Where do you write your books?
by Jane Kurtz

      It seems like a simple question—suggesting a clean desk and a row of tip-sharp #2 pencils (assuming anybody remembers what those are).
      At my messy desk, I type answers to interview questions. I type responses to students enrolled in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in children’s and YA literature program. I pay bills and dodge the swordfish that lurk in Quicken.
      Rarely do I dream there, pulling words out of the air and onto paper or screen.
      One time, I vowed to document every place I worked on a book. The photos included airplanes and vans and libraries and a lovely patio in the Philippines where I was doing an author visit. Now that I teach every semester, I don’t speak as often, although I was in a Russian international school last month—and, yes, writing on the long flight.
      But for my new middle grade novel, Planet Jupiter, three places pop to mind.
      The first was a yard choked with ivy and creeping buttercup. This Portland house was a rental in a run-down neighborhood for decades, and I didn’t mind sharing the yard with weeds. In fact, I declared, I was a friend of weeds. I transplanted a lovely plant with yellow flowers and maroon leaves, hoping it would spread like crazy.
      And crazy is how it spreads!
      Some kinds of oxalis are well-behaved. But I had a “little nasty” sometimes known as creeping wood sorrel. It sucks nutrients and moisture out of the soil, throws down tough tap roots, and can spit its seeds (as many as 5,000 to a plant) as far as 13 feet away. Yikes.
      I loved eating blackberries from my very own yard. Turns out they were Himalayan blackberries spread up and down the West Cost by Luther Burbank, who was on a quest to develop fruits and vegetables that could be shipped on America’s new transcontinental railroad.
      Burbank had success stories including freestone peaches, Shasta daisies, and elephant garlic. But Himalayan blackberries erode soil and crowd out native plants and animals. In Oregon, they fill fields and cover tractors. Did I work to dig it out!
      It took me several years to create a Backyard Habitat for birds and bees and butterflies. Along the way, I met people who think the solution to the world’s food issues will be insects.
      (Yes, Jupiter eats a grasshopper.)
      Every time I was out exploring roots and soil, I came in to jot down a few more sentences for my scenes.
      The second location was Ethiopian culture camp.
Yes, I spent most of my childhood in Ethiopia and came back as a seven-year-old to face awkward and confusing questions. Yes, I volunteer for a literacy project in Ethiopia and through that experience ended up with an Ethiopian daughter-in-law and Ethiopian-American grandchildren. But it was at culture camps for adopted and Ethiopian-American kids that I heard the comments and stories that gave me the material for Edom, Jupiter’s adopted cousin.
      When I was reading a revision aloud to my brother’s third grade Portland class (he, Chris Kurtz, also being an author), even sophisticated urban kids seemed pretty sure that an adopted cousin wasn’t really Jupiter’s cousin. Recently, I asked an adoptive mom whether her fifth grade daughter feels hesitant to talk about her Ethiopian heritage. “No,” the mom said. “But she’s embarrassed about adoption.”
      In 2004, the peak year for Americans adopting from overseas, 22,884 children arrived from places like China and Ethiopia and South Korea. International adoption turns out to be anything but easy for most U.S. families. I did my best to be a humble listener to people’s truths.
      Finally, last summer, I was finishing a revision of Planet Jupiter when I was selected as one of two faculty members in the VCFA MFA program to lead residency in Bath, England. I went early--to sightsee and get over jet lag. Instead, I spent an entire day in a charming, historic B&B not setting one toe outside the door, writing, talking to no one except my brother (via Whatsapp), because I was hopelessly stuck.
      Luckily, outside the window was a busker, singing Irish tunes.
      And Jupiter is a busker.
      I once asked a painter if it was true for her what people say about writing a novel…that it doesn’t teach you how to write the next one. She said, “Of course. Because if I painted to a formula, my work would be formulaic.”
      Although I went to Bath to teach, it was a crucial place for me to learn the things I needed for my final touches of my revision. For me, to be a writer is to write everywhere with an open heart and learner mind.

No comments: