New Voice: Bethany Hegedus on Between Us Baxters and Truth with a Capital T

Bethany Hegedus is the author of Between Us Baxters (WestSide, 2009) and Truth with a Capital T (Delacorte, 2010). From the promotional copy of Truth with a Capital T:

Lots of families have secrets. Little-Known Fact: My family has an antebellum house with a locked wing—and I’ve got a secret of my own.

I thought getting kicked out of the Gifted & Talented program—or not being “pegged,” as Mama said—­was the worst thing that could happen to me. W-r-o-n-g, wrong.

I arrived in Tweedle, Georgia, to spend the summer with Granny and Gramps, only to find no sign of them. When they finally showed up, Cousin Isaac was there too, with his trumpet in hand, and I found myself having to pretend to be thrilled about watching my musical family rehearse for the town’s Anniversary Spectacular. It was h-a-r-d, hard. Meanwhile, I, Maebelle T.-for-No-Talent Earl, set out to win a blue ribbon with an old family recipe.

But what was harder and even more wrong than any of that was breaking into the locked wing of my grandparents’ house, trying to learn the Truth with a capital T about Josiah T. Eberlee, my long-gone-but-not-forgotten relation.

To succeed, I couldn’t be a solo act. I’d need my new friends, a basset hound named Cotton, the strength of my entire family, and a little help from a secret code.

With grace and humor and a heaping helping of little-known facts, Bethany Hegedus incorporates the passions of the North and the South and bridges the past and the present in this story about one summer in the life of a sassy Southern girl and her trumpet-playing adopted Northern cousin.

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore first, or engage some combination of the two? Then where do you go from there? What about this approach appeals to you? What advice do you have for beginning writers struggling with plot?

Like in life, I am a plunger. I sometimes wish this were not true, that I was methodical, precise, but I tend to go with my gut and my gut doesn’t speak to me in logical, precise terms.

My gut speaks to me in bold moves: like moving from New York City to Austin (and moving to NYC in the first place from Augusta, Georgia), like working two years on a novel and then ditching every word except the character names.

I write to discover. I write to explore. I write to tell myself the truth, and sometimes that truth takes quite awhile to figure out. Other times, the truth rises to the surface quicker.

With Between Us Baxters, which I first began when I knew nothing about story or craft, I spent a year connecting with Polly. I met her, lived with her, fought with her and got to know the racial climate of the late 1950s in her rural Southern town.

I knew there would be racial violence and intolerance. I knew I wanted to explore the “exception” and not the rule of black and white relationships during this time, but my first draft was too black and white. I had villains and victims, but for me, there wasn’t truth there, not enough at least. My gut told me that.

My gut also told me to take the plunge and apply to Vermont College of Fine Arts, after only hearing one person mention it, knowing no one who was a graduate or a current student. I went to learn structure and structure I did learn.

Along with my plunging nature, I learned to be methodical and precise in my word choice, when to depict action and when to use exposition. I learned to trust my gut and to work my mind. (Thanks to my mentors Norma Fox Mazer, Marion Dane Bauer, Sharon Darrow, and Tim Wynne-Jones.)

I came out of the program with a newer, truer story for Polly and her best friend Timbre Anne. It was a cross of my original gut instincts and my questioning and analytical thoughts. I developed my own process: part plunge, part analysis, part patient, part impatient, and a mix of many shades of grey.

I took what I learned through my time at VCFA and my work on Between Us Baxters and put it to work when plunging in to transform a picture book manuscript, once entitled “The Honky Tonk Blues,” into a middle grade novel.

Again, it took time for me to figure out the real story, but right away again I had my characters: Maebelle T. Earl, Granny, Gramps (Gramps I brought back from the dead, as I had a mystery around his death in an earlier version), and a dog named Cotton.

The Truth with a Capital T again was a mix of forging ahead; seeing a plot choice to the end of a draft and then scrapping the whole thing. But this time I had help.

My agent had sent the manuscript to Michelle Poploff at Random House. Michelle had been interested in Between Us Baxters but turned it down because she already had an exceptional civil rights era novel about to hit the shelves. (That book was A Thousand Never Evers (Delacorte, 2008) by the incredible Shana Burg. And as fate would have it, my move to Austin landed me in a critique group with Shana. How lucky am I?)

I was thrilled to hear Michelle again liked my work and saw the potential in it, but she wanted more focus on the kid characters and a bit less on the adult figures. This is something I had heard before, and it was something I wanted to explore. She asked for a revision letter on how I would handle the refocusing of the story more so on Maebelle and her adopted cousin Issac and if she liked my ideas and her assistant, Rebecca Short did, too, a contract offer might be forthcoming.

We passed a few letters back and forth, and in the end, a book contract came. I was thrilled (and still am!) Michelle truly is one of the best editors around. She works her authors hard, expects a lot, and has such insight into character and story movement.

My advice to new writers and yet-to-be-published folks is to find what works for you: plotter, plunger or a combination thereof. Process is personally specific. It is about embracing your strengths and strengthening your weaknesses.

I expect mine to continue to morph and change, but now that I have added the analytical skills to my personal desire to plunge, to sweep, to make big moves I am more comfortable in tackling changes in my work and changes in my life, knowing my gut has a good friend and companion with my mind.

As a comedic writer, how do you decide what’s funny? What advice do you have for those interested in either writing comedies or books with a substantial amount of humor in them?

I don’t primarily see myself as a comedic writer, but humor and humorous moments are an important part of my work.

In Between Us Baxters, there needed to be some levity amid the tension. I didn’t intend to have readers crying one moment and smiling the next and don’t believe there are any scenes that combine those two aspects of catharsis (laughter and tears are both a release, aren’t they?) back to back, but I do have humorous scenes.

Early on in the book, when Polly is getting tormented by a girl her age for wearing Timbre Ann’s “colored castoffs,” Polly wishes she could hit Sallie Jean, and just as she winds up to “give her the biggest fat lip in the history of Holcolm County,” one of the birds chittering above lets loose on Sallie Jean.

The humor here adds to my ability to characterize both girls. Polly sees it as justice being enacted by the heavens, and Sallie Jean tries to blame the incident on Polly.

When I meet with young readers, I lead them in a characterization exercise, getting them to pull from real-life moments they have lived. I read this scene and ask the audience if they think I ever got hit with bird doo. They debate it. Some think, yes—some think, no—and it is with a combination of embarrassment and pride that I admit that I did have a bird doo number two in my hair at the age of thirteen. I turned a cringe-moment from my own teen years and used it to my advantage.

That’s a place humor can spring from: an all-too-human moment.

In Truth with a Capital T, the tone is lighter and the novel is contemporary (though it does have a historical fiction angle as Maebelle investigates whether her family owned slaves or were a part of the abolitionist movement).

Humor is more infused amid all the scenes than in mere moments. This is, in part, because I love southern Gothic literature—the characters of Flannery O’Connor still stand out in my mind.

I love exploring these kinds of folks, and in the town of Tweedle, Georgia; the setting for Truth, odd balls abound. Maebelle’s grandparents are larger than life Honky Tonk legends, whose Winnebago horn blares their top hit. Her parents are self-help relationship gurus who mortify Maebelle with their televised “breathing and being” exercises, and Maebelle’s new friend Ruth is obsessed with TV talk shows and receiving her first kiss.

In Truth, and in my new WIP, humor is found in the hard moments. In self-discovery, in making wrong choices, in attempting to find what one is good at, and in the mistakes made when trying to bond with others.

Humor, to me, is necessary and essential, and it doesn’t have to be over the top to be funny. Humor can pull at the heartstrings—seeing the dichotomy between hopes and reality—can be humbling and painful while at the same time glorious and joyful. I want my humor to embody a range of feelings.

For any writer wanting to showcase human emotion, much can be discovered by investigating and incorporating humor. I say start with a combination of your own funny and humbling experiences and add that to who you know your main character to be and see where it leads. Humor is spontaneous, and magic may happen.

If not, keep at it. Humor, like everything, is a muscle that can be developed.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

I was referred to my agent, Regina Brooks, President and Founder of Serendipity Literary Agency, by my first agent.

This first agent relationship, I believe, didn’t work out as I signed too early in my development as a writer, without knowing who I was or what my true voice was.

At the time, I was more of a picture book writer and had several manuscripts that got as far as acquisitions meetings but came out without any offers. I then enrolled at VCFA and worked on perfecting my development as a novelist (which also made me a stronger picture book writer), and when my novel was ready to shop, together my agent and I discovered we weren’t a fit. While we respected one another and liked one another as friends, we were ready to do the hard work of letting go.

During this decision making process, I began doing research, seeing who I may be a better fit for and who might be a better fit for me. My first agent graciously offered to refer me to other agents as she saw my potential. (A classy move and something I am forever grateful for.)

So I began to ask around. There was one agent I had my eye on as I liked the work she represented, and that was, indeed, Regina.

With authors on her list like Marilyn Nelson (a genius of a poet and author) and Tonya Cherie Hegamin, I had a feeling Regina would “get” my civil rights era novel, the importance of racial friendships in all my work—not just in Between Us Baxters—and in general me.

A friend of mine, Sundee T. Frazier, author of Brendan Buckley’s Universe (Delacorte, 2008) and The Other Half of My Heart (Delacorte, 2010), had signed with Regina a year or so earlier. I emailed Sundee, and she answered my questions and gave Regina a total thumbs up as an author advocate and agent.

Once Regina read my work and liked it, we had a lengthy phone discussion. I was worried that my having been represented prior to being with her would stamp me as a “reject,” but that was never the case. We discussed Between Us Baxters, which hadn’t yet been shopped and decided to move forward.

I am so glad we did. I adore Regina. She has such energy and vibrancy. She is frank, smart, savvy, and when we don’t see eye-to-eye, we hash things out and then get back to work. She believes in me and I believe in her, and that to me is foundation of what makes our author/agent relationship work.

In seeking representation, or in ending an agenting relationship and searching for a new one, what is most important is having a firm sense of who you are as an artist, of where you see your work going, and being able to communicate that when that all-important agent makes contact.

And don’t be afraid to reassess and discuss and evaluate your joint and individual goals. The agent/author relationship is a special one, and like any relationship, it takes communication, but knowing someone has your back in this business is a godsend.

Cynsational Notes

Bethany is co-editor of the Young Adult and Children’s Literature literature section of Hunger Mountain–VCFA Journal of the Arts.

Check out the book trailer for Truth with a Capital T. Note: you may need to turn up the sound on your computer.