Art of Mothering
Novelist Jean Hegland balances words with work
By Gretchen Giles
Windfalls can be the unexpected gifts that opportunity and good luck occasionally shake down upon us from the sky. Windfalls are also those fruits loosed from the tree, their ripeness untasted, that fall heavy from the limb and rot by the trunk. In Healdsburg-area author Jean Hegland’s new novel, Windfalls (Atria Books; $25), both the great deep surprise of good luck and the terrible waste of letting that which is ripe go wasted are closely observed.
Like Hegland’s acclaimed 1997 novel, Into the Forest, and her first book, A Life Within: A Celebration of Pregnancy, a non-fiction work illustrating the journey of pregnancy, Windfalls also concerns women, children and family. A literary science fiction inquiry, Into the Forest follows two sisters making do in the woods while society crumbles slowly around them. Windfalls places two very different women in the exultant and exhausting rigors of motherhood.
Hegland, who has three children of her own, is currently at work on a new novel that also examines family. But after that, she chuckles, she’s done with the nuclear circle for a while. “As a writer,” she says by phone from her home studio, “I’ve sort of mined that vein.”
She’s certainly mined it deeply in Windfalls. As a graduate student, Anna gets pregnant, has an abortion, becomes a professional photographer, marries and has two children. She leaves the kids with the nanny in order to quickly go out and try to grab at some art, wandering with a camera hoping that inspiration will fit into her tight time frame. When she phones home she realizes that her call has been the only bad thing about her child and nanny’s entire day. Cerise, on the other hand, gets pregnant in high school, keeps her first child, loses her emotionally, then has another child and loses him to tragedy. With little education, Cerise devotes her adult life to her daughter Melody, working a series of increasingly demeaning jobs in order to support the child who rejects her in the agony of a vicious adolescence. Melody grows up to perform a home tattoo on her own face.
Anna and Cerise, different in education and temperament, share between them the familiar vagaries of motherhood and eventually form a friendship that allows each to help the other. Most importantly, the theme of motherhood versus creativity and the expectation that no one will ever say thanks to Mom pipes through the narrative like oft-tarnished silver threads.
This is a balance that Hegland knows well. “It’s an issue that interests me a lot,” she concedes. “Every woman cuts a different deal; there’s this huge spectrum and everyone’s arrangement is unique. When Into the Forest was published in England, I was in London at a dinner party and it turned out that the other women writers there also had children. Instantly the question was: how do you do it? Everybody’s answer was so different. But the insight that I had that hopefully drives the book and certainly drives my life is that they’re not pursuits that are somehow opposed; they’re not antithetical to each other. The things that I learn as a writer nurture what I do as a mother, and vice-versa.
“My ambition,” she continues, “is to write every day, and every day is a new dance. My rule is that only smoke and major blood are reasons for interrupting me. I try to be very ferocious about getting writing time and also very graceful about giving it up.”
While motherhood actually sparked Hegland’s publishing career, she is one of those wise souls who already knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. “When I was very, very little,” she says, “I wanted to be a writer. And when I was teenager I wrote lots of poems with the word ‘shadow’ in them. In college, I gave up on it because I was so disappointed in the things that I wrote and I knew the kind of writing that I loved. But in graduate school, I learned that I wasn’t a bad writer–I was just writing first drafts. And I realized that I didn’t have to get it right the first time. And now,” she chuckles, “I rely on revision.”
Both Into the Forest and Windfalls took over five years each to write, not a surprising length when one factors in the raising of Hegland’s three active children, the youngest of whom is now just 11. Her next projects will have an environmental theme, one perhaps familiar to Into the Forest readers. “I keep telling myself that in a novel, it’s the story that comes first,” Hegland says. “That’s what’s got to matter most and the didactic stuff, well–a little goes a long, long way.
“It’s a challenge because one can get so fervent, but more is less,” she says firmly, “when it comes to fervency.”
From the April 7-14, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.