Ron Hansen’s Masterful Outlaw Blues Novel About Jesse James and Robert Ford Faithfully Interpreted On Screen
One of my favorite films of the last decade is long and slow, inexorable and unrelenting, poetic and profound. It is equally expressive in its visuals and sounds as it is in its verbal narrative storytelling and dramatized actions. The film is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which is about as literal a screen adaptation as you can find of a great novel, in this case the same titled book by Ron Hansen. The following story for The Reader is based on interviews I did with Hansen, who worked closely with the film’s writer-director Andrew Dominik.
Ron Hansen’s Masterful Outlaw Blues Novel About Jesse James and Robert Ford Faithfully Interpreted On Screen
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader
Consider complete the much ballyhooed return of the Western with the new Warner Brothers film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck and a deep supporting cast. Opening everywhere October 5, it comes fast on the heels of 3:10 to Yuma and Shoot ‘Em Up and the multi-Emmy Award-winning TNT mini-series Broken Trail.
Like these other oaters, Assassination is a big-budget, star-laden picture. Unlike them, which slavishly conform to or outlandishly bend genre conventions with action-packed fictional stories that pose as fact, Assassination is a subdued, ruminative tone poem anchored in history. It owes much of its restrained authenticity and power to native Omahan Ron Hansen, the acclaimed author, whose much-admired 1983 novel of the same name the film closely adheres to.
Assassination is more a Western by proxy, its psychologically complex characters and events drawn from thoroughly researched figures and incidents that just happen to be of the Old West. Hansen, a Creighton Prep-Creighton University grad, steeped himself in the history, just as the film’s director, Andrew Dominik, studied Hansen’s book and did his own digging into the Jesse James-Bob Ford canon.
Prior to this project, Hansen, the Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University, had less than satisfactory experiences with adaptations of his work. Atticus was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, Missing Pieces, that he thought missed the point of his novel. He adapted Mariette In Ecstacy for a feature film that ended up re-edited against his and the director’s wishes. It’s never been released. A writer’s adaptation of Isn’t It Romantic? so displeased Hansen he did everything in his power to stop the film being made. He succeeded. Assassination proved a pleasant change.
“Andrew Dominik has made a very faithful adaptation,” Hansen said simply. “Virtually every word in the script is mine.”
Unusual for Hollywood, Dominik (Chopper), whom Hansen described as “fairly reclusive,” consulted with the author from the completion of the first draft of his screenplay all the way through a second draft, the actual shoot and the final edit. Not only Dominik, but actors sounded out Hansen for advice. The author twice visited the set, was made an associate producer and even has a walk-on bit — as a reporter remarking to a photographer making a wet plate image of Jesse’s corpse.
“About 60 reporters hover around watching the process, and I’m in the shot at the extreme left, midway up the screen, wearing a fake mustache and a bowler hat, just watching. You only see it for a few seconds, but I nailed the part. Andrew gave me one line, ‘You’re going to make a lot of money from this, Alex,’ but the line didn’t make it into the final cut.”
He’s pleased with how rigorously accurate the film is.
From wooden knobs for hanging clothes to vintage children’s toys, he said, “the attention to detail is very impressive. The sets and the costumes are just tremendous. It’s not going to look like a typical Western because,” contrary to popular depictions of those times the film shows, “people didn’t wear cowboy clothes back then. Jesse James wore kind of a bowler hat, a businessman’s suit, a watch and a fob and all that. They wore boots and they rode horses and they packed guns, but they didn’t look like a lot of the portrayals of Jesse James.”
Hansen and Dominik take a dim view of previous screen renderings of James, feeling the gritty complexity and downright danger of the man and the times was ignored.
“The film’s costume-production designer, Patricia Norris, really knows her stuff, so she didn’t have to consult with me…In fact, she ended up teaching me,” Hansen said. “The last robbery of the James gang was the Blue Cut (Mo.) train robbery and she has this train interior unlike any you’ve seen before. It looks so totally different but obviously based on her own research. It’s just jam-packed with people and in the place where you would normally put luggage people are lying as if on palettes.”
It’s rare a writer gets carte blanche access to the making of a film based on his work, especially when the adaptation’s by someone else, in this case Dominik, a New Zealand-born Aussie.
Hansen’s involvement began with a phone call in early 2004. It wasn’t the first time someone showed interest in his James novel. But this time was different.
“I got word from my agent somebody was interested in doing this. It turned out to be Warner Brothers. And from the very first Andrew Dominik was going to write the screenplay. Maybe around June my agent said Andrew wanted to see some of my screenplays and earlier books, so I sent those on to him,” he said. “Then around September Andrew showed me his first draft of the screenplay, which I really liked.
“Every once in a while I’d have a quarrel with a word and then realize he’d taken it right out of the book. I talked to Andrew a good bit about that (first draft) and then he did another draft and sent that to me, and we talked about it, too. Then I met him in December at the Ritz Carleton Hotel in Pasadena.
“We had conversations frequently after that and then the next thing I knew it was greenlighted and he was just about to head up to Canada.”
Dominik spent the first half of 2005 scouting locations in Edmonton and Calgary. Before cameras started rolling in late summer, the filmmaker wanted Hansen’s input on some casting decisions.
“He would consult with me about various actors…especially as they were interviewing people for the role of Robert Ford. ‘What do you think of this guy?’ ‘Have you seen anybody you like?’ And I would mention people I’d seen who looked like him. Andrew had two scenes for the auditions for Bob Ford. One was early on, when Bob first contacts Frank James about being his sidekick on this train robbery.
The other’s 10 years later, when Bob Ford’s alone in Creed, Colo. and has his own saloon and is about to hire a dance hall girl and she asks him what Jesse James is like. Some people could do the first, but not the second scene. Some could do the second, but not the first. Finally, Casey Affleck seemed to be the best choice.”
On his visits to the closed set Hansen was given free reign to “wander around” and to “watch scenes” unfold. “I visited the set in Edmonton September 12-15, when they were shooting scenes in Heritage Park of Jesse and the gang at his Kansas City (Mo.) home and of the aftermath of his killing in St. Joseph (Mo.). Then I went up to Calgary October 3-6 for scenes with Jesse and the Ford brothers in the house on ‘Confusion Hill’ in St. Joseph.”
He spoke to many of the principals, including Pitt and Affleck. More than making small talk, these exchanges allowed Hansen to “give them my ideas and maybe change some wording that was difficult for them.” This interaction actually began months earlier, before filming commenced.
Said Hansen, “An actor would call me up and want to know more about his character. Or about why a particular word was used. What did it mean. Would it be OK if they said this and not this. That kind of continued when I was on the set. The actors really liked having me around because they could come ask, ‘Is there something else I can say in this scene?’ Then I could just throw out a line and a minute later I’d be hearing the line said.
“Actors ad-libbed on occasion, otherwise the dialogue and voice over are straight from the book,” he said.
He’s impressed with the work of the two leads. He particularly feels Pitt’s malleable performance captures Jesse’s instability, which gave Dominik many options.
“You would see maybe seven takes of one speech he gives and he would do it in subtly different ways each time,” Hansen said. “He was really prepared for the various shadings of Jesse James’s character and to explore this guy who was really a psychopath, but a charming one who could be scary and funny and admirable within moments. And that’s true of several scenes Brad Pitt plays with Casey Affleck. He (Pitt) gets all the nuances and all the expressions. James kept people off-balance by constantly shifting his mood and Pitt does a great job of presenting that. James was a vital presence and that’s what Pitt brings. He’s constantly surprising you. You can’t anticipate what he’s going to do next.”
As in Hansen’s book, the film considers James in counterpoint to Ford, his antithetical alter ego and killer. Much has been written about each man and their relationship and motivations. Hansen finds both to be fascinating enigmas.
“Ford kind of hitched up along with the James gang because they were famous and because it seemed like easy money. He ingratiated himself with Jesse James,” Hansen said. The legend that grew in the aftermath of the two men’s fatal last meeting branded Ford a coward, but the book and the film “show that Robert Ford really wasn’t a coward, he was an opportunist,” Hansen said. “When he was threatened and felt like he was going to be killed himself, he turned on James, but it wasn’t as though James wasn’t going to turn on him either.”
“A lot of people still admire Jesse James,” the author noted, “and I wanted to impress on them he really was a psychopath. I wanted to do a kind of character-in-the-round the way Shakespeare does, where you see both his good and bad sides and get to appreciate what draws people to him. He was a star in a lot of ways, and he used it. If he entered a room all eyes would be on him.”
As for the James-Ford dynamic, Hansen said, “I think they were oil and vinegar in some ways, but at the same time they were feeding off each other. Ford was really intrinsic to the last days of Jesse James. It was almost as if James knew death was necessary and he was looking for the person to kill him, and he decided on Ford.”
Expectations will be challenged by the moody film, he said, which eschews “bullets flying around” and “blood” for “a character study of this dance with death between Jesse James and Bob Ford.”
Hansen, his wife, writer Bo Caldwell (The Distant Land of My Father), and his step-children attended the film’s New York City premiere on September 18 at the Zeigfeld Theater.
“I thought the movie was superb,” Hansen said.
Reviews have been wildly enthusiastic.
All this means new life for Hansen’s 24-year-old novel. Harper Perennial has reissued a mass market paperback edition and a trade paperback version with an added postscript on the writing of the book and the making of the movie.
Meanwhile, Hansen’s other Western novel, Desperados, is under option with filmmakers. His new novel, Exiles, is slated for a May release by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It tells the story of a 19th century shipwreck, the English poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins’ obsession with it and the famous poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, he wrote about it.
- FILM POETRY – The Cinematography & Music of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (westernsreboot.com)
- My five (thehindu.com)
- Jesse James Jr. – a Family Drama on Film (westernsreboot.com)
- Video: Ron Hansen Reads “My Kids’ Dog” (peaceloveandpsych.wordpress.com)
- Exiles, by Ron Hansen (author2be.wordpress.com)
If you are like me and you admire the film adaptation of Ron Hansen‘s masterful novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, then welcome to a decided minority. I know why most folks have problems with the movie. It’s unusually long, slow, and deliberate. Its two main characters are enigmatic, inscrutable, unlikable figures. There is a sinister pall of death around all the proceedings. The work is uncompromising in taking its meandering, even indulgent path to the end, one that the very title of the film signals. And while I would not choose this film among the few I want with me on a desert island, I do believe it is as masterful in its own medium as Hansen’s novel is in literature. I think the film’s reputation will grow over time. Of course, you may be among the vast majority who haven’t seen the film, as it was an abysmal box office failure. I definitely recommend it. The following article for The Reader (www.thereader,com) appeared in advance of a screening of the film that concluded with a Q & A with Hansen, who closely consulted the film’s writer-director, Andrew Dominik. Hansen loved how faithful Dominik was to his novel and the author was invited to be on the set for much of the shoot. You can find more pieces by me about Hansen on this blog. If you haven’t read his James novel, do so, because it is a superb piece of literature that, unlike the film, moves quickly. In fact, I recommend anything by Hansen, who is one of America’s finest writers.
Dissecting Jesse James
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is so faithful to the Ron Hansen novel the author might well have adapted it himself. Filmmaker Andrew Dominick generously included the Omaha native in the process. Hansen read script drafts, offered notes, observed scenes and answered dialogue questions from stars Brad Pitt (James) and Casey Affleck (Ford).
Dominick’s fidelity to Hansen’s work resulted in as literal a translation of a full-length novel as film constraints allow. Hansen feels deep ownership in the movie. On August 23 he will take questions from Omaha novelist Timothy Schaffert and audience members following a 1 p.m. screening of James at Film Streams. The program previews the Sept. 18-19 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest Schaffert directs.
The cinematic quality of Hansen’s novels has long attracted filmmakers. James marked the third and most successful screen adaptation of his work. As “a visual writer more concerned with scene than voice,” he said, “the images come first,” not the words. “I try to make it as tangible as possible for the reader, and that’s why I employ simile and metaphor. If you just rely on the sentences to take care of themselves, it becomes kind of an amorphous, abstract kind of writing.”
“As I developed my interest in film I saw how close-ups and strange angles could actually create interest for the reader,” he said, “so I think there’s more variation of focal length and angle in my writing now than there used to be. For example, two characters in a room just staring at each other and talking is not as interesting as if the camera is on one of their lips and then sees the glint in the other one’s eye. I think that actually gives energy to the fiction writing.
“Like in Mariette in Ecstasy (the author’s 1992 novel), there’s one moment where a young nun is caring for Mariette after her first trance-like stigmatic experience, and I point out what her lips look like. When she puts Mariette’s hand into the water I describe how the blood kind of twists out of her wound into the water and pinks the water. Those things are essentially close-ups. I talk about the sound of her breathing so intricately you understand the camera’s very close to her mouth to hear that. A lot of times I do an overall picture of the landscape but then hone in, on, say, a mosquito landing on some water and its tiny ripple marks. That’s an example of going from deep focus to an extreme close-up.”
Schaffert admires how Hansen’s work “is so poetic for prose. The attention he gives each word, each sentence, each expression of the characters is just so expert and masterful. You definitely become spirited away by his imagination. There’s a marriage between the images and the language so that it’s not just vivid description but images that come from the words themselves.”
In the 4 p.m. Q & A Schaffert plans asking Hansen “what it means to write something with an image in mind and then to see someone else make that image happen. As a writer myself the idea of taking an image, bringing it into words, working it into narrative and then communicating that into someone else’s mind is just rife with failed possibility.”
Hansen’s precise prose in James amounted to cutting in the camera.
“Most of the time the prose was so clear about what the actions were they could only have happened in a limited number of ways,” he said. “Now, there’s always going to be changes in camera movements and so forth. For example, before Bob Ford goes in to kill Jesse James he’s out in the backyard washing his face from a pump. I just had the water sloshing down his temple, but Andrew had the camera go way above to look down at the water in a bowl or bucket, with Bob’s face reflected in that water. I would not have considered that, but it’s of a piece of how films are made — taking a scene from lots of different angles.”
Hansen wishes he could avail himself of filmmakers’ resources when writing a novel.
“I really envy the information they have access to. Art director Patricia Norris knew exactly what kind of clothes people would wear. I was laboring in a total vacuum in that regard. In my bit part as a journalist they had me wear a suit from the 19th century. That is so useful to know exactly what those pieces of clothing feel like, and novelists never have that. When they dressed the set for the train robbery they had a railroad car from that period. For interior scenes there were real antiques. I didn’t have access to that stuff, so in terms of scene setting it was really remarkable. That kind of attention to detail was all the way through the film. That’s what a novelist relishes.”
Critics knocked the film’s slow takes but Hansen likes that it disrupts our rapid-cut expectations “by setting a more 19th century mood.” He likes the music underscoring the film. He feels Pitt and Affleck hit all the right notes in their roles.
Schaffert hopes his work gets the same filmic treatment one day.w
Word for word, phrase for phrase, thought for thought, there may be no better American writer of the last quarter century than Ron Hansen, an Omaha native whose body of work is impressive for its breadth and depth. He is perhaps best know for two of his earliest novels, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Mariette in Ecstasy. I’ve had the pleasure of reading those and other novels by Hansen, who has graciously given me a handful of interviews over the years. As time goes by I will post other Hansen stories I’ve written. This one appeared not long after the release of his Hitler’s Niece and while he was adapting an unproduced screenplay of his into a book, Isn’t it Romantic?. His sheer command of language is astounding. His research and detail overwhelming. He’s also a fine storyteller. Then when you add to this the spiritual themes and currents that occupy him in real life, and you have a rich reading experience.
My story appeared in the Omaha Weekly, one of at least three different publications that’s published my Hansen work.
Sacred Trust, Author Ron Hansen’s Fiction RExplores Moral Struggles
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Omaha Weekly
Whether exploring the worlds of saints or sinners, real moral questions and struggles swirl at the heart of author Ron Hansen’s work, which reflects this devout Catholic’s abiding interest in faith. His novels are explorations in the ethical choices characters make and the consequences that ensue. In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Knopf, 1983) Hansen essayed the kinship and treachery of an outlaw family. In Mariette in Ecstasy (Harper-Collins, 1992) he chronicled a young novitiate’s ardent love for God growing so intense that it overwhelms her mind, her body and the convent she becomes a curiosity and outcast in.
In Atticus (Harper-Collins, 1996) he brooded on the legacy of a strained father-son relationship, the futility of ever fully knowing someone and the nature of forgiveness. In Hitler’s Niece (Harper-Collins, 1999) he examined the brewing evil of Hitler in the 1920s and early ‘30s through the prism of the only woman the despot ever loved — the fuhrer’s young and innocent niece Angelika “Geli” Raubal, who was destroyed by her uncle.
In his life and in his work, Hansen, an Omaha native, seeks the spark of some connection with the sacred and the ethereal. It gives him sustenance and constitutes his muse. “Some of my favorite moments are late nights with other people talking about miraculous experiences in their lives or times when they felt the hand of God or the solace of God and they learned more about themselves or about God’s benign mercy,” he said in an interview during a recent Omaha visit to deliver the William F. Kelley, S.J. Endowed Lecture at his alma mater, Creighton University. “Those things are kind of ways of inspiring you and bucking you up. It’s a way of becoming aware of another world that’s totally unseen.”
It was while struggling with Atticus that Hansen felt the healing presence of God.
“I’d been working on Atticus and it was going badly,” he said. “This was back in 1985. I’d written like 120 pages that were rotten. I was in Cancun — throwing rocks into the ocean late at night as the waves were crashing in. I was really angry about my book and about the hard time I was having finding a teaching job. I was feeling really awful. I was full of self-pity. And I thought, What’s going to become of me? And then I just had an incredible sense of God laughing. It was a sense of Him saying, If you knew what I know, you wouldn’t be so worried. And I realized it was all going to come out all right, but it wasn’t going to be immediate. I just had this feeling of calm. Almost everybody has the same experience when they have this kind of God moment. You just feel at ease about things. So, I put the book away and started other books.
“I went back to it and it was terrible still. And I just kept going back to it. And then, finally, when Mariette was published I had one book left on a two book contract and I said, ‘Oh, I’ll just go back to this one (Atticus).’ It took me a long time to rewrite it. I kept trying to use the words I used already. But it was almost like somebody else had written that. I was not that person anymore. I finally gave up on that and started writing totally new words, and then it worked fine. I found that sense of God smiling and saying — Take it easy, kid — made me take it easy.”
According to Hansen, the writing process itself is a somewhat mysterious and metaphysical experience that finds the writer drawing on resources he is not always fully aware of or in control of. “Writing well is a form of a waking dream,” he said. “It’s almost the same thing that happens when you’re in a dream state. Images start to occur. You don’t know where they come from. And you try and fit them together. Often, you have a mental picture of something and you see characters in relationship to each other, but you don’t know exactly what they’re going to say to each other. And sometimes that’s where the zest comes — when you hear something surprising and just right that comes from one of them. Part of it is because it’s really your subconscious that seems to be writing the novel at its best. It’s your conscious mind that revises it, but it’s the subconscious that supplies all the scintillating details — the colorations you could not have thought of yourself.”
Whether it’s the spirit or the subconscious moving him, Hansen said, it is no accident these voices speak to him because he is open to the possibility of such a communion happening in the first place. “Partly, I think it’s because I want these things to happen, and some people don’t want them to happen. They might get spooked by them. It’s part of the writer’s equipment to seek out those experiences and to live them fully. And other people are maybe more guarded and maybe necessarily so, so they can’t be as available to that sort of thing. I always describe a writer’s life as being different from others in that some people kind of have venetian blinds that are closed and the writer’s are open, so that everything can come in. And that’s what makes writers go crazy. That’s what makes them obsessive and everything else. But it’s also one of the things they need to do.”
If creative writing flows out of some deep well fed by intuitive streams, then it is easier to appreciate how something like a novel comes into being as a complex and coherent whole from a seemingly disparate and random collection of ideas, themes, issues, preoccupations, incidents, places and characters. The way Hansen sees it, a novel only reaches its final shape after the novelist has played a game of sleuth with himself and all the narrative threads dangling from his imagination. He said for most of the writing process the novelist is only aware of bits and pieces of what the book will eventually comprise — discovering the contents as he goes along. During that creative journey, the writer must be ready and willing to go in many directions and to follow many leads, some of which may be dead ends. It is only in searching out and sifting through the many loose story strands, that the nut of the novel is finally revealed and its elements tied together.
“Well, it’s as if an alphabet exists and you don’t know all the letters to the alphabet,” he said. “You might know A, J, L and Z, and with that foundation you then have to fill in all the rest. It’s like when scholars tried to translate the Egyptian hieroglyphics. They had a few words that they knew and then they’d go from there. I think the same thing is true with writing a novel. You know, for example, certain things about it and then you have questions about other things, and then the questions will reveal things as you write the novel. Knowing a few things gives you the confidence that you can actually lay it all out there.
“But you’re still kind of writing in the dark no matter how well you plan. There’s all kinds of spontaneity that comes into the novel. There’s all kinds of surprises and wrong turns that you can take. So, you have to be disciplined enough to kind of say, This is tangential or doesn’t belong, or, I did this badly, or, Maybe I don’t need this scene after all, or, This character doesn’t belong in this novel — he belongs somewhere else. All kinds of changes happen in the process of writing. It’s part of the fascination but part of the drudgery as well.”
Now that Hansen has created a fairly large body of work, he finds himself running up against the same dilemma a writer friend of his faced a while ago. “I don’t think it’s legal anymore, but a friend of mine got a tax write off by claiming his creative ideas were being diminished year by year. He was actually able to depreciate his intellectual capital. And, he was right. How many ideas can you have, you know? In my own writing, there’s all kind of metaphors I can’t use anymore because I’ve used them already. Characters I can’t have. Situations…Certainly, Stephen King has shown you can exhaust your own ideas.”
For Hansen, “part of the interest” and the challenge of writing is tapping his inner being to better understand himself and the world he inhabits and interprets. It is an ongoing search for answers — much akin to the spiritual journey that Hansen, who has a master’s degree in Spirituality, has taken. It is a journey, he said, that has no end. “Yeah, I don’t think anybody ever reaches a stopping point or, at least, they shouldn’t. I mean, God isn’t knowable but you learn a little bit more and more and you learn a little bit more about yourself. I guess I don’t really know myself very well. I think I know who I was 10 years ago and I can look back at the past and understand everything about myself, whereas in my present circumstances I’m just poking around like everybody else.”
As far as injecting himself into his work, he avoids drawing closely on his own life. “I’m not very good at autobiographical writing,” he said. “The only time I ever really write autobiographically is when I write nonfiction (as in his new book of essays, A Stay Against Confusion, Harper-Collins, 2001). I want to have my anima come through in my fiction rather than who I am right now or who I seem to be.” He also knows himself well enough to shy away from certain projects that are not a good fit. “In terms of my strengths and weaknesses, there are some types of writing I wouldn’t attempt and some kind I know I have a propensity toward. There’s certain novels that won’t ever suggest themselves to me because I know I’d do them badly. Among the genres I could never do are fantasy and science fiction because I just don’t have that yen to do them. On the other hand, I like historical writing.”
In much of his historical writing, which ranges from the misadventures of the Dalton gang in Desperados (Knopf, 1979) and the machinations of the James gang in Jesse James to the unholy union of Hitler and Geli Raubal in Hitler’s Niece, Hansen has been drawn to outlaw figures. He said a beguilement with practitioners of left-handed forms of human endeavor is a natural for writers, who share an outsider’s perspective with the lawless, the rebellious and the fringe dwellers of the world.
“Outlaws are in some way marginalized, but also they live outside the world of convention. I think most writers, too, feel marginalized in some way and they feel they live outside conventional rules and boundaries. It doesn’t mean they’re all breaking windows. I think what it means is that the way most people live their lives is unfamiliar to the writer because it has to be,” he said. “I think most writers begin wanting to be writers because they feel like, Oh, I’m different, and they feel somehow they don’t fit into the normal pattern of things, and so consequently they have a sympathy toward outlaws. There’s a tendency among writers to feel like these guys (outlaws) are just misguided writers. Also, I think a lot of outlaws are really control freaks in their own way. And I think writers are, too. They want to form their own world and have complete control over all the characters in it. That’s what happens to a lot of outlaws, and that’s why they keep running up against the law.”
In his literary sojourns Hansen plumbs the depths of his conflicted characters’ souls, whose shadows and secrets are revealed in a world come unhinged by sudden shifts in the terra firma. Hansen said his own world view has taken on certain fatalistic shadings as the result of dramatic losses and reversals he has observed in people’s lives. “A good of friend of mine was killed in a motorcycle accident when I was a kid and another friend was killed in a motorcycle accident when I was older,” he said. “And you realize it all can change in an instant.” He feels literature is fertile ground for playing out in the mind’s eye how one might react to such dire events in real life. “I think writing is a way of being precautionary,” he said. “It’s a way, like in dreams, where you kind of forecast a situation you wouldn’t want happen and see how you would respond to it. So, in some ways, it’s kind of a dress rehearsal for tragedy. You have some kind of preparation and a sense of calm at a point where you otherwise panic.”
In the case of writing Hitler’s Niece, Hansen was compelled not so much by a desire to imagine himself struggling in the web of evil but by a desire to weave an historically-based story that offered up a cautionary tale about the dangerous lure of evil. He explained how and why he came to devote months of his life to researching the book. “I was reading a biography of Hitler and in there the author said that Geli Raubal was the only woman Hitler ever loved or would ever consider marrying and that Eva Braun, who we know much more about, was just a kind of mistress he had sex with. Hitler used to say to his secretary that Eva was ‘a woman I have at my disposal.’ And, of course, it’s symptomatic of Hitler that he would commit suicide the day after his wedding.”
For Hansen, the real attraction to telling Geli’s story, which is also pre-war Germany’ story, was that she “knew Hitler when all his evil and his power was incipient — when he was just a failed politician and a guy who made his money from giving speeches, but did nothing else. That he was a person she really couldn’t imagine doing all the things he ended up doing was fascinating to me. And, also, it became a kind of moral lesson of how we get sucked in by evil. Of how a poor girl becomes a groupie, essentially, to her uncle. And how he sucks her in and imprisons her with blandishments and how for awhile she tries to turn away from the bad side of her uncle. But then she realizes that this isn’t just a cranky guy with terrible ideas about Jews, but that he’s crazy and dangerous and she tries to escape, and that’s how she dies.”
According to Hansen, part of what he tried to do with Hitler’s Niece was help readers understand “how Germany could fall for” Hitler’s repugnant diatribe and help turn his doctrine of hate into a nationalistic movement. He hopes that lesson gives us pause in considering our leaders today. “As a famous quotation goes, ‘The only reason to write history is to give lessons for the future,’” he said. “So, all we can do is identify those qualities in a political leader that could lead to a Hitler. I think people like Hitler make a deliberate choice for evil, but they disguise it as well as they can. So, Hitler would come across to most people who knew him as incredibly charming and suave. People get deluded. I think we have politicians today who are like that. If you met them you would say, Oh, what a wonderful guy, yet you know down deep there’s a kernel in there that in many ways is opposed to what is right.”
A moral universe filled with choices pervades Hansen’s thinking and writing. How his faith colors his work is something he frequently addresses in lectures and essays. In his April 7 talk at the Alpha Sigma Nu Dinner at Creighton University, he delivered a lecture entitled “Hotly in Pursuit of the Real — The Catholic Way,” part of whose title he took from a quote by another famous Catholic author, the late Flannery O’Connor, who said it is the obligation of a writer to be in hot pursuit of the real. On the eve of his talk, Hansen explained what he hoped to convey: “I’m trying to talk about not only how one finds one’s vocation as a writer, but how being a Catholic that might be somewhat different than it is if you were a Jewish writer or a Protestant writer. I’m trying to identify those kinds of characteristics. I talk about my faith and how it affected me. For instance, growing up with the Catholic liturgies, the reverence for saints, the sacramentality, the sense of God being imminent but being distant — all those things helped my formation as a writer.”
Outside his faith, among the strongest influences on his writing have been the teachers in his life. While attending the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, he came under the sphere of noted American author John Irving, with whom he lived. “I learned from him how to live the life of a writer,” Hansen said. “How to keep on producing books, how to be focused, how to be disciplined, how to manage a life while writing.” Over a period of four summers at a writers conference in Vermont, Hansen found a mentor in the late John Gardner. “I really liked him as a teacher. He was a very generous person with his time and with his intelligent reading of your manuscripts. I kind of modeled myself as a teacher after him.” And at Stanford University Hansen became a devoted student of John L’Hereaux’s, who years before as a fiction editor at Atlantic Monthly gave Hansen “the first sign I had that maybe I could do this (write professionally). He was the person who helped me with my first novel, Desperadoes.”
Teaching, which is how Hansen has supported his writing the last couple decades, enriches his work as well. “There’s that old saying, How will I know what I think until I see what I say. And teaching gives you all kinds of opportunities to say things that you might not normally address,” said Hansen, a tenured professor in the English Department at Santa Clara University. “Just as writing workshops allow students to see all the different ways a story can go wrong, which will help them avoid those mistakes, the same is true for the teacher. I’ve read thousands of stories in class, and so I’ve seen the ways stories go wrong — so I don’t make those mistakes.” He said for some writers teaching “can have a stultifying effect in that you expend so much of your energy addressing other people’s writing problems that you feel like you’ve written yourself and you don’t do a lot of writing. But that’s not true for me. I do all my work for school at school and all my own work at home, and I don’t let them infiltrate. And dealing with young people who are full of energy about the writing process can be energizing as well.”
Hansen, who never signs a contract until a book is done (“It gives me more freedom.”) is now adapting an unproduced screenplay he co-wrote into a book. “I don’t know if it’s a novella or a novel. I know the dialogue works and the situations are funny, but I don’t think the tone is exactly right. It’s about a French couple who have the bad idea of traveling through the United States as tourists on a bus. They get waylaid in a small town in Nebraska where they’re taken on as kind of mascots for the festival held there. It’s full of misunderstandings and sliding doors and French farce.” Nebraska has figured prominently in several Hanson short stories, most notably in the collection of stories published as Nebraska. He said having some distance from his roots helps him write about them. “I don’t think I could write about Nebraska while living in Nebraska. It’s easier when you’re away from home, partly because it becomes the Nebraska of your imagination, which is much more interesting than the real thing.”
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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