Thursday, February 10, 2011
Interview with Ron Hansen
Ron Hansen is the seventh interview at The Fine Delight. He continues to be a huge influence on my work, so I'm quite pleased to share his words. This interview was conducted via email. A bio note, as well as links to Ron's books, follow the interview. Thanks for your great responses, Ron!
1. If I could choose only one novel to represent the best of literary Catholicism, my choice would be, hands down, Mariette in Ecstasy. Could you discuss your experience writing the book?
Thanks. I found a book of stunning photographs of the convent in Lisieux where Saint Therese and her sisters were cloistered. We read about saints all the time, but here was one of my favorites smiling at the camera as she did laundry, performing in a convent play with her veil off and her long hair loose. I felt privileged to have such an intimate glimpse of that secret life and found myself thinking, Why aren’t there novels like that? And almost instantly I heard myself say, If you don’t write it, who will?
I began writing the book with the first pages you see, intending to finally add other opening pages about her childhood. But when I got to the end of the novel, I felt that earlier life was either hinted at or unnecessary. I was surprised in the opening pages when after going along in a rather procedural way the voice of a priest asking a question suddenly interrupted the parade of events. I knew it as a cinematic device to make narratives more economical, but I had no intention of using it until it just sort of happened on the page.
As John Updike once said, it’s in the nature of novels to have problems at their core. I chose the problem of having a girl as ardently in love with Christ as Saint Therese of Lisieux be vexed by the injuries of stigmata in questionable circumstances and therefore be investigated as the sisters in that limited society took sides. My research included reading on all the most famous stigmatics, and I finally settled on a number of biographical details and letters of Saint Gemma Galgani, a beautiful, young, very pious Italian whose seemingly neurotic behavior caused her to be removed from several convents. She died in 1903 at age twenty-five.
Early on, I simply wrote brief scenes of the cloistered life I’d seen in that French book of photographs and experienced on my own in my Catholic grade school. I laid each scene on the floor until I found a rhythm, and then I developed a chronology based on the pre-Vatican II feast days. Sometimes the scenes actually comment on the saint for the day, and sometimes they present a somewhat contrary view. But I liked the idea of liturgical timelessness and the dreaminess of the present tense.
Like Gemma Galgani, Mariette, I knew, ultimately would be kicked out of the convent for a variety of good and bad reasons, and I wanted to imitate Thomas Merton’s gorgeous epilogue to The Sign of Jonas, entitled “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,” and so I wrote Mariette’s letter to Sister Philomene. In a Christology class I was taking, the professor, Fr. Fran Smith S.J., mentioned counseling a young woman about a religious vocation, but though she’d been praying continually about it, she’d gotten no clear sign about what she should do. And Fran told her, “Maybe God is saying, ‘Surprise me.’” Instantly upon hearing that, I recognized it as the final line of the book. I just had to write to that point.
2. The language of Mariette in Ecstasy is so rich. The novel reads as being consciously poetic and structured; how deliberate was your attention to language in the work?
William Carlos Williams is often quoted for his comment on his poetic method: “no ideas but in things.” I sought to honestly present the world in both its grandeur and ugliness and often just name what I imagined in a simple yet unfamiliar way, such as from the first page, “Half-moon, and a wrack of gray clouds.” Or, “Cattails sway and unsway.” Or, “Wooden reaper. Walking plow. Hayrick.” I was aiming for some of the qualities of prose poetry with an impressionistic, cinematic approach that edits a lot out that the reader is forced to fill in, thereby becoming a co-creator. Each sentence was very consciously worked on, and the vocabulary was always deliberate.
3. I have shared Mariette in Ecstasy with Catholics and non-believers, and everyone finds something to appreciate in the novel. Do you think "Catholic" novels need such wide appeal to be truly successful and representative of the faith?
Oh, no. You can say that all true storytellers want to be popular and hence they take pains to be accessible, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for Catholic fiction intended for smaller audiences. I remember talking to William Kennedy about the audacity of the ghostly narrative of Ironweed, and he said, “But that’s the only way I knew how to write it.” Each book teaches its writer how it ought to be written, and that may leave some worthy manuscripts hunting in vain for an audience, but it doesn’t necessarily diminish their worth. Hopkins wasn’t fully appreciated until a hundred years after his death.
4. Your essay collection, A Stay Against Confusion, contains, among other gems, essays about John Gardner and Gerard Manley Hopkins (the great 19th century Jesuit poet). How did both Gardner and Hopkins serves as types of mentors to you and your writing?
John was a hard-working, vigorous, larger-than-life, immensely productive writer who was also off-the-wall, reckless, brilliant, learned, fun-loving, charismatic, and terrifically generous to young writers, lavishing fulsome praise on them even as he was wagging a disapproving finger at his peers. At a critical period in my life, he had faith not just in what I’d done but what I would do and his friendship and esteem made me feel I’d been accepted into a highly selective fraternity.
Hopkins was almost his opposite in having chosen a very ascetic life, and while John noted that a great influence on his own writing was Walt Disney, Hopkins was influenced by Catholic sacramentality, Greek and Latin poetry, Shakespeare, the Bible, and the acute observations of nature – as God’s holy book – that were encouraged by John Ruskin. It was Hopkins’s love of language and the exactly right word that first attracted me to him, and I liked him more the more I read about him. My friend the fine poet and biographer Paul Mariani refers to him as Father Hopkins and often thinks of him as a spiritual director. I have prayed to him, too, and been answered.
5. Several years ago you were ordained a deacon in the Catholic Church. You mentioned that "Being a deacon shouldn't have any effect on the readers if I do the fiction properly." How has the diaconate changed your life?
There’s an old saying that one should “Beware of any occupation that requires new clothes.” What I like about the diaconate is that it is an extension of the things I was already doing, as a lector, Eucharistic minister, and spiritual director, while giving me more opportunities to accompany the people of God at high points in their lives, whether it be their wedding, the baptism of a child, or the final committal of a loved one. An outsider would probably suspect that being “clergy” would cramp a fiction writer’s style or imprison him within a limited scope of pious subjects, but I have found the calling to be liberating because it intimately presents to me the lives of so many striving, ordinary, crazy, hopeful, sinful, fractured people who are, even at their worst, deeply loved by God. And if they are loved by God, I need to honor them with my writing. Church ministry often intensely acquaints one with the lines from John Donne’s poem: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
6. Such an impressive range exists within your published books, and your forthcoming novel, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, even furthers your breadth. The book is based on the true crime of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray; what about that real event needed to be given life in fiction?
Richard Walter, the famous screenwriting professor at UCLA film school insists that people go to movies to figure out just what and who they are. Readers seek out fiction, and writers write it, for the same reason. A subject grabs you and half the time you’re working on it you’re trying to find out why it had such a powerful attraction to your psyche. What initially captivated me about Ruth and Judd was that they were demonstrably good people who little by little began to go wrong because of frustration and sexual yearnings and the dullness of their lives, until it began to seem logical that they should murder Ruth’s husband. The psychology of that fascinated me. Perhaps it comes from the quizzical part of me that wondered, in Hitler’s Niece, how Adolf Hitler could convince the otherwise sensible citizens of Germany to wage a world war and try to exterminate the Jews.
7. My favorite essay from A Stay Against Confusion is "Eucharist," which contains the following powerful paragraph about being a Eucharistic minister: "I realized there was an important theological point in that: I am, as we all are, a sinner; but in Christ I am loved and forgiven as the good thief on the cross; in him my faith and worthiness are sufficient." What, for you, is the single most essential element of your Catholicism?
The Eucharist is my food for the journey, and prayer is my rest, but if I have learned anything in my life as a Catholic it’s that it need not be so hard as some would make it. We can be confident that God knows everything about us and in spite of our faults and flaws we still are loved. Are accepted. Any religion can seem just a burdensome collection of dogmas and prohibitions, but in fact Christianity simply tells over and over again the amazing story of God so loving the world that he became flesh and lived and died just as we do and somehow he redeemed us. We can be at ease. One of my favorite Psalms is 131 and its lines, in the Jerusalem Bible: “My heart has no lofty ambitions, my eyes do not look too high. I am not concerned with great affairs or marvels beyond my scope. Enough for me to keep my soul tranquil and quiet like a child in its mother’s arms.”
Ron Hansen was educated in English literature at Creighton University, then studied fiction writing at the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop, and at Stanford University, where he held a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship. His novels include Desperadoes, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Mariette in Ecstasy, Hitler’s Niece, and Exiles, as well as a children's book, The Shadowmaker, a book of stories, Nebraska, and A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith & Fiction. He has twice received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as fellowships in literature from the John Simon Guggenheim, Lyndhurst, and Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest foundations. Twice nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award, he was a finalist for the National Book Award for his novel Atticus, and is a recipient of an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Scribner will publish his novel A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion in June, and a collection of stories, She Loves Me Not, in 2012. Married to the writer Bo Caldwell, Mr. Hansen is the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University and a Permanent Deacon in the Diocese of San Jose.
Posted by Nick Ripatrazone at 12:05 AM