Literary Legend Discusses Western Outlaws, “Chinatown” and St. Ignatius
THE SANTA CLARA
November 10, 2016
Across Santa Clara’s campus, countless accomplished faculty and staff in all fields can be found. Ron Hansen, a professor in the English Department, is undoubtedly among the greats here.
Hansen has published ten novels and several short stories, many of which received critical acclaim. He has also written screenplays and produced films—including “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” a movie based on Hansen’s novel that starred Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. With the recent release of Hansen’s newest novel “The Kid,”
The Santa Clara interviewed the English professor to find out more about his continual efforts in the literary world.
Could you tell me a little about your latest novel, “The Kid?”
It’s a biographical novel about William Henry McCarty, who took the last name alias of Bonney, and in December 1880 was surprised to find himself called Billy the Kid.
What first sparked your interest in telling the story of Billy the Kid?
I have long been interested in celebrity in the Old West. Why did a horse and cattle rustler who was handy with guns become a legendary, even mythological figure? There were hundreds of guys just like him, but he had a swashbuckler air, a daring, a cavalier attitude that captivated newspaper readers.
How long were you working on the novel, and does the use of real historical figures help or cause problems? How much research is involved in such a project?
The research is immense. I read everything available on Billy and his times before I started writing. After I finished that, the writing came fairly quickly because I was so steeped in the material.
Several of your novels have been set in the Wild West and focus on various outlaws. What keeps drawing you back to those subjects?
The moral and ethical questions seem to be in bold relief in that era. And in particular with Billy, the distinctions between heroes and villains was very muddied. There were elements of wrong action and motives on all sides.
You’ve worked on several screenplays throughout your writing career. Do you find screenwriting to be easier or harder than writing novels and short stories? What are the specific demands of each form?
Screenplays are easier to write, but you have to deal with what is kindly called “notes,” and they can come from finance people who know little about writing. With novels, you are writer, director and actor in all the parts. With screenwriting, you’re foundational to the project, but always susceptible to changes. I have written both adaptations of my novels and those of others, and also original screenplays. I have generally been paid for my efforts, but not all have been made. That’s the chief frustration with filmmaking.
What’s your favorite screenplay? Favorite novel?
I think “Chinatown” is nearly perfect as a script. I find it hard to single out my favorite novel, so I’ll go with “The Distant Land of My Father” by Bo Caldwell.
Was there a particular piece of writing—a novel or short story—that really made you want to become a writer? Or did you gradually realize over time that you wanted to be a writer?
I was a huge fan of Edgar Allan Poe in grade school. I was transported by his stories. By the time I was in fifth grade I recognized an excited interest in language and in fictional narrative. It’s very helpful to have that focus so early.
What’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on—in any area—film, novels or short stories?
There are favorite aspects to all writing. In each novel or story there’s something, maybe just a sentence or quip that makes me delighted with myself. Every writer regularly finds those joys or they wouldn’t be able to keep at it.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers? Is the field better or worse today for an emerging writer than when you started out?
Publishing has greatly changed because of the economics of book production and sales, and also because there are far fewer readers. Aspiring writers will have a peculiarly different field to deal with and I’m afraid I can’t be of much help in conquering it…
What have you read recently that made you say, “Wow.” Who are the writers you want more people to know about?
My friend Tobias Wolff, who was just on campus, is well known and an exceptional writer. Perhaps a little less famous is Jim Shepard, a wonderful writer especially of short stories.
We share our manuscripts for advice and editing before sending them to our publishers. Finding a helpful reader is crucial to one’s development.
How does your faith play a role in your writing? Are you drawn to certain themes like faith and justice in your stories?
My Catholic faith is at least subterranean in whatever I write. Saint Ignatius’s counsel that we should seek God in all things is good advice for any fiction writer or poet. And even the instinct to write is similar to that of religion: the recognition that there is something going on here that matters.
What is your favorite part of Santa Clara?
Hard to say. Maybe the Mission Church and the gardens?
How does teaching writing at Santa Clara impact your role as a novelist or as a screenwriter?
You can become very isolated and solipsistic just hanging out on your own. Teaching gives me the opportunity to talk about books or films I admire, to try out various ideas, and to nurture new writers in a gratifying way. The interest and excitement students (bring to) my classes are wonderfully restorative.
Contact Maura Turcotte at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4852.