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Filling the Silence

In three of her novels, UCI visiting writer Ursula Hegi taps into what is unspoken. It's a theme that continues to emerge in the German native's life.

February 27, 1996|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Interruptions can be a writer's bane, but the one that took Ursula Hegi away from her latest novel, "Salt Dancers," turned out to be a welcome intrusion.

A secondary character in her previous novel--German dwarf Trudi Montag--began knocking about in Hegi's thoughts, demanding her own story.

So Hegi set "Salt Dancers" aside for more than two years and wrote "Stones From the River," her acclaimed 1994 bestseller that deals with the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust. The story is told primarily from the perspective of Montag, who understands "the agony of being different" and is herself at risk of persecution.

Hegi, who is spending the winter quarter as a visiting writer in the graduate program in writing at UC Irvine, says she wrote "Stones From the River" with an "absolute sense of urgency."

But the long-simmering "Salt Dancers" benefited from the wait.

"It took me longer than any of my other books, and I think I needed that time of thinking about it and letting it sit," says the German-born author, who is on the faculty at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Wash.

Based on a single scene Hegi wrote in the early '80s but didn't begin writing in earnest until 1989, "Salt Dancers" (Simon & Schuster; $22) is the story of architect Julia Ives.

When Julia is 9, her mother suddenly vanishes from her and her brother's lives, and her alcoholic father turns his physical and psychological abuse on her. Julia's first marriage ends after she refuses to have children. Now 41 and single by choice, she discovers that she's pregnant by her current lover. Overwhelmed by an unexpected yearning for motherhood, she feels compelled to confront her painful past. She returns to her father's home in Spokane, which she left at 18 vowing never to return.

Explains Julia: "I was afraid I'd mess up my child's life if I didn't sort out before the birth why things had gone so terribly wrong with my family."

The Los Angeles Times gave "Salt Dancers" a mixed review, calling the writing "strong and confident, [yet] Hegi's relentless focus on Julia weakens her book." The New York Times, however, gave it an unqualified rave: "a taut yet lyrical examination of emotional devastation and necessary forgiveness."

But don't ask Hegi if she had a particular message in mind when she began writing the novel.

"No! No!" she protests with a laugh during a recent interview. "That's the last thing I want to do with anything that I write. I don't set out to convey a message; I don't set out to develop a theme, and I don't start out with an idea. Really, it's characters and the story that develops from them."

Speaking in a German accent softened by 31 years away from the small Rhine river town near Dusseldorf where she grew up, Hegi, 49, elaborates:

"I don't know what something is about when I start out, because if I did, I wouldn't write it. For me, that element of discovery is really important."

Hegi, who has taught creative writing and contemporary literature at Eastern Washington University since 1984, was invited to be a visiting writer at UCI after giving a reading of "Stones From the River" at the university in 1994.

She drove down from Washington in January, settling into a beachfront duplex in Newport Beach.

A divorced mother of two grown sons, Hegi lives in Nine Mile Falls, a tiny town on the Spokane River where, she says, "geese will cross in front of the post office, and they know you by name at the hardware store."

Seated in a wood-framed easy chair facing a picture window only steps from the beach, Hegi says she's on the phone every day to architect Gordon Gagliano, her partner of eight years. She misses Gagliano but not the weather back home, which recently dropped to 20 degrees below zero.

"I do like this," she says with a grin, her sandaled feet propped up on the windowsill, a parade of bicyclists and joggers passing by on this unseasonably warm morning. "This is ideal, living at the beach and teaching. I go out there in the morning and do my tai chi and go for long walks."

Hegi spends Monday afternoons conducting the fiction workshop at UCI. Another afternoon is devoted to student conferences, and she attends occasional readings at the university.

But she didn't forget to pack her computer. It's set up on a table in the living room, the makeshift work space cluttered with books, baskets stuffed with writing supplies, a soapstone figurine Gagliano gave her and other items she brought from home to give it "a familiar feeling."

And just as she does at home five to six mornings a week, Hegi is at the computer by 9 for four to six hours of work. "I do honor the writing time the same way I honor the teaching time: I'm there," she says.

*

As Hegi discusses her writing, one word repeatedly surfaces: "silence."

It's a theme that not only has infused three of Hegi's novels but also her own life growing up in postwar Germany, where silence about the Holocaust was pervasive among the older generation that fought the war.

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