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.