The story behind local author Jean Hegland’s novel, Into the Forest, began with a sleepless winter night in her home in the forest west of Healdsburg, where she lives with her husband, Douglas Fisher. “I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I decided to tell myself a story. The story let me think deeply and imaginatively about the natural world, the future and sisters,” says Hegland, who doesn’t have a sister, but was then a mother of two young daughters, ages one and three. At the time, living in the forest was still a new experience for them, and Hegland admits she was concerned about their situation. “We didn’t know anything about the forest, and with two young daughters I worried about the future.”
The following morning, Hegland had a rough concept of the story, and how she wanted the story to end. But who were these two sisters she’d conceived in the middle of the night? And how do they land in the situation she imagined? It took five years and dozens of drafts for Hegland to be satisfied with the answers to those questions. She started writing soon after, developing the characters—Nell and Eva, who have an idyllic childhood, living in the forest where they’re homeschooled and encouraged by their mother to pursue their passions. Eva is determined to become a ballet dancer, and her younger sister, Nell, hopes to attend Harvard.
Their dreams are abruptly put on hold when their mother becomes ill and anarchy erupts, pushing the modern world into a state of crisis. Eva and Nell are left to forage through the forest and survive on their own. “It’s echofeminist,” says Hegland, who tutors students at the Santa Rosa Junior College. “It takes a look at women’s relationships with nature, while they’re waiting for the world to get back to normal, so they can get back to their ambitions.”
Hegland’s writing is beautiful and lyrical, and Into the Forest is the sort of novel you want to read slowly, though the plot is a page-turner and may keep you up at night. It also provides a thought-provoking look at capitalism and consumption. “These are concerns that don’t go out of date,” says Hegland. One passage early in the story poignantly illustrates this: By next Christmas, this will be over, and my sister and I will have regained the lives we are meant to live. The electricity will be back, the phones will work. Planes will fly above our clearing once again. In town there will be food in the stores and gas at the service stations.
The novel was turned down by 25 publishers, but Hegland doesn’t let rejection slow her down. “Do you know the difference between a rhinoceros and a writer?” She jokes. “A writer has tougher skin.” Hegland was finally offered a contract with Caylx Books, a small nonprofit feminist publisher in Oregon. A few months after publication in 1996, she received a call from her publisher, who informed her that there was a bidding war going on over her book in New York.
Since then, Into the Forest has been republished by Bantam and Random House UK and translated into 16 languages; in 2015, it was made into a Canadian film. Most recently, it sold to a French publisher, where it’s been on the bestseller list for months. Hegland is making her fourth publicity trip to France in September, where she’ll participate in two book festivals.
Today, Hegland is still living on 55 acres of second-growth forest and at work on a new novel. “My office is a 50-year-old travel trailer with flat tires,” she says, pausing to smile. Her goal is to write nearly every day, and she prefers to write in silence. As for the premise of her next novel, she’s not telling.
Into the Forest is available at Copperfield’s Books and other local independent book stores and online. Hegland is the author of three other books, most recently Still Time, a novel about a Shakespeare scholar contending with dementia who is trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter.
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