Multiple award winner Ursul Hegi moved from West Germany to the U.S. in 1964. She has lived on both coasts, in the states of Washington and New York.
Hegi's first two books had American settings; but when she was in her '40s, she began investigating her cultural heritage in stories about life in Germany. Her critically acclaimed 1994 novel Stones from the River gathered further momentum when it was selected in 1999 as an Oprah's Book Club pick.
Among numerous honors and awards, Hegi has received an NEA Fellowship, several PEN Syndicated Fiction Awards, and a book award from the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA) in 1991 for Floating in My Mother's Palm. She has taught creative writing and has written many reviews for acclaimed publications like The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post.
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Hegi immigrated to the U.S. in 1964, at the age of 18.
After it was rejected by several publishers, Hegi destroyed the manuscript of her first novel. She explains herself in this way:
"[The novel] was called Judged, and I wrote it between 1970 and 1972. When Intrusions -- my first novel brought into print -- was accepted for publication, I was a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire, and one of the other students said it would be interesting to write a thesis on my two unpublished novels. By then I knew that I didn't want to publish Judged. It just wasn't very good, and I knew I didn't want to revise it. But I had learned a lot from writing it -- especially how not to write a novel. I went home, made paper airplanes with my children from the manuscript, and landed them in the wood stove.
My second unpublished manuscript, written in the mid-1970s, was The Woman Who Would Not Speak. It was set in Germany, and I used quite a bit of the material, in very different form, for two later novels, Floating in My Mother's Palm and Stones in the River. I always felt that I wanted go further with those characters. When I began Floating, it helped a lot to have descriptions that I'd written not too long after leaving Germany. Floating contains one chapter, called "The Woman Who Would Not Speak," which gives you an idea of the storyline and characters in the book.
I revise my work between 50 and 100 times, going deeper each time. But part of revision is also knowing what to abandon."
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As far back as I can remember, there were stories. How I loved to disappear into those stories when my mother told them to me or read them from books. Evenings, after she would turn off the light, I'd tell my own versions to my younger sister. Years later my mother would tell me that she and my father used to stand outside our bedroom door, listening.
I learned how to read when I was five, and by the time I was six, I had figured out that the only thing that could possibly be more exciting than reading would be writing. But I didn't know anyone else who wrote. It seemed a weird thing to do. And yet, writing felt as natural to me as breathing. I'd walk along the Rhine River by myself, sit on the jetties, write poetry. I wrote stories. Began a novel. Finished half of it on lined paper.
I read whatever I could find at home, in the church library, and under the cover of our ironing board, where our housekeeper hid trashy romances. By the time I was 12, I'd gone through nearly everything my parents had on their shelves: Kafka and tales of the saints; Edgar Wallace mysteries and Goethe; Dostoevsky and the catechism. I loved Thomas Mann as much as young girls' adventure sequels. Often I read with a flashlight under my blanket. Since my mother did not allow me to have comic books -- she believed they stunt your imagination by feeding you pictures along with the words -- I read comics at my friends' houses. Also taboo were books that had even the slightest bit to do with sex. Those were locked up in a glass case in our living room. But once I found out where the key was, I sneaked in there whenever my parents were out for the evening. The book I remember most vividly was about the Titanic. I can't recall its title or author -- only that it had at least five unchaste scenes of women and men inside their cabins in the hours before the Titanic sank.
I was a greedy reader, a fast reader. What I looked for then -- just as I do now -- were books that sucked me into their pages, books that let me identify with their characters, books that made me even forget that I was turning pages. I gave myself over to the passion of words. I was a Christian martyr in Rome. A murderer in Russia. A grandmother in Norway. I gave birth a decade before I ever became pregnant. Rode a horse through the American West years before I arrived here from Germany as an 18-year-old immigrant.
I feel fortunate to live a life that's so deeply connected to books; I read them, write them, review them, teach them. Yet, since much of my reading now has to do with responding to what I've read, the magic of being sucked into the pages happens less frequently. Whenever it does, though, I know what it's all about. Like that day when I stood in a bookstore and opened Isabel Allende's Eva Luna. Within the first few words I forgot where I was. After I bought the book, I stood reading on the sidewalk.
I tell my students how to re-create that magic for themselves. At the library or a bookstore, they scan 50 first paragraphs from books by writers whose work they don't know. After they choose three writers whose work affects them strongly, they go with the one who makes them vanish into the pages, and then read everything that writer has written. I teach them how essential it is to give ourselves time for the silent and greedy reading we discovered as children, the reading we do just for ourselves, the reading that lets us emerge from a book dazed. Awed. Transformed.
I left Germany and came to the United States at age 18, always writing for myself. In my mid-20s, I began to study writing at the University of New Hampshire. My first publication was in Aegis, the university's student magazine. I published my first book when I was 34. Actually, it was the third book I'd written. The first two were rejected. I've found that a lot of writers have written one or several books before their so-called first book is published. It's part of the apprenticeship.
As a bicultural writer, I write along that border that all immigrants know so well, the ever-shifting border between our country of origin and our adopted country. The setting of my work reflects that. Some of my books and stories are set in Germany, some are set in Italy or Mexico, but most are set in America where I've lived for 39 years.
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