Healdsburg author Jean Hegland's book 'Into the Forest' headed to the big screen
When Jean Hegland and her husband settled into a modest prefab house in the deep woods outside Healdsburg 25 years ago, they had two small children at home, and she had a powerful urge to write that she had nurtured since childhood.
'I had started writing before I could even write,' she recalled. 'I was dictating poems to my long-suffering mother. I wrote my first novel in the fourth grade. It was 10 pages long, about the Oregon Trail. So I had a long history of wanting to be a writer, but I was very naive about what that meant.'
Hegland, 59, now is the author of four books, still writes and teaches English at Santa Rosa Junior College, but she really found her way to a writing career through living in the woods. Holed up in a small trailer on her property, writing alone, she created worlds of her own.
Five years after hunkering down amid the redwoods and oaks, Hegland emerged with her first novel, titled — rightly enough — 'Into the Forest,' the story of two teenage sisters living alone in the woods after the death of their parents, in a very grim world of the near future. After Hegland's initial struggled to find the right publisher, the book went on to sell 100,000 copies, translated in 15 different languages. This spring, a feature film based on the book will hit theaters, starring Ellen Page of 'Juno' fame.
The author attended a screening last September at the Toronto Film Festival with Page, co-star Evan Rachel Wood and director Patricia Rozema, and said she felt comfortable with the inevitable changes made during the adaptation of the original book for the screen.
'I knew it was no longer my story. It was a collaboration. But I was sitting next to Evan Rachel Wood, and there are some very difficult scenes in the book that she had to live through in the movie,' Hegland said, pausing to laugh. 'I felt awful for writing these scenes that made this lovely person suffer so much.'
Page (a young-looking 28-year-old) stars as 17-year-old Nell, and Wood plays her older sister, Eva, 18. They struggle for survival in a dark time of grocery stores with empty shelves and gas stations gone dry.
'I had a very hard time getting this book published, because 20 years ago agents and editors were saying, 'It's this very dark story about these teenagers,'' Hegland said. 'That's a genre now, right? Back then, nobody knew what to do with it.'
While the book tackles somber issues and serious themes, that doesn't stem from the author's years spent in the shade, Hegland explained. The inspiration was purely intellectual, based on her own fears for the future of our society.
'It was clear to me that we couldn't afford our lifestyle, as a civilization,' she said. 'We couldn't keep consuming at the levels we were consuming.'
Her own life has been much happier than the perilous misadventures endured by her two fictional young heroines. She is married to Douglas Fisher, who also teaches English at SRJC, and they have three grown children: daughter Hannah, 29, an editor for book publishers Roman and Littlefield, living in Maryland; daughter Tessa, 29, of Oakland, a speech pathologist; and son Garth, 22, a microbiologist, of El Cerrito. All three were initially home-schooled and eventually went on to UC Berkeley.
'The thought that a mother could live in the hills, home-school three children, teach at a college and find time to write and become published is amazing to me,' said longtime friend Karin Spicer, who attended Pullman High School with Hegland in the author's native Washington state. 'Jean's life sounds like fiction, and yet I know it's not.'
The daughter of a college professor and a high school English teacher-turned-librarian, Hegland went to school with kids who grew up on nearby wheat ranches, and perhaps Hegland's later fascination with the deep woods comes from the fact that it was a novel environment for her.
Another longtime friend, Susan Gaines, who moved away from Healdsburg in 1999 and now lives in Germany, believes Hegland's 'move as a young woman from the open rolling hills of eastern Washington to the redwood forests of California' deeply influenced her writing.
'That was one of the seed crystals for 'Into the Forest,' I think,' Hegland recalls. 'All of the sudden, I was living in the forest. Until then, I didn't know what a tree was.'
To her, the most important turning point in her quest to become a writer was understanding what hard work good writing really is.
'By the time I got into high school, and certainly into college, I could see the difference between the stuff I loved to read and the stuff I was writing,' she said. 'Once I realized that many people's first drafts are also pretty horrendous ... and realized I had as many chances as I wanted to take to get it right, I regained my courage.'
As a teacher, Hegland takes care not to crush the courage of other writers, said Ray Holley, managing editor for Sonoma West Publishers, which produces weekly newspapers in Healdsburg, Cloverdale, Windsor and Sebastopol.
'I met Jean 20 years ago when I took her creative writing class at Santa Rosa Junior College,' Holley said. At the time, he was working in construction and writing in his off-hours.
'The respect Jean showed me changed my life,' he said. 'Three years later, I was a professional journalist. She creates a safe, open place to bring your writing, and she says wonderful, inspiring things.'
'Into the Forest,' published in 1996, was Hegland's first novel, but not her first book. Her work of nonfiction, 'The Life Within: Celebration of a Pregnancy,' was published in 1991. She followed 'Into the Forest' with two more novels.
'Windfalls,' which Hegland calls 'an unsentimental and uncynical look at motherhood,' was published in 2004. 'Still Time,' about an aging Shakespearean scholar struggling with dementia and hoping for a reconciliation with his estranged daughter, came out last September, published by Arcade/Skyhorse of New York.
'Into the Forest' remains Hegland's best-known book, often included in college literature courses and frequently chosen for campus or community programs. The book had been optioned for adaptation as a film twice over the years, before Ellen Page got interested in it about five years ago.
'A friend of hers, who is an independent bookseller up in Canada, suggested that she read this book,' Hegland recalled. 'I think the friend even said it'd make a great movie, and Ellen said, 'Oh yeah, right.' But she read it and got excited about it.'
You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @danarts.
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