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Faith in Fiction

FOR RON HANSEN, being Catholic and writing fiction go hand in hand. “Catholicism continually asks the big theological questions about good and evil and forces believers to accept a confessional rather than therapeutic role—that is, I have to focus on the things I’ve done or failed to do, not brood over or nurse the things that have been done to me,” he says.

“Catholicism encourages frankness about our sin-ridden natures rather than the sentimentality that flinches from descriptions of wrongs and ugliness. Flannery O’Connor said the Catholic writer should be ‘hotly in pursuit of the real.’ And that’s exactly what the finest fiction endeavors to do.”

Many of Hansen’s novels carry a Catholic theme: Mariette in Ecstasy(HarperCollins, 1991) is the story of a young woman who enters a monastery and becomes a mystic in ways that many readers—Catholics and others—find mind-blowing.

In a book review for The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michiko Kakutani described the book as “a slim, luminous novel that burns a laser-bright picture into the reader’s imagination, forcing one to reassess the relationship between madness and divine possession, gullibility and faith, sexual rapture and religious ecstasy. … Though considerable space is devoted in this novel to Roman Catholic beliefs and liturgy, one need hardly be familiar with that church’s teachings to be moved and amazed by this fable. With Mariette in Ecstasy, Mr. Hansen has written an astonishingly deft and provocative novel.”

Hansen brings a deeply rooted Catholic imagination to his work, finding holy in the ordinary, sacred in the secular. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford(Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), which parallels the theme of sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel, was such a well-told story that it became a widely praised movie, starring Brad Pitt, in 2007. Having written both the novel and the screenplay, Hansen was invited to visit the film set in Canada a few times, where he met director Andrew Dominik and some of the actors, including Pitt, whom he advised on the character of Jesse James.

“I have a photo of the two of us together,” Hansen remarks wryly, “but I had to promise not to let it be published anywhere.”

Finding Faith

Inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s words in the 19th-century classic Walden—“Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes”—Hansen continued his ministry to his faith and was ordained a permanent deacon for the Diocese of San Jose in California in 2007.

“I was first a lector, then a eucharistic minister,” he explains. “Then I was asked to be a spiritual director, and I found that each new ministry gave me pleasure, and the additional work was no burden at all. I found that I could become a permanent deacon, increase my service to the church and continue doing those things that nourished me and, I hope, the people of God, without adding anything but an alb and a stole.

“The diaconate affords me the opportunity to interact with people at peak moments—when they’re at their most vulnerable—and lets me feel something of God’s sympathy, forgiveness and love. Thus far, it’s been a joy.”

In his 2001 collection, A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction(HarperCollins), Hansen connects his own vocation to the Catholic concept of sacrament.

In the essay “Writing as Sacrament,” he explains: “Writing will be a sacrament when it offers in its own way the formula for happiness of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Which is: First, be. Second, love. Finally, worship. We may find it’s possible that if we do just one of those things completely, we may have done all three.”

In an essay titled simply “Eucharist,” he tells the story of his own history with this sacrament, concluding with reflections on his experience as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist at Santa Clara University. (He was assigned to campus ministries there and currently serves at St. Joseph of Cupertino Parish in San Jose.)

“And so at noon Mass in the old California mission church of Santa Clara, I have the courage to go up to the tabernacle, genuflect before it just as Monsignor Flanagan [his boyhood pastor] would, and get out a ciborium I would not have dared touch in my childhood. And I stand where a [Communion] railing used to be, hold the consecrated elements of either bread or wine, giving Christ to those holier than me, who walk up with such reverence, simplicity, seriousness and childlike vulnerability that my eyes sometimes film with tears. It is a gift to me, that giving. …”

Although Hansen’s parents raised their five children (including Hansen’s twin brother, Rob) in the faith, Catholicism wasn’t always in the Hansen lineage. In the mid-19th century, the Mormons had considerable success attracting new members in Denmark. Among them was the family of Frederick Hansen, Ron Hansen’s paternal great-grandfather, who in the 1920s published an article in The Journal of History about his childhood journey from Denmark to America in 1857 and then of his kin pushing an overloaded handcart toward the Great Plains and the Zion of Utah.

The way Hansen recalls his greatgrandfather’s tale, the rigorous expedition was called to a halt “when his mother became ill and they found the fabulous farmland of Iowa. He eventually became a Mormon bishop and lived in the vicinity of Persia, Iowa, where he died a happy man at age 88. I have seen only one photograph of him; he seems a tall, lanky, grinning Max von Sydow sort. My family handed that article down like an heirloom and considered it so reverently that even before I could read, I fancied that I would imitate my great-grandfather someday.”

Hansen’s mother, who was raised in a Dominican orphanage, converted to Catholicism around age 12, and “my father was a nonpracticing Latter-day Saint and converted at 20 to marry my mother,” he explains.

Finding Fiction

Hansen’s interest in fiction writing began while attending Catholic schools in his hometown of Omaha, Neb.

“Jesus primarily taught by telling parables; that certainly was influential,” he says. “That those stories were so often repeated at Mass, yet held the rapt attention of even the grown-ups in the congregation, indicated to me the importance and power of fictional narratives.”

Beyond the Bible, Hansen remembers other early influences: “Early on, from age 10 to 14 or so, it was Edgar Allan Poe. In my freshman year in high school, we were assigned Great Tales of Action and Adventure, edited by John Irving’s Phillips Exeter Academy teacher, George Bennett—a wonderful, thrilling anthology for boys. And just before my sophomore year, I discovered John Updike and decided he was exactly the writer I wanted to be. I finally read 34 of his many books.

“My first fan letter was to him, and he was the first fiction writer I ever talked to when I called him on the phone to ask a question for an undergraduate essay I was writing. I won first prize for that essay, but the greatest impact for me was speaking very briefly with an honest-to-goodness author.”

Hansen graduated from Creighton University with a degree in English literature in 1970. Following a stint as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, he was accepted by the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he studied with John Irving and John Cheever. Hansen was awarded a master of fine arts in creative writing in 1974.

“I had the good fortune to meet a young John Irving,” Hansen recalls, “and stayed at his house as a live-in babysitter for his sons, Colin and Brendan. John taught me in hundreds of daily ways how to live a writer’s life, and my patterns are still those he provided by example.”

Hansen’s Literary Journey

After the workshop, Hansen’s first job was literary in an entirely new way. He was hired by major New York publishing company Random House as a textbook salesman. He drove the freeways and byways of Illinois and spent his nights in motel rooms, but didn’t forget his own creative writing while doing it. While on the road, he worked on his first novel, Desperadoes(Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), a tale about the fabled Dalton gang.

Subsequently, Hansen held teaching positions at numerous colleges around the country, including the University of California-Santa Cruz, State University of New York at Binghamton and the universities of Nebraska and Arizona.

He also spent one month as writer in residence at Wichita State University in Kansas in the fall of 1987. There he met fellow Catholic writer James Lee Burke, who would become the best-selling, two-time Edgar Award-winning author of, among other works, a series of highly literary mystery/crime novels featuring a character named Dave Robicheaux, a Louisiana sheriff’s detective who is Catholic.

“Jim was a huge fan of Desperadoes,” Hansen says, “and the chief reason I was invited [to Wichita State]. He hadn’t yet started the Dave Robicheaux series then, but would soon leave Kansas and teaching to concentrate on his fiction writing. A wonderful decision on his part.”

Maintaining his own faith-fiction balance, in 1995 Hansen graduated from Santa Clara University with a master’s degree in pastoral ministry with an emphasis on spirituality. After completing one of three years in pursuit of a master’s degree in divinity at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., he decided to enroll in the diaconate program of the San Jose Diocese, where he was ordained three years later.

Since 1996, Hansen has been the Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ professor of arts and humanities at Santa Clara University and has continued to write novels, including Atticus (HarperCollins, 1996), a retelling of the story of the prodigal son, which became a finalist for the National Book Award. The list of Hansen’s honors and awards goes on for pages, literally, and includes seven honorary doctorates and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Not all of his works have received such praise, however. The 1999 release of Hitler’s Niece(HarperCollins) left critics feeling more perplexed than praiseworthy. The idea surfaced while Hansen was practicing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and envisioned Adolf Hitler while meditating about the devil.

Based on actual events in the lives of Hitler and his niece, Geli Raubal, it’s the story of Raubal’s eventual conversion to Catholicism—historically highly likely, Hansen says, but impossible to document positively. Some reviewers objected to Hansen’s portrayal of Hitler as human, and others accused him of trivializing the whole Nazi era in Germany.

Hansen’s skill of creating fiction from fact is also displayed in Exiles(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), in which he pairs the story of 19th-century Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins with parallel narratives about five German nuns who perished in the 1875 wreck of the steamship Deutschland off the coast of England. It is a documented fact that Hopkins was deeply affected by reading news accounts of the sisters’ tragic deaths, and though all but the voyage is entirely fictional, Hansen skillfully develops the character of each nun so she becomes just as real and believable as Hopkins himself.

The Future of Fiction

Although Hansen has no plans to stop writing any time soon—in June 2011, he released his latest novel, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion(Scribner), creating his own twists on the true tale of a wife who convinces her lover to get rid of her husband—he says he is concerned about the future of books.

“Apple’s Steve Jobs pointed out that manufacturers are concentrating on making the friendliest, easiest e-book readers, when the fact is that too many people don’t consume literature anymore,” he says. “I notice a lot of reading on airplanes, but those passengers generally represent a more highly educated segment of the population. I would guess that most people do not read a book a year; hence, publishing is worried and in chaos. And with the decline of newspapers and their book reviews, only the brand-name writers or those books chosen by Oprah Winfrey or those that happen to become films are getting much attention. I’m somewhat pessimistic about the future of fiction and fear it could go the way of poetry, which is only read by other poets these days. I hope I’m wrong,” says Hansen.

He believes that reading fiction can nourish one’s faith and insists that it’s possible for the perceptive reader to tell the difference between good and bad fiction, in particular fiction that does or does not support and nourish a healthy adult Catholic spirituality and way of life.

“John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction judged novelists according to their honesty about the world, and though I would disagree with some of his opinions, I do believe that bad fiction is cynical, heartless, sanctimonious or fundamentally untruthful in its choices and characterizations,” he says.

“Good fiction is not necessarily ‘realistic’ as a category, but you recognize in it a fondness for language, a compassion for people and their circumstances and a zest for narrative. When you finish reading good fiction, you have a feeling of agreement that life is pretty much like that, and that our being here truly matters.”

Regardless of the future state of fiction, Hansen is sure to be included in the pantheon of great American Catholic writers, joining figures such as Graham Greene, J.F. Powers, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy.