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Anna Was Here: Author Interview with Jane Kurtz

24 Feb

Some people are uncomfortable with portraits of Christianity in children’s literature. To my way of thinking, we should be no more uncomfortable with Christianity in kid lit than we are with portrayals  of Judaism, Islam or any other religion.

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Anna Was Here by Jane Kurtz is a beautifully written novel that shows  the faith of a family in an honest way.

Ten-year-old Anna Nickel’s worst nightmare has come true. Her father has decided to move the family back to Cottondale, Kansas–where he grew up–in order to become the minister of the church there. New friends, new school, a new community, and a family of strangers await, and what’s even worse, it’s all smack-dab in the middle of Tornado Alley. Anna has always prided herself on being prepared (she keeps a notebook on how to cope with disasters, from hurricanes to shark bites), but she’ll be tested in Cottondale!

Author Jane Kurtz lives in Portland and I had the opportunity recently to have an e-mail interview with her, in which she talked about the book, her life and her writing process.

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What planted the seeds for Anna Was Here?

Moving.

A friend says, “I remember sitting in the car looking out at my second grade friends and bawling my heart out.”  I can’t even remember leaving Portland for the first time—but I remember plenty of other times of bawling my heart out. Also, when my kids were about Anna’s age, we also moved…from Colorado to North Dakota, stopping for a couple of weeks in Kansas, with the cat under the seat.

Disaster.

We all know it can happen. Of course we do. But somehow we also think it won’t. In 1997 when flood waters caught up with our family and our whole neighborhood was destroyed, I learned that most things we lie awake at night and worry about don’t happen, but some do.

Anna thinks moving is the most massive disaster of her life—of course that’s before she faces a water balloon in the face and starts seriously preparing for tornadoes, blizzards, and feral hogs. It’s before she lives through a tornado. Anna is partly me and partly my friend who says that when she read The Cat in the Hat, she always identified with the fish.

Some kids are born intense and others probably get that way when the ground starts shaking under them. For me, I imagine it started when my idealistic dad decided he could do the most good in this world if we moved from Portland to Ethiopia. He and my mom had a four-year-old, a two-year-old (me), a one-year-old…and although they didn’t realize it when they made the decision, another baby on the way. I believe I knew (in that way kids do know) that they were in over their heads. Somebody had better be in control. Clearly that somebody had better be me.

By the time I was Anna’s age, I had moved from Addis Ababa to a remote village in southwest Ethiopia and then, when I was seven, to a house near my grandparents’ farm in eastern Oregon, where I went to school for the first time, back to the Ethiopian village that felt like home—to get ready to leave for boarding school in Addis Ababa. Sure I knew that God watches over sparrows. But that didn’t seem too comforting when I wondered what would happen if I got chased by a wild boar or when I watched my dad dangling by a waterfall or on our grass roof as he tried to put a tarp over the grass on an extremely windy day.

Those are the seeds that grew into Anna Was Here.

Tell me about your life as a reader.

Books and stories got me through that somewhat chaotic and confusing if very interesting childhood.  My mom—an avid reader—taught me how to read taught me that books were precious. Books showed up every Christmas and birthday.  Stories grounded me and thrilled me and still do.

What is your favorite childhood book memory?

I got to read aloud at the dinner table one evening.  I think the book was Caddie Woodlawn, and I remember that I proudly mispronounced the word beau because it was obvious looking at it that it was related to the word beautiful.  Another powerful memory is reading Charlotte’s Web to my brother Chris. He cried when Charlotte died—it sticks with me because I saw so vividly that stories make us empathize and make us feel things.

Did you always plan on a writing career? Did a teacher or mentor influence you in pursuing a writing career?

I never met any authors when I was young.  I’m sure if I had, I would have wanted that more than anything.  As it was, I thought I’d be a teacher—and I’ve taught at the elementary, high school, college and now masters level—or a storekeeper.  (Since I was growing up in a place that didn’t have any stores, the latter goal didn’t have much of a chance.) It was really reading aloud to my own children and watching their delight that made me determined to publish a book, and then I drew on my mom’s passion for reading and writing, my dad’s passion for telling stories, and everything I learned about books and stories from a string of teachers after that.

Are you in a writer’s group? If so, how does that work?

Before I moved back to Portland, I wasn’t in an area that had a lot of published children’s book authors. The writing group I’ve been part of for about 15 years consists of authors who don’t live near me. We meet for a retreat somewhere near Boston once a year, when we write all day and take turns reading to each other at night. Just before Anna Was Here went to copy-editing, I read the entire manuscript out loud to a friend on one of those retreats.

I’ve also reached out to authors from that group when I need someone to read a chapter or an entire middle grade novel—it’s hardly ever easy getting feedback but it is crucial to a story’s becoming what it could be. Here in Portland, I love seeing other authors occasionally to talk about where we are with our work or about the publishing life.

 Tell me about writing and collaborating with your brother, author Christopher Kurtz.

I first admired Chris’s writing when he was in Ethiopia as a young teacher and writing letters about his experiences. When he returned to the U.S. we wrote two picture books together that were rooted in his recent experiences in Ethiopia, Only a Pigeon and Water Hole Waiting. Then we wrote a trilogy about three sea-faring brothers. It was under contract until the editor moved to a different publishing house and our book was orphaned. I still want to get back to it someday. I’ve never laughed as hard in my writing life as when I’m working with Chris.  I love seeing him take risks and try new things—and visiting his third grade class to interview kids or try out an idea or hear what he’s reading aloud.

Do you have any writing tips for kids?

When I do author visits, I like to talk about the power of details. Even though I was a good writer when I set my goal of getting published, I didn’t really grasp how to hunt for and find a vivid, surprising detail. I also thought of writing as something that came out of a place that was mysterious…which is somewhat true, but somewhat not. Now I realize most of my details come from memory, observation, or research.  The final thing I never learned how to do as a kid is revise. I thought the point of being a good writer was to do it perfectly the first time. My drafts have gotten looser and messier as I publish more and more books.

What are you working on now?

My new middle grade novel is almost finished (at least its first draft) and this time it’s set in Portland, so I’m getting to look around me for the details. I’m also writing some new ready-to-read nonfiction books about four states and loving all the research.

You can read more about Anna Was Here  and jane Kurtz at her website.

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