September 10, 2001 12:00 PM

As Jan Karon speaks from the pulpit of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, Va., shouts of “Yes, yes!” rise from the congregation. But Karon, 64, isn’t preaching to this crowd of around 375 mostly middle-aged women—she’s reading from her sixth consecutive bestseller. Like its predecessors, A Common Life: The Wedding Story chronicles the lives of Episcopalian minister Father Tim Kavanagh and the eccentric residents of tiny Mitford, N.C. This time, the tale follows the courtship and marriage of the shy, sixtysomething rector and his vivacious neighbor, writer Cynthia Coppersmith. As always, Father Tim looks to God for wisdom—in this case about the mysteries of female psychology.

After the reading, fans line up to offer Karon hugs and gifts. “It’s like a love bath,” she says. And readers nationwide are jumping in. The Mitford novels have inspired a line of Hallmark cards, a children’s book and an upcoming TV movie, At Home in Mitford. At a time when much popular fiction merits an R rating, Karon’s squeaky-clean creations are unlikely blockbusters.

But the author sees their coziness as their strength. “There’s nothing trite,” she says, “about being consoled in a world that does everything in its power to deliver sorrow.”

Karon’s readers say amen to that. “She wraps her arms around you and you escape,” says Jeanne Scott, 51, a Charlottesville investment analyst. Another devotee, former First Lady Barbara Bush, wrote Karon in a fan letter, “You are the happiest of writers.”

Earning that description took Karon five decades. Born in Lenoir, N.C., she and her sister Brenda—now 61 and living in Atlanta—were raised by their maternal grandparents on a nearby farm. Karon chooses not to reveal the circumstances behind the arrangement but credits her grandmother, an herbalist and storyteller, with inspiring her to write. “I grew up hearing words like snakeroot, sassafras, mullein,” says Karon, “things that had wondrous, mysterious sounds in their names.”

At 10, Karon submitted a short story to a high school competition—and won. “It was a very dramatic thing,” recalls her mother, Wanda Setzer, 80. (Karon’s father is deceased.) As it was when Karon dropped out of school after the eighth grade, later marrying her boyfriend and giving birth to daughter Candace Freeland, now 48 and a photographer and innkeeper in Hawaii. By age 20, Karon was divorced and working as a receptionist at a Charlotte, N.C., advertising agency, where she began writing TV commercials. Freeland recalls doing the family grocery shopping on her skateboard. “Mom would look up from her typewriter, see me and wave,” she says. Karon eventually moved to Raleigh, where her career as an ad writer took off. But in her 40s, she recalls, she began to pine for her childhood dream: “I prayed for two years, ‘God, I want to write books, but I’m scared to death.’ ”

In 1988, at age 50, Karon quit her job and moved to Blowing Rock, N.C. (pop. 1,000), to become a novelist. After two fruitless years, she says, “I had this image of a village priest walking down the street.” Father Tim was born. The local paper, The Blowing Rocket, published her first book, At Home in Mitford, in weekly installments. Circulation doubled, says editor Jerry Burns, adding, “People were upset if they missed their paper.”

It took another 2½ years of rejections before Lion Publishing, a small Christian concern, bought At Home in Mitford and Karon’s second novel, A Light in the Window. She helped hawk her books, delivering them to stores in her rusted jalopy. Her hustling paid off in 1996, when Viking Penguin bought both books and the rights to her subsequent novels.

Today Karon lives alone on a 109-acre farm near Charlottesville, where she’s writing her next book, due in 2003. She says she daydreams that one day she will “go to Italy and just stay there.” But fans needn’t fret. “My life right now,” she says, “is devoted to Mitford.”

Christina Cheakalos

Fran Brennan in Charlottesville

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