In 1972, Jan Jarboe Russell graduated from The University of Texas at Austin and took a job at the San Antonio Light newspaper. Having grown up in small towns in the Piney Woods of East Texas, Russell thought that Austin was “huge.”
“I grew up in the Big Thicket,” Russell said. And as for San Antonio, “I thought in my mind that I couldn’t live in so beautiful a city. I had never been anywhere, and I thought ‘Geez, I’m in Venice.’”
But since graduating with a degree in journalism, Russell has been many places. She lived in Washington, D.C, where she wrote about Texas politics. She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard College, where she studied American Literature. She even returned to Austin to work as a senior editor for Texas Monthly magazine.
Still, Russell came back to San Antonio.
“Every time I left San Antonio, I missed it,” she said.
Russell sat in the smaller cottage behind her house, a space that serves as a combination writing space/guest house. In the living room, surrounded by built-in bookshelves filled with books, some of which are her own, Russell talked about her career and reasons for making San Antonio home.
“I liked being in a city where the people of color were the majority,” she said.
Russell went on to talk more about the cultural make-up of San Antonio.
“It is easy to go to a city that is all (one type of people). But we do not have that here; we have a mixture,” she added.
It is the combination of Russell’s long career – which includes the New York Times Bestseller The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II, and a Texas Monthly cover story on former Texas governor Ann Richards – and her love of San Antonio that has led to her receiving the Award of Literary Excellence from Gemini Ink, San Antonio’s nonprofit literary arts center.
“I’m blown away. I can’t imagine anything more meaningful,” Russell said about the award. “I’ve often criticized myself for not staying in one place and advancing. I switch around, and I often wonder if it was a good idea. And this award proves that it was.”
If there was one reoccurring theme throughout the conversation, it was this admission from Russell: “I just keep trying to be a better writer every day.”
She also admitted that she didn’t expect to spend her life in journalism. What she really wanted to do was write books. It was during her studies at Harvard that she began focusing on long-form journalism. And in 1999, she published Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson, though it wasn’t her first book.
She has coauthored books about Henry Cisneros, as well as Linda Pace, founder of Artpace. But she didn’t choose those topics. And her decision to cover Lady Bird Johnson is what led her back to San Antonio, and away from Austin and her career at Texas Monthly.
And even though she did choose to write about Lady Bird Johnson and her marriage to former president Lyndon B. Johnson, The Train to Crystal City is the book she feels chose her as well.
With topics like Henry Cisneros, Lady Bird Johnson, and Ann Richards, Russell explained that “People knew about these (people). (Crystal City) was something not a lot of people knew about.”
Because the events in The Train to Crystal City take place during and after World War II, and the internment camp it talks about was supposed to be a secret, research was often difficult for Russell. Most people who were alive at the time and are still alive today did not know what the camp was doing there. And most of the children who are still alive that lived inside the camp were very young at the time. They ended up learning a lot about their own experiences through Russell’s research.
“Research was exhausting because I work alone. I don’t have a research assistant,” Russell said. Despite the difficulties, Russell said she still thoroughly enjoyed the project. “I don’t think anything else I’ve researched has given me as much satisfaction.”
Russell had no difficulty talking about other projects throughout her career that she particularly enjoyed. The cover story about Ann Richards made the list, as well as a story on the battle between the City of San Antonio and Oscar Wyatt, the oil legend who left San Antonio without heat in 1973. Even while living in Austin, Russell often wrote about San Antonio.
“In Austin, everyone is telling the same stories. You go to Dallas, same thing. In San Antonio, under every rock there is a story,” she said. “If I was a really rich person, I would start a literary magazine in San Antonio. Cities need stories just as much as they need houses. Cities that don’t tell stories don’t have a future.”
And San Antonio’s many stories are part of the reason why Russell loves this city. She even loves the sound of passing trains on the heavily trafficked train tracks near her house, a noise which was loud enough to almost force a pause in the conversation.
Russell also professed her appreciation for many San Antonio attractions such as Phil Hardberger Park, the Japanese Tea Garden, the Pearl, and of course the Central Branch of the San Antonio Public Library, which she lovingly calls “the enchilada library,” and frequents as one of her favorite writing spots.
“(In San Antonio) I don’t worry about the things that drive me crazy about Austin,” Russell said.
Although there are some aspects of the city that she believes are cause for concern, such as the sprawl over the aquifer, as well as the current state of public transportation, and the city’s lack of a light rail, ultimately she sees San Antonio “as a beautiful city, despite our problems.”
Gemini Ink Executive Director Sheila Black said Russell’s love of the city is exactly what makes her the perfect choice for the Award of Literary Excellence. And the theme for this year’s Inkstravaganza Gala, where Russell will be given the award, “Finding My Place in the World: San Antonio the Beautiful,” was all Russell’s idea.
“She said she wanted to make clear her love for San Antonio and also cover how she found herself here as a journalist and writer,” Black said.
And when asked why Russell was chosen as the recipient of the award, Black had an answer ready that anyone would find to be true when speaking with Russell about this city.
“Jan deserves this award because of her energy, enthusiasm, loyalty to and passion for all things literary in San Antonio,” Black said. “She loves this town, her town, and has worked very hard and for many years to make the best place for writers and readers.”
Those who attend the gala can expect a lively conversation between Russell, and last year’s recipient, writer and Trinity University Professor Coleen Grissom; an art sale of work by some of Russell’s favorite contemporary artists; a festive meal served old San Antonio style; a raffle of packages that include many of Russell’s favorite San Antonio things; and margaritas made from Russell’s own recipe.
“Jan is the perfect awardee for 2017 – or any year, because her work has been authentically groundbreaking in uncovering stories we didn’t know we needed to hear,” Black said.
“The older I get, the more important it is for me to focus on stories that will endure,” Russell said. And unsurprisingly, she is already researching and working on her next project.
The Inkstravaganza Gala will take place on Thursday, Oct. 13 at the Pearl Stable. The event begins at 6 p.m. and promises to celebrate San Antonio, as well as Russell’s enduring career.
Top image: Author Jan Jarboe Russell holds up her new book The Train to Crystal City. Photo by Scott Ball.