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Janice Meredith Wilson
Lenoir, North Carolina
Jan Karon is an American novelist who writes for both adults and young readers. She is the author of the New York Times-bestselling Mitford novels, featuring Father Timothy Kavanagh, an Episcopal priest, and the fictional village of Mitford. Her most recent Mitford novel, Come Rain or Come Shine, debuted at #1 on the New York TimesBestseller List. She has been designated a lay Canon for the Arts in the Episcopal Diocese of Quincy (Illinois) by the Rt. Rev. Keith L. Ackerman, SSC., and in 2015, she was awarded the Library of Virginia's Literary Lifetime Achievement Award. Her original papers-to date are archived in Special Collections at the University of Virginia's Alderman Library.
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. 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. At 12, Karon moved to Charlotte to rejoin her mother, who had married Toby Setzer and had two more children. The family lived on working-class Commonwealth Avenue. Karon, who had skipped a grade in Hudson, attended Piedmont Junior High. 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 Ivey's on Tryon Street. At 15, she gave birth to her only child, Candace Freeland. Karon and Freeland’s 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. A bullet punctured one of Robert Freeland's lungs and chipped his spine, nearly killing him and leaving him paralyzed. Karon was distraught and tried again to make the marriage work. It didn't, and the couple divorced. Karon, 18, was on her own with little Candace. She took a receptionist job at Walter J. Klein Co., a Charlotte advertising agency. Bored with answering the phone, she submitted writing examples. Klein soon had her writing advertising copy. In her early 20s, Karon married Bill Orth, a Duke Power chemist. Orth was active with Karon in theater and the Unitarian Church. By the late '60s, Karon and Orth were divorced, and she had married a third time, to Arthur Karon. A clothing salesman. Arthur moved his wife and her daughter to Berkeley, Calif., where they lived for three years. In California, Karon practiced Judaism, but she didn't convert from Christianity. Karon wanted to be a novelist, and tried all through the 1960s. When Karon's third marriage ended she returned to Charlotte and again worked in advertising. Then in 1982, she was fired from a Charlotte ad agency. By 1985, Karon had moved to Raleigh and the McKinney & Silver advertising agency, where she had worked in the late 1970s. Karon and Michael Winslow, a Mckinney designer, 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 Blowing Rock, Karon began writing Father Tim stories for the Blowing Rocket newspaper. 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. 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. By the late 1990s, Karon's books were New York Times bestsellers. In 2000, Karon left Blowing Rock and moved to Virginia, where she has restored an 1816 home, set in a working farm of 100 acres.