Kurtz, Don 1951–
Kurtz, Don 1951–
Born August 1, 1951, in Urbana, IL; son of Lester T. (an agronomy professor) and Frances (a homemaker) Kurtz; married Elizabeth Gutierrez (an attorney and professor), January 26, 1985. Ethnicity: "German-Irish." Education: University of Illinois, B.S., 1972; New Mexico State University, M.A., 1979. Politics: "Democrat through and through." Religion: "Nothing formal." Hobbies and other interests: Playing basketball, meditation, reading, travel.
American Association of University Professors, PEN New Mexico, Writers Guild.
Fiction writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, 1992; Bread Loaf fellowship, 1995.
(With William D. Goran) Trails of the Guadalupes (guidebook), Environmental Associates (Champaign, IL), 1978.
South of the Big Four (novel), Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 1995.
Churchgoers (novel), Cool of the Morning Press (Minneapolis, MN), 2007.
Author and educator Don Kurtz grew up in Urbana, Illinois, but completed his university education in New Mexico. He stayed in the latter state, teaching Spanish at the same institution where he obtained his master's degree. He collaborated on his first book, Trails of the Guadalupes, with William D. Goran in 1978. This volume is a nonfiction guide book to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in New Mexico, but Kurtz's first novel, 1995's South of the Big Four, deals with neither mountains nor New Mexico. Instead, Kurtz returns in fiction to the midwestern farmlands where he grew up, writing what a Washington Post Book World contributor called "a piercingly observant rumination on a dying way of life."
South of the Big Four is narrated by Arthur Conason, who leaves his family farm at a young age to work on ore boats traversing the Great Lakes. When he is laid off at the age of thirty, he returns to his Indiana home. His family has abandoned farming, but he gets a farming labor position with Gerry Maars, who is one of the last independent family farmers in the area. Maars uses outdated machinery and methods, and is competing with modern farming conglomerates, but with Conason's help, he manages to stay afloat—at least for a while. Conason, meanwhile, reunites with his nearby brother but has an affair with his sister-in-law; he also has an affair with another lonely married woman, a local waitress named Annie. Eventually, Maars despairs at his approaching failure, and Conason must save him from suicide. Sandra Scofield explained her reaction to South of the Big Four in the Boston Globe: "It has as much text about machinery as people, the narrator is something of a jerk and hardly anything works out. I couldn't put it down." South of the Big Four has brought Kurtz comparisons with writers such as Wallace Stegner, Jon Hassler, and Jim Harrison. Critics, including Scofield, have also compared his work to that of several contemporary women novelists because, as Scofield put it, he "writes so gently and with such unsparing detail."
Scofield praised Kurtz for "writing what's worth reading instead of what ‘they’ say will sell. He writes with confidence and a sure voice, and he pulls off a tour deforce ending." A Washington Post Book World reviewer called his book "one of those beautifully crafted novels that transcend their subject to deliver a message." Ruth Lopez, reviewing South of the Big Four in the Chicago Tribune, concluded: "Rich in its sense of place, full of consistent but unpredictable characters, this story gets at more than just a rapidly disappearing way of life. It is also," she continued, "about how in losing our connection to the land we are losing something greater—ourselves. And how, at some point in our lives, we all need to come home."
Kurtz's second novel, Churchgoers, was published in 2007, twelve years after his first novel. The book opens with Dr. Mitchell Chandler—a revered biochemist, a university professor, and the discoverer of the "Lazarus gene," which controls the regeneration of limbs in salamanders—finding himself in a sudden altered state of consciousness. What starts off as a chill along Chandler's spine has progressed to an ability to read minds and to bouts of mystical visions. Meanwhile, the university's campus church has rented space to a ministry, Spirit Rising, run by the zealous and power-hungry Pastor Randy Overmeyer, an ex-heavy metal rocker. In these two men, one representing science and the other religion, the age-old battle between these two camps is fought out.
Critics had mixed reviews of Churchgoers. The book "intelligently and empathetically explores [Pastor Randy's and Chandler's] worldview," commented a Kirkus Reviews critic. Washington Post Book World's Tim Farrington felt that "this has the feel of an experimental novel that never quite came together. Like the farmers in South of the Big Four, Kurtz's sweat credit is good, and we are inclined to let him run up the bill in Churchgoers long after it becomes obvious that he won't be able to cover it. But there are limits to good will." The Kirkus Reviews critic also noted that while "the book gets top-heavy with atmosphere and incident," it is also "well-told in highly detailed prose."
Kurtz told CA: "My motivation for writing comes from the same basic impulse that might lead someone to be a fire fighter—when he sees them on their huge trucks, racing down the street with sirens blaring, a child might say, ‘I want to do that, too.’ When I found myself, as a young person, carried away by books into a different world, when I found myself moved and transformed, I said to myself, ‘I want to do that, too.’ I wanted to work my own magic on unsuspecting readers, and, in the process, on myself.
"One writer who has particularly influenced me is Larry McMurtry. I came to his work unguided, at the public library, and was instantly captivated. The reader slides so easily into his narrative that it's easy to forget that one is reading, and not actually living in that imaginary world. To this day I favor narratives in which the author essentially disappears and the language is a graceful vehicle for deeper immersion in the story at hand, rather than an end in itself. I was also drawn to Mr. McMurtry's evocative, elegiac voice, which I have often found suitable for my own subject matter as well.
"Without doubt, I have been influenced as a writer by my religious upbringing, in a church which has become the notoriously liberal United Church of Christ, but which is (or at least seemed to be, when I was a child) still firmly rooted in the Puritan theology of early ministers like Jonathan Edwards. This heritage, combined with the rural background of both my parents and their families, has led to a certain skepticism about earthly comfort and success, something which my characters struggle with as well.
"The most important personal influence on my writing discipline and practice has been contemporary fiction writer Keven McIlvoy. I took a class from him at New Mexico State and later joined him to form a writing group in Las Cruces, New Mexico, which has continued for over a dozen years, and has included such writers as Antonya Nelson and Robert Boswell. Following Mr. McIlvoy's personal example, both the criticism and the degree of interpersonal support have been of the highest quality. The writing group continues to give me a reason to finish work and get it out into the world.
"I teach first-year Spanish at New Mexico State, and have arranged my schedule so that I teach all morning and have my afternoons to write. I tend to write about images that persist long enough in my mind that they began to form a sort of coalition with other images, eventually yielding the faint outline of a story. I do extensive research even for short stories, especially through interviews with people who might have found themselves in similar situations as my emerging characters. I find this to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the whole process. On South of the Big Four, a farming novel, I spent one fall and three separate springs working as a hired man on my uncle's farming operation in northern Indiana, both finding my way into the novel and loving every minute of the chance to follow, even momentarily, a different path of life."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Boston Globe, July 2, 1995, Sandra Scofield, review of South of the Big Four.
Chicago Tribune, August 4, 1995, Ruth Lopez, review of South of the Big Four.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2007, review of Churchgoers. Library Journal, July, 1995, Thomas L., review of South of the Big Four, p. 121.
Publishers Weekly, May 22, 1995, review of South of the Big Four, p. 47.
Washington Post Book World, November 19, 1995, review of South of the Big Four; December 16, 2007, Tim Farrington, review of Churchgoers.