The Outlaw and the Writer’s Place in History: An Interview with Ron Hansen

for those who read as writers, the parable-like nature of Ron Hansen’s art transcends the line between fact and fiction that we not only believe, but may replace the world as we read it altogether.

Ron Hansen is the critically-acclaimed author of nine novels; several of which are historical fiction, including the lives of the Dalton Gang, the James Gang, and Hitler through the eyes of his niece. The existence of the outlaw is prevalent through Hansen’s work; literally so in his novels Desperadoes and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The Assassination of… is exemplary of the poetic and often blunt language of Hansen’s writing. Following on from Desperadoes, the story of the Dalton Gang as told through the fictional memoir of Emmett Dalton, The Assassinationof… tells of the last days of the famous outlaw, Jesse James – portrayed by Brad Pitt in the 2006 film. The novel combines several of Hansen’s themes, combining outlaws and Catholicism as it explores a retelling of Cain and Abel using historical events.

Ron Hansen
Ron Hansen

God is never far away in the lives of both Hansen’s fictional and historical characters, nor when reading about the author himself. In 2007, he was ordained a deacon of the Catholic Church. It is a theme, along with outlaws and exiles, that features regularly in his work. In Mariette in Ecstasy, the story of a cloistered nun who may or may not bear Christ’s wounds in her palms, Hansen again demonstrates what we as readers believe, and what a creative writer can achieve with devotion to their craft. It is this combination of fact, faith, and artistry that makes Ron Hansen one of America’s greatest authors.

As a professor of writing and literature at Santa Clara University, it is therefore intriguing to know what he has to teach future writers, what he makes of the part played by the writer in history, and what it is about storytelling that keeps an outlaw like Jesse James alive over 100 years later.

What’s your first rule of writing?

Always do the best you can. Looking back on my earlier work, I can see flaws and things I’d like to change, but I don’t cringe over it because I know I was trying very hard back then to get everything right.

Who/ what were your inspirations when you began to think of yourself as a writer, and how have your inspirations changed throughout the years?

My first great influence, when I was about twelve, was Edgar Allan Poe. I read his tales over and over again. In high school I discovered John Updike and read all his work, even breaking down individual stories to see how they were put together. He was the writer I wanted to become. Curiously, I write nothing like Poe or Updike now in terms of style or subject matter. I guess that’s inevitable with the subconscious ruling so much of one’s writing.

How conscious are you of an audience when writing?

Not at all. I first write to please myself, and I look for feedback only from my wife, Bo Caldwell, and my good friend, Jim Shepard. It matters to me what my agent and editor think of a book, but I think I’d be frozen in stage fright if I ever thought beyond that small circle of readers.

At what point does an idea/ character become something you devote yourself to writing to?

That’s hard to say. I fritter with lots of stories, wasting months, before one topic or character lodges in the front of my mind and finally becomes insistent. If I feel drudgery, I avoid the subject. If I feel zest, that’s what I choose to work on.

I think most artists feel like outsiders, that they see our environments in a skewed or completely different way.
What draws you to exiled and outlawed characters?

I think most artists feel like outsiders, that they see our environments in a skewed or completely different way. And so despite our rather conventional lives, we feel a certain kinship with rebels and the “Bartleby the Scriveners” of our world. I think I’m drawn to outlaws in the way that Truman Capote was fascinated by the two murderers at the heart of In Cold Blood.

Well over 100 years since the events of The Assassination of… why do you think that Jesse James’s legend lives on?

His brother Frank was more famous before 1882, but Frank would die dignified and respectable in his old age. He became normal rather than thrilling. Jesse’s spectacular death and the national attention it got launched him into celebrity status and the American imagination took over, adapting the elements of his life as representative of whatever was going on at the time: the economic depression, the heroism of World War II, the anti-heroes of the 70s, etc.

E.L. Doctorow once said, “History is a nightmare which we can best survive by rewriting it.” Is this something you relate to?

We’re not far apart, but I’d put it this way: History is chaotic and the novelist seeks to tame so of that unruliness by finding and connecting particular moments of order and harmony.

How limiting do you find the writing of historical fiction? Are the facts limiting to how you would like to create, or is it more that history provides a canvas of sorts?

Isak Dinesen once noted that she wrote about the past because she could own it – she could make people believe things operated just as she said, whereas there may have been cavils and had she dealt with the contemporary world. There are a lot of limitations, of course. You’d sometimes rather your characters did not do as they did. But the challenges to one’s imagination provides better reading for the audience. You have to convince yourself of the reality you’re writing about, and that in turn excites the imagination of the reader.

History is chaotic and the novelist seeks to tame so of that unruliness by finding and connecting particular moments of order and harmony.

When writing characters that come with the guidelines of historical fact and religion, how do you put yourself and your experiences into the character?

Even when characters and their experiences are quite different from my own personality and history, I find areas of overlap, particularly in their one-on-one relationships, their ways of conversing, and their uses of cleverness and charm to achieve what they want. They often remind me of friends and family or people I simply encountered in a bar, and I take bits to those personalities to construct my protagonists or their enemies.

In light of the retelling of Jesse James’ tales and the passing down of religious teachings, where is the line between history and storytelling?

I am very aware that the historical Robert Ford or Gerard Manley Hopkins or Geli Raubal were probably quite different from my conception of them. I unwittingly stray from the facts while trying to get at the truth of a person or situation. Storytelling gives dimensionality to history, makes it accessible, concrete, and relevant. I try not to do violence to history, but a novelist necessarily streamlines and eliminates to present a narrative that will be as entertaining as possible while also honouring what actually happened.

How do you see the writer’s role in history?

We are explainers, reminders, legend-makers, and soothsayers. Ever since humanity learned to talk and socialize, we have been repeating what happened to us or whatever we saw or heard that was extraordinary. And high regard was lavished on those who could repeat the tales with the greatest interest and impact. Reading fiction increases our empathy for others by showing us our commonality even with people in the distant past.

Can you tell me anything about what you’re currently working on?

With Desperadoes and the Jesse James book, I’m completing an outlaw trilogy with a biographical novel on Billy the Kid. I like it very much so far.

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