The website of St. Joseph of Cupertino Parish in California displays “Deacon Ron Hansen” as the last name on its clergy staff list.
Deacon Hansen’s parish duties include the usual liturgical functions, occasional preaching, creating the Mass schedule for the parish’s three priests, and facilitating discussions of films with Christian themes.
Outside the parish however, Ron Hansen is probably better known as the author of eight novels — soon to be nine — as well as collections of short stories and essays, a children’s book, and a screenplay for the film adaptation of one of his most striking novels, “Mariette in Ecstasy.”
The Mariette story outlines the struggles of a cloistered nun at a convent in upstate New York early in the 20th century. The protagonist, Mariette, is given to bouts of divine possession and shows the marks of the stigmata, the five wounds of the crucified Christ. However, the reader is never absolutely certain if Mariette’s condition is real or imagined.
The Mariette story, in a sense, is par for the course for Deacon Hansen, who has never been shy about admitting to the Catholic themes that influence so much of his writing.
Even a series of Western-themed novels early in his career — “Desperadoes” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” — in their subtle way allude to traditional Christian issues of sin, redemption, forgiveness and facing up to choices made.
“I was a Catholic long before I became a writer, so it’s the writing that happened,” Deacon Hansen told Catholic News Service, “but I don’t object to either description. Since I frequently deal with Catholic or Christian themes, ‘Catholic writer’ has become a familiar shorthand version of who I am.”
But as a Catholic writer who takes the faith and its mission seriously, Deacon Hansen, ordained to the diaconate in 2007, is at pains to point out that he is no apologist for the church, nor does he seek to portray his fictional characters as paragons of Catholic or Christian virtue. He bristled when questioned about having any reservations about giving life to characters with normal human vices.
“As John Henry Cardinal Newman noted, it’s impossible to propose a sinless literature about a sinful humanity,” he said. “It’s our lot in life to have failings or addictions or forbidden yearnings. I have often compared my fiction to the confessions at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. There’s a full revelation of how many times and in what ways the speaker screwed up, and then what he or she found in recovery. ‘A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion’ is very much in that mode.” That story is a fictionalized account of the 1927 Ruth Snyder-Henry Judd Gray murder case.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1947, Deacon Hansen attended a Jesuit high school and, in 1974, earned a master of fine arts degree from the University of Iowa’s program in creative writing, also known as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A number of contemporary American writers and Pulitzer Prize winners have sharpened their creative skills after graduating from the Iowa program.
Deacon Hansen also held a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in creative writing at Stanford University, 1977-78, and taught there for three years before taking positions at the universities of Michigan, Cornell, Arizona, and California-Santa Cruz.
In 1995, he earned a master’s degree in spirituality at Jesuit-run Santa Clara University in California. Since 1996, he has been the Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J. Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara, and he often attends Mass at the Santa Clara Mission, in addition to helping out at his home parish in Cupertino.
Hansen clearly sees value in fiction and storytelling with a Catholic or Christian focus. In his 2001 collection of essays titled “A Stay Against Confusion,” he alludes to the affinity between religion and storytelling. “I find that church-going and religion were in good part the origin of my vocation as a writer,” he writes, “for along with Catholicism’s feast for the senses, its ethical concerns, its insistence on seeing God in all things, and the high status it gave to Scripture, drama and art, there was a connotation in Catholicism’s liturgies that storytelling mattered.”
At the same time, he sees Catholic writing as something more than apologetics for the church and its teachings.
“I’m just fascinated by the faith life of my characters and try to depict the graces and struggles of dealing with mystery,” he adds in “A Stay Against Confusion.”
Deacon Hansen told CNS that he finds it “hard to tell the difference” between writing and prayer.
“Writing is not intercessory prayer, but it often is a form of praise or complaint that issues from practices very much like meditation or contemplation. And sometimes inspiration comes — your characters surprise you with what they say and do, or the perfectly right sentence seems to find its way to you unbidden. It’s a form of magical thinking that is at least ‘a cousin’ to prayer.”
Perhaps it is this attitude that shields Deacon Hansen somewhat from the barbs of literary critics, many of whom today seem especially eager to dismiss creative works with even a hint of Christian belief.
It’s a comfort, he said, to realize that some great books were panned by critics on their original release but have since become classics.
“I have generally been very lucky with my reviews,” he told CNS, “but there are outliers, and you just try to ignore them. Writers usually outlast negative reviews as readers happen upon the books and like them without the ‘pollution’ of the initial carping. ‘Hitler’s Niece’ got trounced by some reviewers and was extolled by others, and I have encountered people who consider it my best book. [The poet Gerard Manley] Hopkins said of his poetry that Christ was the only literary critic he valued. I have tried to follow that thinking.”
Hansen’s ninth novel, “The Kid,” based on the life of outlaw Billy the Kid, will be published Oct. 4 by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.