Sacred Trust, Author Ron Hansen’s Fiction Explores Moral Struggles
Word for word, phrase for phrase, thought for thought, there may be no better American writer of the last quarter century than Ron Hansen, an Omaha native whose body of work is impressive for its breadth and depth. He is perhaps best know for two of his earliest novels, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Mariette in Ecstasy. I’ve had the pleasure of reading those and other novels by Hansen, who has graciously given me a handful of interviews over the years. As time goes by I will post other Hansen stories I’ve written. This one appeared not long after the release of his Hitler’s Niece and while he was adapting an unproduced screenplay of his into a book, Isn’t it Romantic?. His sheer command of language is astounding. His research and detail overwhelming. He’s also a fine storyteller. Then when you add to this the spiritual themes and currents that occupy him in real life, and you have a rich reading experience.
My story appeared in the Omaha Weekly, one of at least three different publications that’s published my Hansen work.
Sacred Trust, Author Ron Hansen’s Fiction RExplores Moral Struggles
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Omaha Weekly
Whether exploring the worlds of saints or sinners, real moral questions and struggles swirl at the heart of author Ron Hansen’s work, which reflects this devout Catholic’s abiding interest in faith. His novels are explorations in the ethical choices characters make and the consequences that ensue. In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Knopf, 1983) Hansen essayed the kinship and treachery of an outlaw family. In Mariette in Ecstasy (Harper-Collins, 1992) he chronicled a young novitiate’s ardent love for God growing so intense that it overwhelms her mind, her body and the convent she becomes a curiosity and outcast in.
In Atticus (Harper-Collins, 1996) he brooded on the legacy of a strained father-son relationship, the futility of ever fully knowing someone and the nature of forgiveness. In Hitler’s Niece (Harper-Collins, 1999) he examined the brewing evil of Hitler in the 1920s and early ‘30s through the prism of the only woman the despot ever loved — the fuhrer’s young and innocent niece Angelika “Geli” Raubal, who was destroyed by her uncle.
In his life and in his work, Hansen, an Omaha native, seeks the spark of some connection with the sacred and the ethereal. It gives him sustenance and constitutes his muse. “Some of my favorite moments are late nights with other people talking about miraculous experiences in their lives or times when they felt the hand of God or the solace of God and they learned more about themselves or about God’s benign mercy,” he said in an interview during a recent Omaha visit to deliver the William F. Kelley, S.J. Endowed Lecture at his alma mater, Creighton University. “Those things are kind of ways of inspiring you and bucking you up. It’s a way of becoming aware of another world that’s totally unseen.”
It was while struggling with Atticus that Hansen felt the healing presence of God.
“I’d been working on Atticus and it was going badly,” he said. “This was back in 1985. I’d written like 120 pages that were rotten. I was in Cancun — throwing rocks into the ocean late at night as the waves were crashing in. I was really angry about my book and about the hard time I was having finding a teaching job. I was feeling really awful. I was full of self-pity. And I thought, What’s going to become of me? And then I just had an incredible sense of God laughing. It was a sense of Him saying, If you knew what I know, you wouldn’t be so worried. And I realized it was all going to come out all right, but it wasn’t going to be immediate. I just had this feeling of calm. Almost everybody has the same experience when they have this kind of God moment. You just feel at ease about things. So, I put the book away and started other books.
“I went back to it and it was terrible still. And I just kept going back to it. And then, finally, when Mariette was published I had one book left on a two book contract and I said, ‘Oh, I’ll just go back to this one (Atticus).’ It took me a long time to rewrite it. I kept trying to use the words I used already. But it was almost like somebody else had written that. I was not that person anymore. I finally gave up on that and started writing totally new words, and then it worked fine. I found that sense of God smiling and saying — Take it easy, kid — made me take it easy.”
According to Hansen, the writing process itself is a somewhat mysterious and metaphysical experience that finds the writer drawing on resources he is not always fully aware of or in control of. “Writing well is a form of a waking dream,” he said. “It’s almost the same thing that happens when you’re in a dream state. Images start to occur. You don’t know where they come from. And you try and fit them together. Often, you have a mental picture of something and you see characters in relationship to each other, but you don’t know exactly what they’re going to say to each other. And sometimes that’s where the zest comes — when you hear something surprising and just right that comes from one of them. Part of it is because it’s really your subconscious that seems to be writing the novel at its best. It’s your conscious mind that revises it, but it’s the subconscious that supplies all the scintillating details — the colorations you could not have thought of yourself.”
Whether it’s the spirit or the subconscious moving him, Hansen said, it is no accident these voices speak to him because he is open to the possibility of such a communion happening in the first place. “Partly, I think it’s because I want these things to happen, and some people don’t want them to happen. They might get spooked by them. It’s part of the writer’s equipment to seek out those experiences and to live them fully. And other people are maybe more guarded and maybe necessarily so, so they can’t be as available to that sort of thing. I always describe a writer’s life as being different from others in that some people kind of have venetian blinds that are closed and the writer’s are open, so that everything can come in. And that’s what makes writers go crazy. That’s what makes them obsessive and everything else. But it’s also one of the things they need to do.”
If creative writing flows out of some deep well fed by intuitive streams, then it is easier to appreciate how something like a novel comes into being as a complex and coherent whole from a seemingly disparate and random collection of ideas, themes, issues, preoccupations, incidents, places and characters. The way Hansen sees it, a novel only reaches its final shape after the novelist has played a game of sleuth with himself and all the narrative threads dangling from his imagination. He said for most of the writing process the novelist is only aware of bits and pieces of what the book will eventually comprise — discovering the contents as he goes along. During that creative journey, the writer must be ready and willing to go in many directions and to follow many leads, some of which may be dead ends. It is only in searching out and sifting through the many loose story strands, that the nut of the novel is finally revealed and its elements tied together.
“Well, it’s as if an alphabet exists and you don’t know all the letters to the alphabet,” he said. “You might know A, J, L and Z, and with that foundation you then have to fill in all the rest. It’s like when scholars tried to translate the Egyptian hieroglyphics. They had a few words that they knew and then they’d go from there. I think the same thing is true with writing a novel. You know, for example, certain things about it and then you have questions about other things, and then the questions will reveal things as you write the novel. Knowing a few things gives you the confidence that you can actually lay it all out there.
“But you’re still kind of writing in the dark no matter how well you plan. There’s all kinds of spontaneity that comes into the novel. There’s all kinds of surprises and wrong turns that you can take. So, you have to be disciplined enough to kind of say, This is tangential or doesn’t belong, or, I did this badly, or, Maybe I don’t need this scene after all, or, This character doesn’t belong in this novel — he belongs somewhere else. All kinds of changes happen in the process of writing. It’s part of the fascination but part of the drudgery as well.”
Now that Hansen has created a fairly large body of work, he finds himself running up against the same dilemma a writer friend of his faced a while ago. “I don’t think it’s legal anymore, but a friend of mine got a tax write off by claiming his creative ideas were being diminished year by year. He was actually able to depreciate his intellectual capital. And, he was right. How many ideas can you have, you know? In my own writing, there’s all kind of metaphors I can’t use anymore because I’ve used them already. Characters I can’t have. Situations…Certainly, Stephen King has shown you can exhaust your own ideas.”
For Hansen, “part of the interest” and the challenge of writing is tapping his inner being to better understand himself and the world he inhabits and interprets. It is an ongoing search for answers — much akin to the spiritual journey that Hansen, who has a master’s degree in Spirituality, has taken. It is a journey, he said, that has no end. “Yeah, I don’t think anybody ever reaches a stopping point or, at least, they shouldn’t. I mean, God isn’t knowable but you learn a little bit more and more and you learn a little bit more about yourself. I guess I don’t really know myself very well. I think I know who I was 10 years ago and I can look back at the past and understand everything about myself, whereas in my present circumstances I’m just poking around like everybody else.”
As far as injecting himself into his work, he avoids drawing closely on his own life. “I’m not very good at autobiographical writing,” he said. “The only time I ever really write autobiographically is when I write nonfiction (as in his new book of essays, A Stay Against Confusion, Harper-Collins, 2001). I want to have my anima come through in my fiction rather than who I am right now or who I seem to be.” He also knows himself well enough to shy away from certain projects that are not a good fit. “In terms of my strengths and weaknesses, there are some types of writing I wouldn’t attempt and some kind I know I have a propensity toward. There’s certain novels that won’t ever suggest themselves to me because I know I’d do them badly. Among the genres I could never do are fantasy and science fiction because I just don’t have that yen to do them. On the other hand, I like historical writing.”
In much of his historical writing, which ranges from the misadventures of the Dalton gang in Desperados (Knopf, 1979) and the machinations of the James gang in Jesse James to the unholy union of Hitler and Geli Raubal in Hitler’s Niece, Hansen has been drawn to outlaw figures. He said a beguilement with practitioners of left-handed forms of human endeavor is a natural for writers, who share an outsider’s perspective with the lawless, the rebellious and the fringe dwellers of the world.
“Outlaws are in some way marginalized, but also they live outside the world of convention. I think most writers, too, feel marginalized in some way and they feel they live outside conventional rules and boundaries. It doesn’t mean they’re all breaking windows. I think what it means is that the way most people live their lives is unfamiliar to the writer because it has to be,” he said. “I think most writers begin wanting to be writers because they feel like, Oh, I’m different, and they feel somehow they don’t fit into the normal pattern of things, and so consequently they have a sympathy toward outlaws. There’s a tendency among writers to feel like these guys (outlaws) are just misguided writers. Also, I think a lot of outlaws are really control freaks in their own way. And I think writers are, too. They want to form their own world and have complete control over all the characters in it. That’s what happens to a lot of outlaws, and that’s why they keep running up against the law.”
In his literary sojourns Hansen plumbs the depths of his conflicted characters’ souls, whose shadows and secrets are revealed in a world come unhinged by sudden shifts in the terra firma. Hansen said his own world view has taken on certain fatalistic shadings as the result of dramatic losses and reversals he has observed in people’s lives. “A good of friend of mine was killed in a motorcycle accident when I was a kid and another friend was killed in a motorcycle accident when I was older,” he said. “And you realize it all can change in an instant.” He feels literature is fertile ground for playing out in the mind’s eye how one might react to such dire events in real life. “I think writing is a way of being precautionary,” he said. “It’s a way, like in dreams, where you kind of forecast a situation you wouldn’t want happen and see how you would respond to it. So, in some ways, it’s kind of a dress rehearsal for tragedy. You have some kind of preparation and a sense of calm at a point where you otherwise panic.”
In the case of writing Hitler’s Niece, Hansen was compelled not so much by a desire to imagine himself struggling in the web of evil but by a desire to weave an historically-based story that offered up a cautionary tale about the dangerous lure of evil. He explained how and why he came to devote months of his life to researching the book. “I was reading a biography of Hitler and in there the author said that Geli Raubal was the only woman Hitler ever loved or would ever consider marrying and that Eva Braun, who we know much more about, was just a kind of mistress he had sex with. Hitler used to say to his secretary that Eva was ‘a woman I have at my disposal.’ And, of course, it’s symptomatic of Hitler that he would commit suicide the day after his wedding.”
For Hansen, the real attraction to telling Geli’s story, which is also pre-war Germany’ story, was that she “knew Hitler when all his evil and his power was incipient — when he was just a failed politician and a guy who made his money from giving speeches, but did nothing else. That he was a person she really couldn’t imagine doing all the things he ended up doing was fascinating to me. And, also, it became a kind of moral lesson of how we get sucked in by evil. Of how a poor girl becomes a groupie, essentially, to her uncle. And how he sucks her in and imprisons her with blandishments and how for awhile she tries to turn away from the bad side of her uncle. But then she realizes that this isn’t just a cranky guy with terrible ideas about Jews, but that he’s crazy and dangerous and she tries to escape, and that’s how she dies.”
According to Hansen, part of what he tried to do with Hitler’s Niece was help readers understand “how Germany could fall for” Hitler’s repugnant diatribe and help turn his doctrine of hate into a nationalistic movement. He hopes that lesson gives us pause in considering our leaders today. “As a famous quotation goes, ‘The only reason to write history is to give lessons for the future,’” he said. “So, all we can do is identify those qualities in a political leader that could lead to a Hitler. I think people like Hitler make a deliberate choice for evil, but they disguise it as well as they can. So, Hitler would come across to most people who knew him as incredibly charming and suave. People get deluded. I think we have politicians today who are like that. If you met them you would say, Oh, what a wonderful guy, yet you know down deep there’s a kernel in there that in many ways is opposed to what is right.”
A moral universe filled with choices pervades Hansen’s thinking and writing. How his faith colors his work is something he frequently addresses in lectures and essays. In his April 7 talk at the Alpha Sigma Nu Dinner at Creighton University, he delivered a lecture entitled “Hotly in Pursuit of the Real — The Catholic Way,” part of whose title he took from a quote by another famous Catholic author, the late Flannery O’Connor, who said it is the obligation of a writer to be in hot pursuit of the real. On the eve of his talk, Hansen explained what he hoped to convey: “I’m trying to talk about not only how one finds one’s vocation as a writer, but how being a Catholic that might be somewhat different than it is if you were a Jewish writer or a Protestant writer. I’m trying to identify those kinds of characteristics. I talk about my faith and how it affected me. For instance, growing up with the Catholic liturgies, the reverence for saints, the sacramentality, the sense of God being imminent but being distant — all those things helped my formation as a writer.”
Outside his faith, among the strongest influences on his writing have been the teachers in his life. While attending the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, he came under the sphere of noted American author John Irving, with whom he lived. “I learned from him how to live the life of a writer,” Hansen said. “How to keep on producing books, how to be focused, how to be disciplined, how to manage a life while writing.” Over a period of four summers at a writers conference in Vermont, Hansen found a mentor in the late John Gardner. “I really liked him as a teacher. He was a very generous person with his time and with his intelligent reading of your manuscripts. I kind of modeled myself as a teacher after him.” And at Stanford University Hansen became a devoted student of John L’Hereaux’s, who years before as a fiction editor at Atlantic Monthly gave Hansen “the first sign I had that maybe I could do this (write professionally). He was the person who helped me with my first novel, Desperadoes.”
Teaching, which is how Hansen has supported his writing the last couple decades, enriches his work as well. “There’s that old saying, How will I know what I think until I see what I say. And teaching gives you all kinds of opportunities to say things that you might not normally address,” said Hansen, a tenured professor in the English Department at Santa Clara University. “Just as writing workshops allow students to see all the different ways a story can go wrong, which will help them avoid those mistakes, the same is true for the teacher. I’ve read thousands of stories in class, and so I’ve seen the ways stories go wrong — so I don’t make those mistakes.” He said for some writers teaching “can have a stultifying effect in that you expend so much of your energy addressing other people’s writing problems that you feel like you’ve written yourself and you don’t do a lot of writing. But that’s not true for me. I do all my work for school at school and all my own work at home, and I don’t let them infiltrate. And dealing with young people who are full of energy about the writing process can be energizing as well.”
Hansen, who never signs a contract until a book is done (“It gives me more freedom.”) is now adapting an unproduced screenplay he co-wrote into a book. “I don’t know if it’s a novella or a novel. I know the dialogue works and the situations are funny, but I don’t think the tone is exactly right. It’s about a French couple who have the bad idea of traveling through the United States as tourists on a bus. They get waylaid in a small town in Nebraska where they’re taken on as kind of mascots for the festival held there. It’s full of misunderstandings and sliding doors and French farce.” Nebraska has figured prominently in several Hanson short stories, most notably in the collection of stories published as Nebraska. He said having some distance from his roots helps him write about them. “I don’t think I could write about Nebraska while living in Nebraska. It’s easier when you’re away from home, partly because it becomes the Nebraska of your imagination, which is much more interesting than the real thing.”
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