canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Anna Porter: Publishing Political

Profile by Jessica de Mello

Photo by Yanka Van der Kolk Imaging and Photography

TDR Interveiw with Anna Porter

If you are jailed as a political prisoner at the age of six, escape on foot from a totalitarian state, attend Catholic boarding school in a foreign language, and scrub toilets at a mental hospital to pay for your higher education, you may be tough enough for the world of publishing, considers Anna Porter. These experiences, among others, certainly helped her to prepare for a successful stint as CEO and founder of Key Porter Books, and are also behind her recent foray into non-fiction.

The newly released Kasztner's Train (Douglas & McIntyre, 2007),  is an engaging, thoroughly-researched work of non-fiction, and Anna's seventh book. It is an examination of personal courage in a time of overwhelming moral ambiguity. The subject matter is weighty and sobering sentiments that are evident in her voice as she explains the final processes.

"I have tried so hard with this book," she says. "I don't think I have ever tried this hard at anything in my professional life. This book is so important. The questions raised here are timeless what does a moral person do when faced with injustice? What are we doing about the genocide in Darfur? These are timeless issues, unfortunately."

Anna moved to New Zealand in 1956 to escape the Hungarian revolution, after living under its increasingly tense and brutal foreshadowing. Her father was "nabbed by the Russians" when she was very young, and in order to support the family her mother took the unusual job of railroad surveyor. She describes it as a time when absolutely no one could be trusted and everyone's identity was in doubt. The family's first attempt to escape the country landed both six-year old Anna and her mother in prison for a few months. Anna was 12 years old when her family successfully walked out of their country.

A Catholic boarding school in New Zealand, administered by nuns, accepted her as their only refugee student. She learned the English language and some semblance of religious training through an unpleasant immersion. At 18 she left the convent school to attend the University of Canterbury. There she completed Bachelor of Arts and Masters of Arts degrees, both in English Literature. She loved poetry and hers was published in Hungary at a young age.

While a university student, Anna worked first as a maid in a mental hospital and then at a bookstore, owned by a publishing company in New Zealand. Her first job was as a proofreader. She then moved to England and worked in marketing and sales for a larger publishing house, which would prompt a trip to Canada.

She never meant to stay in Toronto, but it has been a successful stint. It was here that she assumed her first editorial role, with McClelland & Stewart at the age of 25. Here she also met her husband to be - a lawyer who, after seeing her photograph on the society pages of Toronto Life magazine, called her repeatedly (even providing references!) until she consented to meet for a coffee. She also became very close to publisher Jack McClelland; an influence and mentor to her throughout her career.

In her first ten years of Canadian life she became president and publisher of Seal Books, a company partially founded by McClelland & Stewart. Like her mentor and friend Jack, Anna developed close relationships with Canadian authors, most of whom remain her friends today. By 1979, Anna knew every facet of the industry and was at ease when launching her own business, Key Porter Books.

She wrote The Storyteller: Memory, Secrets, Magic and Lies as a way of introducing her children to her life story and the people who most influenced it, like her Grandfather. Three murder mysteries followed; "A great and amusing release", she calls them with her typically wry humour, "There's nothing more satisfying than killing someone in a book who you are disgusted with in real life. Those books are also very funny, though; a great release for the reader as well as the writer."

Kasztner's Train required Anna to read over 300 books in 3 languages, find and read primary documents, and to travel all over the world for interviews. The film rights have been bought, and at present she is working on 100 additional footnotes for the American release. Anna is convinced that she is more familiar with the subject of her book than anyone in the world, including his own family. The subject of the book is Rezso Kasztner, who directly negotiated for the lives of 1684 Jewish Europeans, and saved an additional 20 000 more during the Holocaust. Like many issues surrounding the topic of genocide, the means and extent to which Kasztner acted is controversial. Anna is convinced that he is a hero. But she is ready for the acclaim and accusations that will come.

Her own dedication to personal ethics is evident in the grand array of Canadian associations with whom she is involved. Soulpepper Theatre, Schulich School of Business, World Wildlife Fund and PEN Canada continue to benefit from her input and intellect. In 1992, Anna Porter was awarded the Order of Canada for her efforts to promote Canadian literary talent abroad. She has been awarded Honorary Doctoral degrees from Ryerson University, St. Mary's University, and the Law Society of Upper Canada.






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