Featured Interview: Betty Jane Hegerat

Betty Jane Hegerat is the author of three novels, a collection of short stories, and a book of creative non-fiction. She graduated from the MFA Creative Writing Low-Residency Program.

Hi, I’m Betty Jane Hegerat. I applied to the UBC Creative Writing program with the particular intention of exploring the possibilities of creative non-fiction. I had a challenging work in progress at the time. The program was a gift. The novel I completed as my thesis, Delivery, was published in 2009, the year after I graduated. The challenging book became The Boy and was published in 2011, and I’ve just launched a YA novel, Odd One Out, that I began in Glen Huser’s summer course, Writing for Children. I am referring to this threesome as my UBC hat trick. I’m a born and raised Alberta writer and have lived in Calgary for the past 45 years. I graduated just a few days short of my 60th birthday and I am a vocal advocate of lifelong learning.

Could you tell us a little about your novel?

Odd One Out was published by Oolichan books in May 2016. Oolichan also published three other of my books — a novel, a collection of short fiction, and my strange hybrid of investigative journalism, memoir and fiction — and I’ve been proud to have my words between the covers of their beautiful design.

This new book has a 15 year old male narrator with a “perfect” twin sister, and 5 year old twin sibs each with their quirky personalities. The life of this very ordinary two parent Canadian middle-class family is turned upside by the arrival of a young woman from a Mennonite village in Mexico. The book is about the upset that can ensue when a new family member arrives on the doorstep.

What was the process of writing your novel?

I wrote Odd One Out almost as therapy, catharsis after I finished The Boy which led me into dark places I kept trying to avoid. I finished the first draft during the month of January 2011 while in residence at Wallace Stegner House in Eastend, Saskatchewan. I highly recommend this retreat to any writer seeking solitude. I set that draft aside to “cure” for almost a year and then returned to forge my way through another four drafts before I sent it Oolichan. After their acceptance, I was fortunate to have Gayle Friesen as my editor and with her help got to a final draft that was significantly stronger.

Why did you choose to write about what you did?

I am a social worker by profession, although retired since I decided almost 20 years ago that it was time to admit that the stories I needed to tell were getting old and so was I. In my last position with an adoption agency, I was responsible for adoption reunion, the intermediary between adopted children and birthparents seeking contact. Each one of my books has a thread spun out of the yarn of my years as a social worker. The adoption reunion theme was the starting point for Odd One Out, but I also have a strong predilection to write about pre-teen and teenaged boys — the result of a steady stream of teenagers in our home while out three children were growing up — of trying to fathom what goes on in those boy brains. As well, I have a fascination with Mennonite culture and in particular with the culture of Canadian Mennonites transplanted to Mexico on invitation from the Mexican government a few decades ago.

Where do you get your ideas for fiction from?

The seed of almost everything I’ve written has come from memory of a long ago incident, conversation overheard (I think all writers are hopelessly prone to eavesdropping), a character who flies in out of who-knows-where, lands on my shoulder and natters in my ear until I succumb and write the story he/she insists that I tell. I do not write about the people I’ve met during my social work years. I made a pledge to confidentiality that has become a promise to myself that I will never steal from the people in whose lives I was a necessary intruder. I do however, carry with me a strong of social justice and a flawed system and my characters are sometimes composites of the people I’ve met. Wherever the ideas come from, I know that life is too short to follow them all the their end.

What is one the most important lessons you’ve learned about writing?

First shattered illusion — there is no fortune involved in writing, and particular in writing fiction or poetry. Can you hear the Revenue Canada people laughing all the way from Winnipeg or Ottawa or wherever they keep them locked up? Neither is there a guarantee of fame, apart from the occasional nomination for an award. We do have “famous” authors in Canada and they are worthy of the recognition they receive, but there are far more of us who celebrate the pleasure of seeing our words in print and knowing that our stories have an audience.

For me, the discovery that delighted first was that while writing is a solitary activity, it brings with it ‚Äì if one chooses to be involved — a whole community. Our Alberta community of writers is vast, welcoming, supportive, and there are always people who will help celebrate success, or whine with us when things are not going well. Through retreats, courses ‚Äì those I’ve attended and those I’ve taught — I’ve come to know hundreds of other writers.. And I have made some close and dear friends in becoming part of this world.

How did the Creative Writing program help your writing practice?

The Creative Writing program gave me access to writers/mentors who filled in many gaps in my knowledge of the craft, who pushed me to break through ingrained habits of style and subject. It also gave me a new community of writers at all stages of their careers.

Find Betty online and buy Odd One Out.

Francine Cunningham is the social media executive for the UBC Creative Writing Alumni Association. What does that mean exactly? She is on the Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads accounts and our blog, posting information about our alumni, events and news. She also runs this interview series Featured Alumni and loves being able to get to know the people who make this association what it is. For more information about Francine and her writing find her at www.francinecunningham.ca.