Betty Jane Hegerat pens stories in the splendid writing community of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where she also teaches, mentors, and offers reading and substantive comment on selective works.
Primarily a writer of fiction, her first love was the short story, and it still is, but she finds herself increasingly drawn to the personal essay. The waves of memory and nostalgia that come with growing older will do that to a person.
She is the author of five books: three novels, a collection of short stories, and a strange hybrid of memoir, fiction, true crime and metafiction that claims to belong to the genre of creative non-fiction. Currently she is working on short fiction.
Betty Jane was honoured to receive the 2015 Golden Pen Award from the Writers Guild of Alberta.
Interview with Betty Jane Hegerat
In reply to your several questions about when I knew I wanted to be a writer, the first stories I wrote, and the point at which I became serious about writing and publishing:
I believe it’s innate in human beings to tell stories, whether they’re hieroglyphics on a cave wall, heroic tales told around fires, or ballads sung by travelling minstrels.
To bring that notion up to date a little – I’m a senior but not prehistoric—we tell stories through music, art, drama, and the written word. I suspect I told my first story when I told my mother that it was my sister, not I (!), who ate the cookies.
I began to write stories when I was a young teen and had the good fortune of some of them being published and winning contests. Those small successes and the encouragement of teachers gave me wistful dream of being a Writer. However, in the era in which I came of age and to my practical hard-working German family, “writer” was not an occupation to which a young woman aspired. More acceptable choices — teacher, nurse, secretary. Perversely, I chose to be a social worker.
I married, raised three children, and then… on my 45th birthday, a friend asked what I hadn’t yet done in my life that I’d dreamed about.” I’ve always wanted to write,” said I, “but even if I began now, if I had anything published it likely wouldn’t happen until I was at least 65”.
And she replied, “Sweetheart, you’re going to be 65 no matter what you do, so take advantage of these years.” The next day she dropped a brochure for writing classes at a local college in my mailbox.
I took courses, joined writing groups, sent out stories prepared for rejection, and every now and again, one of them hit the right editor’s desk. Then some stories refused to be finished and it was clear I was headed into novel territory. After a novel, and a collection of short stories, I enrolled in a low residency MFA Creative Writing program in order to get serious help on a serious project. Of the five books I’ve had published that one is the strongest of them all. It’s creative non-fiction. I write in three genres, I teach creative writing, and I do a great deal of mentoring.
In reply to your several questions about my hopes for my writing, the reactions to my books both positive and negative,
I am a determined individual (read “stubborn”) and I learned early on that there would be negative feedback as well as praise for my work. I don’t write to change the world or send a message. I write because I have stories that I believe are worthy of an audience. What happens to the book after it’s published depends on the reader in whose hands it lands. It’s no longer just my story. I wave goodbye to the characters, wish them luck. On a personal level, I’ve learned that in all of my writing I am trying to make sense of the world, and to find some small modicum of redemption.
The most significant trait a writer needs is perseverance and a thick skin. As many have said before me, writing is about 10% talent and determination and 90% luck. I write, then I rewrite, and I rewrite, and every book I’ve had published has taken at least five years and been through at least six drafts. The Boy, a strange hybrid of investigative journalism, memoir, fiction and metafiction was eight years in the writing. It took me into dark places, and so many times I wanted to stop. In the end I was glad I persevered, because this is the best work I’ve done.
I’ll end with an anecdote that speaks to negative feedback. I attend many book clubs and most times it’s clear to me if there are readers in the group who had either mediocre or negative reactions to the book. Fortunately, there are always more readers who stoke my ego. At a book club in a library, where the book being discussed was my first novel, Running Toward Home, the comment and questions were a pleasure, but one woman sat with arms crossed and lips pursed for quite some time. When it came around to her to give feedback, she said that the story was fine, readable except that one of the main characters – the foster mother of a child in care—was so incredibly whiney that she skipped most of the chapters in Wilma’s point of view. As we were wrapping up the discussion someone asked if there are characters in my stories who could be me. Not often, I said, although there are characters loosely based on people I know. But in this book, I was more present. “Wilma,” I said. “I am the whiney Wilma.”
Thank you, Lily, for inviting me to your blog. It’s been a pleasure meeting you.