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Arts & Culture

Novel By San Antonio Writer Finds New Life In Reissue

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Jason Risner Photography
Sherry Kafka Wagner

A novel published more than 50 years ago was reissued this year, and the characters and their stories may be more relevant now than ever before.

Its author, Sherry Kafka Wagner thinks her very mobile upbringing prepared her for a lifetime of observing people.

“I grew up in Arkansas and my father was a minister,” she said.

But they didn’t just live in one place. They moved around a lot.

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Hannah Jackson book cover

“I went to 16 schools in 12 years and I never went to any school longer than one nine month period. So, I was the new kid every year and sometimes twice a year,” Wagner said.

Because of that she developed finely-honed observational skills as a survival tactic. Understanding who’s calling the shots and why helped her get by, and thrive.

“I think I very early on learned to really be watching and to be paying attention to people,” she said.

Those keen observational powers made her realize that even people all living in the same little town didn’t necessarily see the very same world.

“You know, the same phenomena seen by four people might be seen four different ways. It's like Rashomon, that film where everybody was there, but they all saw it a little differently,” she said.

And with that as the premise, a 22-year-old Wagner, while at school at Baylor University, began writing the story that would become Hannah Jackson.

“It's a story about family, but it starts with the parents when they're young, falling in love and they live in a small town out in a rural part of Texas,” she said.

To better tell the tale she began to populate the story with people. People whose depth belied outward appearance.

“I kept thinking about that and about people and how complicated they are and how we don't ever really even understand another person really, and how we don't even really understand ourselves a lot of the time,” she said.

Wagner built the story in first person, but not a single first person. It was written chapter-by-chapter, each through the eyes of the person whose name headed that chapter.

“That's right. It's a lot of people's viewpoints and a lot of voices,” she said.

The book begins in the 1920s and runs through 1962. The early part of the book artfully sculpts a world that has now long since passed.

“I've always been interested in the past and the way it is intertwined with the present and the way you sort of get some glimpse of the future,” she said.

When Wagner first finished the novel, she wasn't happy with it.

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Stacey Abel
Sherry Kafka Wagner

“I read it and I thought it was yecch and I didn't like it at all. And I put it in a box for two years,” she said.

Two years later her father died, and she went looking for pictures of him. There were pictures in the box where she’d stuck the manuscript.

“And I went in to get the pictures out and I saw the manuscript and I read it after two years and I thought, ‘it's not so bad.’ And so I sent it off and it was published by William Morrow Company,” Wagner said.

An editor at the company who was slated to retire selected Wagner’s book as her last editing project. But it wasn’t just any editor.

“Now, this woman was the famous editor Lois Dwight Cole, who edited Gone with the Wind,” she said. “So, I had the amazing and wonderful privilege of becoming her last author and (became) friends with her. And she was just an incredible woman. And it was one of the best experiences of my whole life.”

After that synchronous bit of happenstance she moved to San Antonio to work at Hemisfair ‘68, the World's Fair that was being built in August of 1966. Her book was published that September. Being a mother, wife and full-time worker didn’t leave time for additional novel writing.

“But working at Hemisfair, I found out that some of the same skills of writing: observation, that seeing multiple viewpoints, that those things were important and could work in other ways,” she said.

Working with the city on Hemisfair to transform its downtown and create something anew inspired her creatively, and over time, Wagner became an international expert in urban planning and museum design, which is how she spent her career.

“And I always have seen cities and communities as just like in the book, as a collage of narratives. A lot of different narratives coming together and forming a story,” Wagner said.

Now, a new initiative by TCU Press has tagged Hannah Jackson for re-publishing as part of its Texas Tradition series.

You may ask what makes Hannah Jackson relevant to today. Wagner sees parallels.

“We see in this nation this tremendous tension between the urban and the rural playing out all over the nation,” she said. “The tensions about the roles of women. And so in ways, I think the book kind of fits better now.”

TCU Press is holding a book signing event on Wednesday, Nov. 11, and Wagner will be there to give readings and answer attendees questions.

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