A Passion for Words: Ursula Hegi Considers Her Work


Ursula Hegi’s new novel The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls (Flatiron, 2020) is a multi-voiced historical tale set on the north coast of Germany in the 19th century. The place and the people are formed and reformed by the North Sea. It is a place of great beauty but also a place of great danger. There are records of great tidal waves in the 14th and 17th centuries,  but the wave that takes three of Lotte Jansen’s children on a summer day in 1878 is a fictional one.

“To research I flew to Hamburg, rented a car and drove toward the edge of the Nordsee—North Sea—where my family took vacations when I was little; where earth and water have barely separated and are still as they must have been on the third day of Creation. This is the landscape Emil Nolde painted and Theodor Storm described in his novels. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful. So much land and so few houses. Wind ripples the grasses and yellow rapeseed fields, so that they shift and swell like waves in the Nordsee. This landscape, yes, where dikes and windmills rise from the flat earth.

“I learned that the Nordsee has great appetite for sacrifice. In my novel it seized three lives because the people raised the dikes again to hinder the flooding of Neuland—new land. In ditches they trapped the sea, isolated it in long solitary fingers until it could no longer gather force but fizzled out its rage, stagnant while sediment accumulated on the Meeresboden—sea floor. They considered it their birthright to defend what they’d preserved. But the Nordsee remembered. Retaliated. According to legend and to history, it swallowed the island Rungholt centuries ago because its citizens were greedy and Godless. What took hold of me is that some people believe the island rises once a year. And I brought that into my novel. It influenced my characters, my story—one of those moments when you feel the flare of research, the gift.”

Folktale and magical realism are very much part of Hegi’s writing style. The belief in the island rising once a year, Lotte and her husband’s doomed plan to reunite their family, the strange behaviour of the bees, and many other aspects of the story.

“Magical realism is part of all my writing. Although I’m aware of it as a literary tradition, it comes from my own angle of vision. It’s how I observe the world, consciously tapping into the magical vision of the child who does not limit reality to facts but moves freely between inner and outer reality. I write from inside each character’s skin, become that character. I go after dramatic choices as I establish fully developed characters who’ll continue to develop in the course of the storyline. I weave back and forth, going deeper during my 50 – 100 revisions. I’ve sat at my desk blushing, crying, laughing. When I write from the perspective of the dwarf, Trudi Montag (Stones from the River, 1994), I am her height, feel her bliss, rage, lust, sorrow.”

On the recurring motifs of motherhood and water in her writing, Ursula Hegi says: “As a girl, I grew up on another continent, mesmerized by the wide river that flooded the meadows up to the dike and beyond. Hochwasser—high water. My mother showed me how to ride the turbulent currents. I also took solitary walks along the Rhein, sat on its stone jetties, imagined what it would be like to live on one of the barges. I wrote poems that evoked emotions I couldn’t name yet. Wrote stories. Began a novel. Finished half of it on lined paper. I was a greedy reader. 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 in America as an 18-year-old. I watched my mother die when I was 13, and the thread of the dead or lost mother runs through much of my work. I didn’t realize that until I gave a reading from my sixth book, and a woman in the audience asked why I had so many dead mothers in my books. I shook my head, no. Only later would I realize that it was true, that I have been writing this love story—the yearning for the lost mother—most of my life. The impact continues to shape my life and work—every bit as much as growing up in the terrible silence of post-war Germany when our parents, teachers, and clergy did not speak of the Holocaust.”

So, what’s next from the author? “I don’t know yet. When my first Burgdorf book, Floating In My Mother’s Palm (1991) was published, Bob Edwards interviewed me on NPR Morning Edition and said, ‘I hope we’ll hear more about these characters.’ I told him I was finished writing about the people of Burgdorf, about the town, I had no idea that I would write a second novel set in Burgdorf; a third, a fourth. A Burgdorf Cycle. A fifth. But as soon as I finished the interview and stepped on the sidewalk, one of my secondary characters, the dwarf woman Trudi Montag, began knocking about inside my head, demanding to have her own book. I went home, wrote down a couple of thoughts I had about her, and I didn’t stop writing for two years and three months. That book became Stones from the River. It was as though the character of Trudi had developed on her own ever since I’d finished writing about her through the perspective of Hanna Malter, a 12-year-old girl. Trudi has remained one of my favourite characters. I have others. In The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls it’s Tilli who gives birth at age 11 in the St. Margaret home for Pregnant Girls, Tilli  who becomes one of the central characters, Tilli who is nesting herself inside my life.”

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Lisa Redmond blogs at “The Madwoman in the Attic” (http://lisareadsbooks.blogspot.com/) about women writers and historical fiction. She is currently working on a novel based on the 17th-century Scottish witch trials.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 95 (February 2021)

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