An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Jean Hegland
Author of Windfalls (Atria/Simon & Schuster, August 2004)
By Doris Booth
Jean Hegland follows her well-received debut novel, Into the Forest, with a novel titled Windfalls. The book takes an unflinching look at motherhood and the tough and tender choices every woman faces. Both of the main characters, Cerise and Anna, are young and pregnant. When their lives intertwine, each womanone rich and one pooremerges stronger and inspired by what she learns from the other. Windfalls is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming.
"We're all so alone in mothering," Anna says at one point in the book. "We can't talk about how much they (our children) teach us, how much they cost us, how much we own to them."
Windfalls is a beautiful, gentle novel from a compassionate novelist whose own journey to publication is a story of perseverance and triumph. Here, she talks about her latest book and what it took to make it to the bookstore shelves. "I hope it is a book that focuses on what matters most, how important it is to stick
with people. . ."
Hegland AUTHORLINK: Where did you get the idea for Windfalls?
HEGLAND: I had seen a newspaper article about a woman who had lost a child. The article was too small to tell who she was or her circumstances, but I began thinking about her and realized that a story like hers might allow me to explore a lot of questions in my own life about motherhood–questions I believe are universal, but also particular questions about how art fits into our lives. The story became the container for a lot of things that interested me.
AUTHORLINK: Is this your first novel?
HEGLAND: Windfalls is my third book, but only my second novel.
AUTHORLINK: How does Windfalls differ from your first novel?
HEGLAND: It's quite different in many ways. My first novel, Into the Forest is set in near future. It's the tale of two teenaged women in Northern California at a time when all the devices we are lucky enough to consider essentialsuch as computers and phone servicehave slowly broken down. Both books are similar in that they look at what people do in extreme circumstances as they struggle with a strand of hard-won hope. Both novels feature two female protagonists.
AUTHORLINK: What is the message of Windfalls?
HEGLAND: I'd be hard pressed to choose the main message. I hope it is a book that focuses on what matters most, how important it is to stick with people, and how hard it is to be a mother, though we go on doing the job anyway.
AUTHORLINK: Do you have children of your own?
HEGLAND: I have three children, an 11 year old son, and two daughters, ages 15 and 17. " . . .I realized I wasn't writing junk. I was merely writing first drafts."
AUTHORLINK: How did you begin writing?
HEGLAND: I always wanted to be writer from the time I was little. I have always been a reader. By the time I reached college, I could see clearly that there was a huge gap between the books I read and the things I tried to write. I told myself 'I guess you're not a writer,' and I gave up on the hope.
Then while I was doing graduate work in rhetoric and composition, I realized I wasn't writing junk. I was merely writing first drafts. I felt if I could stick with it and go about the whole process of perfecting, maybe I could write after all. At that point I was in my mid 20s and writing very seriously.
AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to become published?
HEGLAND: It took five years to write my first book. I tried to find an agent, but couldn't. So, without an agent, I found a small nonprofit press in Oregon named Caylix, and they published my first fictional book, Into the Forest. Incredibly, Bantam picked up the book. Caylix took the book, which had been out about two or three months, to the American Booksellers Association. A bookseller saw it, began hand selling the book, and told a publisher's representative about it. He subsequently took it to Bantam.
AUTHORLINK: How did you find Caylix?
HEGLAND: Well, I had given up on agents, and also given up on the idea of being published by a large New York house. I went through a writer's guide and made a list of about a dozen small presses that sounded suitable for my work. "Bantam bought both Into
the Forest and Windfalls. The second book was to go through four editors at Bantam."
Hegland AUTHORLINK: So, how did Bantam get involved?
HEGLAND: The rep had taken the book to several publishers, and they called the publisher at Caylix. The day the small publisher called me about the deal, I had the answering machine on. He screamed into the phone, "Jean, pick up. You've got to pick up. We're in a bidding war with several publishers!"
AUTHORLINK: But you had no agent?
HEGLAND: No, still no agent. Caylix had the rights, so they signed Elizabeth Wales in Seattle as our agent. I am still with Elizabeth, and she is wonderful to work with.
AUTHORLINK: But both Into the Forest and Windfalls were destined for a challenging publishing history, right?.
HEGLAND: True. Bantam bought both Into the Forest and Windfalls. The second book was to go through four editors at Bantam. Two left, one died, and the fourth didn't like the book and cancelled the contract.
AUTHORLINK: How did you feel?
HEGLAND: It was a very painful experience. Elizabeth Wales reminded me that I am not special. It happens to many other writers. Then Wales sold it to Simon & Schuster.
AUTHORLINK: But that wasn't the end of the story?
HEGLAND: No. My first editor at S&S left. Thank goodness my current editor is Brenda Copeland. And I couldn't be happier with anyone. She's terrific.
AUTHORLINK: Did Brenda make a lot of revisions?
HEGLAND: By time she got the manuscript, there wasn't much left to do. She did give me some very insightful help. I also gained good editorial advice from the editor who had died, and from the editor who had the book at S&S before Brenda.
AUTHORLINK: What an awful process. How did you survive mentally?
HEGLAND; It was hard. Sometimes it was frustrating, at other times humiliating, heartbreaking, really. But it was also character building, though my kids would say I didn't need any more character. I felt if I were going to survive, I had to find some good in it. The moral of the story is to just keep writing. The glorious success of being published and the hard times I sustained to get there are not as important as the deep engagement I feel when I write. "It's very important for me
to write every day. I can't wait
for inspiration to happen."
Hegland AUTHORLINK: What are your writing patterns?
HEGLAND: It's very important for me to write every day. I can't wait for inspiration to happen. I have to make it happen. I spend about 20 hours per week at the keyboard. With three kids, the question arrises every day about when I'm going to get time to write. But I am ferociously disciplined about writing, and also very grateful when the rest of world intervenes because as a writer I am constantly balancing between my need to write and my family's needs.
AUTHORLINK: Do you outline when you write?
HEGLAND: I begin with vague ambitions and hopes about the ground the story might cover and where it might end up. I discover a lot along the way. An outline would curtail the process. I'd lose the fascinating details that surface on their own. "My characters
kept me going."
Hegland AUTHORLINK: Are you working on another book now that Windfalls has at last been published?
HEGLAND: I am about two-thirds of the way through another novel. It is very different from the previous two. I haven't even shown it to my agent. After my last experiences, I want this book to burst into the world. I'll send it to Elizabeth Wales as a Christmas present this year, and am hopeful that we'll see it published.
AUTHORLINK: What tricks do you use to keep the inspiration going?
HEGLAND: While writing Windfalls, I volunteered at a homeless shelter for a year, and ate in the soup kitchen. I also spent time in the darkroom. It helped to put myself in physical situations similar to those of my characters.
It took me so long (five years) to write Windfalls. My characters kept me going. I love them so much, and I was driven to tell their stories. I am committed to them. For me, writing is not a hobby. It is a career. I can't imagine not writing. It's definitely a piece of my life that is very important to me. "Stick with it. Don't give up.
As long as you love writing
just keep doing it."
Hegland AUTHORLINK: Do you have any advice for writers struggling to break in?
HEGLAND: Stick with it. Don't give up. As long as you love writing just keep doing it. You have to be canny and organized. There is a time when you have to send things out. Choose good matches, learn the aspects of the business. In the end, it's not the business, though, that counts. It's the writing.
"The thing that matters to me
a great deal is my passion
for stories–the belief
that stories do matter!"
AUTHORLINK: How would you like for readers to perceive you?
HEGLAND: The thing that matters to me a great deal is my passion for stories–the belief that stories do matter! They help us find meaning for our lives.
Finally, I am driven to answer the compelling questions I ask myself, like how would you go on if you lost a child? After my first daughter was born, I thought about that. It's a visceral thing. It came to me that I might just kill myself, or perhaps have more children. Then I thought, that's not fair, not right. You have to find a meaning that somehow transcends the loss. People have been losing children throughout history and they still go on. the feeling I have for people in that situation is that it is both a blessing and a curse that they ultimately must go on.
Telling the story helped me realize that being a mother and an artist doesn't have to be an either/or situation. For many people they are mutually supportive roles, not exclusive at all. In the book, Ana's life as a mother enriches her work, and her work makes her a better mother. [email protected], 707 433-9574.Doris Booth