Saturday, October 15, 2011

Ursula Hegi on Writing From Soul's Experience

Hegi Waits Until Characters Have Lived In Her Head
November 18, 2001
Hartford Courant

HOTEL OF THE SAINTS by Ursula Hegi, Simon and Schuster, $23, 171 pp.

In ``Hotel of the Saints,'' Ursula Hegi's new collection of short stories, a fragile widow redoes her hotel as a theme park of Roman Catholic saints. By exploring young girls with adulterous fathers, battered women and battling sisters, Hegi's stories take her readers on a moving journey of loss and grief, and sometimes of hope and redemption.

In an interview from her home not far from New York City, Hegi said the 11 stories were written and rewritten over the past decade. ``I do between 50 and 100 revisions,'' says Hegi. ``The writing process is about going deeper and deeper, layer by layer, with each revision.

``Sometimes people ask me, `Did that really happen to you?' In a way, after I have written a story, it becomes part of my emotional experience. I become the character. I need to feel what the character is feeling.''

Hegi has written six novels and collections of short stories. The stories in ``Hotel of the Saints'' go from Italy to Germany and the American Northwest. Her beautifully crafted stories show fragmented families -- women who choose to be without men, brothers who have split over petty disagreements, and a husband who has lost a wife he had molded. In ``A Woman's Perfume,'' a motherless daughter at a beach resort is mentored by his father's married lover. Hegi develops the longing behind the memory of the sand on the girl's thighs and the woman's lingering scent.

With the title story, the formidable trio of siblings that make up ``the starch sisters'' are always baking or going to church. There are no husbands around, but they all raise one sister's son, Lenny, who grows up to be a doubt-plagued seminarian. When Lenny's uncle dies, his uncle's widow, Jocelyn, throws off her anti-depressants and years of repression. Aunt Jocelyn refuses to paint her hotel a sterile white. She and Lenny paint it vibrant colors, dedicating each room to a different saint.

The bar is christened Mary Magdalene, and the restaurant is named The Last Supper. ``The honeymoon suite is named after Mary Goretti,'' writes Hegi, ``who died young, defending her virginity.'' With deft humor, Hegi displays the widow's grief, how she remakes her life, and how Lenny confronts his own questions of faith.

The story of Lenny and his aunt were partially inspired by a famous offbeat hotel. ``There is this wonderful hotel on the Oregon coast called the Sylvia Beach Hotel, where every room is dedicated to a different writer,'' says Hegi. ``There is the Edgar Allan Poe Room, with the blood-red bedspread and the hatchet, and the Tennessee Williams Room, with mosquito netting.''

Hegi, who is in her 50s, came to the United States from her native Germany in 1965. ``I came here to get away,'' she says, with a trace of an accent. ``Part of it was being 18. I ended up staying.'' Besides her novels, Hegi has made a career of teaching writing, first in New Hampshire and then at Eastern Washington State University. She and her husband moved back East two years ago.

In creating her characters, Hegi often writes from the perspective of people she observes. One example came 20 years ago, when Hegi was dropping off her younger son at kindergarden. ``I noticed this woman standing on the curb, moving her arms in a strange way,'' she says. ``Her hair was almost like the feathers of a duck, and she was wearing a denim suit. There was this vacant look on her face.

``I started taking notes from inside her point of view. Quite often it is, `What would it be like to be that character, standing on the curb?' It's like method acting, in a way.''

Telling Details

One of Hegi's main strengths as a writer is capturing the small detail or action that defines her characters' personalities, explaining their later actions. In ``Lower Crossing,'' the last story in the collection, Libby recounts how her husband ends their marriage by storming out of a diner, leaving his waffles uneaten. Left behind, Libby eats them to try to cover up her public humiliation: ``Whenever I go over things I would do differently in my life,'' says Libby, ``I am sure that I would not sit at that table ... pretending that nothing is wrong, while swallowing Billy's cold spongy waffles that -- on bad days, I swear -- I can still feel sitting on the bottom of my stomach.''

In her story ``The End of All Sadness,'' Hegi goes into the mind of a battered spouse of an ex-convict. In her monologue, the wife is determined to keep her abusive husband, even though it is harming her daughter. In four devastating pages, the text spurts out, with rationalizations and delusions spilling all over. ``It was a very scary story to write,'' admits Hegi. ``I needed to become that woman. I am not that woman, but in order to go there, I had to feel what it was like.''

``It is a very disturbing story,'' she adds. ``The sentence structure changes as though it is told in one breath -- there is very little punctuation.''

Hegi is always working on several manuscripts at once. ``My novel `The Vision of Emma Blau' took nine years to write,'' she says. ``I finished three other books in that time. Some short stories have taken me years. Sometimes I need to leave stories alone and let the character live inside my head.''

Boost From Oprah

Hegi's best-known work is her 1994 novel ``Stones From the River,'' which deals with German guilt and responsibility over the Holocaust. It was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her TV book club. Winfrey's sponsorship resulted in a massive spike in sales for the book and a large Internet following for Hegi.

The power of Hegi's short stories is that they need to be digested, broken apart and examined. The reader will remember the battered woman or fragile Aunt Jocelyn for quite a while and will wonder what could happen to them. ``I never want to write a story that slams down at the moment when the story ends,'' says Hegi. ``The ending opens up another story after that.''

``Ninety-nine percent of the time, I don't know how a story will end,'' Hegi admits. ``What draws me into a story is seeing the characters together and what develops between them. If I already knew the ending, I wouldn't have to write the story.''

Dylan Foley is a free-lance book critic who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. He wrote this article for The Courant.

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