Ron Hansen’s novels are Desperadoes, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (both from Knopf), Mariette in Ecstasy, Atticus, Hitler’s Niece, and Isn’t It Romantic? (all from HarperCollins). Atticus was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Hansen is also the author of the story collection Nebraska (Atlantic Monthly) and A Stay against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction (HarperCollins). A new novel, Exiles, is forthcoming this spring from Farrar Straus & Giroux. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Hansen was educated at Creighton University, the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop, and at Stanford University, where he held a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship. He has received fellowships from the Michigan Society of Fellows, the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the Lyndhurst Foundation, and was presented with an award in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He is the Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University, where he earned an MA in Spirituality in 1995. He was interviewed by Brennan O’Donnell.
Image: Your new novel, Exiles, explores the shipwreck that inspired Gerard Manley Hopkins’ long poem The Wreck of the Deutschland, as well as Hopkins’ writing of that poem. How did you come to write a novel about an English Jesuit’s poem about a German shipwreck?
Ron Hansen: Like a lot of people, I happened onto Hopkins. I found out that Dylan Thomas, whom I admired, was a fan of Hopkins and had learned a lot from him. The more you dig into Hopkins, the more fascinating he becomes. You can go back to the poems again and again and see new things, which is a mark of his genius.
I’d always had difficulty with The Wreck of the Deutschland, just at the level of figuring out what’s going on, so I started researching. When I discovered the story of the real shipwreck, I thought it would be a great idea for a story. I happened to mention it to Joe Feeney, who runs the Hopkins Quarterly, and he told me about a new book that assembled a lot of the newspaper accounts of the incident. That book really stimulated my thinking. Then I found out about the Wheaton Franciscans, who are the vestiges of the group of nuns on board. I contacted a sister there who had translated a book from the German about the shipwreck called The Floundering Rescue. I started assembling information about the events, how the ship was built, everything I could find out about shipwrecks on the east coast of England. Then I started imagining the lives of these five Franciscan nuns. There’s not much known about them. I thought at first I was just writing a story about the shipwreck, but as I looked at the poem again and again, I realized that the shipwreck itself, and the sense of exile that the young nuns felt, were really metaphors for Hopkins’ own life. He felt cut off not only from Oxford and from his parents, but from England itself, especially when he went to Ireland just before he died.
I wanted to deal with the question of how people encounter death, their various attitudes toward it and toward God’s way of dealing with people. Why is it that some people lead wonderful lives and have terrible deaths? Why, as the psalmist asks, do the evil prosper and the innocent suffer? All of that is wound up in the novel.
Image: Were you particularly fascinated with Hopkins responding to these events as a writer?
RH: I was interested in this idea of reputation: Hopkins was an unknown poet during his lifetime. People thought he was an eccentric nut, but thirty years later his book got published and he became famous, a bestseller. What does that say about our sense of trust in God? What does that say to you, in this day, as a writer, about your sense of reputation and of doing God’s will? Hopkins once wrote to a canon who was also a poet, “Christ is the only literary critic.” What does he mean by that? That’s the thing I was trying to explore in the novel.
Image: What most surprised you as you got deeper and deeper into the research, both about Hopkins and about the German nuns?
RH: I found that Hopkins’ famous poems of desolation really came from a discrete period in his life, a period he showed every evidence of coming out of. There’s strong evidence that he was a manic depressive, at least at some point in his life. In his letters from Ireland you see shifts between frenetic activity and incredible desolation. But in the very last poems you don’t see the desolation you see in his earlier work. This makes me wonder, what would have happened if he’d gone on, if he hadn’t fallen ill in Dublin? What kinds of poems would have come, what kind of essays? He had all kinds of projects that never came to fruition. We only have this one collection of poems, and even that was really shaped by Robert Bridges.
Image: What most surprised you about the shape the novel took as it progressed? When you were first writing it, you described it as being based on a fascination you had with the correspondence of Hopkins and Robert Bridges, but that changed over time. How did that affect the structure of the book?
RH: I did think at one point of doing a whole life of Hopkins, starting from the time he enters Oxford. Bridges would have been a crucial character. But I got seventeen pages in and hadn’t even started his first day of classes. I had no way of focusing. I needed some kind of device to limit what I was going to say. Otherwise it was too comprehensive a novel. Everything I have to say about Hopkins in Exiles in some way touches on The Wreck of the Deutschland. Either he’s talking to somebody about the poem, or he’s getting counsel from Bridges, or he’s being exiled in some way. That became my way of selection.
Also, I wrote an essay about Hopkins and Bridges, and that remedied some of my yearnings. I use some of that essay in the book. I’m not a big fan of Bridges. I think he was one of those friends who in some subtle way undermine you. Nobody reads Bridges anymore, but at that time he was famous enough to become poet laureate of England, which tells you something about that culture. And Hopkins couldn’t get published anywhere at that time, which tells you something else about that culture. The fact that Hopkins finally wins out fills me with glee.
Image: While you were writing Exiles, your good friend Paul Mariani was hard at work on his biography of Hopkins, due out this October. How did your friendship begin? Did you two compare notes as you wrote your books?
RH: Paul and I first met in 1980 at Breadloaf in the faculty lounge. He sidled over to me and said, “I heard somebody say that you’re a Catholic,” and I said, “Yes, I am.” He said, “Tomorrow is the Feast of the Assumption. Do you want to go to mass with me?” and I said yes. So we were secret Catholics together.
Paul and I did a retreat together at Saint Beuno’s in Wales, where Hopkins studied theology. Paul was working on the biography and I was working on the novel, and we wanted to see what life was like there, so we did a six-day retreat.
We corresponded while I was working on the novel. Whenever I was stumped I would write him, and he would have an answer for me in a couple of hours. When I started the book, he sent me files of all of Hopkins’ correspondence and journal entries, along with his own parenthetical notes about who everybody was. I couldn’t have found that stuff myself, so I’m deeply grateful. And I think Paul’s biography is going to be the definitive one.
Image: In 1996, you accepted the Gerard Manley Hopkins chair at Santa Clara University. How did that come about?
RH: I did some of my first writing about Hopkins while I was getting my MA in spirituality from Santa Clara. I started taking classes there while I was a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, from 1989 to 1995. During that time I got to know Father Paul Locatelli, the president of Santa Clara. A couple had recently endowed a new chair but didn’t want it named after themselves. Father Locatelli offered me the job, but I wasn’t sure whether to take it. I decided to pray to Gerard Manley Hopkins about the decision, since I thought he knew my life. A little later Father Locatelli called me up and asked if I’d decided, and I said no. He said, “I’m going to name it the Gerard Manley Hopkins Chair. Does that mean anything to you?” It was like Saint Paul being knocked off the horse.
Image: Could you talk about the connection between the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius and your imaginative life?
RH: The Spiritual Exercises are based on Ignatian contemplation, where you read a passage of scripture and then open it up by drawing out the events in your imagination, either starting earlier or going later than the passage does. You develop a more sensual experience of the event. Ignatius will often ask you to take the point of view of different people. You might be the person who was born blind. You might be a person looking on. You might be Jesus himself. As you expand the story, often it goes to something particular about your own life. After you’ve been healed, you might ask Jesus, “You’ve healed my eyesight, now what about this other issue?” It becomes a way of personal communication.
And that, I think, is what literature does. Writers try to make things as sensual as possible so that readers really enter into the scene and then learn something. You learn people’s theology or philosophy in how they encounter other people, how they face crises. Writing and Ignatian contemplation use the same skill.
Image: You’ve described yourself as a “sifter through old, dusty tomes.” What attracts you about writing about the past? Is there a connection between Ignatian contemplation and writing historical fiction?
RH: There’s a lot of remembering in historical fiction. For example, you have to remember that there are no lights after six o’clock at night unless you have a candle or a kerosene lamp. Or that the kitchens aren’t attached to the house. When Hopkins wakes up in the morning, he uses a chamber pot. You’re constantly backing up and saying, “Oh, wait a second, they would have been barefoot, wouldn’t they?” Those little things are important, and Ignatian contemplation makes you aware of that.
Part of the reason I write historical fiction is that I think people are impoverished in their historical imagination, and I want to bring out what these earlier lives were like. Also, a writer can own the past in a way that you can’t own the present. If I write about contemporary circumstances, everybody thinks they know all about them already. Whereas there is a sort of suspension of disbelief that comes when you accept that I know more than you do about how trains ran in the 1870s.
Image: You’ve said that historical fiction is always as much about the time in which it is written as about the time in which it was set. What is it about 2008 that informs the world of Exiles?
RH: I have a sense that members of religious orders are still ostracized. A lot of people would prefer the orders to leave the United States, and the same was true then in Germany. I think persecution is going to increase over the years.
It’s not easy for writers of faith today. People do question whether you should write about such things. When I was first writing Mariette in Ecstasy, I asked one of my editors what he would think of a novel about a nun, and he just turned his thumbs down. I told him that was what I was working on, and he said, “Oh, well, you. That’s different.” Robert Bridges, in his introduction to Hopkins’ collection, writes that a lot of the poems offend him because they deal with “cultish” things like Mary and so on. The questions Hopkins was facing in his day were the same ones a writer faces now. The fact that there was a panel at the Associated Writing Programs conference on the problems of poets dealing with faith seems kind of anomalous when you consider that all poetry and fiction came out of religious tradition. It used to be that all you would write about was God and man. Some think that if you do that now you’re either breaching good taste or you’ve lost your mind.
Image: You’ve written that the phenomenon of the stigmata seems “grossly old fashioned” to modern sensibilities. Why center a novel on something grossly old fashioned?
RH: It’s the nature of novels to deal with problems. And the problems have to be made tangible in some way. Mariette having a crisis of faith is not very interesting, but if the crisis has a physical manifestation that brings in the quarrels between science and religion, the book has more possibilities. The stigmata awaken either revulsion or awe in other nuns in her coterie. This is a sign that cannot be manufactured, or shouldn’t be, and it raises questions: Why is she privileged and I’m not, when I’m as holy as she is? All kinds of rivalries arise, and then there’s the problem of hysteria. This is the meat of novels.
Image: Among other things, the novel demonstrates the challenge of the stigmata to a sensibility that is inclined to be open to the miraculous. What is it about miracles that we find so troubling, even we people of faith?
RH: We expect miracles of Jesus, but we don’t expect them in contemporary life. It feels almost like a reproach to the Gospels that miracles should happen now, and people will bend over backwards to try to find a practical or materialistic explanation, even people who are very devout, very spiritually aware.
In researching Mariette, I read everything I could about the stigmata. It was especially popular as a subject in the nineteenth century. In virtually every case, it was divisive. Each time, there was a block of people who thought it was phony, and another block who thought it was real. Sometimes the people who got the stigmata weren’t religious at all and were embarrassed by it. Some were ignorant of it, and were told by doctors, “If I didn’t know better I’d say this was the stigmata.”
For the novel, I made up my own religious order so I could get away with things, so I didn’t have to follow the exact rule of the Dominicans or the Benedictines, but the story does follow closely what happened to several of the nuns I read about, chiefly Gemma Galgani.
The stigmata awakens a lot of questions. Why does this happen to some people and not to others? It appears in Francis of Assisi and the famous Franciscan Padre Pio. What is it about Franciscan spirituality that causes it? And why is it that the most contemplative orders have the fewest stigmatics?
Image: At the center of Mariette in Ecstasy is a powerful blending of religious fervor and eroticism. Can you talk a bit about what you think the novel may contribute to our understanding of that volatile combination?
RH: In a spirituality class at Santa Clara, I heard a woman say that a problem she had was that her love for Jesus got mixed up with romantic love. My wife once said that on a retreat, whenever she started thinking about Jesus, he became Jeremy Irons, and they would start dancing together. Another woman once told me that the problem is that the body’s vocabulary is very limited, and feelings of deep love become romantic very quickly.
In the novel, I wanted to show how these things are connected. I think it’s no accident that priests and ministers so often get into trouble because of romantic involvement. It’s not that religion and sex are opposed to one another; it’s that they’re inextricably linked. That’s one of the secrets that I wanted to have out.
Sometimes Mariette in Ecstasy does end up in the erotic section of bookstores, which is amusing to me. An exotic dancer who was into whips and things like that once wrote me to say that it was her favorite book.
Image: What was the most gratifying aspect of the book’s reception?
RH: Most people get it. Most people understand what the book is about. Some people do ask, “Was she the real thing or wasn’t she?” As far as I’m concerned, she was the real thing. But I wanted to have that sense of ambiguity that one always encounters when looking at saints’ lives.
I once read that according to ghost hunters, when you go into a house you almost never see a ghost by looking straight at it, but you can often see it out of the corner of your eye. I think that’s what happens in fiction: If you address something straight, people either accept it or reject it. But if you approach it tangentially, then they absorb it and it becomes more theirs. In the novel I wanted to leave enough space that you fill in the gaps, and it becomes much more your story than you’re aware of. That’s why it’s distorted in time and goes back and forth a bit. There isn’t a seamless narrative that lets you become a passive reader. In fact, you’re creating the narrative as you go along.
In high school we read that poem by William Carlos Williams: “So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.” We went over and over it, and if you asked people what was going on in that little poem, you would find that they were creating all kinds of little worlds. They were firm in their belief that this was taking place in Iowa, or New Jersey, or wherever. Williams’ elliptical way of talking about the world actually opens it up in a lot of ways.
Image: I’d like to ask about the relation of your work to film. Several of your novels have been made into films. Isn’t It Romantic? is an homage to the filmmaker Preston Sturges, and parts of Mariette in Ecstasy read almost like a shooting script. Would you say that you have a particularly cinematic imagination?
RH: I would. When I grew up there were really only two television stations, and not a lot of content. To fill up the hours, they’d run all kinds of old films from the thirties and forties, three or four a night. I saw Citizen Kane for the first time when I was nine years old, and was blown away by it. I bet I’ve seen ten times as many films as I’ve read novels—and I’m someone who reads a lot of novels. That’s bound to govern your way of telling a story. For example, in film you often see close-ups of the lips or eyes, as opposed to in a Dickens novel, where you’re seeing the whole tableau as if in a stage play, with all the characters seen full-length. Today, because of our filmic imaginations, we’re much more likely to see the knuckles of somebody’s hand, if that’s important.
I was especially aware of Ingmar Bergman’s way of telling a story when I was writing Mariette in Ecstasy—the way he’d just look at a clock ticking. In the opening of The Magic Flute, he shows close-ups of people in the audience. They aren’t necessarily beautiful people, but somehow having the camera focus on them in such a loving way made them beautiful. I was trying to do that with the novel, to show that, in the same way that a camera lens lovingly receives what it’s looking at, God is looking at all these aspects of life, including people who we might see as profane or gross, and accepting them as wonderful manifestations of what he created.
Image: Your essay “Writing as Sacrament” grew out of a talk you gave at the 1993 Image conference on the theme of “Silence, Cunning, and Exile: Saying the Unsayable in the Nineties.” Noting the irony of the application of Stephen Dedalus’s famous description of the path of the modern writer rebelling against religious (and other) constraints, you wrote that today “in a society that seems increasingly secular and post-biblical it is [the] writers and artists of faith who may feel exiled or silenced, who may feel they may say the unsayable only through cunning.” You wrote that in the early nineties. Has that situation changed over the past fifteen years?
RH: I don’t think the situation has changed. Perhaps some of my most overtly religious stuff has been received well, but I think people are still inclined to call this a post-Christian society. Whereas in the forties and fifties you’d see most movies paying homage to Catholic priests and religious life, nowadays in film you almost can’t imagine a priest being treated in a good way. I recently saw a trailer for the film In Bruges, which opens with a hit-man shooting a priest in a confessional, and it’s played for laughs. Something like that would have been unthinkable in the days of Bing Crosby.
In the 1960s, a philosopher named Anthony Flew wrote a book called God and Philosophy, which I read back in my philosophy of God course in 1969. He was an atheist who mostly attacked Aquinas. Apparently, a couple of years ago, in his eighties, he decided he was a theist, or at least a deist. He reversed his position on several points. But some journalists presented him as a doddering old man who was going senile, because only a senile person could become a theist. It calls for courage to claim yourself as a religious person, to practice your religion, to go through these hardships, to be put down in the media.
Image: Mariette in Ecstasy is about a saintly person, but there’s a lot of darkness and violence in the novel. In Hitler’s Niece, you approach the topic of evil directly. What drew you to write about Hitler’s inner circle?
RH: In Mariette and Hitler’s Niece, I’m really meditating on two questions from the Spiritual Exercises: How does Christ attract followers? And how does the evil one attract followers? With Mariette, I’d tried to show how a woman who is in love with Jesus has to encounter difficulties in her pursuit. When I began to meditate on the second question, I thought of Hitler. I remember watching television pictures of him speaking when I was a little kid. Even if you didn’t know German, you could tell from his body language how much venom he was spewing. He would work himself into a state of apoplectic rage almost instantly. I remember how scary and compelling that was. When Albert Speer saw those pictures, he said, “You have no idea what it was really like. This doesn’t even capture one degree of what it was like to be in his presence.” I realized that Hitler was a man who was incredibly charismatic and magnetic in the most evil way, and he had turned the world upside down, in all of its values. For him good was bad, bad was good; truth was inimical to him; hatred was something he thrived on. He really was a satanic personage, I think. I wanted to address that and show how such a personage can capture your attention and attract you and hold you. It’s through blandishments, through gifts, through figuring you out, finding your points of pride and vanity. He was a master manipulator. I wanted to show that in its early stages, before he became chancellor, when he was just a rising politician. What was he doing that people found attractive, and why did they swear their allegiance to him? It was because he followed their points of hate. He made their hate his and his hate theirs.
Image: It takes a long time to write a novel. Did it strain you to inhabit a world so rife with evil for so long?
RH: When Haley Joel Osment acted in The Sixth Sense, he was ten or twelve years old. When he first read the script he thought it was really scary, and wondered what it would be like to be on that movie set. But when he got there, he saw these people in grotesque make-up throwing Frisbees back and forth and drinking coffee, and it was just a normal work day. The same thing happens when you’re writing a novel. You’re imagining a scene, but you’re thinking, what’s the best verb to use here? It’s dissociative. You’re so involved behind the scenes moving things around that the horror doesn’t get to you. At least it didn’t for me. I didn’t have any terrible dreams. My wife had terrible dreams, though.
Image: You sound like more of an old-fashioned craftsman than a method actor. Does that approach allow you to go deeper?
RH: I think the method-actor approach is probably what did in people like Fitzgerald and Hemingway. They thought you had to live the wild life in order to write about it. I’m much more in the pattern of Gustave Flaubert, who tells writers, be regular and orderly in your life, so that you can be violent and original in your work. John Irving says that sometimes when you read certain writers you can hear the ice cubes tinkling in their cocktail glasses. But you just can’t live that life very long and keep producing good work.
Image: Most of your novels have been historical, with Isn’t it Romantic? and Atticus as the exceptions. Do you think of these two as deliberate departures, as curveballs to your readership?
RH: Men are famous channel changers, but I’m the reverse of that. I can watch any channel and find it fascinating. I have lots of different interests. These novels are expressions of all my different interests. I am a big fan of Preston Sturges, and I thought it would be great to write a Preston Sturges kind of novel, with hopes that it would become a Preston Sturges kind of movie some day. I wrote Isn’t It Romantic? because I thought it was good to write an entertainment in the time right after 9/11, as a reprieve for myself and for readers.
Right now I’m writing a comic film noir story. I find a lot of the things people in crime do fabulously funny, even though there’s death involved. They always make so many boneheaded mistakes, and it’s uproarious if you’re watching from a distance. I’m not intentionally throwing a curveball. I’m just following what I’m interested in.
I want to have the freedom to write all kinds of things. I never want to be pigeonholed in any way. I might be upsetting to people, who might see me writing about saintly people and then writing about Hitler and ask, how are these of a piece? But I think they are of a piece. Fiction is a way of addressing all sides of human nature, the bright side and the dark side. They roil around in you all the time. You’re always tamping down one or the other.
Image: Reviewers often note that your work occupies a pretty rare place, being both accessible to a wide audience and “serious.” Is that something that you strive for consciously? What is your sense of audience when you write?
RH: I do try to be accessible and clear. I’m not at all reluctant to write, Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of Germany—to explain who the guy is. A friend and I always argue about this. He always thinks I’m being too obvious and I always think he’s being too recondite. I think it’s important to use your book as a teaching mechanism, in the same way that in the classroom I try to make clear what’s going on and not put somebody down just because they haven’t heard of something. But at the same time I have artistic standards I’m going for, and models or influences who I’d like to pretend would read my books with appreciation. In writing a book about Hopkins I’m aware that I probably have lots of things wrong, but I hope that Hopkins would read it and delight in it. But at the same time I want to make it available to a person who hasn’t read any poems by Hopkins before, who really isn’t interested in Jesuit poets.
I decided in writing Mariette that there was no way of explaining all of the elements of the Catholic religion, so I had to push readers in at the deep end of the pool and expect that they’d flail around and finally figure it out. As a writer, mostly you do that by showing characters in action rather than explaining things. I once wrote an essay about playing golf in bad weather, and it was bought by the San Jose Mercury News. One of the editors called me up and asked me to explain what a tee box was. I said that if I had to start explaining stuff like that, the story would never go. You can’t write, “A tee box, a swatch of grass with a peg called a tee on which you rest the ball….” It’s boring. It’s much better to assume people know more than they think they know.
Image: How does your teaching relate to your writing?
RH: Teaching allows you to explore things in more specific terms than you would normally. Right now I’m teaching a film noir class. I had read The Maltese Falcon before, but knowing that you’re going to have to get up and talk about something gets you to read better. Now I’m seeing all kinds of new things, intentional things that Dashiell Hammett was doing. And that’s the joy of it. It’s also a way of focusing. Before, I could talk about film noir in general terms, but now that I’m teaching the class I can say, these are seven things to look for in film noir. For example, if the woman is a victim, it’s not film noir. The woman always has to be in a superior position. Before, film noir was a vague, fuzzy notion to me. Doing that categorization helps you focus as a writer.
Image: You had a Jesuit education, and you’ve been teaching at a Jesuit university for over ten years now. How hopeful are you that church-related higher education is passing on a meaningful vision of “faith seeking understanding” to the next generation of students?
RH: Most of the Jesuit universities I know have somebody on staff who’s focused on making sure the institution stays Jesuit. Some day there may be only one Jesuit there on the entire campus, but I think there’s a concern with having lay colleagues who imbibe that spirit, who are Ignatian in some way. I think that’s hopeful.
I became a permanent deacon in 2007, and I now witness marriages. I notice that people don’t pay a lot of attention to their religion in their teens and twenties, but when they get married, they want to get married in a church, in a sacramental ceremony. Then, when they have their first child, they want to have that child baptized, and that usually brings them back to the faith. When I see students in their twenties, I know there’s going to be a transformation somewhere along the line.
Sometimes they wait a long time. Norman Mailer would have had his eighty-fifth birthday tomorrow. One of his last articles was in Playboy, telling how he had become a Christian. I think that happens to a lot of people as they get closer to death’s door. They start thinking about things. They put aside some of the rollicking things they used to do. As they become more frail, there’s a greater sense of their own helplessness. And who do you look to when you’re helpless? God.
Image: How did you come to be ordained a deacon, and what does that entail?
RH: I didn’t foresee this when I got my masters’ degree. When I started writing Mariette in Ecstasy, it had been twenty years since I’d taken any classes in theology, so I decided I needed to catch up. On the first day of class, we went around and talked about ourselves, and these people had a theological vocabulary that intimidated me. It was totally over my head. Then I started picking up the nuances of the talk, and that was useful for the novel.
In the church, when people realize you know things, they ask you to do more. I became a lector, and a Eucharistic minister, and those things felt nourishing, and I just got more deeply involved. I’m now co-chair of the ongoing formation committee for the diocese. I also tend to be the person they call upon for weddings in mixed marriages where the couple doesn’t want a mass but they want a blessing. I assist some of the Jesuits at masses on occasion, especially when they don’t have time to do the homily. I do a little spiritual direction, mostly Ignatian, but often just talking and listening to what’s going on in somebody’s life. I don’t think I’m particularly adept at spiritual direction, but people ask me, so I do it.
In the old church, the deacons were just elders, people who could be counted on, a stable force within the congregation. I think that’s still the proper role for deacons. I’m not trying to confuse it with priestly functions.
I still consider writing a primary aspect of my diaconate.
Image: What other contemporary Catholic writers do you read?
RH: Tobias Wolff. Religion comes up only occasionally in his writing, but he is a practicing Catholic. Patricia Hampl, the poet. Paul Mariani, of course. They’re out there. Sometimes they’re secretive. Jim Shepard considers himself a Catholic writer, but it only comes through in his fiction sporadically.
Image: What are you working on now?
RH: I’ve wanted to work on something about a congressman who gets in the kind of situation Gary Condit did with Chandra Levy. The congressman has had an affair with a young woman, and then she ends up missing, and his life is ruined. Gary Condit did not kill Chandra Levy, and yet he’s no longer a congressman. Last I heard he was running a Baskin-Robbins ice cream store someplace. He lost everything based on innuendo. This is what the media can do. The idea is somewhat based on Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, a novel about a woman who has a one-night stand with a guy who turns out to be a terrorist. She’s arrested, interviewed by police investigators, and smeared in the tabloids. It’s a novel about the media’s power, and how careful we should be when we watch and read. My novel would be about a Book of Job situation, where the guy’s friends turn on him and everything goes wrong, and what that means about our society.
I’ve outlined the initial chapters, but I don’t know enough about the ending to start writing. I always have to know the ending before I get started. To tell a joke you have to know the punch line, so that you know what to include to set up the punch line. That’s how I construct novels, too.
John Grisham says he spends so much time on his outlines that writing the novels becomes simple. He says eventually he gets more involved with the plot than with the characters. That’s endemic to suspense novels, he thinks. When I try to write something to do with suspense, I’m much more interested in character development than plot, but I know the plot has to be there. It’s the armature that everything is built on.
Image: The theme of exile runs through your work, whether it’s the criminal “exile” of the Daltons and Jameses or the more theological understanding of exile in Atticus, Mariette in Ecstasy, and your new novel. Can you talk a bit about the importance of that theme for you?
RH: Any of us can feel as persecuted and alone as those nuns on the Deutschland. It could be because of an illness, the loss of a loved one, or a death sentence from cancer. Like the nuns in that shipwreck, we wonder why this is happening to us when there was so much else we could have been doing. The nuns are all young women, and they’re going to work at a hospital. What could be better than that? When you look at their deaths, you think, does God want us to fail? Why does he cut people off in their prime when we need them for so many things? Almost every reader will have some life instance that’s made them feel this way. We’re all exiles. I even think if you could really talk to the presidential candidates, they’d say, “I never felt like I was one with the people. I’ve always been different.”
To be an artist is to feel like an outsider or an outlaw in some way. Probably that’s true of any profession, but writers and artists seem to make a special claim to that feeling of aloofness. Even as a kid I remember feeling like I was operating within a group and yet watching it from the outside at the same time. I think that’s why people become writers. Most writers I know did fit in. They were athletes and student body presidents, yet they realized that they didn’t truly belong. And you’re naturally drawn to write about lives that are analogous to your own, to figures who are in the world but not of it. Mariette is as much an outlaw as Jesse James is.
To stake a claim to making a work of art is an outrageous thing. It’s an exercise in vanity, pride, and ego, but also of the artistic impulse. A novel is a monologue: you’re grabbing somebody by their lapels and saying, “Listen to me,” which takes a certain amount of narcissism. Writing calls up all your virtues, but also some of your vices. It’s a confessional experience. When you sit down to write, you’re as aware of your sinfulness as you are of the nice things you’ve done for people, and in some ways you relish those sins because you can put them into your characters. You write about what you could have become, if not for some change of trajectory. You write about people who are susceptible to the same things you are. Outlaws and exiles allow you to exaggerate what you find that’s negative in yourself.
Image: You’ve written about the idea of writing as sacrament. How has your thinking on that developed?
RH: I go back to the old idea that a sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace. I liken writing to sacrament in that way. Writing witnesses to something that’s happened to you, or to some power that’s moving through you. In writing, you’re trying to communicate what’s been going on in you spiritually and make it somehow tangible to others. You’re trying to give it life. And that’s what the sacraments are intended to do. They’re symbols of something that God is actually doing to us. We believe that the Eucharist is the whole presence of God, but the ceremony surrounding the Eucharist is also a symbol of the life of Christ: his birth, his call for repentance, his baptism, and his sacrifice on the table. Sacraments all function as ways of telling stories about God’s relationship to us. And that’s what I think writing is doing as well.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.