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The Wit, Wisdom and Wonder
of Writer Jon Hassler

[ Feature 1 Photo]
Photo By Dianne Towalski

Readers of Jon Hassler's novels love his quirky characters, comical exploration of familiar themes and attention to detail. By Anne M. Cormier

 Novels Portray Catholic Culture

 Compelled to Write

 Childhood Memories

 Memorable Catholic Characters

 Striving for a Higher Moral Ground

 Knowing How to Tell a Story

ON A COLD MAINE NIGHT, a 35-year-old news producer sits alone in his quiet apartment reading a book his sister has recommended. Suddenly, stunned by the book's unanticipated climax, he shouts, "No! No!" Moments later he returns to the story, overwhelmed by a sense of loss.

A civilian writer for the Department of Defense scours bookstore shelves, searching out the perfect gift for a friend's upcoming birthday. The title she seeks is set firmly in her mind. Unable to find it, she exits the Maryland store in frustration. No other book will do!

A parish priest assigned to a lonely South Dakota outpost eagerly anticipates an upcoming day off. It finally arrives. He drives 85 miles one way to the closest public library and picks up another novel by his new favorite author. In the anonymity of the small city, he kicks up his heels and spends the afternoon in a coffee shop reading.

At first glance, these three individuals appear to have little in common. They are widely separated by geography and pursue disparate professions. In conversation, however, the truth emerges: Each has fallen victim to the irresistible charms and inspired prose of Minnesota writer Jon Hassler.

Novels Portray Catholic Culture

Recently retired from St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota, Hassler is the author of nine highly regarded novels published over the last 20 years. His work has spawned a strong following in and around Minnesota, but small pockets of avid fans have sprung up around the country as well, a phenomenon for which Hassler is grateful.

Though not overtly religious, many of Hassler's finely crafted novels portray Roman Catholic culture with an evenhandedness rarely found in more cynical modern writing. By his own admission, however, Hassler didn't start out trying to be a Catholic writer. "It surprised me how much Church there is in my books....It's with me, I guess."

Hassler has observed both Catholic culture and the world of academia, another important backdrop for his stories. He attended a parochial school in Staples, Minnesota, and was a student at St. John's University. He returned to St. John's and became a tenured faculty member, holding the titles of professor of English, writer-in-residence and regent's professor.

Compelled to Write

Five years ago Hassler was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. On the January morning we speak, he is now far removed from Minnesota's blizzards and subzero temperatures. After 42 years of teaching, he now spends the winter months basking in Florida sunshine and enjoying ocean breezes. He maintains that he doesn't miss teaching too much, going back to St. John's only occasionally to visit a class. His new life actually facilitates his work as an author. "I don't have to feel torn anymore," he says. "I can devote my full time to writing."

Explaining how he was able to manage demanding careers as a college professor and as a successful writer, Hassler is modest. "It's a wonder to me as I look back how I had the energy for this," he says. "I guess it just testifies to how strong the compulsion was....I certainly did work hard at it."

The urge to write was so compelling, evidently, that Hassler gave up a social life, television and newspapers in order to devote himself completely to the task. The fruit of his labors, as anyone who has read his work can affirm, is casts of characters so real, dialogue so charmingly funny and atmosphere so palpable readers find it difficult to believe they have never visited Hassler's fictional towns or met its quirky inhabitants.

Asked if anyone ever encouraged him to pursue a writing career, Hassler comments, "Nobody ever recommended I write. I don't think a teacher ever did. I wanted to write all my life, I'm sure, but I never told anybody." In fact, while college friends submitted their work to various publications, Hassler never even mentioned his own interest in writing. "It was too precious a desire," he recalls, "but I harbored it."

Hassler did not begin writing seriously until he was nearly 40 years old. For five years, he polished his skills, submitting short stories to literary journals. While 85 of his early submissions met with rejection, six were accepted for publication. It was one of those published stories that led to an agent's offer of representation.

Hassler described the circumstances surrounding the publication of his first novel, Staggerford, to good friend Joe Plutt in a 1997 interview in Lake Country Journal: "I mailed it to Harriet Wasserman, my agent, and she didn't respond....Later I called her up and asked her if there was any good news." She responded, "The good news is that I believe in your writing."

From that inauspicious beginning, Staggerford went on to sell out its first 5,000-copy printing in only six weeks and was selected as 1978's novel of the year by the Friends of American Writers.

Staggerford, like the many novels that followed it, appeals to readers for many reasons. Some love Hassler's characters. Others are drawn by his deft and comical exploration of familiar themes: the nature of good and evil, the natural conflict between institutional rules and the need for their compassionate enforcement, and the descent of modern culture into what one of his most engaging characters, Agatha McGee, calls "the new Dark Ages." Finally, there is Hassler's peerless attention to detail.

Childhood Memories

Hassler credits his keen sense of observation unequivocally to one very important person in his life: "My mother was forever pointing out things and places to me, especially funny things, eccentric people....I think I learned to pay attention to things through her eyes."

He was an only child whose parents both doted on him, and they encouraged him to read. In addition, his early childhood seems to have been populated by a number of people whom he clearly loved and remembers still with touching fondness.

For example, there was his storytelling Irish grandfather who sang songs and bragged about his days on the railroad. Hassler says his grandfather's stories were retold with such frequency that he grew tired of listening to them. "I'd love to hear them again now," he declares softly, regret in his voice.

Another favorite of his was a great-aunt named Elizabeth. An unmarried schoolteacher, she went home to Minnesota each summer and spent time with the Hassler family, teaching young Jon table manners and "things such as that."

A relative who left an indelible impression on him is Cousin Bunny, a girl several years older who lived with his family for extended periods. In one chapter of his upcoming autobiography, Hassler relates an episode in which she figures prominently: When Jon was four, Bunny was often charged with accompanying him to a local movie theater for the week's feature. Unfortunately, due to the boy's tenderhearted outbursts, they both were asked to leave the theater on several occasions. "The first one was Heidi," he recalls. "[I thought] Shirley Temple was in a crystal ball. Her grandfather was looking at that crystal ball. I thought she was trapped....I wailed and wailed.... Bunny had to take me home." Nearly 60 years later, Hassler laughingly confides, Bunny still resents him for having made her miss the end of that movie!

Hassler described a treasured memory of his third-grade teacher in an America interview: "I recall Sister Constance saying that, because playing came naturally to children, we served God by playing." Building on that liberating idea from his childhood, he believes that he serves God through his writing, that it is, in fact, a mission.

Writing and praying, for Hassler, come from the same deep source. The more he writes, the less energy he seems to have for prayer. "Energy for devotion versus emotion," Hassler explains succinctly.

Memorable Catholic Characters

Whatever the source, the energy Jon Hassler devotes to his craft is well spent. His writing is popular and meaningful to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Although the latter sometimes complain that they like his books "except for all those Catholics," many Roman Catholic readers love Hassler precisely because of the characters whose lives so closely resemble their own.

One such personage is Agatha McGee, the lovable pillar of morality and Roman Catholic orthodoxy who first appears in Staggerford and is later featured more prominently in Hassler's Green Journey and Dear James. He suggests she represents "that sort of inflexible, backward-looking side of me."

He describes Agatha in Staggerford: "Like many of us, Agatha struggles with life's paradoxes: If you let sunshine stand for the goodness in the world and you let rain stand for evil, do goodness and evil mingle like sun and rain to produce something?...Does God permit sin because it's an ingredient in something he's concocting and we human beings aren't aware of what it is?"

Simon Shea, another of Hassler's memorable characters, is a man who, though married, has lived apart from his wife for over 30 years. In Simon's Night, Shea is recently retired from college teaching. He reflects, "...if priests were smart they would move their confessionals and their power of absolution out of the churches and set them up in shopping centers, for it's there, while handing its precious money across those counters,...that humanity seems most vulnerable...least confident...most unsteady."

Miles Pruitt, Staggerford's highly lovable and unforgettable protagonist, gently teases his landlady, Agatha McGee, when she serves him another meatless Friday-evening meal. "I see we are being holier than Rome again tonight," he quips. Agatha retorts, "Being holier than Rome is no fun since they made it so easy."

These and other of Hassler's main characters share an intriguing trait: Most are romantically unattached adults who manage to lead lives that are full and satisfying to them, and interesting to readers as well. In an era when literature is replete with sexual angst and any number of variations on the theme of seeking romance, this is somewhat remarkable.

Striving for a Higher Moral Ground

Hassler's first marriage of 25 years, which ended in an annulment, was quite troubled. (He has since remarried.) The independence and self-reliance he knew in his first marriage, he concedes, may have contributed to his realistic and frequent portrayal of the single life. A few people, mostly at autograph signings, have thanked him for that aspect of his writing. They "come up to me to have a book signed and say, 'I've lived alone all my life. It's been good. And you're the only writer who seems to understand that.'"

Hassler, in fact, understands a lot. His characters are people we have met in our everyday lives; their shortcomings or peculiarities are often our own. He writes in Staggerford that "Mrs. Stevenson was a formidable, triple-chinned woman, trussed and stayed... altogether more human since the last faculty dinner, when a loud belch took her by surprise."

In the same novel he describes another character: "There was little to love about Imogene Kite. She was all warts and no hurry to find a husband....What she did, incessantly, was look up information in the card catalog. Miles had never known anyone with such a respect for pure knowledge...."

In clear, crisp prose Hassler renders the ordinary extraordinarily. He crafts human beings who, despite their failures and all manner of adversity, still strive for a higher moral ground. In his hands, literature uplifts and transforms, even when it deals with less-than-savory issues.

To its credit, even Hollywood has recognized Hassler's storytelling prowess. Several years ago, Green Journey was adapted for television and broadcast on NBC as The Love She Sought, starring Angela Lansbury. More recently, Gregory Productions, a subsidiary of the Sacred Heart League and the company responsible for 1996's acclaimed Spitfire Grill, optioned Hassler's North of Hope.

Hassler, who couldn't bear to watch Lansbury in the role of Agatha McGee until last year, for fear of having it distort his image of Agatha, compliments the television production: "I loved it, actually. I thought it was awfully close to the novel, except for the ending." He adds, philosophically, "Hollywood has to do that, I guess."

That last statement is quintessential Jon Hassler—clear, kind and gracious, the hallmark of a man who lives very much in the present. In that present, he commands much respect for who he is as a person and what he does as a writer.

Knowing How to Tell a Story

A Malaysian student named Nithy has spent many hours working and talking with Hassler, who has served as his mentor and has helped him complete a book detailing a bicycle journey across the Americas. Nithy refers to Hassler as "a true gentleman," someone whom he has been honored and fortunate to meet.

Hassler is no less respected by those who know him only through his writing. Several years ago, I stood in the Washington, D.C., bookstore Politics and Prose and watched as a customer close to me reached for North of Hope, Hassler's latest book at that time. He caressed the volume and seemed to savor the feel of it in his hands. With a satisfied smile, he turned to me and said, quite unsolicited, "Now here is a man who knows how to tell a story."

To this understated but supreme compliment, I could only nod my heartfelt agreement.

Anne M. Cormier is a free-lance writer who lives in Herndon, Virginia, with her husband and sons. Jon Hassler is the only person to whom she has ever written a fan letter.


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