Jim Shepard and Ron Hansen are two of America’s most esteemed contemporary fiction writers. They are also fast friends and Catholics (in very different ways, as our interview reveals).
Shepard and Hansen met in 1980 when they were both teachers at the University of Michigan. Hansen had recently published his first novel, Desperadoes, and Shepard was working on his first, Flights. Since their earliest encounters, slinging a football around the parks of Ann Arbor, they’ve spent countless hours talking books over whiskey, helping to edit and refine each other’s work, and acting as generous cheerleaders for contemporary writers whom they believe in.
Shepard is the author of: Flights, Paper Doll, Lights Out in the Reptile House, Kiss of the Wolf, Nosferatu, Project X as well as the collections Batting Against Castro and Love and Hydrogen. His short stories are frequently published in such magazines as Harper’s, The New Yorker, Playboy and The Atlantic Monthly.
Hansen is the author of: Desperadoes, Nebraska, Mariette in Ecstasy, Atticus (which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1996), Hitler’s Niece, Isn’t it Romantic, and a forthcoming novel on the life of the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins. He is also the author of A Stay Against Confusion a collection of essays on faith and fiction. His novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is currently being made into a film starring Brad Pitt.
Their collaboration, You’ve Got to Read This!, an informal collection of stories recommended by friends and writers they admired, typifies their humor, bonhomie, and dedication to contemporary fiction.
In December Shepard and Hansen sat together at BustedHalo’s offices in New York City to discuss literature, their friendship and their faith.
BustedHalo: Obviously your relationship fits into the tradition of the literary friendship, which is a rich American tradition, but I can’t help but seeing it as a Catholic friendship as well. I’d like to hear you both talk about why you think it’s a Catholic relationship.
Jim Shepard: Well, one of the things I said to you when you asked is that I have never considered it anything but a Catholic friendship. Part of the reason being that Ron and I both seriously and teasingly talk to each other about our faith all the time. And part of it is that our aesthetics have owed much to Catholicism. In Ron’s case, that connection is getting more and more explicit. So he’ll say to himself, “Writing as a sacrament: how can I embody that?” And in my case, the whole impulse of fiction, the whole approach comes out of Catholicism in a really fundamental way. When he interviewed me for [the literary magazine] Tin House, he asked me something very similar: “What has Catholicism done for you as a writer?” And I remember, vividly, thinking how important that sense of mystery is for a child. That sense of the luminous, or the numinous, behind everything. You look at something and there’s an inner strangeness that reverberates with something that’s quite powerful and you want to try to get at what that is. It makes sense that a lot of interesting writers are Catholics, given that Catholicism is so good at teaching you at a very early age — and some would say too early an age — to account for yourself. I remember as a five or six -year -old thinking, “So am I going to hell or not?” And that’s a good question. It’s a way of confronting crucial issues and reminding yourself of what, as a fiction writer, you should remind yourself of, which is that Aristotelian thing that flaws in character produce flaws in behavior that have to be accounted for. Catholicism is great training for that.
Ron Hansen: Jim and I are both interested in historical fiction and I think that that comes from a Catholic view that the narrative of history is important. The Catholic imagination plays much more into this than fundamentalist religion does. The Blessed Virgin is Our Lady of Sorrows, as well as having the Glorious Mysteries of her life. And I think this Catholic fascination with stories feeds fiction much better than a lot of others. For instance, I have some friends who are Baptist and they found there was a profound split in their fiction writing and their religion. So much so they couldn’t practice their religion anymore. Simply because it was a profound disconnect in the world. But Catholicism, I think, embraces what is important for fiction and literature in general.
JS: And adding to that, It’s also concerned with the mysteries of suffering. When I talk to my Protestant friends, they’ll tease me: “You guys are just obsessed with the crucifixion and the blood of Jesus and all that.” They see Catholicism to be like a Mel Gibson movie, with blood streaming everywhere. And there is a way, especially as a young person, in which you’re confronted with extreme suffering and you’re confronted with the mystery. But there’s also the sense of the human being having to put himself on the line in some way. One of the lines I have in Kiss of the Wolf is something dismissive that one of my Italian relatives said to me once about Protestantism. He said, “Protestantism: please. There’s nobody on the cross.” And I’ve always felt that way a little bit with my Protestant friends. It seems like a much more serene religion. Which may be better for one’s mental health, and not as useful for engendering interesting writers. A little more bland. Maybe more rational.
RH: The Stations of the Cross in the church I grew up in, normally they’re counterclockwise, but our pastor made them clockwise because he said that this is what is intended. That Jesus comes, Jesus dies, and Jesus is buried. Of course, the Stations of the Cross end with him being buried and not rising from the dead. And that’s important in terms of our own life. That you see that a lot of the bad things that happen to you are part of God’s intention. That it’s not to punish you but just the normal course of life. To go through suffering and reversals but to keep on going. And to expect a final resurrection. But you may have to lie in the tomb.
BH: I want to go especially in to the origins of your friendship and Catholic conversations. But I’m forced to bring up immediately what I think are two very similar endings. Which are oddly enough Mariette in Ecstasy and Kiss of the Wolf. It’s this longing for grace that you both so often talk about in your work but the suffering is right along it. And you almost can’t separate the two. In fact in Kiss of the Wolf, it’s so explicit, “At this moment of great suffering there’s grace” that they couldn’t imagine. And in Mariette it’s grace that no one else believes. She feels it and that’s all that matters. Those two poles, grace and suffering, I think define both of your bodies of work.
RH: And those two words would be probably be pretty crucial to most Catholic writers you admire. Where would Flannery O’Connor be without grace and suffering?
BH: I guess my question is what is grace to each of you? And how is it achieved?
RH: Well, I think of the prayer “Hail Mary,” “Hail Mary full of grace.” In the real New Testament reading in Luke, it’s “Hail full of grace;” grace is personified. And that “the Lord is with you,” that’s what grace means. With whatever happens in your life, whether it’s a joyful experience or a sorrowful experience, God is with you consoling you in some way or commiserating with you, feeling the same pain that you do. And that’s the graced experience – knowing that you’re not alone. It’s companionship basically.
JS: When I think about the difference between Ron and myself in that regard, there’s a fundamental similarity and a fundamental difference. I imagine those endings you’re talking about both as images of a light at the end of the tunnel. And in my case I’m imagining a light a long way off. In each case, we’re seeing that light, that grace, as equally miraculous. But in my case, there’s this little light, and it’s way off. And in Ron’s case, with Mariette in Mariette in Ecstasy, it’s about to flood her. The light is right there. It may be that it’s equally miraculous, but it’s much more imminent in that case. Maybe because Ron feels much closer to and confident of the spirituality than I do.
RH: It’s because I’m holier. (laughs)
JS: I wanted to put it that way, but I thought I’d let you. I think that that means fundamentally that we see the world in the same way but there’s still a huge difference. Both our protagonists are in serious pain at the end of those books, but Mariette is much closer to not just glimpsing something but being overwhelmed, being ravished by it. “Surprise me.” And it’s hard to read the book and not think that she’s going to get a huge surprise soon. You are really misreading this book by imagining her a month later saying, “I said surprise me and it’s been, like, dull city ever since then.” Whereas a lot of readers say that they find this hope and grace in my books, but that they really had to scratch and claw and sometimes it felt like it was over a dead body. As in the benediction line Flannery O’Connor gives the Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”: “She would have been a good woman if there’d been somebody to shoot her every day of her life.” I’m very often moved to find grace existing in a situation in which you’d think it shouldn’t exist. And I find it very hard to separate that from foolishness or crazy optimism or something. So that in the end of my novel Paper Doll, the plane is going down and there’s this uprushing ocean and our protagonist is going “No it’s not going to end this way. I refuse to believe it.” And the readers would write me and say, “He’s going to pull out, right? After the novel’s over, he makes it, right?” When everything I put in that book clearly indicates that he’s not going to pull out. The persistence of hope in the face of all evidence: that seems so central to the kind of spirituality I admire.
RH: What’s interesting in Kiss of the Wolf is that all the time this is happening, the main character is studying for his Ad Altare Dei Award [a Catholic scouting award]. So it’s going to the altar of God ultimately, this whole sacrificial table is happening in his own house. It all begins with this death that sets everything in motion and then it’s one disaster after another. That’s kind of the Catholic imagination in a nutshell. To expect disaster and at the same time find God somewhere in it.
JS: And the American Catholic experience, at least in my experience, has always been this double track, so you’re studying for Ad Altare Dei as an 11 year old and the rest of your life is going on as if this isn’t happening, and in this case you’re trying to help your mother hide a hit and run killing, which you think is an incredibly horrible thing. So now in that double track in your head, you’re thinking: “Whoa, now I’m going to hell. But anyway, it is weird about the Immaculate Conception.” (laughs) It’s this weird double track.
BH: Tell me about each of your roles specifically in the endings of each other’s book, specifically in Kiss of the Wolf and Mariette. I know you share your work with each other at its various stages of life. It could be your reaction to reading it. For example, when I finished reading Mariette, there was a rapture that came upon me. And the same with Kiss of the Wolf, but in a very different way.
JS: I think in those cases, we were far enough along as readers and writers that we served as powerful confirmations for each other of what we thought we already had.
RH: I remember very specifically that Jim was looking at Mariette in Ecstasy and said he thought I had about a 30 percent chance of getting it published. And when I turned in the final chapter to him, he said that he thought I had about a 60 percent chance of getting it published. So I’d moved dramatically, but there was still this sense of iffy-ness because it was on such a religious theme and that didn’t seem okay in publishing.
BH: And it became a canonical Catholic text in some ways. It really took on a life of its own.
JS: But I tease Ron about it, because he thought Atticus would be a much more popular book and Mariette was this private thing. But Mariette has been a huge book because it speaks to this group of people in a way that is much more unusual and powerful than Atticus. I mean, I think you feel much more strongly about Mariette than you do Atticus.
So, getting back to your original questions about the endings. We’re really the first people for each other to have that rapture and to say, “You’ve done it; this is it.” As opposed to saying ‘I think you need to tinker with this,’ which, God knows, we also do. In terms of that latter sort of help, one of the fundamental ways in which we differ, and it really pervades our personalities, is that I will give Ron enormous grief about spelling out everything and Ron will give me enormous grief about spelling out nothing. So, Ron will go, “Nobody knows who Aeschylus is. Tell people who Aeschylus is.” And I will tease Ron for having written, “Adolph Hitler, the dictator of Germany who was involved with the Nazi party for a number of years….” And I’ll draw a line through that. And he’ll say, “People don’t know that.” And that extends all the way down our personalities. The point being that we trust each other even as we understand each other’s quirks.