Tell me a little about your experiences growing up. What were you like as a child? What was your family like?

My early childhood is imprinted with the Nazi wartime.

I was born immediately after the Second World War, in a very cold winter, when the water pipes froze and there was no more coal for heating. Besides, there was hardly any food. It must have been hard for my mother to look after an infant in such times. The year before, my father had returned, starving and ill, having been a prisoner of war in Russia, and had a job as a teacher in another city. He was an art teacher and painter. When I was born, I already had a sister and a brother, six and seven years older than I.

When I was three, we moved to where my father’s job was and where I grew up. The war had destroyed the city almost completely, and we lived on a street where there were only ruins, except for the house in which we had a tiny apartment without a bathroom.  A year later my younger sister was born.

It was a time of complete privation, and yet I have many good memories of it. We children were free, “lived” outside, played with the neighbor children on the street, and to us the ruins were a world where there was adventure to experience.

I think that this time challenged my imagination: there were hardly any playthings, no media, only that free world outside and books, which were always very important for my parents.
I remember intensely evenings when we were all gathered around the kitchen table—my little sister, still a baby, slept on the  bureau—and my mother read Uncle Tom’s Cabin to us. I was just four, but the story impressed me so deeply that to this day I have before my eyes the scene when Eliza runs away from the slave dealers with her child.

Very early I learned to read by myself and devoured everything I could get my hands on. Also books for grown-ups. Just as early I began to write, little stories, poems, even scenes that I performed on the street with the neighbor children.

For the theater especially fascinated me. I stood on the stage for the first time when I  was just five years old, later again and again, and originally I wanted to become an actress. I was a very serious and often dreamy child. My father, an artist himself, supported me in my leanings.

For me, the family was a place of security and belonging, for my mother understood in spite of all difficulties and material need how to shape our common life so that there were high points, which I remember vividly even today. I believe these experiences awakened in me the wish for my own large family!

How did you and your husband start adopting war orphans? Why?

My husband, who is a pediatrician, came from a very large family with 10 children. Independently of one another we had always both had a dream of giving a home to children who didn’t have one. When we learned to know each other, it was too late for our own children. I had a son from a first marriage, my husband had been childless in his first marriage. But we were completely united in wanting to still raise children in our lives. But when we turned to the adoption agencies, we were nevertheless told that we had hardly any chance because we were already too old for adoption (I was 40 at that time).

We were disappointed, but we resigned ourselves to it. After all, we were happy with each other and we both had professions in which we could be there for children.

That our dream has been fulfilled after all, that our family has over the course of time even grown into a large family with thirteen children sometimes seems to us like an act of providence.  The first child, a four-year-old son of an African mother who could not care for him herself at that time, came to us in 1987 by accident; he was supposed to stay with us for only half a year—and he has just moved out because he is now studying in another city.

To tell in detail how the family has developed would fill a book. On account of the horrific events in Africa, it “exploded” in the 90s. At that time we took in Fatia, a civil war refugee from Somalia, later, one by one, six children from Rwanda who had lost their families during the genocide. They had all come to Germany as minor unaccompanied refugees and needed a new home. All our children (except for two) were older, in some cases teenaged, when they came to us and had a sorrowful history behind them. But they have acclimated themselves to their new homeland, have mostly overcome their bad experiences, and have come to feel entirely at home. They stick together and go their own way.

This is probably the reason why my husband and I have kept finding the courage to “blindly” incorporate a child standing on our doorstep into our life. It was something like love at first sight and joined with it the confidence that all can go well.

That we can give the children a second chance at life means happiness for us.

How did you first learn about Jeanne and her situation?

In Aprl 1996 we got a call from the African Mission in Cologne, which took care of African refugees there and which had already placed twins from Rwanda with us the year before.  We were asked if we would be willing to take on yet another Rwandan orphan. 

Soon after that Jeanne, at that time 10 years old, came to us with her aunt, just as it says in the book.  Since her aunt could not look after her herself, Jeanne decided very quickly to stay, and two days after that first meeting, she moved in with us.

Her aunt, sister of Jeanne’s mother, informed us that Jeanne was the only one of her large family who had survived the genocide. She herself had lived in Germany for more than 30 years.

It wasn’t long until Jeanne let us know what she had had to see with her own eyes: the murder of her mother and her brother, as well as other horrific acts. Nightmares drove her out of bed at night, and as soon as she could speak a little German, she began to tell. Mostly to me, because we were very close from the beginning. She said to me later that she had the feeling that she had always known me. How such a thing is possible will probably remain hidden.

How/why did you become a writer? Is this your first book? If not, how many books have you published and what are they about? If there are others, is there a common theme in your books?

As already mentioned, I have always written. For 10 years I worked as an author for a large textbook publisher and wrote lesson units and texts for liteature and language instruction. When I finally found my way back to creative writing, I was already over 50. My first book for young people was published in 2000, Über tausend Hügel  . . . in 2002. Then in 2003 followed a children’s book, in spring of 2004 a long narrative for an anthology of world religions, and in fall yet another children’s book. At the moment I am working on a novel for adults. A large German newspaper wrote: “The author Hanna Jansen is developing into a specialist in intercontinental relations.”

In fact, three of my books do deal with meetings with people of other continents. My last children’s book tells the story of a Colombian au pair girl, who comes to a family with twins in which there are some problems. It is a humorous and yet serious book.

Also the other three stories are concerned with “exceptional people.”  My first young adult book deals with a 15-year-old boy who must look after his mentally retarded little sister during summer vacation and meets a homeless person who opens his eyes to himself and to life. In my story for Christendom it is about a youth who was severely mistreated as a child, grew up with foster parents and in an orphanage, and is full of mistrust and agressions. And finally, the novel on which I am working now, tells of a dwarf and hermaphrodite who lived in our city and now sits in our city museum as a wax figure.

I like to establish closeness to people who have a hard time in society and on that account try to depict them in their individual feelings and strengths, to make them into “heroes,” who can become loved by the reader.

I hope that my books help to diminish prejudice, racism, and exclusion of any kind and thus to open eyes to what basically unites people, as different as they may be.

Meanwhile, most of my books have also been published in other countries. 
How did you come to write Over a Thousand Hills I Walk With You? What inspired you to tell Jeanne’s story?

Jeanne and I had already been discussing it together for four years. The older she became, the more we tried to see her detailed memories in the whole context of the genocide, to draw on other sources, in order to “understand” the connections better. 

The discovery that this genocide was continually ignored by Western media and Western policy, not only while it was happening but also for a long time afterward, and that very  many people in this country did not even know where Rwanda was gave me the idea of writing a book in which there develops close emotional proximity  to a child who was subjected to such a dreadful experience.  It was also to correct the picture of an “uncivilized Africa,” so that no one could get the idea that the fearful crimes were committed by so-called “savages.”  The possible comparison with German history, for example, was always present in me.

Moreover, writing the book meant for me personally coping with the terrible events that through the children also have become a part of our personal history. And I wanted to draw Jeanne’s parents and siblings out of the void of namelessness so that they could be seen as persons who are known and loved. Proxies for the other millions of dead. It was also Jeanne’s wish to give the victims a face and a voice.

Our conversations for the book were labors of memory and grief; they helped Jeanne to take leave and to open herself to her new life. And I also wanted to tell something about hope and the strength to live.
How involved was Jeanne in the writing process?

Jeanne was not directly involved in the writing process, but she was my most important source. That means that I kept asking her very discriminating questions: how something tasted, exactly how something looked, and how the life together of the family members and the people of Rwanda had been organized at that time. Jeanne is a relatively matter-of-fact person with a memory that is clearly above average, so in that respect she was a very reliable witness. In order, however, to be able to tell the story vividly and suspensefully, I had to unfurl my own powers of imagination and in one thing or another “invent truthfully.” We complemented each other in a marvelous way and with all that I devised for plot, I ended up being intuitively very close to the reality. Jeanne checked the finished chapters to give me feedback about success. My intuitions were sometimes so close to her experiences that I would invent something that Jeanne had in fact experienced. Some days she would come to me with the manuscript and say, “Mama, today you remembered something that I had forgotten.”

How do your family and your writing overlap/inspire each other?

That is not an easy question.

On the one hand, the varied life with the children is inspiring, and it also produces stories or incidents and gives me insights into states of heart, mind, and opinions of very different people.

On the other hand, the needs of the everyday sometimes rob me of the necessary time, and if there are problems in the family to deal with, I often lose the power to get completely involved in writing and the current story.

Both demand me totally, at least at certain stages. So once in a while I must abandon the family, and on some days the place at the desk remains empty. Only in times when everything is flowing smoothly do I find enough room for both at once.  
What was your main motivation behind telling her story? What did you wish to accomplish by publishing the book?

In the first place it was to be a book against indifference and forgetting. Writing it also required me to face my feelings and to see what happened to me when I admitted my own dismay.

I am convinced (because I myself have experienced it thus) that only then, when we allow such an event also to enter our feelings, will the mechanism of repression be breached. It is already remarkable how little this and similar occurrences in the world are perceived by the public so that appropriate reactions follow. Natural catastrophes appear to move people more strongly than the catastrophes that directly originate with human beings and deploy powers just as destructive. Yet the human catastrophes would perhaps be avoidable if it might be managed to deal with the causes and those who must bear them and to give help in coping with the traumas, if only all possible were done to change the conditions of life that are the foundation for such catastrophes. Here the international community is required to look clearly and not to adjust what it sees according to its own interests at the time.  

In Rwanda, in my view, over a period of at least 40 years there has been a history of displacement—by the population as well as by those who have always participated as colonists, missionaries, development aides, partnering countries and such. Only thus can one collective trauma follow the other, indeed, almost become a tradition, and finally end in the unimaginable dimension of a genocide. And I fear that this history is not at an end yet.
But for me, my novel is not only a book about Rwanda. The story is exemplary of the fate of many children in this world, whom I regard as victims in many respects, because they have no opportunities of their own whatsoever to respond to what is rolling over them. They are not only at the mercy of the criminals but also the adults who should protect them. I have told the story exclusively from the incorruptible point of view of a child who has gone through the hell and has thereby perceived much more than we ordinarily believe children to be capable of. When the media again reported about the genocide ten years later, with greater background knowledge meanwhile, I was astonished at how many details suddenly surfaced that I had long ago depicted in my book. When I wrote it, there was little literature about it.  I was therefore continually dependent on my young witnesses and discovered after the event how close I had come to the truth with their help.

What interesting opportunities have you had because of the book being published?

First of all, I am just proud that this book has won an important German children’s book prize, which I share with more than thirty internationally known authors, also with some from the USA.

Beyond that, it has engendered an unusual amount of notice in the press, and I/we have had some television appearances and several radio interviews.

Various peace and human rights organizations, as well as churches, schools, and youth groups all over Germany have invited me to read, with discussions afterward. In so doing, I have met several very engaged people, also prominent ones, such as, for example, the internationally known peace and conflict researcher Johan Galtung from Norway, winner of the alternative Nobel Peace Prize.

The meetings with such people and the experiencing of very moving and intense conversations as a result have given me the feeling of participating, with the help of the book,  in a kind of network for peace.  There is an African saying: When the spider’s threads join together, they can hold a lion.

From many reactions (at readings and also many, many readers’ letters, also from foreign countries) I have learned that the book contributes to being able to imagine at all the dimensions of such events and that when it is read, the resulting closeness to Jeanne’s individual fate awakens the wish to become more intensively concerned with the history of Rwanda, perhaps even to become active. I have often had the experience at readings that listeners cry and that after a first deep perplexity, the questions are unending.

In this respect, the book offers a contribution to the politcs of peace—in an entirely different way from the many important nonfiction books on the subject that have come onto the market since then.  In the meantime, it has has been published in the Benelux countries, France, and Italy, and there is a license contract with Korea.
Who do you think your ideal reader is?

Happily, I have found out that my book reaches very different people—young and old, girls and boys, men and women, the informed and the uninformed, also people of very different social classes, indeed, even fringe groups. Amazingly, in the readings at schools, it is the boys most of all who right afterwards “plague me with questions.” Sometimes I have found that I come into an undisciplined, completely uninterested class, in which later, during the reading, you can hear a pin drop, and from whom I afterwards receive enthusiastic reader’s letters.
This shows me how strongly the story touches people and that my mode of telling speaks to many of them. In very personal letters from readers, thanks are expressed to me and also to Jeanne; some people have even told me of their own suffering and said that the story had given them courage in spite of the horrors described.

Although I think that it is a book outside of any category, I decided to publish it first with a children’s book publisher because I wished that young people, who still have their future before them, be concerned more intensively with the happenings in this world, not close their eyes to the constant violations of human rights, and be ready to exert themselves for a world without military force.

What was the most difficult part of writing this book?

In the preparations, it was hardest for Jeanne to return to the good memories that, until then, she had split off from herself. To feel what she had lost called up enormous grief in her, which I had to cushion. Sometimes I could only hold her tight, not knowing how to comfort her. Nevertheless, it was just this part of the work that was very important.

For me it was the hardest when I was completely alone with the story. Especially the ending of the second part, the murder of Jeanne’s beloved brother affected me deeply. How should I find the words for it? Only rarely in my life have I felt comparably so despairing and alone.

What sources did you use besides Jeanne and her diary?

I read the books about Rwanda that were available at that time. There weren’t many.  Besides, I collected newspaper articles, and I recorded a few television reports in order to have concrete images before my eyes. However, there were few reports in the media, either. Jeanne’s diary wasn’t really a source. She really doesn’t like to write and she only tried to express her feelings on just a few pages.

In essence, I kept asking questions of Jeanne, my other children, and Rwandan friends.

What message do you hope your readers will emerge with after reading Jeanne’s story?

Life is precious! We must handle it wisely and should never give up.

What else can you share with me that will help readers connect with this book?

I hope I have provided the essentials and now only wish that my book will find its way in the United States as it has here and elsewhere.