Article

by Lauren Winner


Sherry with Father Tim

A conversation with Lauren Winner about Jan Karon's fiction.

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Editor's note: You can read Lauren Winner's review of Jan Karon's latest novel, Home to Holly Springs, in the December issue of Christianity Today. The review will be posted on December 27.

We hear a lot about what distinctively matters to people in "your" generation. Jan Karon's Mitford series is never mentioned in these seemingly authoritative reports. Yet you have said that the first two books in the series—which you read when you were 20 years old or thereabouts—played a part in your conversion to Christianity. What does that tell us about you, about Jan Karon's fiction, and about those generalizations re your generation?

Well, as you know, I set little store by generational generalizations. That said, I think it is fair to say that people of "my" generation, and also people of yours, have a deep yearning for community. One of the things Jan Karon does terrifically well is create, and plunge readers into, a kind of close-knit community that few of us today experience in real life. Tacitly, her novels suggest that this community is possible not because the novels are set in a small town but because they depict the body of Christ—the kind of community possible in, if not always realized by, the church. Our moment—if perhaps not specifically "my generation"—is marked, I think, by a terrible alienation and loneliness, which is partly a fruit of Americans' relentless geographical and social mobility. I certainly felt that loneliness when I first found Karon's novels. I feel it only slightly less so now.

In a piece about Karon for Books & Culture, you placed her in the tradition of clerical fiction. What other contemporary novels featuring pastors or priests would you recommend?

How contemporary? (I guess Trollope doesn't exactly count, or Barbara Pym.) Updike's Month of Sundays, definitely. Julia Spencer-Fleming's mysteries. Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow. Susan Howatch's The Heartbreaker, which I read after reading the review on the B&C website by Karen Maudlin. When I first read Howatch, a few months after being baptized, I was really turned off, but The Heartbreaker hooked me and I went back and reread most all of Howatch's fiction. On a lighter note, I have recently enjoyed Heavens to Betsy by Beth Patillo (which I suppose we might call clerical chick-lit) and The Clear Light of Day by Penelope Wilcock. I am planning to read Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout over the holidays.And if I may make a plug for a book now (I think) out of print, it would be Pete De Vries' The Mackerel Plaza.

With Home to Holly Springs, Karon has embarked on a new series, but Father Tim Kavanaugh from Mitford is still a central character. What's new about it?

Right—Karon did not make the J. K. Rowling I'm-going-to-do-something-totally-different choice. The protagonist of Holly Springs is Fr. Tim. In Holly Springs, as in These High, Green Hills, Fr. Tim wrestles with some of the hard events of his childhood. But Holly Springs is not set in Mitford. It's set in Fr. Tim's childhood hometown in Mississippi. I've heard predictably mixed feedback about this from readers—Karon's devotees, myself included, love Fr. Tim, but we miss the other Mitfordites! (Mitfordians?) I felt a bit like I did when I was reading A New Song, which is the 5th novel in the Mitford series. A New Song finds Fr. Tim is serving as an interim pastor in the Outer Banks. Karon's trademark local color and straightforward faith went with Fr. Tim to the coast, but I had a hard time caring as much about the new characters as I did about the residents of Mitford. On the other hand, after reading Home to Holly Springs, one friend of mine said that she had gotten a bit sick of Cynthia (Fr. Tim's wife), and was glad to read a novel in which Cynthia only made a brief appearance. (I, for one, love Cynthia. She is younger than Fr. Tim so maybe eventually we'll get a novel about Cynthia's widowhood.)

If you were having Father Tim & Cynthia over for Christmas dinner, what would some of the items on the menu be?

The first decision would be, do I or do I not cook from Jan Karon's Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader. I think just to mix things up a bit I wouldn't. Since I didn't grow up with much in the way of traditional Christmas dinners, I don't have much skill with the standards (I have never roasted a bird—and wouldn't choose this dinner to experiment—and I don't eat ham!). Likely, I'd simply go to my local produce section and see what hadn't been shipped from halfway around the world—which would mean the menu would inevitably include some roasted root veggies with rosemary, a lot of nice, strong cheese, good bread. Maybe a ragout made with some locally raised lamb. Also, I'd lay in some dry sherry. (Fr. Tim and Cynthia love it, and so do I.) Too bad these people are fictional! Dinner with them would be fun.

Lauren Winner is assistant professor of Christian Spirituality at Duke Divinity School.

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