Ursula Hegi grew up in a small German town. She left Germany when she was 18 years old, moved to United States and became a citizen five years later. When she was 28, with two sons under 5 years, she enrolled at the University of New Hampshire for a B.A., and then an M.A. Ursula has received approximately 30 grants and awards, including an NEA Fellowship and five awards from the PEN Syndicated Fiction Awards.
A special article written by Andrew Engelson for the October 26, 2001 issue of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says that "from the mid-1980s until 1999, Hegi lived and wrote in the small community of Nine Mile Falls just outside of Spokane, Washington State. During that time she also taught creative writing at Eastern Washington University. In 1997, her novel "Stones From the River" was chosen for the Oprah Book Club, and inevitable best-seller status followed.
Now the German-born author lives on the East Coast, where her husband is from, and where she lived for many years after immigrating to the United States at the age of 18.
Hegi spends some of her time lecturing and teaching, but for the most part, she writes full time. Being an alumnus of the Oprah Book Club and a best-selling author hasn't affected her working habits much. "It always comes back to sitting alone at a desk," she said. "I do between 50 and 100 revisions. So the way I used to write is the way I still write."
Between 50 and 100 revisions? Hegi insists it's a vital component of her style.
"I do it to really go very deeply into the characters," she said, her voice colored with remnants of a German accent, "to understand the characters, to explore the characters. And a lot has to do with language. I write fiction as if I were writing poetry."
In that intense approach to fiction, Hegi works much like a method actor, immersing herself in her characters, living and breathing within them. "After I've written a story," she said, "after I've gone through it 50 or 100 times, each time I feel those feelings. I go through that experience with the character. And after I have finished the story, on an emotional level, it has become my experience, and I am altered."
In "Hotel of the Saints," a collection that spans about 12 years of Hegi's short fiction, those characters are a diverse bunch, ranging from a Jesuit brother questioning his faith to a woman who is dying of cancer and travels to the coast of Mexico to take her own life.
Like many authors, Hegi never quite knows where a story will lead while she's working on it. As a result, some of her stories occasionally end on a swelling, eloquent note. These endings neatly -- sometimes a little too neatly -- tie up the themes Hegi dwells upon. But overall, the collection is rewarding for its ability to capture characters during a few intense moments of their lives.
In one of the briefest but most powerful stories, titled "The End of All Sadness," Hegi gives voice to an abused woman who finds a place of peace amid a life of violence. In locales from Baja to Spokane, Hegi's characters attempt to find a sense of belonging.
That home-seeking is a notion Hegi has written about again and again, and it's a topic familiar to readers of her novels. Hegi is fascinated by borders and by people who, like herself, live between two cultures. In the story "A Town Like Ours," she returns to the postwar Germany of her youth. It's a story told from the perspective of a vague "we," a voice intent on spreading rumors, a voice a little bit paranoid, a little bit prejudiced and a little bit defensive.
"I felt I was taking quite a risk in using that voice," said Hegi. "Because it's the voice of the generation that raised my generation. I'm 55 now -- I was born the year after the war ended -- and several of my books have really explored the silence of those years and the way the generation of our parents, of our teachers, really kept this silence about the Holocaust.
"If you look at the first paragraph, it's really subtle at times, but there's a prejudice in there. It's a prejudice that I have raged against. But by saying 'we' I have to shift inside, to become a part of that. It was a very complicated story for me to write. But I felt I needed also to understand it."
Back in Germany, Hegi's books have met mixed reviews. Her book of essays titled "Tearing the Silence," which sought to open up a discussion of the Holocaust, was received extremely well, according to Hegi. But "Stones From the River" was greeted with mixed reviews. Her critics believed, as Hegi describes it, that she had been in America too long to write a convincing account of wartime Germany. In addition, she acknowledges that the book was poorly translated. To avoid the same mistake in the future, she's working much closer with a different German translator for her most recent novel, "The Vision of Emma Blau."
"Hotel of the Saints" will no doubt be welcomed by fans of Hegi's previous work, even though it doesn't include the same characters from her earlier three books of fiction. When asked if she'll return to her previous characters, Hegi insisted she's moving on.
"At this point, I'm not writing about those characters. There's nothing at all in the works about them," she said and then paused for a moment. "But I can't say for certain. I don't know ... characters do take on lives of their own.""