Betty Jane Hegerat’s most recent book, The Boy (Oolichan, 2011), weaves fiction, journalism, and memoir into a gripping tale of motherhood and murder. The Boy centers on Louise and her relationship to Danny, her stepson. Louise wants to love her role as stepmother and wants to love Danny too, but she can’t shake the feeling that the boy is, and will always be, trouble.
Just as readers sink into this family fiction, Hegerat jolts us back to the real world. While crafting Louise’s story, Hegerat recalls Daisy Cook, a stepmother murdered along with her five children in 1959 near Hegerat’s (and Louise’s) hometown in Alberta, Canada. Robert Raymond Cook, Daisy’s stepson, was convicted of the murders and became the last person to be executed in Alberta.
Hegerat finds she is unable to separate these threads, the fictional and the historical stepmother. Will these two women share similar fates? Are all troubled stepsons destined for crime? Not if Louise has any say — and she does.
Louise, the character, tries to steer Hegerat, the writer, toward a different plot. This might sound convoluted, but Hegerat pulls it off brilliantly. The author’s own voice — the memoir element of The Boy — holds the fictional and journalistic threads together. We watch Hegerat comb the Alberta countryside in search of remaining friends or relatives willing to talk about the Cooks. We hear Hegerat grapple with her unruly characters and with the grisly family story she unearths.
The Boy has been shortlisted for the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize, and the Wilfred Eggleston non-fiction award in the 2012 Alberta Literary Awards. Hegerat has also written two novels and a collections of short stories.
Literary Mama profile editor, Katherine J. Barrett, spoke with Betty Jane Hegerat about stepmothers, characters who won’t keep quiet, social work, and justice.
Katherine J. Barrett: Mothers of all sorts — alive, dead, fictional, real, step, grand and biological — inhabit the pages of The Boy. Your previous book, the novel, Delivery, also deals with motherhood. Has your own experience of motherhood influenced your writing? Is motherhood something you consciously explore, or does it seep in even as you write on other themes?
Betty Jane Hegerat: Interesting observation. A year or two ago, I would have said that it’s not so much motherhood as family dynamics that preoccupy my writing. But each time I have a new story or book published, one of my children will ask, “Are we in it?” And each time my answer is the same: “You are never characters in my stories, but you are present because you’ve taught me everything I know about motherhood.”
I came back to writing fiction after a long absence. I had a few pieces published when I was a teenager but then totally set writing aside until I was 45. In the years since I’ve been writing seriously, my children have all grown into adulthood. They are now 33, 30, and 23 years old. So they’ve contributed greatly to the well of experience I draw on. For me, writing fiction is about trying to answer hard questions. I suppose questions about mothering are among them, but I don’t think I’ve consciously set out to explore them.
KJB: The central question of The Boy is fascinating and vital: “How does someone learn to love someone else’s child?” In The Boy, this applies to stepmothers and stepsons. You mention in the book that your career in social work raised this question for you. Can you tell us about this experience and inspiration?
BJH: It’s a question I’ve mulled all through my social work experience, much of which was in child welfare, and then in adoptions for the ten years before I “retired” to devote time to writing. In spite of the obvious sadness and challenges around broken families and children shuffled into the care of others, I was sustained always in social work by the presence of foster parents and adoptive parents who could meet that challenge. I have a good friend who is one of the most extraordinary mothers I have known. She opened her home to children who had exhausted all the other possibilities and adopted eight of them because she knew there was nowhere else for them to go. And she loves them — unconditionally. I’ve learned from her how much the human heart can hold; I’ve also watched the heartbreaking struggles she has faced.
The number of blended families in our society continues to grow, and I’ve known many, but I’ve never consciously explored that theme. When I started writing The Boy, I believed it would be a short piece of fiction about a character named Louise. I knew she would be drawn into a relationship with a man somewhat older than herself, and that the man would have a son who Louise suspected would be a problem. When I recalled the Cook murder case, however, I understood why I had such difficulty allowing Louise’s story to unfold: I was frightened for her. So the book became more an exploration of how a child who is simply a problem can shift into a child who poses a danger. That too was a constant in my child welfare work. I think often of the troubled children I knew 30 or almost 40 years ago and wonder where they are now.
KJB: Louise struggles to love her stepson Danny, but she also struggles to accept Brenda, Danny’s biological mother. Although Brenda has passed away, Louise finds reminders of her habits, her cooking and sewing for instance. For me, these scenes gave insight into the stepmother role and how difficult that can be. Did writing about Louise — and listening to Louise — change your view of step-motherhood?
BJH: Yes, listening to Louise made me reconsider some of my own judgements. Initially, I found myself not liking Louise and her reaction to Danny. “Cut the boy some slack!” I kept wanting to shout. But the more I dug into the Cook murders, the more I became obsessed with Daisy, the murdered stepmother, and the more I sympathized with Louise. At the same time, I felt growing empathy for Louise’s stepson, Danny, and I realized what a struggle this relationship was for both of them.
KJB: The Boy has a very unusual structure: part fiction, part journalism, part memoir. As I read, this structure took me by surprise – I didn’t expect the change in viewpoint – and added unexpected depth to the book. Did the structure take you by surprise too, or had you planned such a book when you wrote the first scene?
BJH: Finding the right structure for The Boy was a huge challenge (although not as huge as delving into such dark material). I tried many times to abandon the whole project, but realized that the only way out of my obsession was to write it. For three years, I tried different approaches: Would I use Louise’s story to tell a fictionalized version of the Cook story and free myself from strict adherence to truth? Or would I simply write a factual story of the Cook family and their sad demise?
I love writing fiction. I can embellish, turn a story inside out and upside down. Writing fiction would have been the easier course; I could have saved myself the research, which is not something I love. But the more I delved into the Cook family history, the more I felt that to fictionalize their story was to do them a dishonour. I finally realized that the only way I could put this story to rest, and to satisfy my need for a redemptive ending, was to marry fiction and fact. Yes the Cook story ended horrifically, but perhaps it could have gone another way.
At that point, I set aside advice from people I respected, and let the two threads intertwine. A draft or two later, I did take advice from one of those respected mentors and added a third thread: I put myself into the story. That was hard, but it pulled the story together. When I gave myself permission to talk about the struggles I had with the material, I was able to stop fretting and just write.
KJB: Many fiction writers claim that their characters “take over” and direct the plot. New writers and non-writers might find this hard to imagine. In The Boy, however, we see this process in action. We hear Louise both in and out of character; we watch her intervene in the plot and we watch you try to control her. Did you find it liberating to set Louise free in this way, to give her a voice beyond her character?
BJH: I’ve started many stories with a character who seems to insist that I tell her or his story, but I’ve never had a character who has gotten under my skin like Louise. If I left her story for too long, I would hear her nagging voice in my head. Of course, it was my own voice, nagging because I had become committed to Louise’s character. At these times, I used a tool I often use when tangents threaten to break my writing focus: I stopped and scribbled down the bits of dialogue Louise and I were engaged in, and promised I would come back to them later. When it came time to braid the threads of The Boy — fiction, investigation, and memoir/writer’s journal — I found they needed some stitching to secure them, and the conversations with Louise found their place in the book’s structure. One of the best things about finishing The Boy, confining it between two covers, is that I have finally stifled Louise.
KJB: You are a teacher as well as a writer of fiction. In The Boy you say: “Write boldly! Hadn’t I given that advice to other writers? If the writing frightens you, you’re finally getting somewhere?” Did writing The Boy, unveiling the fiction-writing process, change the advice you give students? Has The Boy altered the way you teach writing?
BJH: Writing The Boy has given me insight into writing non-fiction, and has led me to take a much stronger position on how we write about real people and their lives. I continue to advise students to “write boldly,” but I modify that advice now. I found myself in some very dark places while writing this book, and there were many times when I wished I hadn’t gone there. It seemed an obsession and I’m glad I could write my way out of it, but I would never suggest that anyone go looking for these places. It’s hard enough to find yourself there by accident.
KJB: Coincidentally, the last interview I wrote for Literary Mama was with Naseem Rakha, author of The Crying Tree. That novel deals with the death penalty and how it affects both victims and perpetrators. Similar themes arise in The Boy. Did exploring the Cook murders and the execution of Robert Raymond Cook alter your views on justice, or politics in general?
BJH: I came to this project with a lifelong abhorrence of the death penalty, and this was reaffirmed in a very big way during my exploration of the Cook trials. Robert Raymond Cook was convicted on circumstantial evidence. Fifty years later, there remains dissent over the guilty verdict. Throughout the writing of this book, I asked myself: “How could this have happened to a seemingly ordinary family in a small town in Alberta?” And, of course, I asked the companion question: “How could it have been prevented?” My position on justice, and in particular on crime, did not change during this exploration. I believe even more resolutely that bigger prisons are not the solution.
KJB: The Boy has received rave reviews and has been shortlisted for several awards. What’s next for you?
After The Boy was published, I took a long break from writing and focused on readings and presentations, and also visiting book clubs, which I love. I have a young adult novel looking for a home at the moment, a book I returned to as soon as The Boy was on its way to publication. Now, I find myself wanting to get back to short fiction. I love the short story as an art form, and look forward to dabbling there again.