved to the North Carolina mountains and opened an inn," she said. "The characters were flat. They wouldn't get off the page and move around."

But Karon was happy in Blowing Rock. She drew strength from the Bible and other writings, especially Oswald Chambers' "My Utmost for His Highest." A longtime Anglophile, she attended the Episcopal church, finding comfort in the old English hymns.

She kept trying to write.

"God really did very much speak to my heart and say, `Don't look back, hang in there,' " she said. "Then a little scrap of imagery came to me, a modest, decent, ordinary man walking down the street."

That was Father Tim, her Episcopal priest character. Karon would soon begin in earnest to tell his story, placing him in a town called Mitford, based on Blowing Rock. She gave him a dog, Barnabas, who responds not to conventional commands but to scripture. An opinionated church secretary appeared, a country woman housekeeper, a needy mountain boy, a philanthropic spinster. Onto the scene came a love interest for Father Tim - Cynthia Coppersmith, a divorced children's-book writer with nice legs.

Karon showed some chapters to Jerry Burns, editor of the Blowing Rocket newspaper. "She said, I don't think it's going to work,''' Burns recalled. "I'm not going to have sex and foul language and violence.' I said, `Don't underestimate the people.'''

Burns and Karon made a deal. She would keep writing Father Tim stories, and he would publish them in the Blowing Rocket. No pay. But if readers responded, they'd keep going. Maybe she'd get a book out of it.

So Karon proceeded like Charles Dickens in the 19th century, writing fiction on deadline, for the newspaper. Burns' circulation jumped 30 percent. The Blowing Rocket began to get subscriptions from afar, as tourists would get hooked and want to keep reading back home.

"The only negative," Burns said, "was that if people missed their paper, they were going to hang the editor, because they had to find out what was going to happen to Father Tim."

An agent circulated Karon's fiction to publishers, but got only rejections. In 1994, Karon herself placed her work with a small religious publisher, which brought out a volume titled "At Home in Mitford."

Karon kept writing, and employed her marketing skills to promote her book, writing press releases and cold-calling bookstores. But the publisher offered limited distribution and little marketing muscle of its own. Two more Mitford novels appeared. Sales remained modest.

Then Karon's friend Mary Richardson - mother of Carolina Panthers' owner Jerry Richardson - showed "At Home in Mitford" to Nancy Olson, owner of Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh.

Olson felt there was a large audience looking for clean, well-written fiction. She sent Karon's book to a New York agent friend, who got it to Carolyn Carlson, an editor at Viking Penguin and daughter of a Lutheran minister.

"I fell in love with it," Carlson said. "I knew these people."

Carlson faced opposition at Viking Penguin, a mainstream publisher unused to Christian fiction. But in 1996 the big New York firm brought out Karon's first three titles as paperbacks.

The publisher also put Karon on a cross-country promotional tour. Meanwhile, independent bookstore workers began reading and championing her novels. At The Muses in Morganton, owner Shirley Sprinkle gave copies to customers, telling them to pay only if satisfied.

"They'd come back and buy eight or nine copies for friends," she said.

By the late 1990s, Karon's books were New York Times best-sellers. As an older author, living her dream and proving wholesomeness can sell, she became good copy herself. She was profiled in Newsweek, and went on network TV morning shows.

Meanwhile, fans came to Blowing Rock, to see the town that inspired Mitford. That phenomenon continues, with heavier traffic in summer, but at least a few visitors nearly every day.

"I couldn't put into words what those books have meant to Blowing Rock," said Mayor J.B. Lawrence.

Karon produced children's books, Father Tim quote books and a Mitford cookbook. For a time, she had a deal with Hallmark, to produce Mitford gifts.

But her focus remained the Mitford saga, and she went right on telling Father Tim's story, including marriage to Cynthia. In 12 years, she wrote eight Mitford novels, totaling nearly 3,000 pages.

The Atlantic Monthly published a long, negative essay about Karon's work. But Jana Riess, religion review editor for Publishers Weekly, and Lauren Winner, author of the edgy spiritual memoir "Girl Meets God," are vigorous defenders.

Both say Karon is the best stylist among contemporary Christian fiction writers, and funnier than most. They note that Karon's Mitford series, while lacking in racial and ethnic diversity, and avoiding the abortion and gay clergy controversies, features characters struggling with real problems, such as alcoholism and depression.

Winner, an Asheville native who grew up Jewish and studied at Columbia and Cambridge universities, declares Karon's novels as crucial to her own Christian conversion.

"I read them and was struck, deeply, by how faith seemed to infuse the lives of the characters," she said. "I closed the novels wanting my life to be as infused by faith."

Across America, Karon has built a multitude of fans who offer a plainer explanation for why they love her novels.

"They're just so real," said Pat White, a retired nurse who has read all eight with her Charlotte book club. "And there's no dirty stuff in them."

Five years ago, Karon left Blowing Rock, partly because fans were making life hard. Meals at restaurants were interrupted. She would wake up to find someone outside, photographing her house. In Virginia, she has restored an 1816 home, set in a working farm of 100 acres. There, she has been wrapping up "Light From Heaven," conclusion to the Mitford Years series. She calls it her rawest book, and her favorite, though tying up plot lines from the others has been a challenge.

The novel publishes in November, with a hardback first printing of 1.25 million copies. "I'm dumbfounded," Karon said, "when I think what has happened with these books."

Though Karon is wealthy, and battles tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, she says she'll keep writing. She sees it as a mission and a ministry. She plans three more books with Father Tim and Cynthia, taking them to his home state of Mississippi, then to Ireland and England.

Earlier this summer, she was in Ridgecrest for the First International Mitford Homecoming - a gathering of superfans who exchange messages on Karon's Web site, even holding Thursday night online prayer sessions. On the way, Karon stopped in Charlotte, where she visited The Coffee Cup and other old haunts.

Charlotte seemed a good place to ask if she would write a memoir, telling the full story of her remarkable life. Karon responded with a laugh, then with a reference to a higher power: "Not unless he tells me to."

Later she faxed over a favorite quotation, variously attributed, that she says will appear not once but twice in the new novel:

"Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future."


(c) 2005, The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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