Whether we tell our stories with words or with pictures, we all love a good story. And because we’re creators, we also love the story behind the story. In this monthly article, we’ll interview Austin SCBWI member Bethany Hegedus. Bethany sends tendrils all over the writing community, from writing amazing books to running The Writing Barn, where people gather to be nourished creatively and connect with others, to mentoring students, to . . . well, I'll just let Bethany tell us herself. Welcome, Bethany!
Where did you grow up, and did that place (or those places) shape your writing? If so, how?
I grew up in a suburb outside Chicago, Illinois, and then moved to a suburb of Augusta, Georgia, when I was twelve. This move and my experiences above and below the “Mason-Dixon” line were integral in the writing of my first two novels. In Between Us Baxters, though a historical novel about the early reaction to Brown vs. the Board of Education and the formation of Citizen’s Councils, has at its heart two girls whose friendship puts them in great danger. It’s about what it is to be family. I was born after the Civil Rights Era but in the South, some towns can still feel like they are in 1959. I was a high school teacher in the late 90’s and as a theatre teacher, I was warned on how to cast plays at the predominantly African American high school where I worked, as the Klan was still active. Baxters was born out of my reaction to my teaching in the rural south.
Truth with a Capital T also reflects my homes in the North and South. Maebelle is already having a tough summer but when her trumpet-playing prodigy, adopted cousin Isaac descends on the small town of Tweedle, Georgia, she has to face an ugly truth. Did her family own slaves or were they active in the Underground Railroad? Maebelle sets off to unravel the mystery and with the help of an old basset hound and some new friends, she cracks the quilt code.
My latest book, Grandfather Gandhi, co-written with Arun Gandhi and illustrated by Evan Turk, takes place far from my childhood homes, but it does tie into my explorations of family and race, that took root in me that summer I moved from Chicago to Augusta.
Did you always want to be a writer, or did that come later?
I wanted to be an actor. That is even the reason I moved to NYC, but once there I discovered I was really a writer. (I prefer rejection via the mail—as it came back in the old days, or now via email with pep talks built in by my agent.)
A crazed-lunatic! Really. I am writing this from the couch right now with severe bed-head before I move to my desk to compose mentee feedback letters to several of my private students and editing clients. A shower will happen in there somewhere and then I will greet The Writing Barn interns, where we will finalize shuttle drivers for out-of-town attendees to our next big Barn event. Today is also schedule printing day and so we will stuff folders, and Writing Barn bags in prep for the Thursday arrivals. Today, I also need to go over my school visit presentations as I leave soon for visits in NY and NJ.
How does your everyday life feed your writing?
Maybe I need an escape from everyday life. My current project, when I am able to get my BIC (butt in chair) time, is a dark circus fantasy. It’s unlike anything I’ve written before and it’s allowing me to paint with my words and to imagine all sorts of scenarios and scenes that are nothing like my everyday life but also tap into universal themes I care about: What is creativity? What can a human accomplish? How do we protect and feed our inner-spirit?
I love mentoring and over the last two weeks, two of my current mentees have sent their projects out into the world to be greeted with much hub-bub. A PB mentee of mine has now signed with her first agent, and the other, a contemporary novelist, has an offer on the table and has a number of other agents reading fast and furiously to also see if her manuscript may be a fit for them.
Besides the tangible, “I’ve got an agent offer,” or a “book deal” I am most proud of the big aha moments that my work with these writers have created—for them and for me.
And, whenever an event at The Writing Barn ends, and feedback forms come in and blogs appear from attendees I am floored. I set out to create a space where we all could “deepen our process and perfect our craft” and time after time, writers—some known to each other, most strangers, leave having done just that.
What surprises you about the writing life?
How hard it is. How much there is to balance. How it always requires more than you think you have to give but how there are also pockets of deep and quiet rest that need to be carved out for both you as the writer/creator and for your characters.
Your writing is like a gift for your readers. When they open it, what do you hope they find? (you can talk about a particular story, or your writing in general)
Oh, I hope readers see the writing as a gift. When opening Grandfather Gandhi, I hope the child that is sitting on an adult’s lap or before them on the floor in a classroom or a library is given permission to have their angry feelings and to be given not only a choice, but to be given tools like Mahatma Gandhi gave Arun, to not let our anger control us but to channel it—transform it—as Arun was taught to do.
BIO: Bethany's books include Truth with a Capital T (Delacorte/Random House) and Between Us Baxters (WestSide Books). Both novels were named to the Bank Street Books Best Books, with Between Us Baxters garnering a star for outstanding recognition. Her debut picture book, Grandfather Gandhi, (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster) co-authored with Arun Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma, and illustrated by Evan Turk has received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus.
Bethany has served as the Hunger Mountain Young Adult & Children’s Editor since 2009. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults, Bethany is the Owner and Creative Director of The Writing Barn, a writing retreat, workshop and event space in Austin, Texas. A former educator, Bethany speaks and teaches across the country.