A Novel Vocation: A Conversation with Ron Hansen

The post-war boom in fiction was a moment of hope for the state of Catholic culture. Catholic writers Flannery O’Connor and Muriel Spark were being sent up the same flag poles that flew pennants for Saul Bellow and John Updike. Catholics even managed to capture back-to-back wins of the coveted National Book Award with Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1962) and J.F. Powers’ Morte D’Urban (1963).

But then it seemed that once Catholic fiction had its moment, the light began to fade and with it any hope of a true Catholic renaissance in literature. While for consolation O’Connor, Percy, Powers et al, have been enshrined in the pantheon of contemporary fiction, it seemed everyone was ready to don black arm bands, write up the obits and send flowers.

Fortunately for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, Nebraska-born and Catholic-raised novelist Ron Hansen dismissed reports on the death of Catholic fiction as greatly exaggerated.

Hansen is the author of nine novels, including his most recent A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion (2011), one collection of short stories, Nebraska (1989), and a collection of essays, A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction (2001). A second collection of his short stories She Loves Me Not is slated for publication later this year.

Many are drawn to Hansen’s works by his ability to take what might be considered a footnote in history and transform it into an opportunity for profound and moving fiction. He takes the events surrounding members of Adolf Hitler’s family and turns it into a novel about the horror and banality of evil, Hitler’s Niece (1999). In Exiles (2008), he explores how the fate—and faith—of a group of shipwrecked nuns inspired Gerard Manley Hopkins to write

one of his greatest poems. In his latest novel, Hansen relates how the tawdry and torrid affair de coeur between lingerie salesman Judd Gray and desperate housewife Ruth Snyder explodes into a sensational and sensationalized 1927 murder and became the template for much of the hard-boiled fiction and film noir that would follow.

Then there’s his most ostensibly Catholic work, the haunting Mariette in Ecstasy (1991). Exploring the fine line between the spiritual and the psychological, the novel presents a lyrical bittersweet account of a young girl who as a novice in a religious order may or may not be experiencing the stigmata, and the resulting upheaval in the community she has joined.

Many if not all these books are now a fixed and vital part of the Catholic literary landscape. So popular and important is Hansen as a writer that it’s fair to say that for many budding Catholic writers, Hansen titles invariably share shelf space with Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Spark, O’Connor, Percy and the other usual suspects.

In a recent interview with Mr. Hansen, Dappled Things had a chance to speak with the novelist about his work, its connection to his faith and to his vocation as husband and man of the cloth (he was ordained to the permanent diaconate in 2007), and his thoughts on the art of fiction in general.

— Joseph O’Brien

Joseph O’Brien: You’ve mentioned in your writing that both John Irving and John Gardiner have been important influences in your development as a writer. Politically, on the surface, anyway, it doesn’t seem that Irving and Gardiner have much in common—and yet you found something in both of them worth considering. (Considering your friendship with the two writers, I am reminded of William Dean Howells’ famous friendship with Mark Twain and Henry James—who of course were about as different as writers could be when it came to style—in every sense of that word. Yet, Howells seemed to draw from both novelists in his own writing—squatting down somewhere between the Boston Brahmin bluebloods of James and the Mississippi River of Twain’s frontier perspective.) In what way in particular did Gardiner and Irving influence you? What particular piece of advice from each writer sticks with you to this day regarding the craft of fiction?

Ron Hansen: Both Johns provided models of how one sanely lives a writer’s life. Both were very opinionated but tolerant of and even interested in differing points of view. Both wrote literary fiction that was also commercially viable. Something I’ve endeavored to do without comparable success. John Irving began as my teacher but became very much like an older brother to me. And perhaps above all, both so extravagantly praised my writing that I was encouraged to persevere.

JO: The notion of “Catholic Fiction” is a slippery one—because its representatives can include everyone from J.R.R. Tolkien to Walker Percy (not to mention everyone from Chaucer to Ron Hansen). Considering the world of difference that exists between Bilbo Baggins and Binx Bolling, though, how do you define this term—“Catholic Fiction”—and how do you understand yourself as a Catholic writer in this mode?

RH: There’s been a thesis that Catholic fiction is influenced by an analogical imagination rather than a dialectical one. In other words, that God is reflected in his creation; we can see him in all things. A dialectical imagination perceives God as wholly other and far away; one can have a dialogue with him, but he is not immanent. There have been Deists like Thomas Jefferson who thought of God as a Holy Being who wound a clock, then stood apart and let it tick away without affecting it again. Existentialism is a form of that. You can probably see both the dialectical imagination and analogical imagination in my fiction, and in that of writers as different as Cynthia Ozick, Norman Mailer, and John Updike, so I’m not certain that definition works. Flannery O’Connor stated that a Catholic writer should be “hotly in pursuit of the real,” and I have tried to follow that prescription, and I also like John Henry Newman’s apologetic that you cannot create a sinless literature of our sinful humanity. Authors ought to be truth tellers and frankly deal with the gritty realities of our world. And I can think of a wide range of writers, from whatever faith tradition, who do just that. But what perhaps finally distinguishes a Catholic fiction writer from all others is the Yes—And rather than the Yes—But approach to their subjects. Perhaps because of our experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we can see good and evil existing side by side and within the same person. We can see our tendencies toward meanness and sin just as tangents or interruptions to our striving for holiness and perfection. But doesn’t that fit the fiction of Eudora Welty and Saul Bellow? So yes, “Catholic Fiction” is a slippery category and probably more functional in the classroom than it is in criticism.

JO: Is there an ideal reader to whom you write? If so, who is it? Even if you don’t have an ideal, who do you see as the ideal reader of your work? What sort of qualifications ought such a reader to have? Does he necessarily need to be “spiritual” or “religious”? Why or why not?

RH: When some authors describe their ideal reader they often just describe themselves. I like the fact that people I would never have imagined as fans of my work have become so. And I’ve visited book groups where the members were puzzled by much of the content of a particular novel without being put off by their quandaries. Readers generally seek to inhabit different worlds or seek to see it through different eyes, so they’re usually willing to go places they’ve never been and to immerse themselves in the foreign culture of another mind. And they don’t have to share in the same belief system to be educated and entertained.

JO: It seems it would be a challenge for a novelist to write about a poet as a fictional character—as you did in Exiles. But to write about Gerard Manley Hopkins—and do so convincingly—seems, given the virtual inscrutability of his work, a superhuman feat. How did you “crack” into Hopkins as a person? More generally, as you acknowledge your debt to poetry in your writing, what can poetry teach a writer of fiction and, alternatively, what can fiction teach a writer of poems?

RH: I read every biography of Hopkins that was available as well as all his journal entries and surviving letters. And I was tremendously helped by my friendship with Paul Mariani, author of the first commentary on the poems, who was working on a biography of Hopkins at the same time I was writing Exiles. We both went on a six-day retreat at Saint Beuno’s in Wales which was enormously valuable, and I visited the Roehampton novitiate of the Jesuits, the college at Oxford where Hopkins matriculated, and the rooms of the school in Dublin where Hopkins taught and lived. I gleaned a lot from those visits, but I was primarily dependent on library research. About poetry: it stops us in our tracks as we read because of the surprises of perception or word choice. There’s a freshness and energy in the language that fiction can also profit from. And fiction can teach poets intrigue and suspense.

JO: In the milieu of American Catholic writers (or would that be Catholic writers who are American?), where do you see yourself fitting in? For Flannery O’Connor, it was the gothic and grotesque of the South that made her stories hum. For Walker Percy it was the comic absurdity of the modern world—especially as it came South. For J.F. Powers it was the quotidian lives of Midwestern priests (mostly) and those they related to. What hook or hooks does Ron Hansen hang his fiction on?

RH: I’m particularly drawn to outlaws and outsiders, to characters who don’t fit into the general milieu or who have chosen lives that seem outrageous or strange. Hence, historical figures like Jesse James and Hitler’s niece, or a group of nuns, a mentally disturbed artist in Mexico, a couple who execute a murder in order to get rid of the nuisance of a husband. Each is “out there” in some way.

JO: Speaking of place, while your fiction ranges throughout history, your early work seemed infused with your Nebraska roots. To what extent does a sense of place play a part in your works? Obviously with Isn’t It Romantic? your Nebraska roots are still a part of your writing. What made you decide to turn back to Nebraska for this novel?

RH: A handful of new stories in my collection She Loves Me Not are also located in my home state. Nebraska is my childhood and since I no longer live there it’s also my country of the imagination where things can be exaggerated, made bigger and bolder.

JO: Your wife Bo Caldwell is also a writer, of course. What particular challenges are there to being married to another writer? What are the benefits? Do you find you mutually inform one another in your work on any level?

RH: I can only think of benefits: of someone who understands the throes and crankiness of writing, who sympathizes over a bad review, who can help improve the story or the prose with judicious suggestions. Bo reads and comments on my pages once I get to a stopping point like the end of a chapter, and I do the same for her. We don’t write like each other or choose similar topics for our fiction so there’s a measure of objectivity even though we’re close.

JO: Speaking of J.F. Powers, who wrote so well and so convincingly about the priesthood in his short stories and novels, is there some unique perspective you bring to writing through your ordination to the permanent diaconate? The deacon’s three main ministries are, based on the Rite of Ordination, to the Word, the Altar and to Charity. How do these ministries play into your work as a fiction writer?

RH: My ministries haven’t figured in my fiction thus far, though you do get to know human nature somewhat better by observing people at times of vulnerability or peak experiences. But I would hate to invade the privacy of the faithful I serve, so I probably would be reluctant to write too closely about my experiences. Exactly for that same reason, I don’t write about family and friends either.

JO: Incidentally, have you ever thought about writing a novel about either St. Ephrem or St. Philip the Deacon, two famous deacons of the early Church? The preponderance of Ron Hansen novels are built around a historical framework—Hitler’s Niece, Exiles, the Westerns, your newest, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion—and even Mariette in Ecstasy is given a concrete historical context—turn of the century, northern New York, etc. What draws you to history as a subject for fiction? Why are you so fascinated with history? Do you define yourself as a “historical novelist”? What distinguishes what you do from historical fiction?

RH: Writing historical fiction has been mostly accidental. In most cases I have come across a true story and been so captivated by it I felt compelled to write it down. I don’t have any rational explanation for the compulsion: I’m fascinated by some stories because they fascinate me. I have always liked history and biography, and I have a good memory and capacity for research, so I was something of a natural for the field of historical fiction, but I only think of myself as a novelist without a qualifying adjective.

JO: Besides writing fiction, you’ve also lent your considerable talents to screenwriting—in particular to writing a screenplay for Mariette in Ecstasy. How did you find the experience? How is it different from writing fiction? Has Hollywood called since then? Are there other screenwriting projects that you have in the works?

RH: Writing screenplays is easier because you’re more interested in the action than in the prose, and you can tell a whole novel’s worth of story in the prose equivalent of 70 pages or so. It’s much quicker and it usually pays better, but since it’s collaborative it can also be vexing. Every professional screenwriter I know has a host of horror stories about dealing with various idiocies. But I do love the process of mise-en-scene and of watching actors interpret my words. I have written an hour-long episode of an old NBC mystery series, adapted a book by Tom Wolfe, turned novels and a story of my own into scripts, served as an associate producer, etc. so I have more experience than most fiction writers with filmmaking. And while I wouldn’t want screenwriting to be my sole profession—not enough control over the final product—I have mostly enjoyed the work I’ve done and really like the vast majority of hard-working people I have met in the business.

JO: How do you decide what you want to write about? Where does inspiration come from? Have you ever started a work only to find out that it is either impossible to finish or, upon delving deeper, it starts heading in a direction you weren’t planning for?

RH: I have had some lousy ideas for novels but gradually as I talk about them to friends it becomes clear that I ought to abandon them and start over. Some people, of course, may think I’ve gone ahead and published some of my lousy ideas, but each seemed good and necessary to me. Basically an idea lodges in your head, gets competition from other ideas over the years, but ultimately commands my full attention. I try not to psychoanalyze my choices of subject matter. I can’t recall ever having a plot that headed in a surprising direction, probably because I stew over the whole shebang before I begin.

JO: Can you tell us something about your writing habits? Describe your writing workplace. Do you have one place where you go to write or do you have several? Where do you do most of your writing? Describe your desk, your walls, what surrounds you—what you like to have surrounding you—when you write.

RH: I have a standard, cherrywood desk against the south wall of a nine-by-twelve room, a matching desk with overhead bookcases and a hutch for my iMac computer against the north wall, and a Random House dictionary on a lectern between them at my left hand. I have a Roget’s Thesaurus and foreign language dictionaries (French, German, and Spanish) on the bookcase to the right of my iMac, and a Bible, theological dictionary, and other reference books to the left. Above eye level as I face the computer screen is a glass-enclosed book case that contains a shelf of commentaries on the New Testament. There’s also a luxurious wingback La-Z-Boy chair in my office, but I seldom use it. The Venetian blinds on the wide, western window are generally shut. My wife calls me the prince of darkness. I was a college textbook salesman traveling most of Illinois when I was writing Desperadoes [Hansen’s 1979 novel—his first—which tells the story of the notorious Dalton Gang and offers a literary take on the myths popularized by western novels and movies] and I got used to making any motel room my office. What I have now is convenient and efficient, but I don’t feel it’s required.

JO: Do you have a regular writing schedule? What are some good practical ways to encourage such a schedule for young writers? Ernest Hemingway had two famous bits of advice for budding writers—“Write about what you know and keep it simple.” Is there any sort of advice that you give young writers regarding what makes a successful writer?

RH: “Write about what you know” is a pernicious recipe for dreary and unimaginative autobiographical fiction unless “know” means what you’ve learned through reading or other investigation. Although my own experiences color much of my writing, there’s little of my own life in the topics I choose. A good deal of Jim Shepard’s and my wife’s fiction is the product of research as well. I look for beauty of language in what I read so Hemingway’s urge for simplicity is also problematic, though especially in his finest stories there’s a rhythmic lyricism in his very plain style. My favorite piece of advice for beginning writers comes from John Gardner, that you should write the fiction you like to read. We immediately recognize phoniness or when a writer’s heart isn’t in the material.

JO: Let’s finish this conversation talking about your latest novel—A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion. Besides, at least on the surface, seeming like the dark twin of Isn’t It Romantic? it seems that your latest novel returns to the intimacy of Mariette in Ecstasy while at the same time attempting to offer an account of the wages of sin (as opposed to Mariette’s travails of sanctity). What drew you to the Gray/Snyder murder story in the first place? How does this novel differ from what you’d written before this? Was it difficult to find redemption in the story? Did you consciously intend to have Gray and Snyder echo the dynamic that exists between Adam and Eve of Genesis? The sex scene in the novel is rather powerful—a convincing portrayal of temptation’s power and glory, as it were. What was the reason you gave the scene such power? What did you mean the reader to understand by explicitly presenting the “wild surge of guilty passion” which Gray and Snyder succumb to?

RH: I have often referred to the novel as my version of the stories you hear in Twelve-Step Programs. In them an alcoholic, say, narrates how he was introduced to liquor, then found his drinking was accompanied by problems, until finally there were only problems. Judd Gray wrote a very confessional memoir that detailed a steep descent into murder through his boredom with his wife, his lust for Ruth, and his lack of control over his increasing alcoholism. Ruth’s motivations for killing her husband were vengeful but also strangely romantic and maternal. And since she gave rise to the movie concept of the femme fatale, there was a sense of going to the roots of film noir while also examining how ordinary good people go bad. Since Ruth’s and Judd’s illicit love affair was so crucial to the final outcome, I felt required to deal with their sex lives as frankly as I did the murder. There are clear moral lessons in the presentation of their various sins and crimes, but what I think hooked me was the sympathy I finally felt for both people when I read about their prison lives and their repugnant executions. Both found religion and integrity too late, but they did find it and in the end were repentant.

JO: Your most recent book, She Loves Me Not is a collection of short stories—a return to the form that began your writing career. Why did you decide to return to this form? Can you speak a little about the collection and why you see this time as propitious for a collection of short stories?

RH: Collections of short stories generally sell only a little better than collections of poetry, so there’s not much of a financial incentive—either for the writer or the publisher—in getting the books into stores, but there is at least some interest from readers who can often glean new information about an author in the variety of subjects chosen or the mix of styles employed in the telling. I reprinted seven stories from my first collection, Nebraska, and added twelve others that I’ve written in the past twenty years. Some had very long gestation periods. One was a fairly true story that happened to my late father-in-law when Bo was just a girl. While researching an English paper as a college senior, I happened upon an old newspaper article about Oscar Wilde’s visit to Omaha in 1882. I thought it would be a great idea for a story then, but didn’t get around to it for forty years. Likewise “My Communist,” which was based on a Polish priest’s anecdote in his 1981 homily, about first arriving in California and being spied on by a guy in a trenchcoat whom he felt sure was KGB. When the spy stopped following him, the priest felt a surprising loneliness, knowing that they had shared a language and culture and an interrelated past. I heard that and thought it was a great basis for a story but only began writing it twenty years later after I’d read a Polish priest’s reminiscence of his missionary duty in Alaska, which was written in charmingly incorrect English. In 1985 I taught a literature course that featured Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw.” Some critics have hypothesized that the supposed ghosts in that novella were actually the products of the governess’s wild imagination and the trickery of the housekeeper. I finally got around to writing that story only twenty-five years later, and only after I discovered the diary of a 19th century English maid. I have something of an actor’s interest in challenging myself with differing voices and roles. Stories and essays are my between-novels occupations, which explains why the collections are so far apart.

JO: Is there a “dream work” that you would like to someday tackle—some subject, figure or theme that you would like to someday undertake that you have not yet tried but would like to?

RH: I have often thought of writing a novel based on my mother’s life—a rather ordinary one just like that of so many wives and mothers, but full of meaningful if uncelebrated events. She just died in August at age 100. Marvyl Moore Hansen. Lovely woman. As a deacon I was able to preside at her funeral and burial. It felt like the reason I was ordained.


  1. Robert Blanchette says

    I have not read any of Hansen’s works but I will give them a try. If you want to read terrific Catholic fiction, try Michael D. O’Brien. I have read most of his novels and each one is a masterpiece. Father Elijah was a bestseller. All of them are excellent and deal with Catholic characters and subject matter. I am continually surprised when his name is not mentioned in discussions of modern Catholic authors.

  2. NinaBG says

    I, too, love the work of Michael O’Brien. He is my favorite Catholic author. Will seek out Hansen’s now, too. I agree that all of O’Brien’s books are masterpieces. My favorite one (so far) is A Cry of Stone. I was hoping, perhaps, that there was a connection between Joseph O’Brien and Michael O’Brien.

  3. MG says

    Well, watch out. Michael O’Brien is extremely different from Ron Hansen. Michael O’Brien has his strong points, but it’s pretty undeniable that he is basically writing for Catholics. When O’Brien is not at his best, he can get darn preachy, too. Not so with Hansen, whose readership, like Flannery O’Connor’s or Walker Percy’s, probably includes a large contingent of secular readers. He writes with a Catholic vision of the world, but be aware that he is not writing for the “choir” and so in his fiction you may find things that might be considered “inappropriate” if you’re treating it as devotional material. For example, I think he’s quite clear that the sex scene in “A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion” is quite frank. That’s not a criticism of him or his work at all, or of O’Brien’s for that matter, but you should be aware that some of Hansen’s books may have things that are beyond PG-13, so if you’re looking for “safe” fiction, you should probably avoid some of them.

  4. Tom Hanson says

    Thanks to MG for saying precisely what needs to be said about RH’s wonderful work.

  5. says

    As a fan of the late great Flannery O’Connor I will now embark to find yet another Catholic writer. I am looking forward to discovering Mr. Hansen works as I enter into a 8 day silent Jesuit retreat.

  6. Cecilia says

    That should be Dcn. Hansen, not Mr. Hansen! The proper informal address of a deacon is Deacon, just as Father is for a priest. Please fix it.

  7. Pierre says

    I also suggest Bud Macfarlene jr. He wrote “Pierced By a Sword, Conceived Without Sin, and House of Gold. They are action packed Catholic thrillers that lend to more leisure reading. They can be found by googling his name and the name of the books.

  8. says

    There is the love of literature of which Catholic literature is a part and there is the love of the Catholic faith of which a love of Catholic literature is part.

    If we undestand the difference between these two loves (which are not mutually exclusive, by the way) we can understand to some extent how Hansen and O’Brien approach the craft of fiction.


  9. Matthew Lickona says

    What a lovely final note to a fine interview. Thank you, Mr. O’Brien and Mr. Hansen. One of the things I loved about Mariette in Ecstasy was that it conveyed, in the midst of lovely, lyrical language, what a fearful thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Mariette’s holy intimacy is thrilling and terrifying in equal measure. The novel manages to give us the institutional exteriority of the Faith, with its comforting/supporting structures and rituals, and the personal interiority of the Faith, with its wild and unpredictable spiritual landscapes. It’s been years since I read it, but parts of it remain very clear in my memory.

    On the Catholic writer question, I tend to go with, “Christ came to reveal man to himself.” I believe the late John Paul II said that. Insofar as a writer fulfills that revelatory mission, he fits the bill.