May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
Ron Hansen’s fiction is tight and rich. Each of Hansen’s writings carries a certain arc: the plains of the American West, the sanctuary of a hushed convent, and the frenzied deck of theDeutschland are both terse and beautiful, places where redemption is particularly fitted to each character’s peculiar, compelling humanity. In this interview, Hansen talks about writing as a sacrament, the “celebrity” nature of his novel’s protagonists, and the experience of having a novel adapted for film.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Talk a little bit about meeting Brad Pitt, the star of the film adaptation of your novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.1
Ron Hansen (RH): The first time I walked over to him on the film set, I introduced myself, and he immediately shook my hand and said, “Hey, man! Great book!” We got to talk several times, and he was unfailingly gracious and generous, always deflecting compliments and remembering any good turn.
TOJ: You told Catholic.org that you were very pleased with the way that Andrew Dominik, the film’s director, paid attention to the novel’s wording and sense of action.2 What was it like to watch your novel be adapted to film?
RH: It’s an amazing experience to see the reverence that the cast and crew apply to your material and to note the skill of the actors in portraying the characters. Writing the scenes, I only heard the voices and emotions in one mode, but Brad Pitt and Casey Afleck and Sam Rockwell applied so much more variety and coloring to the words, seeing the characters in interestingly different ways.
TOJ: I think that what’s so interesting about the Jesse James character is that he, in the way that John Dillinger and Al Capone were celebrities in the twentieth century, is the archetypal outlaw: a bloodthirsty badass that everyone loves. Why do you think people gravitated toward James, and what drew you to write about him?
RH: Sympathizers with the Confederacy gravitated toward the James brothers because they saw them as terrorists continuing the Civil War. Others latched onto the mystique of Jesse because they thought of themselves as misunderstood outlaws, and his death seemed strangely glamorous.
TOJ: So many of your novels deal with characters who attain some sort of celebrity status, especially through negative attention. There’s Mariette and her stigmata in Mariette in Ecstasy, and obviously, Jesse James, and then Geli Raubal (Hitler’s Niece). What is it about each of these characters that made you want to explore them (and their historical landscapes) more?3
RH: What’s that Shakespeare quotation? “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them”? The latter is more fascinating, dramatically. Each of the characters you mention—as well as the historical characters of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray who star in my next novel—seemed perfectly ordinary until pushed into a situation they weren’t prepared for. All achieved a somewhat undeserved, legendary status, or at least they were costumed in a way they didn’t choose. It’s the stuff of fantasies and of nightmares.
TOJ: In the case of Mariette, her celebrity status in the convent comes from a negative, and resentful, attention—her stigmata both offend and compel the other sisters. Is this something that you also see, looking back at the novel?
RH: Oh, yeah. You see it in politics, for sure, and in commerce and the arts: no one is universally loved. Thomas Mann noted that you could measure a person’s status by the number and quality of his or her enemies. And without that antagonism, there is no drama.
TOJ: I think that a major part of your work, in your fiction and your nonfiction, is illuminating historical characters that we take for granted as “famous,” characters that occupy a certain pedestal. In A Stay Against Confusion, for example, you write about Saint Ignatius and his leg surgeries, how he let surgeons shave his leg bones, with no available anesthesia, as a cosmetic surgery. It showed his humanity, his vanity, in a way that I would call incarnational—through his vice, we see him as an embodied being. Is this your intent?4
RH: Exactly. Each of us is flawed in some way, and how we deal with our deficiencies, or not, reveals our essential character. The warts-and-all biography is the only authentic portrait of anybody’s life. Ignatius would have been the first to agree with that.
TOJ: Talk about Exiles, how Gerard Manley Hopkins is a character who languishes because he gets no attention and whose posthumous celebrity comes after so much disappointment and dread.5
RH: The vast majority of writers labor in obscurity and are forgotten soon after their deaths. Hopkins was the lucky exception. He never faltered in his faith in his talent, and later generations have proved his self-assessment accurate, but I see him as the patron saint of the unknown author, the person whose work goes unappreciated and possibly unpublished, but who continues for the love of the art.
TOJ: What moments, when you were younger, helped you discover writing?
RH: My great-grandfather Frederik Hansen, long dead by the time I was born, had written an essay for a historical quarterly about leaving Denmark with his family in the 1850s, bound for a new life in Utah. Because the Danish families were too poor to have oxen or horses, the parents and children teamed together to haul and heave their wagons westward without yoked animals. And when my great-great-grandfather saw the rich black earth of Iowa, he couldn’t imagine better land for farming and quit the tiring handcart caravan. (And the trailboss was an evil man who urged him to leave his ailing wife off to the side of the road to die, which, of course, he wouldn’t do.) Frederik was just a boy then, and was probably around sixty when he wrote his account, I think in 1916. I saw my family treat that published article with such wonder and reverence—handing it down from one to another like a jeweled heirloom or freely typing it out in carbon copies for others who wanted to read it. Writing began to seem the highest vocation I could aspire to. And luckily, I discovered I had a very modest talent at putting sentences together, and I worked at training the rawest of talents into a generally accessible craftsmanship.
TOJ: In A Stay Against Confusion, you describe writing as a sacramental act, a place where we are “given graced occasions of encounter between humanity and God.” Could you describe this further?
RH: Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote that the earth was crammed with heaven and there were notes of God in every bush.6 She wasn’t a pantheist; she just recognized that the Creator’s signature was on all created things. She was hinting that everywhere on earth we can find analogues for the Holy Being. And in the same era, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote that what we look hard at seems to look back at us. With the proper receptivity, he was saying, a relationship can be developed with all that we sense and experience, and that itself can then develop into a conversation with the Almighty. Writing is just a way to depict and preserve inklings that are available to virtually anyone who’s attentive.
TOJ: Is fiction the best medium for sacramental writing? Are there differences between different genres’ abilities to provide these graced encounters?
RH: You don’t have to look past Hopkins to see how poetry, journaling, and drawing were all employed by him to describe what he’d read in the holy book of nature. But what fiction and memoir do especially well is handling the passage of time, so you get glimpse after glimpse of a theology that grows and changes over a lifetime as characters do the same. Having said that, I wouldn’t claim that Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych or Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain are superior to Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s poems in Supernatural Love. The same story of graced encounter is being told in differently affective ways.
TOJ: What is the purpose of storytelling? Do we just listen to stories to escape our circumstances? What do stories do for us?
RH: Stories find hidden harmonies in the world and impose symmetry and order to our often chaotic existence. We don’t escape our circumstances in reading; we find those circumstances organized, highlighted, and exaggerated for greater clarity about what’s at stake in our decisions. Stories insist that with insight, perspective, and the right vantage point so much that seems pointless, ephemeral, and accidental will begin to make sense. They usefully isolate characters in their moments of crisis or epiphany and, through the honest reporting of the probable consequences of a character’s choices, they tactfully educate readers in how they can live their lives more vitally. Writing those stories accomplishes the same thing but in a more subconscious way.
TOJ: Can you tell us anything about the novel that you’re working on?
RH: I have a novel coming from Scribner next summer: A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, which is based on the murder of Albert Snyder by his wife Ruth and her lover Judd Gray in Queens, New York, in 1927. Their story became the basis for “Double Indemnity,” but I hew much closer to the facts. The title comes from an indignant editorial in the New York Daily Mirrordescribing the crimes. Their trial became as huge an event as O. J. Simpson’s. Judd and Ruth were electrocuted in Sing Sing in January 1928. She was one of only a handful of women that New York ever executed for murder.
TOJ: What are you reading now? And, better yet, what kind of novels do you wish other writers were writing that you could read?
RH: I have the acclaimed Three Cups of Tea ready to be read and Scott Turow’s Innocent—he’s always good. I recall the amazement I felt when I first read Doctorow’s Ragtime and D. M. Thomas’s The White Hotel.7 And there are so many others I could name in which the story and the style were perfectly suited and seemed at the same time completely new. There are novels that are like locomotives and novels that are like summer vacations or garden ponds. We need some of each, but we want them to look like nothing else we’ve seen before.
1. Ron Hansen, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford(New York, NY: Alfred E. Knopf, 1983). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp2ppYB9fDo.
Allison Backous is the creative writing editor for The Other Journal. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University and teaches at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Ron Hansen, novelist and essayist, is the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and most recently, the Denise Levertov Award. Along with short story and nonfiction collections, his novels include Mariette in Ecstasy, Hitler’s Niece, Exiles (detailing the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins), and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which was recently adapted for film. He is currently at work on a new novel and teaches at Santa Clara University.