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First-time novelist draws praise for her prose

Story by Christina Holmes. Photos by Timothi Jane Graham.

Heidi Durrow’s childhood dream to pen a novel came by way of a meandering – although quite successful – path that saw her work as a journalist, attorney and life skills trainer for professional athletes.

Heidi Durrow, who was nominated for Outstanding Literary Debut at the 2011 NAACP Image Awards, will speak about her 2010 book, “The Girl Who Fell from the Sky” at PCC in April.

It all started with this glow. “I couldn’t have articulated it then, but I was probably about 7 when I made the connection to absolute joy and being a published writer,” she recalls. “My mom received a check for her first published essay. I remember my dad taking a photo of her and I swear I could see rays of light emanating out of her. She looked like the sun. I think I just kind of tucked that moment away deep inside me and thought I want to feel that way one day.”

Durrow, who was nominated for Outstanding Literary Debut at the 2011 NAACP Image Awards, will speak about her 2010 book, “The Girl Who Fell from the Sky.” Durrow’s family lived all over the world (Turkey, Germany and Denmark, to name a few) before her dad retired from the Army. The family moved to Portland when Durrow was 11. While attending Jefferson High School in 1983, she started taking classes at PCC.

“I would take three to six units each term and by the time I finished my sophomore year I had enough credits to graduate,” she said. “I decided not to graduate early so I would have more time to research and apply for college scholarships.”

Durrow went on to Stanford University, where she studied English. From there it was a stop at Columbia University for a graduate degree in journalism. After that she attended Yale Law School, passed the bar and worked for a prestigious New York City firm handling pro bono civil rights cases.

She worked hard, earned invaluable experience, met people and lived a good life. Still, she longed for that glow.

Cover of Durrow’s 2010 book, ‘The Girl Who Fell from the Sky.’

Durrow began writing “The Girl Who Fell from the Sky” in 1998 and, after stops and starts, finished in 2004. Her path to getting the book published was filled with lessons of patience, perseverance and endurance.

“It wasn’t that I just wanted my book published. I had a vision and a message and only I could tell the story and that became my mission,” she said.

After dozens of rejections from publishers she finally submitted her story for the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, the only major North American prize that specifically advocates literary fiction addressing social justice issues. The prize is awarded to a previously unpublished novel.

She won the award in 2008; the book was published in early 2010.

The story is about the daughter of a black G.I. and Danish mother, who moves into her grandmother’s mostly black community in Portland in the 1980s. She must swallow her grief following a family tragedy and confront her identity as a biracial woman in a world that wants to see her as either black or white.

The book has been widely received by literary critics and she’s developed a fan base across the country. Closer to home, the book was chosen for the 2010 PCC Reads program, an initiative to encourage the entire faculty, staff and student body to read a book that addresses diversity.

Now that Durrow has that “I’ve been published” glow, she looks for more inspiration from her mom, Birgit Wedel, a longtime librarian at the Cascade Campus.

“My mom has always been super supportive of what I was doing, even when I wasn’t sure what I was doing,” she said.

Q. Talk about your decision to attend PCC.

PCC was the perfect place for me. The students were older than my classmates and more mature. Because a lot of students are returning to school when they come to PCC they have a lot more focus and drive. That’s what I was looking for.

Q. Were there any faculty members who made a lasting impression or even influenced your work?

Ruby Pace was a dear. I worked for her and she taught me so much about professionalism and also laughter. She was a lovely lady.

Q. What’s the premise of your next book?

This book is about race – it’s about many other things too, but I don’t think I will ever get away from writing about this subject. The book is about the life of a mulatta strong-woman and trapeze artist who was very famous in her time but now is just a footnote in history.  I want to rescue her from obscurity. She lived during the late 1800s in mostly Paris and London. But the book is not a biography. It’s the life I’m imagining for her.

Q. Any advice to writers-in-waiting who want to get published?

Be patient with yourself but also be sure to put yourself on deadlines. The sad truth is that the world is not waiting for you to write the great American novel. No one is. So you have to have your own internal drive to get it done. And be sure to take control over what you can. That’s difficult as an artist/writer because there’s so much rejection. But you can control how much you write each day.

Q. Any advice to college students in general?

All of the work you do matters – even if it’s not in the area you’re interested in or studying long-term. Every class is an opportunity to connect with a new mentor or friend and a chance to test out new ideas on professionalism. College is essential in this day and age. Make the most of it by taking advantage of any mentoring programs or grants for special projects. There is so much opportunity in college to start fashioning the life you’ve dreamed about.

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