Interview: Jane Kurtz, Author of Anna Was Here

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One of the books I’ve read and enjoyed recently is Anna Was Here (Greenwillow Books, 2013) by Jane Kurtz. In the contemporary novel, 10-year-old Anna deals with her fears by preparing for emergency situations and recording her plans in her Safety Notebook. But, she wasn’t prepared for the day her father announced the family was moving from Colorado to his tiny hometown in Kansas so he could pastor a struggling church. Once the family gets to Oakwood, Anna has to deal with a new school, a cousin that hates her, her dad’s new busyness, and a tornado.

That’s how I learned sometimes the best things and worst things come together.” –Anna 

Jane knows what it’s like to move. She’s moved many times, including to and from Ethiopia. She also survived the 1997 Red River Flood in North Dakota and experienced living in temporary housing provided by FEMA. Jane is the author of many other children’s books, including Lanie: Girl of the Year 2010; River Friendly, River Wild; I’m Sorry, Almira Ann; and Fire on the Mountain. Jane also teaches writing for Vermont College’s MFA program.

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Welcome, Jane! You’ve written both historical fiction and contemporary stories. How did you decide to make Anna’s story contemporary?

Creative writing generally takes a lot of exploration and experimentation. I had tried writing historical fiction with some of the stories I heard at Goering family reunions in Kansas and South Dakota and from talking to my husband’s mom about her life as a child and young woman. Years ago, I had also tried writing a completely contemporary version of Anna’s move from one state to another (only she was a boy in that version). In playing around, I ended up knitting together some of my threads into one book. For someone like me who is fascinated by different genres and who has written a lot of different things, it’s never obvious exactly how a story might come out or end up.

How did you weave in the historical threads without taking away from Anna’s story?

Where we fiction writers often go wrong is when we forget to envision a scene from inside the skin of our protagonist. There’s a big chunk of me that shares DNA with Anna, so when I was seeing the Kansas community and its history from her brain, I was recalling the stories that had intrigued me when I heard them for the first time– or even for the fourth and fifth times. I teach writing in an MFA program, and often when I’m reading a student’s work and feel bumped outside of the story, it’s as if I’m hovering above the character looking down instead of experiencing the world from the inside of her looking out. That’s the best way I know how to describe what we’re usually doing wrong when we accidentally jar our reader with the sensation that we’ve included details that don’t belong.

You’ve written that you revised Anna Was Here for four years before you found Anna’s voice. How did you go about that revision process?

Well, I actually found Anna’s voice in the first real draft of this novel– the start of the four years. But I had a lot of other things to discover about her story. The safety notebook wasn’t in the story at that point, for example. I knew Anna would be nervous about tornadoes when she got to Kansas…because that’s part of the DNA that Anna and I share. But I didn’t immediately realize all the other things she would worry about. (I didn’t think about feral hogs until I was driving and heard a report on the radio, for example.) And I didn’t know her worries had started with wildfires in Colorado until a friend of mine lived through those wildfires. Revision is always a matter of having smart people read my drafts and talk to me about my story plus keeping my eyes and ears open to the world around me for fascinating things that might belong. It’s also a matter of continuing to study the craft of writing. The MFA program where I teach at Vermont College fills me up with new knowledge and ideas twice a year at residency. So does every book I read and admire.

So many children deal with family moves, how did you speak to the emotions many children experience yet give Anna’s story a unique twist?

In the oldest version of the story, I probably didn’t give it too much of a unique twist. But as I kept thinking about it, knowing that a family move is a pretty common situation for middle grade fiction, and knowing that I had to make the story fresh, I kept seeing the secondary characters more clearly and I kept finding interesting details to build scenes around. For example, I saw emu products at a Kansas farmer’s market one day. The woman in that booth gave me quite a tour of her farm, and she talked and talked about why raising emu turned out to be perfect for her. My husband grew up on a farm in Kansas, but farming is changed a lot since then. A lot of kids won’t see the lives of farmers reflected in books these days. So farming details—that came from research—and church details—that came from memory and experience—and family details—that came from my life and from observation– became the clay for shaping each new scene with interesting dialogue, thoughts, and actions.

Thank you, Jane!

For more info about Jane, see her website at www.janekurtz.com and her blog at www.janekurtz.wordpress.com.

Did any of you experience a childhood move? How did you deal with, and perhaps, accept the change? What is one of your best/worst thing experiences?

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