Hegland's overnight success took about five years

March 23, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us
[ "Into the Forest" is on Elisabeth Sherwin's List of Best Books, the 1997 compilation ]

Jean Hegland's first novel, "Into the Forest," is about to become a best-seller but like most things that appear to be overnight successes, this was anything but.

I spoke to Hegland, 40, by phone recently from her home outside Healdsburg and she told me that at least part of the book's creation did, in fact, come overnight.

"The book had an interesting genesis," she said. She and her husband and children had just moved to their house in the country, in a place not unlike the setting for "Into the Forest."

"One night I couldn't sleep, which is extremely unusual for me," she said. "I couldn't get up and wake everyone else, so I stayed in bed and told myself a story. By the time the sun came up I had this vision, this story, in mind and was compelled by it. I even knew what the ending would be. I thought I knew the story well and could blast it out in about six months."

Five years later, the book was published by a small feminist press, Calyx, in Corvallis, Ore. Now the book has been sold to Bantam and will be re-issued in September.

Hegland laughs at how na´ve she was initially. If she had known how long it would take, she might not have started the project.

"Into the Forest" is what's called a "future history."

"Everything in it is true, it just hasn't happened yet," says Hegland. It's the story of two teen-age girls, sisters, in Northern California who learn to live on their own when their parents die and society disintegrates.

The story takes place in the near future when society's myriad problems converge. One by one, services fail. First the mail stops being delivered, then the banks close, then the electricity blinks off.

At first these are merely inconveniences, failing to unduly alarm Nell, her sister, Eva, or their parents. They live out in the country at the very end of the road, 32 miles from the nearest small town of Redwood. The sisters are home-schooled by their off-beat parents.

Gas supplies dry up. Schools close. They begin to hoard food, can fruits and vegetables, cut quantities of timber for firewood, and save each sliver of soap. Finally, they are entirely cut off from the rest of the increasingly chaotic world. But still they wait and hope for life to return to the way it used to be. But their mother dies, followed by their father. Slowly, over a period of months, Nell and Eva begin to realize that life as they once knew it will never be the same. They can't count on anyone but themselves. They have no government, no parents, no boyfriends - and they are increasingly in danger. They have to meet the physical challenges of a new world if they want to survive and they have to do it together.

One of the things that slowed Hegland down in terms of writing the book was the need for research.

"I had to research chain saws and native plants," she said. She also researched wild-pig hunting and gardening and drew on her own knowledge of childbirth. Hegland wrote a non-fiction book in 1991 called "The Life Within: A Celebration of Pregnancy" published by Humana Press.

Hegland said she felt driven while writing the story.

"As I was writing it, I was immersed in that world. I wanted to write it before things started breaking down. Now I'm drifting away from that sense of urgency. I was and still am worried about the future but I think it's quite a hopeful book even though not everyone reads it that way."

Her daughters, age 8 and 10, are dying to read the book but Hegland has told them they have to wait until they are 14. She also has a 3-year-old son.

Hegland grew up in Washington state and got her master's degree in rhetoric and composition in 1984 from Eastern Washington University. That same year she got married and moved to California where she began teaching at Santa Rosa Junior College with her husband, Douglas Fisher.

She is currently working on a second novel about the state of contemporary motherhood. This novel will not be set in the future. Hegland does not consider herself a science fiction writer even though her favorite writers are Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin.

"I'm not really a science fiction fan," she adds. "I'm more of a literary reader. I never thought of 'Into the Forest' as science fiction."

Hegland says she writes when the littlest one is napping and in the evenings when all the children are in bed. And she is delighted with the success of her book.

"It is so gratifying," she said. "You never know what kind of response will come back to you but I've had incredibly gratifying responses from a variety of people -- from teen-age boys to my mother's friends in their 70s."

Jean Hegland Portrait Jean Hegland is the author of "Into the Forest" published by Calyx Press and to be re-released as hardcover by Bantam Books, September 1997.

Elisabeth Sherwin says "'Into the Forest' gets an unqualified rave review" in her March 2, 1997 column and interviews Jean Hegland in "Hegland's overnight success took about five years," her March 23, 1997 column.

Photo -- Courtesy

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