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By Ursula Hegi
New York, Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995
ISBN: 0-684-84481-8
276 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2015

One of the two main characters is allegedly “the author” herself. However, since she is “inside” the novel I will call her the “intruder,” the name that author Ursula Hegi gives her, and which the title itself underscores. This intruder, herself, tells us in the opening page that this will not be a typical novel in which an author creates a story and presents it as some sort of slice of life. Rather, the intruder, this fictional author, will be “in” the story as well.

We learn along the way that when she writes she keeps copious notes about characters, and ideas for building future possibilities, imagining conversations, possible events, many of which never make it into the novel. Perhaps the most important strategy of “the intruder” is that she develops feelings of the “logic” (as it were) of the character, and how that “demands” that things go this way or that.

All of this is quite believable to me and I would even be surprised if most writers of fictional tales don’t do things like that.

However, the tactic of Ursula Hegi in this novel, of putting a great deal of that speculation, record keeping, thinking of alternatives, imaging options and such, into the novel itself is quite delightful. I found it very believable, often quite funny, and I can understand her puzzles and doubts as she believes a character is somehow “getting away from her.” It’s all very well done.

The main fictional character, Megan Stone is 29. Nick is her husband. Megan is 6’1 1/2”. In 1976 her life problems are mainly tied to her own “. . . clashes between expectations and reality . . .” She and Nick have two children, Tim and Nicole.

As the novel opens Megan is having a bad day. The family is vacationing on Nantucket Bay and she attempts a walk along the beach to a light house. However, it is much farther than she thought and she ends up in great discomfort, even in fear of her safety.

The intruder, Ursula, assures us, Megan is truly fictional, made up. She certainly is to some extent; however, as the intruder tells us along the way, there are many things about Megan that are actually true of Ursula herself. Author Ursula Hegi does have two sons and many of her habits, as reported by the intruder/author are true of the biography of Ursula Hegi.

However, is Ursula Hegi, the author, also Ursula, the intruder? I was never fully convinced. The novel uses the intruder’s FIRST name, Ursula, but never her last name Hegi. I tended to read the intruder to be a fictional character as well, and a separate actual person, Ursula Hegi as the author.

Megan’s life is well developed for the reader. Her parents and little brother died in a plane crash. She was just 6 at the time and was at home with measles. She was born about 1947. Barbara was her mother, Dagmar was her German grandmother. It was a Catholic family who came from Germany after WWII. Megan has a very crabby Aunt Judy, who, along with her husband, took Megan in and raised her. They simply don’t get along very well.

While overall I liked the “intrusion” concept, at times it is difficult to keep straight when we are talking about the characters and when the intruder is writing about the characters for the novel or about herself.

One the other hand I like the way Hegi takes a pretty tame story, a fairly successful couple and a very minor blimp in their younger married days and makes it much more fascinating by letting us be “in on” the writer’s creation path and decisions.

The intruder tells us the novel won’t go as far as when Timmy is in high school and she tells that to Megan, when the two of them are arguing about what will happen to Megan and her family.

As the novel progresses it seems there are more and more interruptions in the story, and much more about Ursula writing the story and arguing with characters and even her own students about how all should go.

Her characters complain a lot about this or that in their nature and she argues with them, but now and again makes modifications as well.

It is becoming clearer, however, that the deeper she gets into the novel, the more stressed the intruder becomes about how the story is going and “conversations” with the characters, students, and her husband about what she’s writing are longer than the story line itself. There seems to be less happening in the novel and more in the writing out of it.

At one point Megan, the character, yells at the intruder:

“Why can’t I be content trying different brownie recipes and comparing the quality of floor waxes? Why am I haunted by characters who demand to be put on the a blank page; characters who make me sit in front of this typewriter and, through an accumulation of letters, blank spaces, periods, and commas, coerce me into making sense of their imagined lives?”

In another place the intruder tells Nick:

“--- But in Nelson’s book you’d just be playing a role, Nick. No more than that, merely a role to fit the plot. In my novel the plot develops from you and the other characters.”

She tells Megan she dreams perhaps of writing a novel “. . . just a story, I haven’t thought of the characters yet. Imagine, Megan, a story I can hang to like a rope.”

Megan replies: “—You’d be bored before you got to page 52.”

The whole focus is on this intruder, who wants to create a sort of vague idea of various characters and a general notion of a plot, but then she WANTS to get out of the way and let the “logic” of the characters themselves develop via her, the author’s insights. But she argues with herself about where that is, and, in this case, the intruder brings in so many others to argue with her about where the novel “has” to go given its own inner logic. The main characters, including the intruder’s family as well, her students in a university class and others, are approached to try things out, to discuss where the internal logic has to take the story.

In the end there is no substitute that some decisions have to be made by the intruder, or even more remotely, by Ursula Hegi. I found this to be a very exciting tale given all those complex interactions. What I most especially liked was that a quite unexciting and relatively uninteresting little family drama has turned it into a dramatic and gripping tale because we readers were forced to see these characters in a novel as people, with lives and possibilities, choices and repercussions of those choices. Further, it brought to the fore the crucial role every author of fiction makes in deciding what the characters whom the author is creating, will do. Hegi seems to strongly suggest in this novel that a responsible author has a duty to work to figure out the internal logic of the very characters she has created and be faithful to that logic.

The novel is a wonderful and challenging read.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett