ROXANNE RASHEDI: You earned your MA in Spirituality here at Santa Clara University after earning an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. What led you to become interested in the intersection between creative writing and spirituality?
RON HANSEN: I had the idea for the novel that would become Mariette in Ecstasy, but I was a theological freshman and didn’t know enough to be interesting or persuasive about religious life. So I signed up for a class on “The History of Western
Christian Spirituality” and learned so much that I registered for another course on Christology, and so on, just one course per quarter, until I finally achieved the Master’s degree. But what was going on beyond the meeting of course requirements was the recognition that I was feeding and enriching a hungry aspect of my personality that lived, so to speak, in the same apartment as my fiction writing need. I discovered that my religious seeking was pretty much the same as the desire to make things up — to give harmony and sense to the random experiences of our lives.
RR: How has your faith shaped your literary sensibility?
RH: Maybe it’s the other way around: in writing about vexed people and crucial events I have been forced to focus on last things, on the eschatological, and ask the questions that loom as we approach crises or death. There are, of course, many novelists with no religious faith, who may have even discarded what they grew up with, but my own favorite writers are those who have looked heavenward and struggled with theological mysteries.
RR: “Last things” is an astute way to describe the struggle with faith. In a typical yoga class, the “light” becomes clearer towards the end of the sequence. Do you engage in types of exercise to inspire your creative flow?
RH: Like you, I have always tried to do something athletic on a regular basis, and a page or two of writing can be so mentally exhausting that it makes exercise imperative. Mostly, it’s an afternoon trip to the gym, sometimes it’s golf.
RR: Exercise is imperative for writers, and I just never got into the gym. Yoga, though, is like creative writing —
RH: How so?
RR: The mat is the page that mirrors the thoughts of the character. What appeals to you about writing historical fiction? What challenges do you face when writing such stories?
RH: I never intended to write historical or biographical fiction, but I find myself shocked and intrigued by new information or untold stories that have application for the present day, and the subject haunts me enough that I have to get it down on paper. The difficulty is in fully immersing yourself in another era and often in a place you’ve never lived, and in imagining conversations, gestures, scenes, and ways of thinking that seem authentic even to experts. There are some who consider historical fiction a cheat since the main trajectory of the story is mapped out for you, but in fact it’s very hard to incorporate naturally what you’ve acquired through reading without making the material seem shoehorned in or without descending to the level of a grammar school pageant.
RR: How do you manage to balance time for your personal creative process while also serving as the Gerard Manley Hopkins Professor of English at Santa Clara University?
RH: It’s catch-as-catch-can. You have to learn to write in snatches of time and to prepare for the scenes you’ll create when you do find a spare moment. Also, I remember once asking Robert Coover how he managed to create fiction while teaching and he said, “If you’re going to succeed as a writer you’ve got to accept the fact that you’ll have to work harder than other people.”
RR: Still, you’ve published eight novels, two books of stories, essays —
RH: We can be faster than we fancy. An exercise I often do with my students is to have them write steadily, without correcting and revising, for five solid minutes. Most are surprised that they can fill a page in that short period. Not much of it is useable, but some is, and the nugget of a fascinating story may have appeared in those few minutes. You immediately see how much you can accomplish in very little time.
RR: What advice would you give young writers to help them out in their creative process?
RH: As John Gardner pointed out, it’s easier to learn how to write a novel from shoddy fiction because the architecture shows. Great literary fiction is a kind of sleight of hand with a dexterity that’s hard to imitate. And publishing is a business that rewards survivors. You need to expect rejection and yet continue to persevere. And you need to figure out a way to make ends meet while writing productively on the side, either getting up early or using your lunch hour or finding the energy to knock out a page after the kids are asleep.