June/July/Aug 2008

Jesuits and Jesse James

Ron Hansen talks with Bookforum

Kera Bolonik


Ron Hansen is an outlaw among outlaws—and not just because his first two novels, Desperadoes (1979), about the Dalton Gang, and the pen/Faulkner-nominated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (1983), reimagined the Wild West. As a practicing Jesuit (he serves as deacon in his San Jose congregation) who embraces his faith, he is a lone rider in a largely secular literary world, integrating themes of morality, grace, suffering, redemption, and resurrection into his work while respecting the fiction writer's oath of withholding judgment. In fact, not until the best-selling Mariette in Ecstasy (1991) did he dare to write on expressly Catholic themes—in this case, the tale of a feverishly pious turn-of-the-century nun who awakens from a series of trances with stigmata. Hansen's marvelous new novel, Exiles (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), would appear to be the culmination of his intellectual and spiritual passions. The book details Gerard Manley Hopkins's internal struggle between piety and poetry after years of "elected silence," as he composes his masterful epic poem "The Wreck of the Deutschland," about a sea disaster that claimed the lives of five Franciscan nuns after Bismarck's anti-Catholic Falk Laws drove them out of Germany. Our conversations took place on the phone, and the gracious, soft-spoken Hansen, who serves as the Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University in California, talked with me about living outside the margins, the separation of church and state in the literary realm, the pursuit of larger truths in historical fiction, and what it means to call yourself a writer. —KERA BOLONIK

BOOKFORUM: Four of your seven novels, including this new one, focus on historical figures. What appeals to you about writing historical fiction?

RON HANSEN: Telling the stories. There is that famous quote by George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." It's a way of trying to explain us to ourselves. I also think about Isak Dinesen, whose tales are generally located in an era before she was born and are therefore historical fictions. She was asked why she chose such subjects, and replied that she owned the past in a way she couldn't own the present.

BF: The title, Exiles, refers not only to the five German nuns fleeing Bismarck's Germany but to Hopkins himself, who is living in exile on many different levels, including sacrificing his poetry for the priesthood. The notion of exile, being an outsider or an outlaw, is a recurring theme in your fiction.

RH: Writers have a sense of themselves as spies and observers. Most writers I know fit into society very well and are not instantly recognizable as "artists," but most are also ornery, exceptional, and, to a greater or lesser degree, sui generis. Once, when my brother Rob visited me when I was at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, we attended a party together, and he later confessed the grad- student writers made him nervous because they listened so closely to what he was say­ing. A friend of mine in business once heard me take notice of something we both could have observed but that he'd missed, and he said, "You're so alert, it's scary." Writers grow up getting odd looks for their remarks and for their ways of seeing the world and are forced by circumstances to go against the grain in order to create. Our sympathies will be with outsiders. We are, in Ignatius of Loyola's fine phrase, "in the world but not of it."

BF: Hopkins's story is interesting, because we see a writer returning to his craft after a long self-imposed hiatus. In Exiles, we witness not only the composition of "The Wreck of the Deutschland" but all of the poet's emotional conflict.

RH: There was something so metaphoric about the shipwreck that explains not only something about life but also foreshadows Hopkins's life after he wrote it. The ship didn't sink, it foundered; it became a kind of iron-sided reef that the icy North Sea crashed over. Hopkins saw his accomplishments and ambitions get lost in a sea of expectations and obligations as a priest and a teacher, and he must have wondered if his extraordinary gifts would ever be recognized, just as those on the Deutschland wondered if they'd ever be rescued.

BF: I've read that most, if not all, of his work was published posthumously.

RH: Yes. And he only became famous after he died. It's such an amazing thing to read his letters where he would say, I don't expect you to understand me now, but in a hundred years people will understand me.

BF: Why did Hopkins believe his piety required him to renounce writing?

RH: We're used to multitasking these days, or to making midlife changes of career. But in the nineteenth century, there seems to have been a greater single-mindedness, and once a choice of vocation was made, there was very little wavering or second-guessing. You stuck to the job or the marriage. The Hopkins who converted to Roman Catholicism at Oxford and then responded to a deeper yearning to be a Jesuit priest was like other Victorians in his dedication to his calling, and he was in training as a Jesuit for several years before he saw how his poetry could serve God just as his prayers and duties did.

BF: Was this literary exile connected to his homosexuality, to a perception that poetry and sexuality were somehow entwined and needed to be suppressed?

RH: I think in some ways that's a poignant reason, but in his experience, almost everybody he would have encountered was male. He developed a friendship with a man named Digby Dolben, who was a cousin of his best friend, Robert Bridges. Dolben later drowned. He was clearly someone whom Hopkins was infatuated with, but infatuations were not uncommon. He was going to an all-male school, and almost all of his teachers were male. These men had no contact with women.

BF: Your first two novels were about the Wild West. What about that period cap­- tured your imagination?

RH: Part of it was that I thought the western seemed loaded with potential to tell us who we are now but had fallen on hard times with its melodrama and clichés of character and plot. I hoped to take the typical outlaw narratives as seriously as Shakespeare took Holinshed's Chronicles and to find in the West of the nineteenth century some genetic markers for our present condition. Robert Ford seemed to me a typically simplified figure in the many westerns about Jesse James—always a weasel and a traitor who murders his hero in the last act and then disappears. I was always intrigued by the idea of what causes people to kill another person, especially if they're a celebrity. Robert Ford didn't hate James—he admired him. Brad Pitt and I were discussing him on the set [of Andrew Dominik's recent film adaptation of The Assassination of Jesse James], and he saw in Bob's relationship to Jesse something akin to the Buddhist saying "You must murder all your teachers." I wanted to get at that complexity of feelings and aspirations in my portrayal.

BF: What is your approach to researching and writing about such figures?

RH: When I was writing The Assassination of Jesse James, I collected everything I could about James and threw away what I could not reconcile with other facts. I depend on my filtering memory to hold on to what is fascinating and to jettison whatever isn't. That's how I avoid the school-pageant approach. I began the novel on Jesse James with a five-page character study cataloguing all I knew, but deliberately falsified some things to indicate that this was my Jesse James, the outlaw of legend. Hopkins is far better known because of his hundreds of letters, journal entries, sermons, and essays, so there were more factual constraints on my fictional pre­­sent­ation, and I tried to incorporate as much of his language and viewpoints as possible while expanding where necessary.

BF: How has your faith shaped your literary sensibility?

RH: There's a book, and I'm sorry I can't remember the title, that discusses the analogical imagination versus the dialogic imagination. The analogical imagination sees God within the world and somehow described by all of creation. And that's a great beginning point for a fiction writer. The dialogic imagination sees God as far more distant, a mystery with whom we can be in dialogue but who is otherwise beyond our understanding. It comes close to Manichaeanism with its hints that the world is evil and somehow alien or off-putting to God. That view can make fiction writing seem irrelevant at best and sinful at worst.

BF: Did you feel called to write when you were growing up?

RH: It was not a calling in the sense that I thought, "What I want to be is a writer," because I had such respect for the profession. I was just in awe of books. I read Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe. I read everything John Updike wrote. I tried to figure out how he put one of his stories together, and at some point, I succeeded.

BF: I would think that's the moment when you decide you can call yourself a writer.

RH: When I was in college, we were having a meeting at a literary magazine, and one of the guys announced he was a writer, and I was amazed at his temerity. I eventually made the transition to say I am a writer, but I say it reluctantly [laughs]. I usually say I am a professor first. And I never say I'm a novelist.

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