Betty Jane Hegerat on Writing Historical Fiction/Nonfiction

I’m so excited to have the chance to host Betty Jane Hegerat on my blog once again.  She’s currently doing a blog tour for her upcoming book, The Boy (Oolichan Books), about a small slice of Alberta history that some of you may remember (thought I didn’t).

KBW: You mentioned that the story idea came from a news report that stuck in your head until you learned more. I’ve also had the experience of reading something that left me unsettled until I learned more about it. Did you research process help you put this to rest? Did it raise more questions?

BJH: I have a number of stories that were triggered by new reports, that “what if?” spin we put on a snippet we hear about someone else’s life. Because I write fiction, I usually head in a direction as far away from the real story as possible. The Cook story and how it hijacked the fiction I thought I was working on was far from my usual operating style.

The Cook family members have been dead for 50 years now. Normally, that would have given me the sense that I could just steal the horrible underpinnings of their fate and go wherever I wanted with the story. But something about this case blocked all my attempts to treat it as simple fodder for fiction. Perhaps it was that need to find out what happened in order to deal with the fear that so unsettled me when I went back to read the real story.

I was eleven years old when this story was planted in my brain. The memory of it, all these decades later, took me by surprise. Yes, the research and the writing did help me put it rest. And as for raising more questions, I think it’s more a case of leaving the big questions unanswered, but making peace with the fact that they no longer matter. To me, at least. On the other hand, it’s possible someone else with more of an investigative bent will go farther than I have.

KBW: How did you go about researching the murders? Newspapers, interviews?

BJH: Oh yes, the very sort of research for which I have little patience. When I first began surfing the internet for information about the Cook case, there was barely anything there. Now, there seems to be a resurgence of interest in the case. The End of the Rope, a play written by Calgary playwright Aaron Coates in 2002, has been produced in a number of Alberta theatres, mostly recently in Bashaw and the company who performed it there will be taking it to The Fringe in Edmonton this summer. I’ve also heard a rumour that there is a possibility of a television docu-drama.

Because my interest was focused on the family and the dynamic that led up to the horrific events of the night of June 25, 1959, I wanted to find people who had known the Cooks. I needed to sift through the newspaper articles, and the police evidence and the court documents—much of which was conveniently archived at the Stettler museum—but the most valuable part of my research came from interviews, both formal and in the many conversations I had that aren’t officially recorded in the book.

KBW: What was the hardest part about researching? The easiest?

BJH: The easiest was the reading of not only the printed archives, but of the three books I found that specifically chronicled the case. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Jack Pecover who wrote The Work of Justice, The Trials of Robert Raymond Cook.  This is a work that examined the Cook case from every possible angle, and became my major source in sorting through the details of the crime and the court case.

The hardest was asking people who’d known the family to relive that time.  So often the interview began with “It was so long ago” but the conversation that followed told me that the memories were far from dim.

KBW: You’ve used both fiction and nonfiction to tell this story. Can you explain why?

BJH: The simplest answer is that I couldn’t separate the two, nor could I let go of either story. At some point they’d become so tangled that I was ready to give up on both. I’d been told by a number of people that I would have difficulty finding a publisher for such a muddled work.  That no one would know how to market this book, where to shelve it in the bookstores and libraries. Those sorts of concerns are far from my mind when I write, and I don’t like to be reminded of them, so I think perhaps there may have been some sheer orneriness in my forging on with this structure.  There was no other way for me to finish the book.

KBW: Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers?

BJH: Only my gratitude that there is always an audience for books. The world of books and publishing is changing so quickly and dramatically that we can hardly keep up with it. I find it exciting and energizing. So many ways to access and read good books, and so many good books being written.  The way we read is evolving, but the important thing is that we continue to read.

So the last thing I want to say is that I think one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is a love of books and reading. Whether they hold a beautifully illustrated paper book in their hands, or enjoy a good story on a jazzy-looking e-reader in a primary colour, we need to nourish the appetite.  That’s my manifesto.

Bonnie, thank you for inviting me to your blog.  I’m honored to spend time with one of my favorite reviewers and her following of readers.

For more information on the book, including other stops on the blog tour and tidbits of the author reading her book, pop by Betty Jane’s blog.

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One Response

  1. Shelley Banks April 17, 2011

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