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Betty Jane Hegerat on The Boy

The Boy by Betty Jane HegeratBook Club Buddy: The Boy is based on the true story of the 1959 Cook family murders. What was it about this event that so obsessed you and compelled you to write The Boy?

Betty Jane Hegerat: Although the Cook murder case seems to have lain dormant in my memory for about 45 years, once I began digging around in the historical information, I remembered the shock to my eleven-year-old self of hearing that it was the son/brother who had killed the family.  All I knew of older brothers was that they teased and drove cars and I wished that I had one because I was sure it would help me to understand boys and be less shy around them. Suddenly, older brothers were dangerous.

At the point that I began writing this book, my youngest son was 16, the age at which Robert Cook was already incarcerated in adult jail, and my older son was 23, the age at which Cook was executed for the murders. During the years my children were adolescents, I loved having their friends in the house.  The pile of huge sneakers at the front door always made me smile; the size of the feet, the gangly kids who owned them, their ingenuous charm (the boys in particular.)

Coming face-to-face, as an adult, with all of the evidence in the Cook murders, forced me to consider the possibility of unspeakable violence in a young person.  If Robert Raymond Cook— son of Ray Cook and brother of the five children whose photos haunted me, by all accounts just a punk kid and eventually a two-bit criminal—had committed this crime, then how can we know which other sons and brothers have the potential for murderous rage?  The compulsion to write The Boy was the same sort of compulsion that drives all of my fiction.  I seem always to be trying to make sense of something that either intrigues or troubles me.  In this case, the big difference was that I was not only troubled, but frightened in a deep and almost primal way.

BCB: Why did you start the story where you did? What aspect of the story did this choice allow you to explore?

Betty Jane Hegerat: I began the story with the fictional thread that weaves in and out of the research and bits of memoir, because I knew that the only way I was going to make my way through to the end was with fiction.  The ending to the Cook family story is unspeakably horrible.  I’m not adverse to writing sad or poignant endings to my fiction, but in this case I knew quite early in the writing that I was clinging to the “what if?” as a means of finding the shred of redemption that I always look for even in the saddest of stories.  What if things had gone differently in the little bungalow in Stettler on June 29, 1959?  No one knows what happened, and I couldn’t even make myself do the imagining, but I could explore a different possibility with fiction. Writing the fiction made the process bearable. Without it, I wouldn’t have finished the book, and I suspect I would have carried the troubling questions for a very long time.

BCB: I was surprised to learn that the arresting cover image came from the police files. What is the significance of that photo?

Betty Jane Hegerat: For me, the photo captures the tragedy in so many ways that once I’d seen it (and initially all I saw was a blurry photocopy of the original) I couldn’t consider any other image for the cover.  Not only are the shoes a portrait of an ordinary working class family, the seven pairs raise the question of the homicidal strength required to kill that many people without a single one escaping or anyone within hearing distance being aware of the crime.  Seven pairs of shoes, an entire family wiped out.

That someone at the crime scene was compelled to place the shoes on a sheet, carefully line them up in diminishing size, and then take a photo as police evidence, staggered me.  Why?  The only motive I could come up with was that whoever did this was so overwhelmed with the horror of it all that this rather mundane act was all he could manage.

BCB: Is there any one character in the novel that you found most satisfying to write, and why?

Betty Jane Hegerat: Louise, the fictional stepmother was the easiest and most satisfying character to write. I was so drawn to Daisy, the real life stepmother of Robert Raymond Cook, that she became the focal point of my research. I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to write a book about the aftermath of the crimes, nor did I want to speculate on Cook’s guilt, which indeed has been questioned.

I came to this story from the perspective of a mother, and I wanted to know Daisy, mother of her own five small children, and how she might have felt about this boy who was a problem from the time she met him.  I find it difficult to write non-fiction, because my tendency to embellish is always at odds with my strong belief that fact is the basic construction material even in “creative non-fiction” and to take liberties with the material compromises the integrity of the story.  So, recreating the story from Daisy Cook’s perspective wasn’t a possibility.  But Louise could serve as a doppelganger.

BCB: Which character presented the greatest challenge?

Betty Jane Hegerat: Danny, the fictional boy, was difficult for me to write. I felt such empathy for him, and yet I needed to portray him as a threat.  One of questions that I never answered satisfactorily was how Daisy Cook felt about the boy she’d inherited. With Louise it was easy; I knew she was wary, that she had a difficult time even liking Danny, never mind forging any kind of a bond with him, and I knew that eventually she would be frightened of him.  I needed to put her on the defensive.  I needed to write Danny as a boy with the potential to harm the people closest to him.  This was almost akin to putting one of my own sons into a nightmare.

BCB: Robert Raymond Cook is the last man to be hanged in Alberta. Is there any reason to question his guilt?

Betty Jane Hegerat: Robert Raymond Cook was convicted on circumstantial evidence.  He was a compulsive liar, and in some ways helped to put the noose around his own neck.  In hindsight, knowing that so much of what he told the police was fabricated—he told his lawyer that sometimes he just gave them what he knew they wanted to hear—throws everything about the case into question.  There are people who knew the family and the situation who believe solidly that he committed the crime.  There are others who knew Cook himself very well who are as adamant that he could not have done it.

Although I met a few people who say they remain convinced that he deserved the hanging, there are others who were convinced of his guilt who say that the punishment was not warranted.  There are several bits of evidence that were left unresolved and convinced me that whether or not Robert Raymond Cook was guilty, he was not proven so.  I don’t think this case has gone to its final rest. Since The Boy was published I’ve had such interesting feedback, and I would say there is resurgence in interest in Robert Raymond Cook.  We haven’t heard the last of him.

BCB: Writing about such a sad and horrific crime must have had a profound emotional impact on you. Will you discuss that?

Betty Jane Hegerat: There were times when I was delving into the story of the Cook family that I wanted desperately to let it go.   I did a significant amount of the writing of the book in the Leighton Studios at the Banff Centre.  There is one studio in particular that I will probably avoid on future residencies simply because I feel the story embedded in the place.

One night, early on in the writing, I became engrossed in reading and stayed well past dark.  When I looked out the window, there were no lights in the other studios that I could see and it took all the courage I could muster to step into the dark. I ran the path to the residence as though the ghosts were swooping along behind me.  In fact, I did feel as though I was both pursuing and being haunted by ghosts. I kept reminding myself that these people were long dead, and even many of those who’d mourned were long gone.

I tried to treat the story as history, and to some degree that did help me to deal with the horror and the sadness that I felt so profoundly in the beginning.  The emotion that was the most difficult, because it was at the heart of why I needed to write the story was fear.  I think most writers know a great deal about dark places and the compelling and terrifying need to explore them.   The only way out is to write the story.

When the box of books arrived in early May and I held a copy of The Boy in my hands, I squeezed the covers tight and thought – There!  Now it’s finished, and contained in these pages, and it’s up to other people as to whether they want to open the pages and step into the story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted by Pearl on Jun 10 2011. Filed under Author Interviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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3 Comments for “Betty Jane Hegerat on The Boy”

  1. I feel the same way. I read the entire book in one sitting yesterday and throughout I kept thinking, “Betty Jane Hegerat will one day be one of Canada’s best known authors.” Her writing is smart, and somewhat wry, and she tells a great story. I didn’t know how I would feel about fiction and nonfiction woven together, but she is so skilled in both types of writing that the whole blended together to become more than either genre alone. I will be writing a full review of this impressive book shortly.

  2. I’m halfway through reading my copy of The Boy and I can hardly put it down. As usual, Betty Jane spins a page-turner. When I first heard what she’d chosen to write about, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to read this book… but the story as she tells it is compelling. I’m even enjoying the way the two parts of the story – fiction and nonfiction – are woven together. Great interview; it answered a few of the questions I had while I was reading it (like where the cover photo came from!). Thanks! :)

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