by Susan Solomon
Sleet Magazine recently had the pleasure of interviewing author Nancy J. Hedin, whose first novel Bend was released in Spring 2017 with Riptide Publishing. Nancy's work has been published in Sleetmagazine.com; Rock, Paper, Scissors; Minnesota Women's Press, Lake Country Journal, The Healing Woman, and The Phoenix. Bend is her first novel. She lives in the Twin Cities with her wife and two daughters.
Bend is an extraordinarily engaging read. It is the story of Lorraine Tyler, a gay high school student living in the small Midwestern town of Bend, Minnesota. Lorraine battles local church beliefs, fighting for her respected place in the world, while engaging with family struggles and secrets, and, falling in love. Bend is a novel for anyone who has ever felt like an outsider. Bend is a book I looked forward to reading before bed, and I now sincerely hope a sequel is forthcoming.
SLEET: Before we delve into the interview, I had asked Nancy for a quickie background and some information that would introduce her to you:
NANCY J. HEDIN: I was born and raised in a small town in Central Minnesota. College and graduate school pulled me to small cities in Minnesota. That small town, small city sensibility informs my writing more than anything else. My characters appreciate the country, maintain community ties, and find solace in the quiet majesty of nature. At the same time, small settings don’t make my characters any less complex than the characters created in big cities and towns. Where there are people trying to find their way in love, in their own family, and in the larger world, there is complexity. There is pain and joy. I hope that my stories resonant as true to life whether the character is gay or straight. I hope that a sense of a spiritual life comes through.
My favorite author is Kent Haruf. He died in 2014. His novel, Our Souls at Night was recently made into a movie with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. I religiously reread Haruf's novels, Plainsong and Eventide every couple years. He inspires me in several ways. His writing is beautiful, his selection of detail genius, his characters are plain-spoken, but complex in their emotional lives, and Mr. Haruf was fifty-six before there was any national recognition of his writing gift. Mr. Haruf wrote about the people and place of the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. I write about the people of Bend, a fictional town in rural Minnesota. My first novel and hopefully my next two novels will have some of the same characters and call backs to community events that have shaped the mythology of the town.
SLEET: Bend feels like it was written on a mission. Sometimes a story is just a story; it can be well written and interesting and successful in many ways, but Bend goes beyond that. So here is a two-fold question: Do you feel Bend was “driven” in a way; and who did you have in mind as your audience?
NANCY HEDIN: If I was driven it was a slow ride. I’m glad it reads that way, but it took over twenty years from the original narrative voice in my head until I had a complete first draft. I was taking classes at The Loft when I heard this narrative voice say, “When Momma wore her blue dress I knew something serious was going on.”
Initially, I thought I was writing the “Momma Stories”, but it turned into Lorraine’s story. The writing of it moved much faster after I had some classes at Hamline. Even after I had a first draft I wasn’t thinking about a specific audience. I was focused on telling a specific story.
SLEET: For people who have never heard you give a reading in person, I want them to know how wonderful and alive those readings are. You put so much energy and respect into each reading; you make literature important, as you bring the characters to life on the page and in live “performances.” Could you comment in general on this? (for example, do you gear up for a reading, do you get energy from your audiences, etc.)
NJH: I love public reading and I do practice my reading ahead of time so that I get closer and closer to having it memorized. I still use a text because I don’t want the extra stress of trying to remember every word, but I work hard to know the material. I was in theatre in high school and college. Heck, in grade school I was sent out of class to entertain the younger students with songs and stories. My own teacher probably needed a break from my talking all the time. Years ago, I did some stand-up comedy and I was an associate pastor for a short time. Readings are fun like that, but they are also nicer because people have come to hear about a book.
SLEET: I am really in awe of people who write fiction, as I think it is THE hardest genre to write. Did you know in advance how Bend would play out, or did the story evolve along the way, like life does, in unforeseen surprises? Without giving anything away, did you know going into the writing of this book, the direction the story would take?
NJH: When I started the book, I didn’t know the ending or even the main conflicts other than there was a gay teen. It was an organic process and I have drafts with material that never made the final story. What helped me get to an ending I didn’t know for certain was that Mary Logue in Plot Class at Hamline said that some people write to a final image. I did have that image. Once I had that image I used her advice and listed out the scenes I would need to write to get to that image. That gave me a first draft of the novel. Then I started my revisions and refinements. Once I had an agent there was another person giving input on how to make the manuscript more clear and consistent. Once I had a publisher I had more editors giving input on how to strengthen and improve the work.
SLEET: Another question, maybe similar to the above . . . There are some wonderful threads that run through the novel, such as the dad passing on “lessons” to Lorraine through bits of information that must be researched and then applied to her own situation. How does a writer come up with these things?
NJH: For me, that particular detail was a device to show the character of the father. He is passive and quiet compared to the momma character, but he is smart and intuitive. He has faith that people are fundamentally good and that people can learn without having to be preached at. So, he tells animal stories. I don’t tell myself, “Nancy, what device do you want to use to show this character or that?” Usually, it comes more from just writing about the character and then in future revisions looking for places to add sensory details or places where I can “show” something about a person rather than having the narrator “tell” something.
SLEET: Are there certain characters you bond with more than others? Do you picture in your mind what they look like? Do you have actors and actresses assigned to them for future movies? Bend would make a fantastic movie or play.
NJH: One of the weaknesses of my writing is that I am not necessarily thinking about the way any specific person looks. Those are things I may have to add later. It is especially difficult to show how a person looks if the narration is in first person point of view. I knew Lorraine had wildly, curly hair and that she was lean and angular compared to her sister, Becky. I pictured Momma to be a big, beautiful woman like my mom’s best friend, Iris Thieschafer. I picture Iris when I think of Momma, but I need to stress that Iris’s personality was not the same as the Momma character. Iris was the sort of person who was warm and inviting to everyone. You wanted to be nurtured by her because she was so good at it. Momma at her best is closer to the Iris I knew, but still falls short.
I would love to see Bend made into a movie. The casting is beyond me. I don’t think visually enough for that. However, I would love to see what Ellen DeGeneres would do with the librarian character.
SLEET: This question is always asked of writers and artists, and I never get tired of reading the responses. Who are your favorite writers? Are there any you turn to for answers, as far as craft?
NJH: My answers have changed as I have aged. In my twenties I would have said that John Steinbeck was my favorite author. I swooned at his pathos and grew fiery in response to his depiction of social justice. In my forties I found E. Annie Proulx, Margaret Atwood, Alison McGhee, Pamela Carter Joern, and Kent Haruf. These writers gave me a vision of the type of book I wanted to write and the way I wanted a reader to feel reading my book. In my fifties I read Anne Dillard who wrote that writers should, “Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients.” I pray to not waste anyone’s precious time.
I don’t go to an author or book for an answer on a conscious basis, but I read fiction, nonfiction and poetry constantly to let the work sink in and inform my own future projects.
SLEET: Bend ends in a beautiful and successful way. I often find that is a weak spot in novels, how they can be so wonderfully, thoughtfully written and then the ending just sort of “boom” happens and the book is over. I really would love to see a Bend sequel. Do the characters and their lives continue in your mind? Is there always a continuation, or can a novel truly end from a writer’s point of view?
NJH: I have written a sequel. Stray begins a year after the close of Bend. I am hoping my publisher picks it up or releases the setting and characters to me more quickly than my contract allows so that I could shop the sequel as is to another press. I want the characters to go on. I have envisioned a trilogy. My sister, Kathy bugs me about selling the sequel because she wants to read it before she dies. I told her I’d print a draft for her if I don’t hear soon that the book will live. It is weird to have it feel so alive and also be dependent on the publishing powers.
SLEET: Is there anything else you would like to comment on, anything I missed?
NJH: I want to share something I have learned from this process of writing a book, finding an agent, finding a publisher, and promoting a book. It is hard. At each step, I think, “Oh, if I can get this part done, the next thing will be easier.” It hasn’t gotten easier. Once I had a manuscript I solicited agents and was rejected probably two hundred times. Once I had an agent it still took another year or more to find a publisher. Again, many rejections. Once I had a publisher it took months to have a released manuscript and now I spend lots of my time trying to get readings and have someone influential notice the book so it sells. There’s always a next thing to do. Promoting my book more than anything else has disturbed my creative process. I’m not getting my other work done. When I was searching for an agent and publisher, I finished six other books. These last few months since my book came out I haven’t written nearly as much. I feel like I’m constantly asking people for things like readings, reviews and ratings. That said, I am proud of Bend and would do it all over again. I still have hope that there will be something that happens that gives the novel some attention and I will be able to spend more of my time on new projects.
Bend is available at Common Good Books, the Red Balloon Bookstore, Magers and Quinn, Roseville Barnes and Noble, Drury Lane Bookstore in Grand Marais, Zenith Bookstore in Duluth and A Room of One's Own in Madison, WI. It can be ordered at any bookstore and at Riptide Publishing and Amazon. It is in paperback and also electronic format.