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An Interview with Jane Kurtz, author of Anna Was Here
PBR – One of the things I enjoyed about your book was the way you captured the challenge of moving to a new place and being the outsider for the first time. How much of that came from your own experience?
Kurtz – Oh man, is that ever my story! I was born in Portland, but my mom and dad decided to move to Ethiopia to work for the Presbyterian Church when I was only two years old, and my childhood was full of moves. In Ethiopia, we moved between the capital city of Addis Ababa and a remote area of the Southwest called Maji. We returned to the US to be close to my grandparents in eastern Oregon for one year when I was seven. I went to a big junior high school in Pasadena for one year when I was thirteen. I attended college in a small town in Illinois while my parents were still in Ethiopia. In my adult life, I’ve lived in southern Illinois, southern Colorado, eastern North Dakota, the middle of Kansas, the eastern edge of Kansas and…ta da…back to Portland. In all of those places, I’ve felt like an outsider. One thing I tried to capture in Anna Was Here is the feeling of trying to enter the stream of life and conversation in a place (such as the small farming community in Kansas where my husband grew up) where roots go deep and everyone else knows a lot more than you do and you are desperately trying to catch up!
In my fairly recent move to Portland, I did have the oddest sensation of coming home. For one thing, my parents returned here after they left Ethiopia, so I’ve been a frequent visitor. For another thing, I have siblings and a mom living here already. But the sensation is slightly mysterious, too. When I had a medical procedure done at Emmanuel Hospital, the registrar said, “Have you ever been here before?” and I said, “I was born here!” What a great feeling that was.
PBR – Everyone knows that change is hard and bigger changes are ever harder. I was impressed with your ability to show the challenge of change on multiple levels: Anna’s individual journey of change, her family’s adjustment to change and the small community’s resistance to change. Do you have a theory on why change is so hard for people, whether they are nearly ten or over eighty?
Kurtz – At some level, I loved the adventure of going different places and am still addicted to travel. The new middle grade novel I’m working on (set in Portland) is trying to capture that side of me. But the minute I start congratulating myself on how adaptable I am, the next instant, I can gulp and feel in the pit of my stomach the terror of not knowing what’s coming around the bend. Some people who probably were born with relaxed personalities—I have one among my siblings—seem to be able to let go and put their fate in someone else’s hands and be comfortable making things up as they go along. A lot of us, though, want to feel more in control than that. I think something in me knew my parents were in over their heads. Somehow as a nearly-ten-year-old I decided somebody had better worry and that somebody had better be me.
PBR – Anna is the queen of preparedness and safety in the book. What is it about being prepared that is so important to her character?
Kurtz – The image of something coming around the bend—something you’re about to smack into head-on but can’t see—pops into mind again. Whew. Just thinking about that SMACK makes my pulse flutter! Honestly, does it help to know what we’re facing? I don’t know. But there’s something extra scary about flying blind. I lived through a natural disaster (a flood that wiped out my neighborhood) that my community was in no way prepared for, and I think humans tend to look back and think about the “if only” things they could have done. From there, it’s a short hop to “Next time, I’ll prepare better!”
PBR – One of the most powerful (and devastating) moments in the book is when Anna discovers her rival Simon’s secret angel house cache. Watching her gain insight into his behavior and then realizing she can hurt him but choosing not to was a wonderful moment in the book. How significant was that moment for her in changing her views about Oakwood and realizing that her actions can also have an impact within the town?
Kurtz – I’m so glad you, too, found that a powerful moment. It might sound nuts, but I teared up every time I read that scene. My vision for the book from the start was that I partly wanted it to be an exploration of the choices we have when we inevitably bow to something larger than ourselves including admitting that we can’t stop other people from behaving badly. At the same time, we still have choices within the worst of personal and natural disasters. One of our choices is to stay humble and kind. Forgiveness is a stance toward other people and toward the world that has the power to set us free and it’s something we do have control over, unlike most of the things we try to control.
PBR – Anyone who has been to a church potluck knows that Anna is right about the three vital ingredients for a wining potluck dish. Do you have a go-to potluck dish you’d be willing to share with our readers?
Kurtz – I’m rather like the Mom in this book and pathetic when it comes to knowing the social cues of potlucks. I think it’s because of my upbringing in Ethiopia (and the potluck as a stand-in for many other customs I’ve been slow to understand). Here in Portland, I’m loving my yard—a rather scruffy place where I’m introducing native plants but also growing kale and tomatoes, so I’ll take the easy way out and say, “If you go to a potluck, share what you love and what’s easy for you because love always tastes delicious” :>
PBR – Outside of the blog tour, are there any local events you are doing that our readers can look forward to?
Kurtz – I’ll do a reading at Westminster Presbyterian Church sometime this spring. It’s the last in a series of churches I drew inspiration from as I was writing Anna Was Here. We’re trying to figure out the date but that and any other local events will show up on my blog, http://janekurtz.wordpress.com and I’d love to see people there!
Thanks again to Jane Kurtz for appearing. For other stops on the Anna Was Here blog tour please check janekurtz.com.
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Portland Book Review is very proud of our reviewer team. Our reviewers come from different backgrounds, experiences, training, and desires, and all share a love of reading.