Busted: Authors Ron Hansen & Jim Shepard

A Catholic conversation about faith, fiction and friendship

BustedHalo: Let’s talk about Ron’s forthcoming novel on the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Has it been ten years that you’ve been thinking about doing this? And how have the both of you thought about it together?

Jim Shepard: We just had a meeting at a steak house about this most recent chapter. One of the things we talked about was that there’s this basic tension in the project that he’s been dealing with in idealizing Hopkins. Seeing Hopkins as this amazing figure he’d love to aspire to be. And wanting to embody that Hopkins: as they say in The Producers “the Hopkins with a song in his heart.” (laughter) And I keep telling Ron, when you say Gerard Manley Hopkins, most people think spiritual unrest. They think dark night of the soul. And Ron knows that but that’s not the Hopkins he wants to embody.

Ron Hansen: But I’m also writing about Hopkins at the happiest period in his life. So it’s sort of benign. And he loved St. Beuno’s College in North Wales where he studied theology and that’s where he writes The Wreck of the Deutschland. The Wreck of the Deutschland itself is very sad. It’s about this group of people who are exiled from their country and then they die at sea. So that’s a lot of the darkness. But it’s written at a point where Hopkins would say, “I’m living in the pastoral forehead of Wales. And I was at rest.” And that kind of stuff comes into the fiction too. And Jim wants to see some of the darker stuff that caused him to write a poem about a very dark situation.

JS: But I also want to see you treat the happiness as the mysterious and unstable condition it is. But understand, I’m perfectly willing to believe that Hopkins is feeling quite happy. But I want that feeling of this is unusual and I wonder how long this will last or thank God I’m in this little period of grace. And I don’t want a book where I’d go, “Oh man, it would be great to be this guy Hopkins. I just wish I had no problems, like Gerard Manley Hopkins.”

RH: It’s like darkness is the city boy and happiness is the country cousin who comes to visit. And I think that’s everybody’s experience of life. For a lot of time, life is just neutral or joyless but there are moments that everything makes it worthwhile. And for Hopkins I think that a lot of his writing is because he was widowed or bereft from his family and all of his old associations. Here is a loyal son of England who is not an Anglican anymore. So he always felt cut off or exiled. And that comes through in the poem The Wreck of the Deutschland where he writes about these five nuns who were kicked out of Germany and they were going off to an unknown country and the same thing was happening with him in his religious life.

BH: Another writer I would like both of you to talk about. Well, maybe two if you would like. One is Flannery O’Connor and the other is, more importantly, James Joyce in this Catholic conversation.

RH: I can’t imagine either of us without him. I love his prose. And also there are moments of epiphany in all of his stories. Of course he used the word ‘epiphany’ first. And I think that is his revelation of the divine. He’s always thinking of religion as oppressive and at the same time I think his Catholic background shines forth.

BH: It sneaks in.

JS: Not only does it sneak in but I think it allows him moments of when something shines forth from the ordinary every day. This quotidian life in Ireland that’s as much an oppression as his religion is transformed for the better. So, it’s hard to judge Joyce as backing away from the church because the Irish church then was so much more an oppression that was everywhere than the Church is or was for me or for Ron. I mean, we had all sorts of aspects of our lives in which we were separate from our religion and we would come back to it with some joy and anticipation because we had just been around people who didn’t know who Adam and Eve were or whatever. But it was kind of an airless box for Joyce in some ways. And I’m sure he felt, being a modernist, that life was elsewhere. Greatness was elsewhere. This was so parochial. This was so shut down. There had to be great ideas out there somewhere. And it must have felt so much harder to get out of that box than it did for us. In my case, I would just go talk to different friends. I had Catholic friends. I had other friends. And Joyce never had that sense of freedom, despite his non-Catholic friends, and his burning desire to get out from under that is somewhat hard for me to judge. But he also clearly knew that what was most interesting about his work he couldn’t separate from his Catholicism. And that must have been a quiet pride and also torment for him.

RH: I think on Flannery O’Connor, the idea that religion and the world are inseparable all the way through. If you read Flannery O’Connor without a religious vision, you’ve got a very simple story. It’s all a southern gothic about how whites and blacks don’t get along. But if you read it from a religious context, it opens up into something that is much more available. There’s much more interesting information in her stories from a religious point of view than a racial point of view.

“…as Catholic writers, we’re marginalized. Someone once asked me what our writing has in common. I said they’re all about outlaws in society… I think we feel like we’re doing something forbidden.”

JS: I’ve always thought that her stories in theological terms are like captivity narratives. By that I mean the equivalent of those 17th and 18th century American stories where the white woman is taken away by the Indians. Images for their readers of a sinner in the fallen world. Who at first seems like a victim but increasingly says, why me? Why did these Indians take me? And I have become wild, and can I go back; can I be saved? Am I too tainted? Those stories shared with O’Connor’s that sense of striving for a salvation that might prove fatal. That’s part of what, in O’Connor’s work, creates this odd tension for non-Catholics. They look at it and say “This isn’t Catholic theology like I understand it. All these people are becoming saved as they’re being destroyed?” I think two people who are writing today and remind me of O’Connor, and who might be shocked to discover themselves as Catholics, are Robert Stone and Denis Johnson. Both of whom are always creating these characters who are just desperate to be saved even as they know on some level that that’ll be the end of them. Johnson stories, like in Jesus’ Son, have this wonderful Catholic heart. But they’re not the kind of stories the Catholic nuns who taught me would have approved of.

RH: I think of the book of Isaiah where the prophet is the suffering servant and he’s marked and spat upon. And in all of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction and Robert Stone’s fiction and a lot of the writers we really respect is the theme that the grotesque, the ugly, and the deformed is always the place for revelation. So you look for insight from the place you least expect it. And that’s what Isaiah was all about and why Jesus comes not as a rich wealthy person. He could have been one of the Caesars and had more immediate effect. But over time the guy who is born in a stable is much more interesting for the world.

BH: Well there was something very interesting you said about Joyce and O’Connor. So much is at stake with those writers. I know people who grew up in mid-twentieth century Ireland and it was stiflingly Catholic. There’s not really an airless box in America. What’s at stake now for your writing?

RH: Well I think as writers, as Catholic writers, we’re marginalized. Someone once asked me what our writing has in common. I said they’re all about outlaws in society. Mariette is an outlaw in society. Of course Scott Cody in Atticus is an outlaw. And I think we feel like we’re doing something forbidden. That’s not accepted in fact and isn’t what anybody wants, but we’re pretending this is the most important thing we can do and we’re presenting it like we’re the frontiersman and getting our pelts and bringing them back to the purveyor shop and trying to sell them. And it’s kind of a lonely, risky occupation and not one that most people want to take on. And I think that’s what keeps us going. It’s an exciting thing to do when you’re one percent of the population that’s interested in doing this.

JS: But this also goes back to where we began: that serious transgressions matter. As in, what you did to that person is a terrible thing and still affects them. And the idea of redemption, then, is also a serious thing. So you could go out and shop for another theology that lets you off the hook, that says what you’ve done doesn’t matter. But Catholics like us don’t feel that we have that transformative power. The transformation we’re capable of are the sort that are already inside of us. So in that way, I suppose, we’re in the same box that Joyce has. I feel like I can rummage around in Catholicism to look for a way out of a problem, but I don’t feel like I can go, “You know what? Buddha seems really humanist and I kind of like that.” For me it’s a little like saying, “I’m having real trouble being a power forward, given that I’m only six feet tall. I should be 6’7″… and then…” Well, yeah. But you’re not, so what’s the next thing?”

BH: What about kids who grew up not having this kind of thing? You’re talking students who don’t know who Adam and Eve are, which is just mind boggling. But when you don’t have that kind of structure, it’s really hard to recognize any of this religious grounding. I mean you have to shock people. What shocks us today?

JS: That’s a very good question.

RH: Well Jim is much more involved in politics than I am and probably has an easier time finding the grotesque.

JS: I find the grotesque every day. When I read about our current administration for example. You have to keep pushing. You have to be able to go, “Wow. What used to be shocking is no longer shocking.” And you can do that with about every aspect of our society. The good and the bad news is that if you had trouble getting annoyed at the Reagan administration, try the W administration. If you had trouble being appalled at the quality of the literary world in 1980, try 2006. What’s the line in A Good Man is Hard to Find? “Things are getting terrible.” And Red Sammy says, “Europe’s to blame. And there’s just no way around it.”

BH: Nevertheless, you wrote a heartbreaking story about John Ashcroft. Just an incredibly humane story.

JS: Well, I would never say John Ashcroft is not in fact worthy of empathy. Part of where that story came from was that I was in Europe trying to write something else and I just came across an old Time magazine detailing a settlement he had made with a cigarette company. And I remember thinking, Okay, he has a totally different politics than me and all sorts of things he believes in, I don’t believe in. But I have to try to wrap my mind around how you can do this and then feel good about yourself the next day. Because one of the things he knows is that the cigarette companies gave him all of this money. He knows that he is a man of principles and he knows that cigarettes kill. So how did he do this and continue to feel like an acceptable human being?

So I researched Ashcroft and tried to figure him out. I have an exercise with my students in which they have to write from the point of view of some famous monster or villain from history. It’s an empathy exercise. And so I thought, I’m always making my students do this, so why not me. So, you think Ashcroft is the opposite of yourself, figure out if he is, actually. I realized writing that that in fact part of the way I was able to channel Ashcroft was thinking about Ron. (laughter) Because in some ways there’s a lot of ways in which the Ashcroft I admire is a man of solid values and principle and somebody who does not do the immediate knee jerk liberal thing and looks at things and says, let’s interrogate some of these things. And so when I was reading back through that recently, because somebody had asked me to look at certain parts again, I was realizing that a lot of this sounds like an idealized version of Ron and the rest is just Ashcroft, which is mostly appalling. But the stuff can co-exist very easily. When Lewis Lapham [longtime editor of Harper’s Magazine] heard about that story he said I had to send it to him. But after he read it he said he couldn’t publish it, because it was way too easy on Ashcroft.

RH: There’s a portrait of Hemmingway that Lillian Ross wrote for the New Yorker a long time ago. She got letters from people sayings she wasn’t hard enough on him or that she liked him too much. She thought that that was sign of a really good portrait that you are able to bring out both sides and seem somewhat neutral. And that’s what I like about Jim’s fiction. Fr. Jim Martin was saying yesterday in his homily, “We judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions.” And I think it’s the obligation of the writer to look at another and find out what their intentions were.

JS: And that’s where the compensation comes in.

RH: That’s right.

JS: But at some point you judge actions. At some point you judge somebody who says, “I really had the impulse to cut somebody to pieces and I followed that impulse.” You know, the gap in American political life between the rhetoric and action is really pretty grotesque, but that gap has been widening dramatically, so that now you have a vice president that would just say, “No, we have evidence that 9/11 was linked to weapons of mass destruction.” And it’s like you go, “You’re just going to keep lying?” And he seems to think, why not, who’s going to call him on it? And that gap between what we say and what we do is one you work with as a fiction writer and continually encounter when you make an ethical decision. You know, there’s that wonderful line from John Mitchell, during the Watergate hearings where he took pity on the press, which was having such difficulty following all of the administration’s official contradictions. Because they’d be, like, “Wait. But Ronald Ziegler just said…” And finally Mitchell said to the press, “Don’t watch what we say. Watch what we do.” You know, he’s like, let me give you a little hint.

RH: I think at some point confession is really important for a Catholic writer. And when you go to a psychiatrist you say what terrible things have happened to me. You go to a priest and you say, “I did all of these terrible things.” And you have to really become acquainted with yourself and how you had choices you made that were wrong ones. And that’s very powerful for a fiction writer because characters have to be aware of their faults too.

JS: I think we admire those people who say….There’s a huge difference between Richard Nixon’s, “Mistakes were made” — which Charlie Baxter has pointed out is designed to humiliate narrative (What happened? I’m not telling you. Mistakes were made) — and Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg saying, “All this is my fault.” You know, that’s a huge difference. And it’s a difference we’re losing sight of, really rapidly.

BH: It’s interesting in all of this discussion. Jim, you seem like the most Catholic person in the room in some ways.

JS: I think Ron would beg to differ with that. (laughter) I mean, I’m going to be spending some serious time in purgatory and he’s going straight up there. (laughter) I have more trouble with the church than Ron does.

“I’ve always been struck by the fact that Catholicism looks worse from the outside than it does from the inside…once you get familiar with it, it’s really a life-giving thing…from the outside it looks oppressive but that’s not actually the experience of the people in the pews.”

BH: Is it possible to be in the same religious community with people you can’t stand?

JS: Oh, no, no, no. It’s not like that. I have more than enough sympathy for the Catholics, the devout Catholics I’m around, that they don’t get upset with me at all. I mean, if we get on a subject like Opus Dei, we might get into some fisticuffs or something like that. But how often do run-of-the-mill Catholics talk about Opus Dei?

RH: I’ve always been struck by the fact that Catholicism looks worse from the outside than it does from the inside. People who have trouble even going to mass, I say, “Go to more masses.” Because once you get familiar with it, it’s really a life-giving thing. And from the outside it looks oppressive and women are put down. But that’s not actually the experience of the people in the pews.

BH: What keeps you in the church, Ron?

RH: I think it’s probably the Eucharist. I really believe that Jesus is really present in the communion wafer and it seems unlikely but I know that I’m changed for the better because of the Church. I know that I would be a lost soul without it. And I would certainly be more grim.

JS: But you like the community of it as well. I mean if they gave you the Eucharist in your room every Sunday, you’d still go to mass.

RH: Well that’s part of the Catholic experience: it’s not enough to have your own religion. It’s something you have to share with others. And we were talking earlier about being spiritual but not religious, and it really makes no sense. Because the whole idea of having this infusion of grace is to share it with someone else. I think of my experience of retreats. You’re in the retreat for several days not speaking. And at the end of it you talk to people about what happened to you in that prayer and often it’s inspiring to see what God is doing in everybody’ lives. And it‘s always somewhat different. He addresses each of us in a different way. And it’s great to have that shared. Even if you’re not speaking to someone when you go to a mass. You see them and there’s this communication of the eyes and it’s like, something is happening that brought me here and I want to share that experience with you, even if it’s only to say, “Peace of Christ be with you.” And when I’m a Eucharistic minister, when I’m sharing the body of Jesus with others, to see that kind of solemnity with which they come to you. And you see all of these different faces, all of these different histories, but they’re all coming for the same thing. So that sense of oneness despite our disparity is really what keeps me in the church.

BH: What do you say to younger generations of Catholics who maybe didn’t grow up with the same kind of formation you did?

RH: My wife counsels me on this. Let it go and let God do the work. Because I want to have everybody going to church all the time.