Ursula Hegi writes without a net. Like a tightrope walker, she writes at a certain distance from the audience, balancing on a taut wire, her words coalescing out of the darkness. Inherent is a sense of danger, but there is nothing ostentatious or showy about what she's doing -- in fact, what's remarkable is the simple, daring act of moving forward. In previous works such as Floating in My Mother's Palm, Stones from the River and The Vision of Emma Blau, the former Spokanite and EWU emeritus professor of English weighs themes of belonging and exclusion, memory and revision. Although already much respected by book critics and fellow writers, she gained a measure of mainstream success in 1997 when her book Stones from the River was chosen as one of Oprah's early "Book Group" selections.
Hegi, who moved to New York state in 1998, returns to Spokane this Saturday to read from her new book, Hotel of the Saints, a collection of short stories from the past 12 years or so. While the pieces in Hotel of the Saints stand alone, they are nevertheless tenuously connected to each other and her earlier body of work.
"When I chose stories to come together in [Hotel of the Saints], I was looking for connecting themes. I never start out that way; I never begin a story with the theme. I don't believe in that," she says. "What I found in these stories afterwards -- what really connected them -- was that in each of these stories, the characters take risks. In searching out the places where faith lies for each of them, they take enormous risks."
The risks, while having outward repercussions, are more often than not those of an internal nature. In "Stolen Chocolates," a woman runs into the love of her youth, only to find that he has nearly tripled in size. A man's superficial relationship with his father in "Moonwalkers" is challenged both by his father's new heart and by how his father begins to take on the characteristics of the donor, a 25-year-old woman. In "Lower Crossing" ("the Spokane story," as Hegi calls it), a woman loses her beloved dog to the river; the loss tests her relationship with her sister. And in "The End of All Sadness," a woman chooses to see only sweetness and light in her relationship with an abusive man. Told in the first person, the story feels at times like a claustrophobic slow dance in a suffocating room.
"That was a very scary story to write, specifically in choosing to do it from the first-person perspective," she admits. "I can picture that almost more as a stage monologue, just that character, in her raincoat, talking. Because it's really that voice that carries the story. She reveals things about herself that she would never realize. So the reader in a way knows a lot more about the point of view character. She is truly what you would call an 'unreliable narrator.' "
In fact, it could be said that one of the things that characterizes Hegi's work, both previously and in this collection, is a bittersweet quality. There are moments of indelible humor and lightness, but they occur within frameworks of conflict, loss and confusion. Not surprisingly, as a writer Hegi finds herself working laboriously for those moments.
"I do many revisions, often from 50 to 100 revisions. Each draft helps me to see deeper into those shifting layers of loyalty and love and grief and betrayal and whatever else is going on between the characters."
In writing about the relationships and emotions that form the territory of her work, is there ever the temptation to sentimentalize?
"Oh no, 'sentimental' doesn't belong in fiction," she laughs. "That uneasiness is what I'm drawn to. I gave a reading once, this was about 20 years ago, and a woman came up to me afterwards and said, 'You write about things that most of us don't dare look at.' I had never thought about it that way, but it kind of clarified it for me. For me, there needs to be a very strong tension between me and the material. If that isn't there, it just doesn't draw me."
When Hegi moved to New York a few years ago, it seemed to many that she wanted to be closer to a major literary market and perhaps rub elbows with the likes of John Irving or maybe Saul Bellow. In actuality, her husband, photographer Gordon Gagliano, is a native New Yorker who still has family in the area. And living two hours outside the city, her life is not as far removed from the Inland Northwest as one might think.
"It's not all that different in terms of day-to-day life from what I had in Spokane. What's the same is being near water, getting out in my kayak whenever I can, swimming a lot and writing, although I wouldn't actually put the writing last," she laughingly amends. "But I do need that balance between the writing and the physical activities, which, in a way, nurture the writing. The writing continues even when we're doing other things."
Ursula Hegi reads from Hotel of the Saints on Saturday, Nov. 3, at Auntie's. Call: 838-0206.