The Boy by Betty Jane Hegerat

Writers’ Festivals charge me right up. Every time I go to one, I make a discovery. At Campbell River’s Words on the Water, I was drawn into the ambitious work of the beautiful and stirring Kate Braid. At Saskatchewan Festival of Words, I was moved by the gutsy and energetic Elizabeth Bachinsky and her politically-charged poems. What I admire most about both of these poets is the way they grab onto the inkling of inspiration and let it guide them, even (or especially) when it takes their work in unexpected and untried directions.

That same kind of bravery caught me again this fall at the Lethbridge Word on the Street, this time in the presentation of Betty Jane Hegerat. It’s odd for me to speak of Betty Jane Hegerat as one of my festival discoveries. I know Betty Jane. Every summer, she teaches right here at the Fernie Writers’ Conference, for which I sit on the program advisory board. She has published her books with Oolichan Press, which (again) is located right here in Fernie and owned by my friend Randal MacNair. In fact, last spring, I was asked to review Betty Jane Hegerat’s new novel, The Boy, and I said no. The novel is about a horrifying historical incident, one that involves the death of children. Quite simply, I didn’t want to read this book. It sounds depressing. Who needs it?

But then I heard Betty Jane Hegerat speak of The Boy. Like Kate Braid and Elizabeth Bachinsky, Betty Jane looked fully alive as she described the way this story grabbed onto her and wouldn’t let go, the way it demanded to be told. She didn’t want to write this story any more than I wanted to read it, but the harder she pushed it away, the louder it got. It left her no choice. She would write this sad Stettler story, and since it would have to be at least partly nonfiction, she enrolled in the MFA program at University of British Columbia to hone her Creative Nonfiction skills. Again – there’s that bravery I so admire.

And again it is rewarded. I buzzed through her entire reading at Lethbridge WOTS, each one of her phrases giving me a new jolt of energy. This book contains that spark of life that comes along with risk. Plus, her process (and the passion with which she spoke of it) fascinated me. In the end, Hegerat wrote The Boy not only because it demanded to be written, but also in the way that it demanded to be written – part fiction, part memoir, part nonfiction. Now, she has not only a book about unpleasant material, but also a book that’s very challenging to market. I mean, where does a bookseller put it, right?

This is what I love. Someone who writes a book with no thought to marketing: Halleluiah!

According to National Post’s Mark Medley, there are over 100,000 English books published in Canada every year. If an author only sort of wants to write a book, we don’t need it. We have enough. So, how’s this for a challenge to authors: Only write stories that demand to be written. We can then hope that the initial spark of necessity will transform those stories into books that also demand to be read. I certainly feel that way about The Boy after hearing Betty Jane Hegerat at WOTS.