Copyright © 1996 Mars Hill Review 1 Fall 1996 · Issue 6: pgs 112-117.
Five years ago, when Ron Hansen's novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, appeared, the book caused something of a stir in the literary world. Hansen's fourth work of fiction tells the story of a young postulant at the turn of the century who, soon after entering a convent, experiences the stigmata. Despite the somewhat formidable subject matter, postmodern readers found Hansen's narrative to be quite friendly. Indeed, it is written as sparsely yet as vividly as a screenplay. One passage:
"Mother Celine gracefully walking, head down.
"Mooncreep and spire."
But the deft style was merely Hansen's invitation to his growing readership to enter into a completely foreign world, one in which they would experience familiar human longings. The furor and doubts that swirl around Mariette's stigmata experience, both within and without the convent, serve up a detective story of sorts that leads to the most timeless and central of questions: How genuine is one's faith?
Hansen's novel made such a splash that it was optioned to be made into a motion picture. When my interview with Hansen took place last February, the film version of Mariette in Ecstasy was in postproduction, being scored. The movie is directed by John Bailey, the acclaimed cinematographer who figured prominently in the documentary about that craft, Visions of Light.
As Hansen himself attests, part of the appeal of his books is their subtle but unmistakable confrontational quality. In his case, however, the confrontation that takes place with the reader is one of love-an overpowering, seemingly otherworldly love. In Hansen's latest novel, Atticus, this is portrayed in a father's relentless yet unsentimental search for his wayward son, whom he presumes is dead. Drawn in unmistakably biblical overtones, Atticus Cody is certainly an anachronism. Nevertheless he embodies something we all know and yearn for: a man whose forthrightness and honesty bare our worldly motives with humiliating power.
It's no exaggeration to say that with Atticus Hansen will further shake his growing following of readers. Here is a novel whose impact relies not on the question of passion for God, as Mariette does, but on the primacy of human longing for God-for limitless, unconditional love. Not surprisingly, on his recent book tour Hansen experienced both positive and negative reactions to the novel. Yet, even so, a deal has been struck for Atticus to be filmed as a Hallmark Hall of Fame production, made through ABC Television. "You never know if these things are actually going to get made," Hansen allows. "Once a deal has been made, it has one-in-four chance of actually appearing on television. In Hollywood, there's only a one-in-twenty-two chance of having it become a film."
Hansen has received an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters for his short-story collection, Nebraska. He also has written two other novels and a children's book, The Shadowmaker. He currently teaches at the University of California-Santa Cruz. He spent a generous hour and a half with me at a hotel in downtown Denver, talking about his work, life, and faith.
Mars Hill Review: You've written, "The job of fiction writers is to fashion...symbols and give their readers the feeling that life has great significance. Something is going on here that matters." How does a writer bring that sort of element to his or her work?
Ron Hansen: You look for ways that you're touched, and you write about those things. You write about your nightmares. It's the things that shake us up and transport us that I think God wants us to pay attention to.
MHR: A few years you said in an interview that the three most important things about your identity as a writer are that you're from Nebraska, you're a twin, and you're Catholic. Does that statement still hold true for you?
RH: It does. Certainly Catholicism has been important to me. I've often wondered why that's so. I realize now it may have to do with a reverence for Scripture.
For me, each Mass has a plot. It's a kind of murder mystery. There is for me within the liturgy a sense of the importance of this celebration-this reenactment of the conspiracy and murder and resurrection of an innocent man. Here's a man who on the eve of his betrayal celebrates dinner with his friends. Then he's led away and whipped and has all these terrible things happen to him. But at the end the story we find out it's a comedy, because it has such a wonderful, happy ending. And we get to share in it, in this mystery of the redemption.
Having learned the story at an impressionable age, and having it reinforced throughout my life because I go to daily Mass, I've realized I have the perfect pattern for a fictional plot going on in my head. Also, the attention to the written word-especially in the Protestant religions-has been very influential. We tell all the stories of the Bible again and again. And even though they have a historical basis, they seem like fictional stories, because the characters are presented as they are in novels. For that reason, the stories seep into our minds the way fiction does.
When you have that tradition wed to you, and talked about repeatedly, and emphasized as being of great import, you gain a keen sense of how vital the story-telling process is. Even though you may think you write fiction only for yourself, you begin to see how much larger and more important the writing of fiction is. I think God intends for our fiction to work on people the same way Scripture does.
MHR: Chesterton says that a great artist must be concerned with everything. You respond by writing, "Everything for me...was the mystery of the Holy Being at it was, and is, incarnated in human life."
RH: In my fiction, I seek to have a reverence for life. Gerard Manley Hopkins talked about an inscape. He said that in seeing the natural world, we get some sense of the Creator and begin to see his fingerprints on everything. That has given me a sense of awe. [ Hopkins ?? ] once said to someone, "I don't know how you can look at an ocean without thinking about God." I have that kind of strong feeling about the natural world. Everything is permeated with the grandeur of God.
I carry that over to my fiction. I pay attention to details, to the visual landscape. And I try to have sympathy for my characters, because I know these are people who are loved by God, as we real humans are.
MHR: You've also written of Conrad's call to writers-that, to "render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe often leads to the highest kind of humility about ourselves." How is that true for you?
RH: When I'm writing about a jungle, I can only see four shades of green, whereas I know there are seventeen shades of green out there. Humility comes from realizing how great an inventor God is. It comes from recognizing this love that has been lavished on us in so many ways-in just a balmy breeze, for instance, or in the laughter of a child. All these things affect us in different ways and make us feel good about life. And they are all gifts to us. Once we start recognizing these gifts and seeing who gave them to us, then we begin to realize, "I'm not worthy of this. Yet, even though I didn't recognize that fact for the longest time, you still gave me the gifts."
As I look at creation, I see all the things that are possible for God-and at the same time I recognize the limits of what is possible for me or for any other human. I'm so bound up with my own prejudices and convictions, I would walk a very narrow path if it were up to me. But God is walking a lot of different paths, and they're wide and glorious.
MHR: You do something interesting with Augustine's definition of sacrament. He wrote that sacraments are "signs pertaining to things divine, or visible forms of an invisible grace." You take the definition a step further by saying that sacramental writing "provides graced occasions of encounter between humanity and God."
RH: It's the nature of plots to have crisis points within them. My approach is that each one of those crises should be an occasion for seeing God somewhere within the proceedings-that He is present, beckoning us, guiding us, or just being there as a support to us.
A lot of times awful things happen to good people. In those awful occasions, we often think, "What does God mean by this? What is his plan in making this person die, or in making that person suffer?" Actually, the point is that God is there both to rejoice with us in our happy moments, and to guide and comfort us in our grief, and even share our grief.
God isn't going to change the laws of gravity so that when I jump out the window I float. A lot of miserable things are going to happen to us. We can't lose sight of the fact that God doesn't will these things for us, that he's not simply trying to teach us a lesson. Rather, he is there to help us along.
MHR: Have there been any major shake-ups in your life that shape your fiction?
RH: I haven't hit the bottom of the pit or anything like that. But there have been moments when I've recognized a profound loneliness within. I've realized that those moments were meant to tell me I wasn't talking to my Friend often enough.
I can honestly say that every time I've been happiest in my life, it's been when I've had a close relationship with God and a real affinity with Jesus. I recognize that all the darkness I sense comes from shame or fear, when I decide, "No, no, You can't get in here. You can't look inside." And I end up shutting the closet doors-as if God doesn't already know what's in here [laughs].
MHR: You seem to have a conviction about something many contemporary Christian writers believe but that few, I think, have tried-that is, to be very direct in your writing about issues of God and faith.
RH: I've always thought those issues were subterranean in all my work. But for a while it seemed like a lot of people were missing my point. Finally, I decided to be a bit more abrupt. I think that because people aren't used to thinking about such things, I had to bring the issues more to the surface. I wanted to have readers stub their toe on these things, so that they had to say, "I respect his writing, but-gee, he actually believes these things he's writing about. How am I going to deal with this?"
There is a confrontational quality to it. But at the same time I don't want to be one of these writers who's always chiding people. I want to maintain a sense that this is my perspective on the world, and that if only you could see this through my eyes, maybe you could understand where I'm coming from. And maybe it would give you some inkling about where your own life is going.
MHR: On the one hand you say that at some point a Christian writer has to find the need and the confidence to address the issues of God, faith and right conduct more directly. Yet, on the other hand, you say that the artist has his hands full in merely attending to his art-that he can safely leave evangelizing to evangelists. Are those two thoughts in opposition?
RH: They are. I think I was referring to some things that Flannery O'Connor said. I felt that just because a writer is a Christian but doesn't address themes that are specifically Christian, he shouldn't be castigated as being unequal to the challenge.
There are all kinds of things in human life that clearly can be seen as graced occasions, if you're looking at them from a religious point of view. And as a writer, you don't have to turn those things into something overt about God. You don't have to bring religion into it at all in order to effectively communicate what you're supposed to.
MHR: You've said that part of the "surprise" success of your novel Mariette in Ecstasy may be due to the lack of interest in spirituality in contemporary novels. Mariette obviously centers on that theme.
RH: I think there is interest in spirituality among people in general. But fiction writers are-well, circumspect may be the kindest word to use [laughs]. It's as if they're embarrassed about these kinds of yearnings. This is very prevalent in film, especially. Whenever a character has any kind of religious impulse, we know he's the villain [laughs].
I think fiction hasn't been honest about these issues in people's lives. So I decided to address them.
MHR: Does the subject of spirituality come up among your writer peers?
RH: Not very often. I think most of my writer friends see this as something I do and that they can't do themselves. Some have become completely secularized in their thinking, some have lapsed, and some just don't know what they feel about it.
But I think there is a growing sensitivity among poets and fiction writers to spiritual issues. At least I see it among my friends.
MHR: To what do you attribute this lack of interest or challenge among secular writers, this reluctance to grapple with spiritual things?
RH: Often writers are repudiated for treating these things seriously. There's a whole wing in the intellectual community that thinks anything having to do with religion is primitive, hokum, baseless. The people who make up this wing are constantly saying, "The institutional church has done all these evils throughout the world. For example, if there were no religion, there wouldn't be any wars." In seeking to be hip or remain comfortable, they decide to discard the whole subject of religion or faith.
An issue of Menoah [ RON - SP?? ] focused on religious issues among writers and asked writers to respond. A lot of them answered, "If I see any kind of religious theme emerging in my fiction, I flee from it. I turn my back on it."
Essentially you see the same thing among human beings in general. When they feel that God is impinging on them, they flee in the opposite direction. There's a fugitive quality to our lives. We want to do it on our own and be masters of everything. Only when we reach a crisis, or hit the bottom of the pit, do we find ourselves saying, "No, I can't do it on my own." And in that vulnerability we accept God, because we've made a mess of things.
A lot of fiction writers who are riding high don't want to talk about religion because they think they've accomplished everything on their own. Or, at least they pretend that's the case. I don't know what they believe in the dark night of their souls.
MHR: Do you think this reluctance to approach the subject of faith may be behind the malaise in contemporary fiction?
RH: I'm not sure there is a malaise. I think fiction writing now is about as good as it has ever been. It's exciting, and there is a lot going on. But still I don't think most writers are asking the fundamental questions. I'm hoping that through the good things we're seeing now-a lot of skill and intelligence at work-that greater attention to the God language will come to writers.
MHR: Is there anyone you see who breaks from the pack today-who's reaching for the more profound questions?
RH: It's a small group. I was thinking of Walker Percy. Today, I would say Larry Woiwode. Paul Mariani has a book of poems out called The Great Real. I think it's absolutely wonderful. He's putting religious issues more in the forefront in his poetry.
John Irving takes religion seriously. He did so in A Prayer for Owen Meany. I think he does it less so in A Son of the Circus, but the larger ideas of faith and meaning are very much there.
MHR: Do you ever get frustrated that more religious stories aren't told-stories about people who have had "graced occasions" with God?
RH: Well, I've been reading less and less fiction. I once judged a fiction contest for which I had to read 140 novels. I didn't read all of them, though. In some cases I would read five pages and quickly toss the book aside.
After reading lots and lots of novels, I realized I had learned almost nothing. They weren't talking about issues that were important to me. I think there's a redundancy among many of the books being published. They're about "my therapist," "my divorce," my this, my that. It's all the same old stuff. They're not getting below the surface of things, to the more profound questions. I would gladly read any book about the deeper questions.
In a book like Moby Dick, or the great novels of Tolstoy, that kind of substance is clearly present. But lately in contemporary fiction, the more profound questions have not been represented. That's probably true, though, of novels and literature throughout history. There probably were a lot of writers working in the time of Melville and Tolstoy who weren't addressing the deep issues. So, maybe only a few of those writers are ever needed.
MHR: When you studied at the Iowa Writers Workshop, did John Irving influence you to aim for those sorts of issues in your fiction?
RH: No, not those issues particularly. He was more influential in teaching me how to spin out a narrative. He is excellent at sheer story-telling power. He throws all the balls up in the air and somehow manages to catch them all.
I learned more about religious things from Thomas Merton and other contemporary mystics. And I've certainly applied their thinking to my fiction.
MHR: Who have been your spiritual influences?
RH: Gerard Manley Hopkins was the first. A wonderful poet. His sense of language and attention to the material world influenced me greatly. And, of course, his religious faith was a great influence.
Thomas Merton has been a very important figure to me. His book Seeds for Contemplation is wonderful. I appreciate his way of approaching the world and his reverence for it. I've had many other influences, of course, but those two are the keys.
MHR: Do you consider yourself to be in the contemplative tradition?
RH: I wish I were a contemplative. I'm not, really. When I think of contemplatives, I think of people who are trying to cut off their senses, to focus on the center alone, to be in touch with their soul. The result is a kind of silence.
I think I need the sensual things. I'm much more likely to meditate on a scriptural passage and try to imagine myself within the scene, rather than to look for the silence inside.
MHR: That sounds like something most artistic people of faith might lean toward. It reminds me of something else you've said:
"You may pray to God for guidance about some decision in your life, and God might say, 'Look inside yourself and see what you want. It's not necessary for you to be a priest. It's not necessary for you to be married. It's whatever you decide.' In essence, God says, 'Surprise me.' We're co-creators in a lot of ways, and what God relishes most about us is our creative freedom."
You go on to contrast that with the stricter nineteenth-century views and practices of faith. How early on did you struggle with this tension yourself? And how did you finally reach the point of being a novelist, as opposed to something else?
RH: A lot of times those are just brave words [laughs]. I still wonder sometimes, "What does God want me to do?" In some ways, it's more comforting to think, "God has told me to do this," rather than to have the freedom, which can be scary.
Whenever I look back over my life, I see lots of occasions when I thought I was doing something only for myself. I realize in retrospect that those were things that God had opened a door for me to do. At other times, when I was willfully going on my own, doing things that obviously weren't what God wanted me to do, the door was slammed shut in my face.
Writers are always getting plaudits, fame, money. And that can easily convince them that they're doing the work only for themselves-for the honors, the sense of power, the glory. But I've realized as I look back that, on the contrary, something was implanted early in my life. I wrote even when I wasn't being published, when I was getting all the rejections. And it was still satisfying then.
So, I've recognized that the writing must have been God-inspired, or it never would have felt this way. Whenever I've felt far from God, the writing has still always been there. And during the times when I've felt close to God, the writing has been there as well. It's been the constant in my life-so it must be what God wants me to be doing.
MHR: Have you ever sensed down through the years that your art is actually a calling, as much as you would consider the priesthood to be one?
RH: I do. I realize it now, especially when I give talks or speak on radio programs. I say things that any minister or priest could say. But somehow it has more resonance and authority coming from me, simply because I'm not a minister or ordained. People usually shake their heads and say, "Wow, this is a regular person saying this. He's not just trotting out the party line."
Also, I'm capable of giving a kind of pastoral care to people in those situations. People might shun a minister, who actually would be much better at it. They simply feel better about approaching someone who's a writer rather than a minister-maybe because of past hurts or some kind of corruption or disruption in their lives.
Likewise, people can get things out of fiction that they wouldn't normally get out of the Bible-simply because they have such a bad attitude toward the Bible. The story of our lives-as they are and should be, of course-is written best in the Bible. But many people would never think of opening up that book. In their thinking, it's just too damaged, too tarnished for them to accept.
Yet, with the best kind of fiction, they can get the same kind of message that they would get from the Bible. A lot of people who consider themselves atheists are very responsive to fiction, because it does just that. They don't know it, but God is working on them through fiction in his own way.
MHR: I believe there's something about the particularity of our stories, within the broader story of our faith, that speaks of God to us. Atticus certainly achieves that end.
RH: I liken all my fiction to the parables, in the sense that I'm writing about ordinary people in ordinary circumstances. It's only afterward, as you're puzzling it out, that you realize there was a "God influence" in all these actions.
When Jesus spoke the parables, he left most of them hanging. The later redactors and writers came along and actually explained most of them for the people. But Jesus left almost elliptical remarks at the end of his parables, so that people were left asking, "What was that all about?" His listeners knew they'd been moved, that they'd heard something. And he left it up to them to puzzle it out.
I think the best fictions do that. They create real characters in real situations, so that you find yourself completely involved emotionally. Only later, when you're digesting the story and running it over in your mind, do you realize what the story was about. Sometimes you can finish a book and say, "I have to read that one again. I didn't notice what was happening, yet suddenly I was bowled over. What happened?" As you go through it again, you find out a little more about what the author intended.
MHR: The Village Voice wrote that "in Hansen's mythology, a miracle is a very written, very earthy thing." Ironically, the earthy passages in your fiction have a spiritual undertow. The reader finds himself grappling with lofty things through his experience with the sensual. How important is sensuality to you in making divine or eternal things immediate to the reader?
RH: I think it's very important. I like to treat weather in my work, especially the outdoors. I've always disliked being indoors with my characters, because everything feels manmade. Outside, where there are natural things to observe, it seems more freshening for me. There, it seems, you can actually hear and see God. By paying attention to what is going on all around, you develop a sense of God walking among us.
MHR: The Voice also wrote that the pleasure in reading Mariette in Ecstasy is in "watching the havoc wreaked by grace." How does that statement strike you?
RH: It's nice, of course. I was surprised that the writer picked up on that so well.
There is a sense in the story that God does shake things up a bit. It rattles people around, as they need to be. Whenever you have a kind of graced moment, stuff will always be flying around because of it. And good usually comes from it, even though it doesn't seem like good at the time.
MHR: It must have been quite a task even to decide to write Mariette in Ecstasy. You had to create an entire world with such daunting subjects-the stigmata, the heavy religious terms, and all the other things you confront readers with so relentlessly.
RH: I just thought it was a fascinating story. My instinct has always been that if I'm intrigued by the story, other people will be interested as well. Maybe those people will comprise only a limited number, but they'll probably be enough to get the book published.
Most of the time I think, "Why would anyone read this?" But the truth is, often people want to enter into a completely foreign world-something exotic that isn't like their realm at all. So this story-which takes place inside a cloistered convent at the turn of the century, where people take religion seriously-is about as exotic as you can get these days [laughs].
MHR: You've said that in writing Mariette you could foresee your readers coming away from it searching for answers-and that you certainly didn't want to lead them astray with anything you put in the book. How difficult a task is that for you in writing fiction?
RH: I had that concern when I was on a radio interview recently. The interview was supposed to be about Atticus, but it ended up being about the parable of the Prodigal Son. People were calling in and throwing out all kinds of interpretations of what they see going on in the parable.
Now, I'm not a Scripture scholar at all. And I began to feel dejected, wondering if I was leading people astray with my own interpretation in this novel. After a while, though, I realized that even a lot of the scholars are probably wrong [laughs]. God lays these things out in the Bible, and he works on people through them. And in the long run, we can depend on him to turn people the right way.
I don't think what I have to say in Atticus is going to destroy anyone. As long as my perspective is that I want to help people, and I want to be attentive to what God's Word is trying to say, God can be trusted to turn my work in whatever way He wishes. I can be dead wrong about the interpretation of the parable, and yet God will use even that in his own way. So I'm fairly relaxed about that now.
MHR: Do you think your audience senses that reading your novels is a palatable way to approach religion?
RH: I think a lot of fiction readers have a curiosity about religion. Many of my students have been brought up without any religion whatsoever. Their parents wanted them to be unpolluted by it. But it's odd-the result is that the students have become more and more curious about it, and they've started examining it for themselves. So God, to them, has become a giant magnet.
Even the most primitive people have always had a sense of God. They recognize that we have a hole inside and that we need to fill it. And the lucky ones realize what, exactly, we are to put inside that hole. The unlucky ones turn their backs on the hole and wonder why they're so miserable.
MHR: You wrote Mariette very much in the form of a screenplay. It's extremely visual, from start to finish. Why did you take that approach?
RH: That's just my natural way of doing things. Growing up, I was as influenced by films as I was by fiction, and I think that has permeated my consciousness. Also, I began as a painter, so I think visually.
MHR: Did you write the screenplay for the film version of Mariette?
RH: I did. I felt I needed to have control over Mariette in Ecstasy, because the material is so arcane. I feared what a Hollywood hack would do with it. Nuns are treated so badly in American film, and I wanted to have an honest evocation of what that life was like.
Even handling the Latin was important to me. I was on the set when the actors spoke the Latin, so I could correct the pronunciation. I knew that if I didn't, little things like that would annoy me if I saw they were wrong.
I trust the man who's writing the script for Atticus. His name is Richard Kletter, and he's a good writer. He wrote The Black Stallion Returns and a number of other films.
MHR: What was the genesis of your novel Atticus?
One of the things that sparked the book for me happened when I was in San Miguel, Mexico. One day I saw a man walking down the street in a cowboy hat and boots, obviously out of place. With him was a guy who clearly was a private detective. They were knocking on hotel doors, asking the owners if they'd seen a particular girl. She had to have been the man's missing daughter.
I saw an incredible sadness on the father's face-and it was so poignant to me. I decided I wanted to write something about this man. I wanted to reflect his pursuit of his daughter, and also to reflect how rarely children have a sense of the profound love their parents have for them. Maybe there's been a rift somewhere along the line, or a lack of communication, and the child doesn't know how much she is loved by her parent. And, maybe the parent doesn't know how much he loves the child until a rift has taken place. At that moment, everything within him says, "I have to be reunited."
As soon as I started thinking about that, I thought of God's relentless pursuit of us. It's like a tractor beam pulling us in, saying, "Come back to me, come back. I'll come the rest of the way." There's the old saying-"When you're far from God, guess who moved?" It's always we who are running away from God. But God is a faster runner, and he'll always be there when we turn around.
MHR: What aspect of the literal father-son relationship were you trying to explore when you set out to write Atticus?
RH: I had been struck by all the negative images of men, especially fathers, in fiction today. It seems like every time a father appears, he's having incest with his daughter, or doing something terrible like that. Fathers have become shadow figures or villains. I wanted to have a positive image of a father. I wanted to give people a sense of what it means-at least in my own interpretation-to be a strong man, a person who's righteous, courageous, forthright, loyal. You don't see that very much in fiction.
MHR: Your character Atticus is truly a righteous force. How hard was it for you to come up with a character like this?
RH: I had a grandfather named Frank Salvador-a wonderful last name [laughs]-who lived in eastern Colorado. He was born in 1865, so he really was a nineteenth-century man. I knew him as a young boy, when he was advanced in age. He was a wonderful guy and very much like Atticus. In fact, his physical description is almost exactly the same as Atticus's. He was very plainspoken, very forthright. You could trust him to tell you the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it was.
He was incredibly charming while seeming stern-sort of a curmudgeonly type. But people around him were always laughing because there was a real wit behind his grousing. As I wrote the novel, I thought of Atticus as being a reflection of my grandfather.
MHR: At one point Scott Cody, Atticus's son, is standing on the periphery, watching his father search for him with quiet determination. Scott doesn't fear the police finding him as much as he fears his own father finding him! He knows just how relentless Atticus will be in looking for him. That kind of love comes across as incredibly formidable and-well, convicting to the reader.
RH: It blows away everybody in his path.
MHR: As Atticus navigates this wild artistic community, we see a lot of fractured lives scattered everywhere. Yet we always have a sense of sympathy for both Scott and his old flame, Renata-especially when we think about their separate bouts with madness in the past.
RH: I didn't want to give them an excuse. But I did want to say that there are a lot of broken people out there. Anytime you encounter someone, you don't know where that person has come from, or his or her complete history. Also, of course, you don't know the way they're going to end up. So you can't judge them too quickly.
MHR: Anyone who reads Atticus will have a great mix of feelings about Scott Cody. Here's a guy who is continually pursued by the grace of his father, and so he becomes sympathetic for that very reason. Basically, you've put him under the righteous yet merciful gaze of God. Yet, at the same time, actions have unavoidable consequences, and that certainly characterizes Scott's life.
RH: I think Scott is basically a good person. He's just out of control at the point of the story. One of the things I wanted to make clear was that even though he's a wastrel or ne'er-do-well, God hasn't given up on him. There can be a turnaround in his life at any given moment. Maybe if I were to write a sequel to this, we would see a quite different Scott-because of the persistence of his father's love and the sense Scott now has of what he means to Atticus. His father's love may awaken him to feelings toward God.
MHR: The reader identifies both with Scott, who's a wastrel, and with Atticus, who's righteous in the most positive sense of the word. That mixture is in all of us, at least on the level of desire: we find Atticus's righteousness very appealing instinctively-and yet we're constantly aware that we're desperately broken creatures.
RH: One radio caller raised an objection to the Prodigal Son theme that runs throughout Atticus. This person objected to all the attention that was paid to the Prodigal Son and not to his older brother, who stayed at home. I answered, "If you think of yourself as the brother who stayed at home, then you really are the Prodigal." There isn't one of us who hasn't done something we need forgiveness for.
MHR: All along, there are voices, both dark and light, that conspire to bring Scott to his point of crisis. For example, at one point you use Eduardo, the Mexican shaman, to give Scott a kind of earthy wakeup call.
RH: There's a lot of mirroring in the book. First, there's the sundog, where one is real and one is false. Likewise, there are "twos" throughout the book, with one thing reflecting another.
I thought of Eduardo as a kind of reflection of Atticus. He's a friend to Scott. But on the other hand, he realizes-as Atticus does-that Scott makes wrong choices, and that you don't want him around because he's dangerous. So, essentially, he says to Scott what Atticus has been saying to him for a long time: "Get your life straightened out. Then come back and see me."
Eduardo's Mayan name means "he who sees into the middle of things." That's what I think about Atticus. He's a guy who sees everything-right into the middle of things.
MHR: I was very much bowled over by the subtle yet powerful ending. Was that effect something you consciously went after?
RH: I think so. Really, what I wanted to do in treating Atticus's story and Scott's story was to present a juxtaposition.
For example, the Impressionist painters would put one color next to another, and the observer's mind would run them together and create a different color in between. That's what happens with juxtaposition. There are two stories in Atticus, with a lot left out in between. The reader is left to fill that in. He's actually creating the work on his own.
From that, I believe you get a sense of what God is all about. He's in the middle of space between two things. Of course, God is everywhere-but he's especially there, in those areas where we're trying to make connections between things.
MHR: I find that approach interesting-especially in regard to something you said about minimalist fiction. You said you wouldn't know how to write minimalist fiction because you wouldn't know what to leave out. Yet you obviously know what to leave out, in helping people to search out the greater mystery "between things."
RH: I hope so. You see this approach throughout the Bible. It's especially true of the book of Genesis, where some tremendous leaps occur. First there's the Fall from the Garden, and Adam and Eve are kicked out of Eden. The next thing you know, Cain and Abel are grown up and having their own arguments. A tremendous amount is left out between the events.
Obviously, a whole ritual pattern of ceremony has been set up now. We see the results of the creation of a religion, in the fact that these brothers are making sacrifices. Adam and Eve had never made these sacrifices. Then there's the question of what man's relationship with God is now. God used to walk in the Garden, but now he's just a voice. It's really fascinating.
So, as the mind has to fill in those gaps, it kind of creates its own text. And that kind of literature is going to have much greater impact, simply because it's so personal.
MHR: In the end, I felt a sense of meaning not necessarily because of where the story went, but because something true and emotional and powerful had gripped me about it all along. I sensed there was something very fundamentally human at work in this story, this parable, this gospel.
RH: I think that's why you have to stay away from dogma as a fiction writer. If you head in that direction too much, you can end up presenting roadblocks. You have to realize that people can understand the fundamental things much more readily through their own life experiences.
Sometimes when you get the mind involved, it can ruin things. But if you get the human experience and senses involved, the body reacts automatically. It says "yes," whereas your mind might say "no." So, as a writer, your emotions have to be with your characters. But when your mind gets involved, the work can become pathetic. It actually can distort things in multiple ways.
MHR: You say, on the one hand, "I'm just a writer saying these things about religious subjects." But, on the other hand, there are risks for any writer who addresses issues of faith. For instance, I may simply close the book on you. Does that thought ever confront you while you're at work?
RH: I've been very lucky. When Mariette in Ecstasy came out, I expected to have a lot of people tossing bricks at me, or coming to my readings and scowling at me [laughs]. But I've never really had a confrontation over the book. Maybe God thinks I'm so weak I couldn't handle the kinds of dangers there are in doing this [laughs].
Every once in a while, at readings or book signings, somebody comes up to me and says a violent, awful thing about religion or God. But I know that person's anger is coming from some kind of past injury. So I'm as sympathetic as I can be. I don't try to get into a confrontation about it.
But, as I pointed out, people are usually more willing to talk to a fiction writer about these issues. It's kind of a muted thing. If I were wearing a collar, or something that definitely said I was an ordained minister, I probably would get a lot more of the vituperative comments.
So, I think God knew what he was doing-as He often does [laughs]-when he assigned me this role.
MHR: That brings to mind something that occurs in Atticus. There's a scene toward the end of the novel in which Renata unknowingly reframes the Prodigal Son story as a folk tale. She remembers it that way as she recalls it to Atticus. He grins in acknowledgment, knowing its source.
Of course, with fiction, people attune their senses differently than when they're reading Scripture. So, naturally, they pick up different things. As I read this scene with Renata, I thought, "Here's someone who, through the experience she's just had, suddenly recognizes a truth that God had embedded in her earlier in life."
RH: I did want to establish a sense that this woman, after going through the turmoil and wreckage in her life and in others' lives, has a kind of profound insight into what has happened. There has been a turning for her, too.
The book, I think, is full of conversions-some of which you don't see, but many of which you do.
MHR: Has your relatively recent success with these books been baffling at all to you? Now you're being rewarded for things that began as a passion, or calling, for you.
RH: Yes, it's surprising. But it seems this happens to a lot of fiction writers. They labor in obscurity for years, then they finally hit it with one, and suddenly everything starts to happen for them. That's been true for me. Not long ago, I even turned one of my short stories, "Sleepless," into a screenplay-and now a wonderful Christian director is going to make a movie of it. It seems God is opening a lot of doors for me in these ways.
It's hard to say this without sounding arrogant, but I feel that maybe God has uniquely gifted me to tell these stories so I can reach a wider audience than perhaps some others could. I hate the way that sounds, but it's really a reflection of thanks to God for giving me these opportunities.
Because I learned how to spin out a story from John Irving, and because I learned to pay attention to philosophical issues from John Gardner, and because I learned to write well by imitating people who have been profoundly influential for me-I think I can tell a story that will have some importance, even if readers don't recognize that it's a Christian story.