Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Jeff Kurrus

Posted on: November 4, 2014

JeffKarrusThe last presenter I had the privilege to hear at the 2014 Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival was Jeff Kurrus. Associate editor of the award-winning wildlife publication NEBRASKAland magazine, Karrus lives in the Midwest with his wife and two-year-old daughter. Karrus is the author of Have You Seen Mary?, which was nominated for the Golden Sower Award, and The Tale of Jacob Swift.

Kurrus had been an editor for roughly 17 years before joining the staff of NEBRASKAland. He also taught at the high school and college levels, which gave him experience helping students improve their work.

Although his title at NEBRASKALand is associate editor, editing is just one part of what he does. His responsibilities include writing, photographing, and editing. In addition to his contributions to the magazine, Karrus also regularly posts to his NEBRASKAland blog. Kurrus’ job relies on a combination of his love for nature and writing.

In Editing Matters, Kurrus offered a bit of advice for those interested in editing for a living. “You’re going to have to go and combine talent with an extreme amount of drive.” He says there are many other people out there working to improve themselves as writers and editors, and more than likely they’ll be the ones who get the jobs.

Over the next few days, I’ll post highlights from his presentation, review his two books, and provide a photo post of a local wildlife safari. Save the dates: November 5-8!

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

ALLISON: If you were to show us your childhood in photographs only, what types of images might we see?

JEFF: Lots of hunting and fishing photographs, time with family, and me dressed in various sports uniforms—namely baseball.

ALLISON: You have said in interviews that you are a writer first. What is your earliest memory of enjoying to write?

JEFF: I used to write westerns as a child. I’d call them my “books” and have one of my older sisters write titles in bubble letters on the front pages. I remember writing stories on top of a toy box, so it was in my early elementary school years. Mostly they were carbon copies of what I had read in books or seen in shows. The first one was entitled “Tom Horn,” and it was my interpretation of the movie of the same name. I remember revisiting that story a few years later (already a reviser) to try to make it better. The stories were written on notebook paper and placed in folders. I have no idea where they are now but would love to read them.

ALLISON: If you could “rewrite” one part of your life, what would it be?

JEFF: I don’t have a ton of regrets. My childhood was great, followed by excellent high school and college years. There were rough times, of course, but re-writing would be a bit strong of a word.

But, I would do a few things differently, if I knew that nothing in my current life would change. I’d listen in elementary school music class and learn how to play a guitar, I’d take photo classes in high school, and I’d date my current wife even longer when we were kids instead of being around anyone else when I was younger. Most of all, I would have more fun on a day-to-day basis. Nothing is as stressful as it seemed like it was two weeks later. I wish I could have always kept that in mind.

ALLISON: You taught in high school and college, but now are an editor. What do you miss about being in the classroom?

JEFF: The interaction with students. Sharing what I know about the writing process and seeing them develop as creatives. Being inspired by their work. Talking about writing.

ALLISON: If you were to return to the classroom, what would miss about being an editor?

JEFF: Being able to make decisions on content selection for our publication. Interacting with professional writers and photographers. Sitting down on a day-to-day basis with graphic artists and designers and watching a project come to fruition.

WRITING BACKGROUND

ALLISON: You love nature. What has been your most dangerous experience in exploring the Nebraskan outdoors?

JEFF: While hunting one morning, the father of a very close friend became entangled with a tree stand and was screaming for help, which in turn led my dad (who was hunting with us) to find him first and trying to keep the man’s leg’s from breaking because of the way he was hanging from this tree. I had to jump on my dad’s bad back and cut this man out of these foot straps to free him from this stand in the tree. If he had been hunting alone he would have died. It was lots of adrenaline, pressing this 200 pound man above my head and lowering him to the ground. (Normally, I am very weak and the last person you want with you in a fight). It was a very scary experience.

ALLISON: You have taken many photographs of animals. What has been your most memorable animal moment?

JEFF: The one that always sticks out to me is photographing a snapping turtle on a roadside. The photo, while nice, isn’t altogether unique, but it always reminds me of my buddy that was with me and how he pulled the truck over without me even having to ask. He knew I would want to photograph the turtle, and it reminds me of how in sync two lifelong friends can be when they’re together.

ALLISON: As an editor, you are aware of the importance of revision. How do you teach its importance to students?

JEFF: I tell them it’s everything. The first draft is for yourself, and then you start thinking about audience. I do this by going into the classroom and showing students how to revise using my work as test subjects. The students, after five minutes, feel quite comfortable helping me edit my work. I teach them that everyone revises, and show them how many drafts I do for individual pieces and how long they take me. I do a lot of modeling appropriate revision practices, hoping something sticks with them in their own work.

ALLISON: What do you hope readers will gain from your two books: Have You Seen Mary? and Tale of Jacob Swift?

JEFF: A couple of things. I want students to learn about these species and their habitats. All animals are really cool for different reasons, and I hope these books are a jump start for students to continue their own outdoor development. I also want students to understand that there is more than one way to tell a story, and that having a mean character isn’t necessary. Some of literature’s greatest stories have conflict built on circumstance, and I think this is an interesting way to create tension without having bullies, mean-spirited people, etc. In Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, the conflict is Mount Everest and everything that is involved with trying to summit that peak. Even though it’s non-fiction, there’s something fascinating in that premise to me. Nature provides this outlet as well. Even when the golden eagle is trying to eat Jacob, it’s not doing so out of meanness. It’s doing so because golden eagles eat swift foxes. Nature just provides the perfect outlet for telling relatable stories to kids with fascinating photos.

ALLISON: What was it like to have Have You Seen Mary nominated for a Golden Sower award?

JEFF: It was amazing. Truly. I knew nothing about the award until schools starting contacting me and I found out how special it was to be included on this list. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me and I am extremely grateful that so many students were able to learn about these amazing birds.

ALLISON: What’s next?

JEFF: That’s always an interesting question. Here’s what I’m working on right now, in no definite order: 1) The Magic Brush Shoppe, a short chapter book about a man who owns a hair brush store in a town where nearly everyone shaves their head. 2) The sequel to Have You Seen Mary? It’s a story I’ve been chasing for a long time. 3) Turtle’s Big Idea, a photo-fiction story about an animal Olympics being held on the tall grass prairie. 4) An unnamed photo-fiction project about an animal that just doesn’t think he’s good enough to be conserved.

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Summer Reviews

Books can take connect us with strangers, take us to unique places, and introduce us to new ideas. They can also offer hope in a chaotic world. And so I must share what I read!

Each week, I’ll introduce you to religious books, Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, or diversity books. Some I’ll review as singles and others as part of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

  • Joni: The unforgettable story of a young woman’s struggle against quadriplegia & depression by Joni Eareckson
  • The True Story of the World’s Most Beloved Animal Sanctuary by Samantha Glen
  • Brothers in hope : the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan–refugees by Mary Williams
  • The Inner Life of Cats by Thomas McNamee

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