Page One

Author examines faith and fiction

By Kathleen Kisner Special to the Daily Planet
Tuesday May 08, 2001

Ron Hansen does not shy away from controversy. 

In his 1999 novel, “Hitler’s Niece,” Hansen frames a meeting between Hitler’s niece Geli Raubal and the Jesuit Rupert Mayer, an early opponent of the Nazis. When Mayer asks Geli if she is a Nazi, she denies it.  

He tells her, “A Catholic cannot be an anti-Semite. Are you aware of that?” Although she wears swastika jewelry, she seeks redemption. 

Hansen’s complex historical novel, which documents the rise of Nazi Germany through Geli Raubal’s eyes, elicited mixed reviews and hate mail for Hansen.  

“At a community college here a woman who teaches Holocaust Studies uses it for her class, so I was gratified by that, but I’ve gotten what approaches hate mail from some people about it. Normally they’re people who haven’t really read the book but are just reacting to it,” Hansen said in a phone interview from Santa Clara University, 

Hansen is a professor in the arts and humanities. 

Hansen, whose 1996 novel “Atticus” was a finalist for the National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner Award, does not expect to receive hate mail for his new book, “A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction” (HarperCollins, $25). This eclectic collection includes memoirs of Hansen’s Catholic childhood in Omaha, Neb., meditations on the link between religion and literature, a memoir of his mentor John Gardner, and a powerful essay on the murder of six Jesuits in El Salvador. 

The 14 essays, which have appeared in journals like America and anthologies such as “Writers on Film: 27 Writers Celebrate 27 Memorable Movies,” will appeal to a diverse audience. 

“They’d been sitting around for a while, and finally I decided to put them all together and see what they’d look like if I put them in a book, and some got discarded right away,” Hansen said. “There was one about running in a marathon. There were lighter pieces, so I just concentrated on ones that had to do with faith or fiction. And after I got it all together it didn’t look like it was enough pages, so that’s why I did the prefatory pieces for each of the essays. I hoped it would make it seem like more of a real book.”  

He introduces each essay with a preface, often charmingly crafted to read like a short memoir. His twin brother Rob, now a real estate broker and actor in Omaha features in many of them. In the introduction to “A Nineteenth-Century Man,” Hansen writes, “ I was four when he [my grandfather] died and I have few memories of him beyond the fact that he used to delight in hiding from Rob and me when we visited, and we’d run from room to room in his house shouting ‘Where’s Grandpa?’ until we found him chuckling in a closet or crouched behind a door. We did that a few weeks after his funeral, too, and when I saw the shocked and saddened faces of my family, I finally understood what death was.” 

One of the most powerful essays in the collection, “Hearing the Cry of the Poor: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador,” concerns the murder of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador by Salvadoran soldiers in 1989. Hansen, who did extensive research but did not travel to write this piece, visited El Salvador for the first time over his recent spring break.  

“I had intended to go on a golf vacation, but this was good for me,” he said. “Every year Santa Clara sends 12 faculty members down, sometimes to El Salvador, sometimes to Mexico, sometimes to Guatemala. We talked to Jon Sobrino, who was the only one of the Jesuits who wasn’t killed that night, because he had flown to Taiwan. I got to see the photographs and look at the buildings; they made a rose garden where the Jesuits were killed.” 

Fifty-three-year-old Hansen admits that it’s tough to publish an essay collection without a track record.  

“It’s almost like a book of short stories. You have to have a novel or two before a book of stories gets published usually. The same thing with a collection of essays. Essays are pretty hard to get published, I think.” 

Hansen, an Omaha native now living in Cupertino, earned a bachelor’s degree in English at Creighton University, a master’s from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, and a second master’s in spirituality at Santa Clara University. It is only in the last decade that he has tasted success. 

“I didn’t have a tenure-track teaching job till 1989.Till then I was just teaching one year at a time and that involves a lot of trouble and a lot of expense moving around the country. And I couldn’t afford a house till I was 45. I was pretty poor, especially in my twenties. It’s a common story for a lot of writers, especially those who teach.” 

He loved attending the Writers Workshop in Iowa City, where he worked as a live-in babysitter for the sons of novelist John Irving, who was also one of Hansen’s teachers. 

“The Workshop was terrific for me. I’d never met another writer before I went to Iowa, so it was an introduction to how one led that life. It was comforting to have other writers around and know that they had the same struggles and problems. It provided a kind of two-year sanctuary where I got a lot of writing done.” 

In most of his novels, Hansen has interwoven faith and fiction. His 1991 novel, “Mariette in Ecstasy” (the first to earn widespread critical acclaim), tells the story of a postulant in upstate New York in 1906 who develops stigmata in the convent. And his novel, Atticus (adapted as the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie Missing Pieces), is a contemporary retelling of the prodigal son parable. 

Last summer Hansen had no time to write. As chair of the fiction committee of the National Book Awards in 1999, he spent the summer reading. 

“We were sent about 220 books, and that’s just from publishers who were willing to pay $100 for books to be considered for the award. They have to send out copies to five judges. We started getting them late in June.” 

He hopes to get back to writing fiction soon. 

Ron Hansen will read at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Cody’s Books, 2454 Telegraph Ave.