Interview-Mary Hedengren

November 20, 2009

Sara Duke: Where did you get your ideas for the pieces you wrote?

Mary Hedengren: My first story actually came from a weird evolution of ideas. We have these bees by my apartment complex. There’s a shrub in the ivy that grows until December with blossoms on it, and so there are these bees sitting on the blossoms by our complex, and it’s terrifying as you walk by. You are certain you are going to be stung.

SD: Oh dear.

MH: I know, it’s fantastic, right? And so I was like, “Wow, how cool is that, but no one is going to believe me that there are these bees out here in November.” So I wrote a poem about the aforementioned bees. And I loved the poem—I still do. I actually don’t know if I prefer the poem version or the story version. But after the poem, I thought, “this is something I might want to expand into a story.”

Derek Bown: How much time did you spend on each piece?

MH: You are trying to find me out! This is a really terrible confession: I wrote this story two hours before the deadline.

SD: Seriously?

DB: Sounds like my creative writing class.

MH: But I had the poem, and I had the idea, so I knew where I was going. And that is what usually happens. When I write, I do a lot of fermenting.Then usually I sit down and write. If I write a story in more than one sitting, it tends to be worse then if I write it all at once.That’s mostly what I did with “Good Boy.” I actually had to go to a retreat that night, and I had written all but the last two scenes, and it was driving me crazy. So I’m at this retreat and everyone’s having fun and eating crackers and shrimp trays from Costco. And I am like, “I’ve gotta get out of here.” So I go to the corner and finish up cause I need to get it done. The situations where I have written a story in more than one sitting—my workshop group can point to the exact moment where I got up; there’s a huge shift.

DB: Do you see yourself writing anything longer than a short story like a novella or novel?

MH: This summer I actually wrote my first novel,which didn’t happen in one sitting, good heavens. But I had to do each chapter almost in each sitting. And I had an outline, so I knew where I was headed. It wasn’t a super detailed outline, but I was actually working from the chapter headings. So I knew in this chapter I needed my detective character to know what is happening with the suspect’s boyfriend, for example. And I kind of knew where I was going, overall. But it was brutal. I wish there was some sort of instruction on how to write a novel.

SD: Do you find yourself writing every day?

MH: No. Like I said, I ferment a lot. I think about things everyday. The key to being a writer is just to have ideas and think about things. I have a lot of characters that are in varying states of storyness in my head. Some of them will make it and some won’t. While I’m driving my car I think how would David, or Kyle, or these different characters I am fiddling around with in my head, how would they react to driving this car down this street? And I think about these things walking to class and things like that.

SD: So when you have these segments of writing do you have a specific place where you write your stories? Or is it just like wherever you are, you write it down.

MH: It’s irrelevant. People always have these weird rituals, things like, “Okay, I need to use a black pen on white paper, and I need to be in the woods.” But that’s ridiculous, that’s bull crap, and everybody knows that. You need to have good ideas, and if you want to write, just freakin’ write. You know, you don’t need to have all these rituals. Just do it. It doesn’t matter where you are, just as long as you can be focused on the story; you shouldn’t be focused on anything else really. But personally, I do like to type, cause I go a little faster when typing than I can writing by hand. And it helps me when I do revisions cause I have it typed out.

DB: Where do you see yourself taking your writing in the future?

MH: That is a $64,000 question isn’t it? It’s hard because most people can’t live off of writing. In a lot of ways I try to balance. I try to be both a writer and a scholar, which sometimes I think I shouldn’t do. Lately I have been reading a lot of M.R. James. He was a major influence on H.P. Lovecraft. He was a scholar. His emphasis was medieval manuscripts. And he was great at it, his scholarly work. But no one reads his scholarly work now. People read his literature. Same thing with C.S. Lewis. He was a professor. In theory, he was supposed to be an expert on Renaissance literature. But in practice, you know, we don’t read “Allegory of Love.” We read his literary work, not his scholarly work. And so even though I love my scholarly work—my emphasis is rhetoric, not creative writing—if in fifty years, if the scholarly things I write haven’t been disproved, then I will be very disappointed with my discipline. Because the nature is that it keeps progressing, and the theories that I am using now will become obsolete or be considered naive, or all these different interpretations. Whereas literature, if it’s good literature, it’s a lot more lasting. And so in some ways I am like, “Man, nuts to academia, I just need to pursue creative things.” But I am not comfortable with that, with the idea of just ditching it because I love research and I love teaching and I would be very uncomfortable if I was ever in a situation where I couldn’t teach.

SD: What is the most useful writing advice you have ever gotten?

MH: From varying sources, this is a sort of compilation from many people, “Read a lot, write a lot, don’t be an idiot!” That’s what it comes down to.