I’m perpetually intrigued by how stories we hear in the news, in our communities and from our friends weave their way into our own personal narratives. Once they’ve lodged themselves in our brains, these other people’s stories, I’m interested in what we do with them. Even the most horrible of stories can help us gain insight into ourselves and, for writers, they can spark the imagination.
Betty Jane Hegerat has taken a very public story and transformed it into a personal one: part fiction, part memoir. The Boy, which was recently released by Oolichan Books, is about the real life mass murder of a couple and their 5 children in a small Alberta town in 1959. The murderer? The father’s son from his first marriage. The boy. I haven’t read it yet, but it sounds absolutely fascinating.
Betty Jane has written 3 previous books and she also teaches creative writing. I learned about her first through Susan Toy and when I found out she was doing a blog tour of sorts for the book, I jumped at the opportunity to talk to her about her creative process. (And no, there was no Canada Council for the Arts grant money behind it.) Betty Jane agreed to meet with me to chat about The Boy on a bright Sunday morning. I’d woken up earlier than expected, sent off a quick email saying I was online whenever she was ready, and soon enough we started chatting, the morning light streaming into my work space at my kitchen table. Despite the sunshine, our conversation veered to darker territory: obsession. I wanted to know how the Cook murders became the basis for Betty Jane’s latest work, and I was curious about how her own sons reacted to the fact that their mother was writing about this particular story.
Betty Jane has also posted an audio excerpt from the book that touches on some of the topics we chatted about. She has some book launches coming up in Alberta over the next few weeks – be sure to see her if you’re in town. Thank you, Betty!
Teri: Hi Betty – good morning to you! It’s quite early in Calgary; I hope you’ve had enough coffee.
BJH: I’ve had the first cup. I may need another, but for now I’m alert, staring out into a Christmas card from my office window. The sun is shining on 15 cm of new snow! Spring in Calgary.
Teri: Wow! Spring snow isn’t unusual here in Montreal, but it’s deliciously spring-like outside today – sorry. The sun is what woke me up this morning. Congratulations on the publication of The Boy!
BJH: Thank you – I’m excited about the book, relieved that it’s finished, deeply grateful to Oolichan for publishing.
Teri: Where is your first launch?
BJH: My first reading will be in Regina on April 24. My official launch is here in Calgary on May 5th at Memorial Park library — beautiful old Carnegie library — where I was writer-in-residence in 2009. I’m really excited about the launch. My son and his girlfriend who are music students in the jazz program at the University of Toronto are putting together a combo to bring a little jazz to the evening. Lots of friends, wine, food and music.
Teri: That sounds amazing! There are many personal details that have been poured into The Boy. From what I understand, it’s part fiction, part non-fiction?
BJH: It is a strange hybrid, Teri. I never expected to write memoir. My sense of privacy is extreme and I’m cautious even in fiction in guarding my life, but the memory of this mass murder touched a nerve, and the story I was working on as I was reluctantly researching the Cook murders became so entangled that I couldn’t separate them. While I was writing the book I was frequently cautioned about the weirdness of it all and told that no one would know what to call it. Is it a novel? Is it memoir? Is it a work of creative non-fiction? I tried to go in the direction of pure fiction and simply write a story that had a family with a similar demographic, a similar small town Alberta setting and with the problems inherent in a stepmother/troubled son relationship. Didn’t work.
Teri: The story has been percolating for awhile, then? What made you decide to get started? Or has it been a long-time work in progress?
BJH: The fiction started about seven years ago. The memory of the Cook murders bubbled up after about a month of struggling with the story. I tried to hold it all at bay for a while and talked with some people whose judgment I respect. What kept coming up was my obsession with the family dynamic that could breed such a horrible outcome. Melanie Little was the Markin Flanagan writer-in-residence at the University of Calgary. When I talked with her, she said, Write about the obsession. Right! But how to do that…
Teri: Understandably. It is, in a way, a dark obsession.
BJH: Yes, the obsession is dark indeed. The story gave me nightmares. For me, the easiest way to go about it was to give the obsession to fictional characters. Louise, the stepmother in the fiction, was the obvious, but she is a crotchety character and she resisted.
Teri: But, at the root of it, The Boy handles themes you’ve always written about, no? Family interactions.
BJH: Absolutely. More specifically — sons. How could a son murder his family?
Teri: Was your family puzzled by your obsession with these murders? Your children, in particular?
BJH: Ah yes, my own family! My children found my obsession with this grisly murder so out of character! I am their cheerful mother.
Teri: Ah, the secret, interior life of the writer!
BJH: My youngest son was still at home while the work was in progress. He was witness to my hours of hand-wringing and saw the morbid material I was reading. My sons, in fact, were at the heart of my obsession, I think. Contemplating an ordinary family in which a son becomes a two-bit criminal at 12 and then goes on to massacre the entire family… yipes!
Teri: You teach creative writing too, right? Writing The Boy must have been a good learning experience that could then be turned into a good teaching opportunity.
BJH: It was a huge learning experience. This project led me to apply to UBC and the two years I spent working on my MFA in Creative Writing gave me access to brilliant writers. I knew nothing about writing non-fiction. The courses I took helped me find my path and to adopt a strict adherence to truth and fact. Now, when I talk about non-fiction in the classes I teach, I lay out my own manifesto, but tell my students we all find our own limits. I have to tell you that part wasn’t easy, because I have a fiction writer’s love of embellishment and bending truths.
Teri: The research you had to do for this book was also probably different than your previous books then.
BJH: Oh Lord! The research was hideous. I hate doing research! This is why I write contemporary fiction. I do not want to interview, dig through court transcripts, drive all over the province tracking people for their 50 year old memories. I want to make it up. I love fiction because it allows me to turn a story inside out, upside down, put it sideways on the page if that works best. I’m back to fiction!
BJH: I also found the research difficult because it was such a sad story and many of the people I spoke with knew this family well. I felt like an intruder.
Teri: I was also wondering about that aspect: about telling someone else’s story, almost.
BJH: I think the book explains my obsession and my purpose but I’m sure there will be people who feel I’ve taken unfair advantage in using this family’s story.
Teri: People accuse writers of taking unfair advantage for even the most fictional of stories! It’s just easier to accuse the non-fiction writer of it. Do you feel like, by having written and now published the book, that you’ve solved the riddle of your obsession?
BJH: Yes, I think I have put the obsession to bed even though I haven’t found the answer to how such an event could have happened. Everything I write — fiction and non-fiction– is fueled by a need to make sense of something in life, mine or someone else’s life or Life itself. The point I finally reached in The Boy, was the admission that no one will ever know what happened the night the Cooks died, but we can’t change that. Lives derail, tragedy happens, but for the most part, we keep on going with the belief that if we are alert and responsive to the people around us, that’s the best we can do.