National Catholic Register


Oscar-Night Deacon

BY Tim Drake

February 10-16, 2008 Issue | Posted 2/5/08 at 2:48 PM


Ron Hansen secretly hopes that Casey Affleck wins the Oscar for his role in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

The film is based on Hansen’s novel. Hansen has written a number of books, including Mariette in Ecstasy and Atticus, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1996. On Jan. 13, 2007, Hansen was ordained as a permanent deacon for the Diocese of San Jose, Calif.

Deacon Hansen, who serves as Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara (Ca.) University, spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake from California after the announcement of the Oscar nominations in late January.

Did you grow up Catholic?

I grew up in Omaha, Neb., the youngest of five siblings. My sister Alice is 15 years older than me, then there’s Laura and Gini. My twin brother Rob is eight minutes older than I am. My father, Frank, was an electrical engineer and the chief electrician for the North Omaha power plant. My mother, Marvyl, was a stay-at-home mom until I was 12 or so, then worked as a stenographer. She’ll be 96 soon. I grew up Catholic and attended Catholic schools until age 22 when I graduated from Creighton University.

Do you have a favorite Catholic childhood memory?

My birthday is Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and that was the day selected by Holy Angels Grade School for our first holy Communion. Because it was our birthday, Rob and I got to lead the two files of second-graders processing in, the girls in white dresses, the boys in white shirts and striped ties.

In those days you knelt at the railing and slipped your folded hands under a railing-long white cloth so you would not touch the host if it fell from the priest’s hand. You tilted your head back, shut your eyes, and stuck out your tongue to receive, and it all seemed so complicated and worrisome to an 8-year-old that I mentally rehearsed what I was supposed to do all during Mass.

When I received Christ in the Eucharist I expected a gigantic change and was slightly disappointed that I seemed to be pretty much the same kid who’d knelt down at the railing. But later there was a pancake breakfast for all the kids in the new social hall, and Msgr. Patrick Aloysius Flanagan had his picture taken with Rob and me and our best friend, Pat Higgins.

Msgr. Flanagan was frequently a frighteningly powerful and angry man but in that snapshot his hands gently rest on the shoulders of my brother and me, and he’s grinning as widely as I’ve ever seen. The gigantic change in him, his jubilation over our first holy Communion, impressed upon me the importance of the sacrament.

Many Catholic artists and writers are of the opinion that there is a dearth of modern Catholics in the arts. As a novelist yourself, would you agree or disagree?

There are in fact a great number of Catholics but a higher percentage of them are non-practicing than in the first half of the last century, or their religion is not often visible in their art. I’m often surprised when at cocktail parties friends I thought I knew finally loosen up and confess to their Catholic pasts.

A famous and very successful writer, whose name I won’t reveal, once confided to me at a dinner, with a hint of tragedy, “The one thing I really wish I could do is be a Catholic again.” I said, “Well, it isn’t that hard.”

But it seemed to that writer there was a wide and impossible gulf to cross.

Are there modern Catholic writers, poets and artists that you turn to?

Thomas Merton has been a strong influence for a long time; otherwise I have more affinities and friendships than influences.

What has the Church contributed to you as an artist? Do you think you would be the same kind of writer if you weren’t Catholic?

My guess is I’d be much diminished without my religious background. The Church taught me the value of parable, of story, and of being alert to things unseen.

The Church taught me reverence for the earth and all its creatures. I think of a beautifully restored, 17th century Jesuit library I once visited in France. The floor was intricately patterned. Each bookcase was a marvel of sculpted wood, and the gold calligraphy overhead indicated in Latin which books were sacred and which were profane. And that made me smile because that seemed so Catholic, to recognize the difference and yet unite the sacred and profane in one gorgeous room. The finest literature does exactly that.

When you look at a secularizing culture, do you find you’re filled with more despair or hope?

I’m unhappy with the way things are going in the world, but I’m not feeling hopeless. There’s that saying: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faith.”

Maybe we’re in a period of greater or lesser martyrdom, as in so many ages throughout history.

But in the fourth Gospel Jesus promised, “I will not leave you orphaned.”

Even the atheist has not been abandoned by God. A religious awakening could happen at any time.

Some of your books have dealt overtly with themes of faith, others less so. Atticus, for example, reads like a modern version of the Prodigal Son story. Do you see your books as modern parables, guiding readers toward an eternal truth?

I hope they are. It’s in the nature of plots to have characters who encounter problems, so many of the people I concoct are not entirely admirable and some historical figures I’ve treated display varying degrees of evil and villainy.

The goal of fiction is to put recognizable people in extreme situations and record their proper or improper responses, which is exactly what Scripture does.

The film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was based upon your novel. How did that come about?

The director Andrew Dominik was browsing through a used bookstore in Melbourne, Australia, and happened to pick up the novel. Reading a few pages he got hooked enough to buy it. And then Brad Pitt contacted him after seeing Andrew’s first film, Chopper, and said he’d like to work with him some day. Knowing Brad was from Missouri, Andrew mentioned my novel and sent him a copy.

Within two days, Brad called him back and said he wanted to make a movie based on it. With Brad Pitt on board it was easier to overcome the naysaying about Westerns from movie studio executives and the film was given the green light in May, 2005.

Were you pleased with the movie version of your book?

I couldn’t be more pleased. The film is a masterpiece and Andrew’s script itself is a work of art and amazingly faithful to the novel. Brad’s a great guy and went so far as to have inserted in his contract that the novel’s title had to stay as the film’s title. I was very lucky to have such great support from them, the producers, the cast and crew.

At the premiere in New York Brad asked my wife, Bo, “Did he like it?” She told him I did. Brad grinned hugely and said, “That never happens!” Like I said, I was very lucky.

I understand that you’ve been ordained a permanent deacon. What led you to discern that vocation?

All the deacons I’ve met have had the same experience of beginning as lectors or extraordinary ministers of Communion or liturgical musicians, and finding those ministries so nourishing and fulfilling that they took on more voluntary jobs in the Church until gradually their vocation to the diaconate seems obvious.

I heard the call when I was playing golf with my Jesuit friend Mario Prietto and he suggested, “Why don’t you think about becoming a deacon?”

I have been assisting at Mass, presiding at weddings, acting as a spiritual director, and serving in other capacities, but I still consider writing my primary ministry as a deacon.

What are you currently working on?

I have a historical novel being published in May. Exiles concerns the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and his writing of The Wreck of the Deutschland. The novel is a braided narrative: half of it concerning the Franciscan nuns who were exiles from Germany and drowned in that shipwreck off the east coast of England; the other half following the life and exile of Father Hopkins, a genius unrecognized in his own era who is increasingly important in ours.

Why do you see Gerard Manley Hopkins as increasingly relevant?

Hopkins was thought too experimental and eccentric in his day, primarily because he didn’t follow traditional metrical patterns, but also because of his willful difficulties in word choice and because of his very Catholic themes.

In our age of free verse, form and scansion matter less, and we can appreciate a poetry that is so layered and deep you can find something new in a sonnet with each reading. No one writing in English is quite like him.

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.