Called to Write: An Interview with Jan Karon

Dale Brown
(from Radix Vol. 30:4)

Radix: But you don’t take easy shots at the backward southerner, which, at least since Eudora Welty, has been popular fare in southern fiction.

Karon: Right. No shots. I love these people.

Radix: Another line running through the Mitford books has to do with fun. Many of us who grew up in conservative religious environments, who saw life from the beginning as earnest and serious, have become pretty buttoned-up. Particularly early on in your novels, the real question is whether or not Father Tim is ever going to loosen up a little. Is he ever going to be able to express himself and just relax? I don’t know where that comes from for you, or how big a preoccupation that was in your mind.

Karon: Definitely a challenge for me. I’ve always been so responsible I can hardly stand it. You know I’ve been just covered up with seriousness and earnestness and wanting to get it right. Father Tim has to learn to let God get it right. That’s why I had to introduce Cynthia. But I determined that if I could stand to write these books, he was going to have to marry Cynthia, because she would loosen him up. And I have not found anybody to loosen me up. I have to work on that terrible job myself.

Radix: In the first two books especially, Father Tim can be so enraging. I found myself writing lines for him. He is so stifled, so inward. But as we learn more about Tim over the seven books, about his frustration with his father “getting it right,” we see that even Tim has a need for grace that he doesn’t fully recognize. And that ties to a related question, the business of striking out toward the dream. You have one whole book that’s dedicated to the difference between change and improvement. What’s your advice to people? How do we change? How do we take that kind of risk? How did you take that kind of risk?

Karon: It was entirely through prayer. It’s just that simple. I did not have the guts to do such a thing. I hardly have the guts to live this life. This is a very hard life. I find it hard. Most earnest religious people do find it hard. But I felt so bad about myself, because here I was in advertising and the first thing I knew I was going to be 50 and then I was going to be 60, and would I still be in advertising? Would my work still be dumped in the trash can?

Radix: You’d been doing this for 32 years?

Karon: Yes. And somebody would mute my commercial with that remote, a commercial I’d been working on for months, pouring my heart into. I gave advertising everything I had. In the latter part of my career, I was Christian, and then I especially gave it all I had because I realized that God had planted me there for a reason. And it all counted for nothing. It never counted for a darn thing. Except, God never wastes anything. He was teaching me a lot about writing novels at that time. He was preparing me for such things as going into a recording studio and recording my own books years later. He didn’t waste anything. So, I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that I actually forgot the point I was trying to make.

Radix: You feel called by God to be a writer?

Karon: I just couldn’t stand any longer to throw my life away. I knew that my life belonged to him, so I prayed for two years in a very concentrated way. Not sort of round robin, as many of us pray, but totally focused. “Lord, if you want me to write books, you’re going to have to show me how. I am scared to death. I have a nice home, I have a nice car, I have an income, and I can pay my bills. I don’t know how to do the writing thing.” And at the end of those two years, he did speak to my heart. I can’t say how. But he said, “Go, already. Go, get out there, I’m with you, and you’re going to be fine.” So I decided to write a book I wanted to read. I hoped to find a small vein of readers who would share my sense of things. I remember visiting a library and opening up a then-popular bestseller. On the first page there’s shocking language, and then somebody’s having sex on the table on the second page. I don’t need that. I didn’t want it in my life. Yes, people have sex on tables, I suppose, but I don’t want to read about it. I had to be careful about which shelves I went to in the library. If I used a shelf where the authors were long dead, I could read those books. If they were living, I couldn’t read them. I said, I’m just going to write a book I want to read. If nobody wants to read it, I can’t help it. Lord, if you brought me this far, it’s your problem.

Radix: So when God calls you there’s still that desert?

Karon: Oh, yes. Has to be.

Radix: But you can understand how people get nervous when writers start saying that God called me to write. What kind of book is somebody going to write who was called by God to write the book? You probably know of the correspondence between Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, where Foote argued that a Catholic can’t be a good writer. He said a Christian couldn’t write a novel because a novel is, by definition, about the questions and not about the answers. If you’re going into it as a Christian, then the work is bound to be didactic. It’s bound to be so message-ridden that it can’t be literature. How do you avoid that problem?

Karon: I love what Ernest Gaines says about writing a novel. It’s like taking a trip from San Francisco to New York . You have the general plan, but who knows what might happen on the trip?.

Radix: So when you get up in the morning and start writing about Father Tim, you don’t know exactly what he’ll be up to?

Karon: No. I don’t want to know. I would be so disappointed if I knew. Sometimes I think I know. But, oh honey, it always takes a turn.

Radix: It’s not as if there’s this sermon that has to be preached today or some message?

Karon: No, no, no. These are characters just living out their lives. And I’m just observing. I’m just there. I’m just being there to record it. I feel there’s a documentary quality to my work in that I am documenting a true society, a true culture in which I have lived, and where I, to some extent, still live.

Radix: Henry James talks about the “germ” of a novel, that scene that somehow gives shape to everything. You talk about the dream in which you saw the priest walking down the road. And you’ve just followed along, looking over his shoulder?

Karon: Here’s my only agenda: to let people know that God loves them. That’s the only agenda I have. And I don’t even work that agenda. It just falls out. It’s just going to be there.