Author Interview: Jan Baross on Writing Magical Realism, Illustrating Her Travels to Mexico and Paris, and Filmmaking

Ms. Baross Goes to Mexico Jan Baross—celebrated filmmaker, artist, and writer—releases her latest book of travel-based illustrations, Ms. Baross Goes to Mexico, San Miguel de Allende, on July 14. The collection of black-and-white sketches and commentary spans thirty years of her travels to San Miguel.

Jan is well-known for sketching everyday scenes around Portland, Oregon, and Ms. Baross Goes to Mexico has that same casual, cultural style, pairing her eye for rendering expressions and interesting moments with a smart mix of travel tips. Her first illustrated book, Ms. Baross Goes to Paris, was released in 2012 and features her original, often whimsical, sketches.

Jan’s luminous debut novel, José Builds a Woman, was released by Ooligan Press in 2006 with blurbs by Ursula LeGuin and Molly Gloss, among others. In José Builds a Woman, which features one of her paintings on the cover, she mixes real emotion with magical realism and stirs. The result is a captivating and entertaining page-turner, where chapter after chapter, the unexpected rises from the depths of the author’s imagination and lands vividly on the page. The language also has a light and airy quality, possibly influenced by the fact that one of the main characters is a deftly drawn ghost, who is heartbroken but also comic in his attempts to connect with and control the world that has continued onward after his death.

Jan, who taught filmmaking at Oregon State University, has made more than forty documentaries, some of which have aired on A&E and Oregon Public Broadcasting. Her plays have been produced Off Off Broadway, and one of them “Mata Hari,” was turned into an opera, for which she wrote the libretto. The opera premiered at the Deep Ellum Opera Theater in Dallas, Texas. Jan earned her bachelor’s degree in art at San Francisco State University and a master’s degree from Oregon State in media communications.

The release party for Ms. Baross Goes to Mexico is slated for 2 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, July 14, with a talk at 3 p.m., at the Golden Gallery in The Beaverton Lodge, 12900 SW 9th St., Beaverton, OR. The first sixty attendees will receive free copies of José Builds a Woman. The show, featuring her illustrations, will continue at the gallery through August 31.

Welcome to the Seven Questions Series, Jan.

1. Tell us about José Builds a Woman.

As the story begins, Tortugina is a young girl, an outcast in her traditional village, because she has an uncommon dream that only men are allowed. Her short life is dedicated to reaching that dream. As a result of that pursuit she tears apart her family, her village, unintentionally kills her lover, nearly destroys her son, marries badly, dies well and triumphs in the end. 

2. I’m particularly interested in your use of magical realism. Did you intend to write a magical novel, or did that element evolve during the creative process? I’m particularly interested in how you went about putting Gabito, a ghost, on the page in such wonderful detail, and how you balanced such fanciful elements with moments of connection, sadness, and humanity.

JoseBuildI didn’t begin with the idea of writing a magical novel. I began with a strange and attractive premise from an article I read in The Enquirer. A true story about man in Tijuana who lives in a five-story woman he built. What is more metaphorical than a man born of woman, recreating the womb and returning there to be reborn?

The elements of magical realism lent themselves well to the story but I was not aware in the beginning of writing for that genre.

Early on I changed from the POV of a man to a woman since I realized I had no idea what a young Mexican man thought nor was I that interested in what he thought.  But the mind of women is universal, as I’ve found in my travels, and easier for me to understand. So I chose the woman who was closest to the man, his mother. I began with her birth and wrote to her death.

As far as writing Gabito the ghost lover: The details of a ghost lover or a living lover is the same in that the focus is on the details.  OTB, On The Body, as Tom Spanbauer taught us in Dangerous Writers.  For example, writing about the skin of Gabito, his skin is cold from the sea, but not from death. That would be creepy. Half his face was smashed from the fall that killed him, yet the other half of his face is lovely as before and so Tortugina and the reader can focus on the good side of him, which is what we try to do in relationships anyway.

Her quote: “He was half handsome. How many women can even say that about their husbands.”

I walked a fine line of rewrites getting Gabito and Tortugina’s relationship balanced on the edge between reality and fantasy with every detail. I wanted to make their difficult relationship seem no different from the trials that normal couples face, but taken to a heightened realm. Like jealousy. Gabito is crazy jealousy as he hovers over Tortugina on her wedding night with her living husband, Miguel. Gabito is powerless, watching the couple consummate their marriage on a moving camel. By making Gabito passionate, hot blooded and murderous during this interaction, he is like any man whose love is being stolen from him.

Perhaps here I should mention it took ten years from the first draft to the publication by Ooligan Press.

3. The cover of José Builds a Woman features your painting of the title character. When did you create it, and did you always envision it as the front cover of your book?

I was lucky I was working with a small press, Ooligan, that allowed me to paint my own cover. My original cover concept was José chipping away at the foot of a huge statue. I was inspired by Marv Newland’s old animated film—Godzilla Meets Bambi. But over the years the cover evolved into José held in the giant palm of his Mother/Virgin. José was the universal man struggling to create, build and control something he can never even come close to comprehending. Endless metaphors.

4. Jan, your beautiful illustrations of events and local people—some of which are featured in Ms. Baross Goes to Paris and Ms. Baross Goes to Mexic­o—capture moments, expressions, and people being themselves. How would you characterize your style as an artist? I’m particularly curious about your process when it comes to drawing events or people you see wandering around in the world. Do you sketch while there, in the moment, or do you bring the ideas home and get to work later?

I sketch out in the world with my Sharpie and then come home and paint it in with watercolor. Sometimes I have to white out a line or two. I sketch in the moment when something quick juices my imagination. I’m very fast so I can draw people who are moving and talking or bullfighting. I watch mouths move, shoulders slumping, hands gesturing until I get the movement and shape of an expression. I exaggerate so the people are recognizable but with some flare of humor. This past year I’ve been posting a sketch a day on Facebook. Places I go, people I observe, interactions in Portland. I’m six months into it now and it’s been fun. I’m hoping to find some venue for displaying all 365 drawings at the end of the year.

5. What prompted you to collect your work into these books, and are there more in progress? What was the writing and compiling process like for your Paris and Mexico books? Did you begin by culling through your sketchbook or with a particular theme in mind?

Ms. Baross Goes to ParisDrawing and observation lets me get deeply into my surroundings when I travel. I notice details by sketching that I would never notice without the challenge of capturing the image on the page. The same holds true with writing.

I’ve been making little books since I could hold a pencil. My mother saved the first ones; pencil drawings of battling cowboys and Indians on big lined paper. Just like my travel books, there is a drawing on half the page and text underneath only the early text reads, “Bang. Bang. Ouch. Ouch.” The travel books are a little more informative.

After years of travel I’ve got a lot of sketches. I’m just now getting around to compiling them into published books. It’s a good time to be graphic with e-media. I’ve opened my own imprint, MPolo Press, to publish the travel books.

The process with Ms. Baross Goes to Paris was drawing all the places we ate and people we met from Oct. 28 to Nov. 28. I went with Henry Miller’s ex-chef who was writing a dining book. My job was to come along and eat.

With Ms. Baross Goes to Mexico, San Miguel de Allende, I have been sketching in San Miguel de Allende for over thirty years so it was mostly editing it down.  There are so many places, events and people that I enjoy and that have endured.

My future books will be on The Radish Festival in Oaxaca, two trips to Israel, New Orleans birthday, London where my mother lived for thirty years, Afghanistan, East Africa, and some cities in China that I visited. Maybe Egypt.

6. You have produced more than forty documentaries since moving to the Pacific Northwest—yet another way you approach the world from an artistic, creative perspective. Do you find that filmmaking and being a film critic inform your fiction and your illustrations?

Seven Questions LogoFilmmaking for me was the perfect melding of elements. When I made documentaries I would film with a script in my head, and then edit the pictures into a story form later. As the camera person I got to select the visuals as I filmed the subjects. At the same time I was thinking how I would edit those pictures together for the strongest visual effect. A white horse, a yellow house, a blue car passing. Connecting the shots by color, movement, and design. And with the script in my head, I would edit it all into a story. It was such a treat to have all those components to work with.

I suppose developing that sensibility early on helped me to write visually. Almost everyone who I know who has read José Builds a Woman tells me what a great film it would make. But I don’t think being a film critic informs my illustrations but who knows?

7. Who are some of the writers and artists who have influenced your work?

I’m very excited about anything that is unpredictable. I grew up with the New Wave.  I was in love Truffaut. And I admire Fellini above all and met him once at the Academy Awards and it was one of the highlights of my life. Now there are so many new stylistic directors they don’t even call them auteurs anymore. As far as painters, I love the French Expressionists and the Fauves, the wild beasts of color. For writers, it’s harder to say because when I find a book I love, I want to write like that person forever. Then I find a new book. The light and colors and sensuality of San Miguel de Allende have had a greater influence on my writing and painting than almost anything.

Thanks for participating in the Seven Questions Series, Jan!

Learn more about Jan Baross at janbaross.com. Ms. Baross Goes to Mexico, San Miguel de AllendeMs. Baross Goes to Paris, and José Builds a Woman are available on Amazon. Jan also did the illustrations for the recently released Lies: The Truth about the Self-Deception That Limits Your Life by Bridget Harwell and Elizabeth Scott. 

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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One Response to Author Interview: Jan Baross on Writing Magical Realism, Illustrating Her Travels to Mexico and Paris, and Filmmaking

  1. I never thought about this before, but I’ll bet that people who deliberately start out to write a story with paranormal or magical elements are much more likely to use one of the standard types (vampires, werewolves, telepaths, revenants), but people who just have it grow out of the characters themselves more often go in newer and more unusual directions.

    That’s what happened to me. I have several characters with extra abilities and unusual characteristics, and none of them can be described in a single word. And I never had a plan to go in that direction.

    Oh, and you’re lucky your small press allowed you to paint your own cover. I know somebody who had a deal with a small press, and she eventually broke it off and self-published. Cover control wasn’t the only issue, but it was a big one. She even commissioned a cover herself and they rejected it.

    Plus, you met Fellini? My father would have been so jealous. 🙂

    Oh, and, speaking of directors, José Builds a Woman sounds a little bit like Almodóvar. Is he an influence, too?

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