A character takes control, and wreaks havoc

By DONNA LIQUORI, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, September 19, 2004

In Ursula Hegi's latest novel, "Sacred Time" (Touchstone, 256 pages, $13), a 7-year-old boy's reckless decision alters a family's future in a matter of seconds. Hegi didn't see it coming.

The writer, who visits the New York State Writers Institute on Thursday, goes through between 50 and 100 revisions in the process of writing her novels and works of nonfiction ("Sacred Time" is her 10th book). When this one began, she had no idea that Anthony Amedeo's actions would be so pivotal.

"It doesn't happen in one draft," Hegi said in a recent phone interview from San Francisco while on her book tour. "It's like sticking my hand in a muddy brook and closing it, and knowing there's something there."

"Sacred Time" spans several generations of an Italian-American family. The story begins in 1953, as the Amadeo family absorbs Anthony's Aunt Floria and her twin daughters into their Bronx apartment. Floria's husband has been sent to jail for stealing from an employer; the family only refers to Uncle Malcolm as being "elsewhere."

Reluctantly, Anthony shares his room with the girls, who alternately dote on and harass him. His mother, Leonora, and his Aunt Floria do not get along, creating a conflicted and stressful environment.


Hegi, 58, came to the United States from her native Germany in 1965; about half of her work has been set in this country. Her best-known book, "Stones from the River," concerns a dwarf named Trudi, and takes place in Germany.

"As a bicultural writer, I feel linked to other countries," she said.

Hegi said that she exists on the border of her adopted country and her country of origin, a sentiment she's heard echoed by other immigrants. She lives in eastern Long Island with her husband, Gordon Gagliano, and drew insight for "Sacred Time" from the customs and traditions of Gagliano's large Italian-American family. She asked her husband about the types of toys he played with as a child and even what the hallways of his youth smelled like.

"Sacred Time" begins with Anthony wishing for a stencil kit with which to decorate his window; that desire is key to the tragic event -- which will not be revealed here -- that marks his family forever.

"The impact of that one moment ... affects the entire family over several generations," Hegi said. The silence that ensues, which shapes the guilt felt by all the family members, is a recurring theme in Hegi's work. Anthony, in fact, stops speaking, retreating into silence. At age 7, he doesn't completely understand the repercussions of his actions: "He becomes terrified of wanting anything," Hegi said, adding, "I never know what's going to happen. When I realized Anthony was going to be implicated, I realized that I had a novel. I started it as a story."

Stories within stories

Stories within stories also recur in "Sacred Time," with family lore shaping the lives of the Amedeos.

"Several of my characters are storytellers," Hegi said. "There's part of me reflected in the characters -- being drawn to telling stories, to making stories." Hegi traces her decision to become a writer back to age 5, but remembers her parents standing outside her door when she was 3 years old and listening to her tell stories to her younger sister.

In addition to being nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1994, "Stones from the River" became a national bestseller in 1997 after becoming one of the earliest Oprah's Book Club selections. The novel spent 21 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.

"That was so long ago," Hegi said of the Oprah boom. "Day to day, sitting at my desk and creating characters -- it's a very solitary thing. That's what it's about."

"Sacred Time" is indeed character-driven, told from the perspective of Leonora, Anthony, Floria and Belinda, one of the twins. "It's important for me to get inside each of the characters, female and male. They live with me in my head and my soul while I'm working," Hegi said. "I approach writing the very way you approach Method acting. I get inside the skin of the character."

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Ursula Hegi