Busted: Authors Ron Hansen & Jim Shepard

A Catholic conversation about faith, fiction and friendship

Jim Shepard: I went to a Catholic grammar school up to the eighth grade in Bridgeport, Connecticut. And then was dumped into a gigantic public high school, so our backgrounds were similar in those ways. And we met at the University of Michigan when Ron was in the Society of Fellows and I was a lecturer. I’m the kind of person that if you put me in a new place like an office, I’ll stay there and think, Well, I guess I’m not going to meet anybody. Ron’s the sort of person that would say, “Well, I’m not going to meet anyone sitting in here.” So, he knocked on my door, introduced himself and I thought, What a sweet, hearty fellow. And then he asked if I had read his book and I said, well no, I haven’t. And he handed me, knowing, in fact that it would make me a better person (laughter), Desperadoes in paperback. It had a very lurid Western cover. I didn’t devour Westerns then, and I said, “Thanks…” (laughter). I went home and I thought, Oh God, I have to read this. He’s my only friend here. So I began reading it and I thought, This is marvelous. So, when I went in the next day, I went into his office and I said, “This is wonderful.” And I couldn’t sufficiently keep the shock out of my voice. But Ron was gracious about it and he said, “Well, I thought so, too.” (laughter) So then we went out and started throwing the football around.

Ron Hansen: So we tossed it and discovered we both loved The Honeymooners, Martin Scorsese and movies.

JS: We actually started to see a lot of movies together. I dragged Ron to see Mean Streets, which he had never seen before. I mean, he comes from this placid Nebraska background. And about halfway through the movie he said, “Jeepers, do you think there are people like this?” (laughter) And I said, “I’ll have to have you over for Thanksgiving.”

BH: And when did faith or the struggle for faith come up in your whiskey conversations. I’m sure that the whiskey conversations began immediately.

RH: I think anybody who has a couple of whiskies starts talking about faith. A friend of mine once said I had the ministry of the cocktail party. I’m identified as a Catholic and people start asking me questions after a couple of drinks.

JS: And I guess Ron, even at the young age, was always interested in the priesthood. He had always thought about it.

BH: Ron, your brother was in the priesthood?

RH: Yeah. My brother was a Jesuit for 9 years. My sister was a Dominican nun for a number of years. I have two older sisters but they didn’t think of joining the novitiate for some reason.

JS: It was a big issue for Ron because he was drawn to it, but he was also a party animal (laughter). And he was known to have charmed a woman or two in his time. What was that line of Ron Power’s at Bread Loaf?

RH: The hunk wants to be a monk.

JS: We would go to Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and Ron would cut a cheery swath through these women and then he’d be, like, “I don’t know, should I be a priest?” And I would say, “Well there is one problem.” So it was always an issue. But no matter what, in our fumbling, not-all-that-well-read way, we really enjoyed talking about theology in whatever way we could. Not that we would send each other off to read Hans Kung but we would at least have an idea of what some of those arguments were, and we’d stay up late and talk. In the circles we moved in — I mean, Ron has changed his circles — but at that time we were pretty much it as far as talking about those sorts of things. Others would be like, What are you talking about?

“It’s odd that literature and the arts in general have become disassociated from religion, whereas the beginnings of literature do have their origins in religion.”

RH: Once at a writers conference, Paul Mariani, the poet, came up to me and pulled me off to the side and whispered, “Are you actually a Catholic?” It was the Feast of the Assumption the next day and he wanted to know if I wanted to go to mass with him. So we went off together and it was really like going to a Satanist cult in those settings when you were going to a Catholic church. And he was actually surprised that I read a chapter from Mariette in Ecstasy at the conference because nobody had ever addressed faith in that context before. It’s odd that literature and the arts in general have become disassociated from religion, whereas the beginnings of literature do have their origins in religion.

JS: But you can actually watch Ron’s work as it changes. You could read Desperadoes and not necessarily know he was Catholic, but then you read Jesse James and there’s a real Catholic sensibility about it. And then you read Mariette and you’re like, Duh.

BH: I’m interested to hear about how your work reflects a real progression of your faith.

RH: I think it was kind of a subtext in Desperadoes. But I was afraid of blurting it out. I was afraid it wouldn’t get published and that’s what I was really yearning for. So eventually, you get published and you think somebody is going to publish this and you do what you want to. And that’s where Mariette in Ecstasy comes from. And in some ways that’s my favorite book because I did what I wanted to do and I didn’t care what the consequences were. I thought I’d find a university press if not a major publisher. When I saw I could get away with that, I thought I’d do something more overt.

JS: Desperadoes isn’t just ‘the world won’t accept this.’ It was very much a young man’s high-spirited book and was very much in love with fiction writing itself. In a lot of ways there’s a Catholic sensibility, but it’s pretty submerged. But that quickly changes. Jesse James is a very, very Catholic book. And part of that, I think, came from Ron thinking, I’ll just do another one of these books. But I can’t do another. I can’t do a Desperadoes II and the more he got interested in Ford and James, the more it became a kind of Catholic story. I mean you can’t talk about Ford and not talk about Judas. The Christian overlay doesn’t work that well with the Daltons. But with Jesse James…

BH: A Jesuit friend of mine considers the clergy to be the most counter-cultural state of life today. You’re writers, which is unfortunately becoming counter-cultural itself and you’re writing about things that the literary establishment probably doesn’t embrace. So how does your friendship, Catholic or otherwise, encourage you to keep going?

RH: Well, I think you know that there is at least one other reader outside of your own family that will read you and keep encouraging you to do what you’re doing. I think that there’s an expectation for both of us to say, “I haven’t gotten a packet from you in a long time” or something sent to me by e-mail. I just sent Jim a chapter and the last thing I sent him was probably in May and it was a long time between those pages. Jim’s been much more productive than I have and I look forward to having a story from him with frequency. So, there’s that. The other is having readers who know about the other work that you’ve done so far and can track the achievement and can say, “You know this isn’t up to your best stuff.”

JS: And it’s just a really nice stay against loneliness. You know, writing is such a weird profession. You sort of say, “I’m going to go into my room and shut the door and communicate with the world.” There’s this weird paradox to it. And the thing that you’re describing, about feeling more and more besieged, dovetails pretty nicely if you’re a Catholic of a certain sort. I mean now, if you’re a kind of quasi-left Catholic or a moderate Catholic, you’re under siege in two directions. And writers, of course, are a shrinking commodity as well, because readers are a shrinking commodity. And literary writers are an even smaller group. So you have this sense that you’re on an island and the island is shrinking and so the people on the island with you are much more valuable. You’re not just talking to yourself and that’s important. But that pool is not growing.

BH: And yet in many ways artists are among the most faith-filled people because creating a work of art is an act of faith in itself. There’s no need for another song, another sculpture, another novel. Yet, I’m always amazed when people aren’t interested in ultimate meanings. How do you find that in the sort of climate of artists you’ve dealt with and how does your faith play into that.

RH: Well, I think that’s kind of an obligation I feel. You know, there’s this sense that you’re a writer because you want to entertain but also this sense that you want to educate. And I think that that is fundamental to my whole project: to provide this sort of basis to students I have encountered. I was talking to an actor the other day and he didn’t know about David being in the Old Testament rather than the New. And you realize this is sort of an educated, successful person and he still didn’t know that. So, I think that there’s an obligation to at least hold their hand and guide them.

JS: Part of what creates a crucial tension, though, is bound up in Keats’ famous remark that the artist doesn’t know whether he’s the healer or the patient. And the narcissism that’s involved in the creation of a work of art – as in, I just want to sit in my sandbox and make my little thing — is always in tension with I want to help other people, I want to connect to other people. So at the very same time you have an artist or writer say, it’s really important you understand the story of Adam and Eve and I’m going to walk you through a certain kind of ethical behavior that I think is important, there’s also the writer just saying, let me do what I want to do. And that tension is unstable in various people and we all know artists that have an enormous facility but are narcissistic to such an extent that we don’t think we have that much to gain from them. And then we know of writers on the other end of the spectrum who don’t seem that talented but are just out there hectoring people. That’s a battle that goes on in artists all the time. So when Ron says I want to do Mariette, some part of him knows he wants to do this just because wants to play. He’s going to worry later about whether it’s going to be good for anybody else. Because we have to interest ourselves first. And I’m always doing these things much weirder than Ron, and I’ll go, “You want to have a creature from the black lagoon be your narrator for this story?” And I’ll think, “Besides the fact you’re stuck at 11 years old, why do you want to do this?” And what I’m saying to myself is, setting aside the narcissistic pleasure, how is this going to help the world? Why would you want to do this? And that’s the tension that always operates in literary fiction.

RH: Jim and I are both alike in that we don’t write autobiographically. It’s not a kind of navel-gazing thing. We’re looking at the outside world and in some way our perceptions about that outside world illuminate our perception of our interior life.

JS: I think we’re not writing about our lives but from our lives. And so that quality of finding the narrative in our own lives is very rare. And Ron has almost never done that and I have only done that once or twice where I’ve taken actual events in my life and turned them into narrative fiction.

RH: I think you begin writing a novel and a short story with two questions. One question you know the answer to; the other you don’t. And the process of writing is a way of answering that question. But you think you have a singular insight and that’s why you take on the question to begin with.

JS: I’m sure anybody teaching theology or catechism would say that you teach yourself as you go. And that’s certainly what you do when you write.

BH: It’s interesting that you mention teaching. You’re both great teachers. You both seem to approach teaching in a very Catholic sense. Meaning you approach your students with charity and discipline.

RH: At the end of each quarter–we’re on the quarter system at Santa Clara–I always see that this student has gotten better. And it’s not always because you held their hand. But sometimes saying no or don’t is the kindest thing you can do to somebody. But that’s the kind of charity, though it doesn’t feel like charity – it feels more like flagellation sometimes. But the outcome is really kind of a sacramental thing. To see that somebody has been transformed. It’s a witness of what Jesus did. Almost every time he encounters somebody he says something off-putting but eventually they become healed or they become better as a person and I think that that is what the teaching process is all about. I just find myself needing to have that kind of communication. For one thing, you get to stand up there and offer your opinions on things. Otherwise, I would just have to corral people in a bar.

JS: And also Ron gets medical benefits. (laughter) I really think that there are a lot of writers in academia and a lot of them are not very good teachers, but good writers. And part of the way they negotiate that is by getting very Darwinian. They say: I’m going to decide who the good writers are. They decide who is valuable and can be saved. I think a good teacher is one who’s rigorous in that he believes anything can be improved and wearingly optimistic in that he believes that anything can be saved. And that respect that you give young writers suggests to them that their intuition is frequently a greater genius than they are. It means a huge amount to young writers to know that they’re not being patronized.

RH: Sometimes there are quantum leaps.

JS: Where they thought they were supposed to do it one way and you turn them loose and they’re suddenly able to do [it]. I was a lot like that. When I was an undergrad, I was in the kind of writing workshop in which you had to do all of the genres. And at the end of the semester the teacher said, “Well, you know, you’re extremely good in poetry. You’re okay in drama. And the one thing you don’t seem to be able to really do is fiction.” I said, “Well, I’d like to go on in fiction.” And he said, “Let me explain what I just said to you.” (laughter) And in fact I was a bad fiction writer. Because part of what I was trying to do was find out what he wanted. And finally I took the advanced class because he didn’t have enough people. I remember the comment on my first story began, “As I said…” And I thought, “The hell with this.” And I thought I’m just going to channel one of these voices because I find it interesting and it’s probably not suitable but I’m going to do it. And I channeled this voice and he called me into his office and goes, “Who wrote this?” And I was too stupid to be insulted and said, “I did, sir.” And he said I don’t know where this came from. It was as if I’d figured out I wasn’t writing an English paper. That I should try something else.

RH: At least 60 percent of what you do as a fiction-writing teacher is to model what it is to be a fiction writer. And that’s just that you come into the class, you take fiction seriously. You take the writing profession seriously. And all the time Jim and I are teaching, we’re also writing and there’s some way that that the writing imbues what we say. And so they say, this is a valuable profession, I want to do more of this. And a lot of the letters I get from students later or phone calls are saying “I haven’t written for a while, so that’s why I’m writing you this letter or calling you.” And they sort of want to feed off of this flame.

JS: You know one of the things I say to the fiction writers is that the good news and the bad news is that I’m not going to tell you what to write about. This is one of the few places in your lives where nobody is going to say, Write about your grandma. What do you want to write about? And that’s a terrifying question for some people. But when they wrap their minds around it, it can be exhilarating.

BH: Do they have anything to write about at 21?

JS: Remember, you had to have had a childhood at 21. And if you’ve had a Catholic childhood, chances are you’ve really gone through one. Obviously, there are very, very few savants. You can be Mozart in music. But you can’t be Joyce at 20. But that doesn’t mean you can’t sort of have flashes of amazing stuff at 20. And that doesn’t mean that you can’t write a great short story.

RH: And, I’m always encouraging them to read the newspapers. To write about people other than themselves takes the heat off in some ways. I had very different writing teachers. I didn’t really have one as an undergraduate. When I went to the University of Iowa I ended up living in the house of John Irving and his approach was a model of what a writer should do. And to a certain extent my day is still modeled after what John’s was. John Irving always talked about fiction as something where the reader feels like they’re a little bit ahead of you and then they find out they’re wrong. That surprise.

JS: He also wrestles for about six hours a day. (laughter)

BH: My introduction to Jim’s fiction, was in my freshmen year English class 101 with a rather stern teacher who I was devoted to and no one else was and we read “Reach for the Sky.” Which put me on to this guy who I had never heard of. And that’s a Catholic story in a weird way. I wonder if it’s one of your favorites?

RH: It is. I was really surprised he could take on such a sentimental subject and still come at it in the typical Jim fashion of a hard-edged kind of way.

JS: It’s story about an adolescent who is fed up. He works at an animal shelter and he’s fed up with the number of animals that are brought in and break his heart. He’s just ranting about, “This is how the adults handle it. They just come in and tell you this is why they have to dump the dogs. This is why they have to do that.” And it’s just this litany of the ways that people disappoint him every day. And then this guy comes in who is in a wheelchair and is clearly in despair and has this beautiful dog that has been really well groomed and he’s turning this dog over and will not say why. And suddenly, here’s this adolescent who thinks he can judge everyone and feels very uncomfortable judging this guy and what exactly this guy is doing turning this dog in.

RH: And essentially this guy has a trick he’s taught this dog.

JS: Yeah. This guy says, “He does tricks,” and he goes, “Watch. Reach for the sky.” And the setter gets up on his hind legs and puts up his little paws. And it’s clear the narrator wants to get the dog back with the guy and he’s not even sure why. Part of it is that he hates having to destroy the dog. And part of it is that he’s afraid this guy will do something terrible to himself without the dog. So he’s trying to badger this guy into taking the dog back and so he says, “We’re not going to be able to keep this dog. And we’re going to have to kill this dog.” And he realizes simultaneously that this is a sadistic thing to do—that it wasn’t easy for this guy to bring in the dog – but that it’s also his only chance to get this dog back with this guy. And so he’s suddenly in this impossible position that he’s not up to. Which is sort of the story of my life. You know: impossible positions. I’m like that kid.

RH: There’s kind of a dialectic going on in this. Where the world is full of terrible things and the only thing that keeps us going is looking toward the sky, as a metaphor for heaven and grace.

BH: How about in the Bible. You talk about story telling and that’s where we all start more or less. What are some of your favorite stories in the Bible?

RH: I like the book of Ruth. Which is never used in the lectionary.

JS: There’s a typical answer. (laughter) For me it’s Leviticus.

RH: But Ruth’s an important figure in the Bible. She gives birth to the person who gives birth to David. But it’s an unknown story for most people. It’s only like ten pages long, which is perfect for a short story. And it has that great passage about “Where you will go, I will go. Your people will become my people.” And it just feels like it’s just such a foundational story. And the story of Abraham and Isaac is foundational also. And I think all of fiction is indebted to the book of Job. The idea of how tragedy befalls a good man and what’s the reason for this. So those are my three favorites in the Old Testament.

JS: For me Abraham and Isaac is a great story because it is so laconic. And you’re like, “Wait! He said what and you did what?” That’s the sort of story in the Bible that I always wanted to fill in. I wanted to know more right away. I mean Job feels like it has some of that quality as well. But it feels like you’re not supposed to know, at least not right away. But with Abraham and Isaac, Dad’s like, “Come on. Let’s do it.” And you’re, like, “Help me out here.” As opposed to Job, who’s, like, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” And the reader’s like, “Well, shit happens.”