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Persistence helps artist produce a novel

Portlander Jan Baross' latest creative pursuit has been well-received
by: Submitted PHOTO, An excerpt of Jan Baross' book won a Kay Snow Award in 1999.

As much art as Jan Baross has created, she never imagined dedicating herself to the rigors of writing a novel.

'I never wanted to be a novelist,' says the longtime Southwest Portland resident. 'I didn't even know it was in me. It seemed out of my realm.'

But rain in Spain changed all that. While vacationing in Seville in 1996, her plans were stymied one day by a storm, leading the artist, photographer, filmmaker, playwright and screenwriter toward a new creative pursuit.

'I thought, 'I'll pretend to write a novel,' ' she says. ' 'Maybe I'll get a chapter.' '

Before long, Baross wasn't pretending, and now, 10 years later, she's riding a frothy wave following the recent publication of 'José Builds a Woman,' a colorful adventure written in a magical realist style that befits its Mexican setting.

An excerpt of the book won a Kay Snow Award back in 1999, but Baross says the real payoff is in the feedback she's getting from readers, including those familiar with her other talents.

'It's unbelievable,' she says. 'I still haven't taken it all in. For some reason, the book seems to have elicited much more response from people, I think because people understand that it's very difficult to get published.'

Baross will read from the new novel, which was published by Portland State University's Ooligan Press, at two events this week.

'José Builds a Woman' is narrated by Tortugina, the mother of the title character who, as a rebellious girl, aspires to become a cliff diver, to the dismay of both her family and her first love.

'It's all about family and the emotional politics of the family,' Baross says. 'Once I decided to talk in the voice of his mother, the words just started flowing.

'She's very sensual. She's very focused on her desires. Every decision she makes gets her into more trouble, all at the expense of the people around her.'

While Baross says she knew where the book would end, she could not predict Tortugina's every move.

'When I was writing this, I never knew what she was going to do next. I was just following her to see where she would go.

Baross says she honored a pledge to herself by never giving up on the book, even as the years stretched on.

'I knew I would finish this,' she says. 'I always promised myself I wouldn't stop halfway through a project. I started that in college.'

She credits respected Oregon author and writer Tom Spanbauer and a group of fellow writers who studied under him with providing the feedback and encouragement she needed over the years.

'I got the confidence because all the people in the writing group loved the book,' she says. 'I had a deadline every week, so I had this obligation.'

One of her steadiest supporters was Diane Ponzi, a former bond trader whose own novel, 'Sweetheart Deal,' is awaiting publication.

Ponzi says Baross, who has lived in Portland for more than 20 years, possesses two traits that make her a natural as a novelist: a determined work ethic and an adventuresome outlook on life.

'Jan loves to have a good time,' she says. 'There's sort of this wacky, crashing-through-life approach. You tend to think, 'My God, does she know where she's going?' But she always gets there.

' 'José' is a bold kind of book. The sensuality comes from Jan's central approach to life.'

Baross, a Bakersfield, Calif., native who took up photography then filmmaking while in college, first at the University of California-Berkeley and later at Oregon State, says her writing style in the novel is less about her admiration for others in the genre than her own perspectives.

'It's not exactly magical realism,' she says. 'I like stories where there aren't the usual boundaries. I like it when the dream world and the world of the imagination is just as close as reality. That's the way my mind works.'


Jan Baross readings

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: In Other Words Women's Books and Resources, 8 N.E. Killingsworth St., 503-232-6003

Cost: Free

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Looking Glass Bookstore, 318 S.W. Taylor St., 503-227-4760

Cost: Free