FOR RON HANSEN, being Catholic and writing fiction go hand in hand. “Catholicism continually asks the big theological questions about good and evil and forces believers to accept a confessional rather than therapeutic role—that is, I have to focus on the things I’ve done or failed to do, not brood over or nurse the things that have been done to me,” he says.
“Catholicism encourages frankness about our sin-ridden natures rather than the sentimentality that flinches from descriptions of wrongs and ugliness. Flannery O’Connor said the Catholic writer should be ‘hotly in pursuit of the real.’ And that’s exactly what the finest fiction endeavors to do.”
Many of Hansen’s novels carry a Catholic theme: Mariette in Ecstasy(HarperCollins, 1991) is the story of a young woman who enters a monastery and becomes a mystic in ways that many readers—Catholics and others—find mind-blowing.
In a book review for The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michiko Kakutani described the book as “a slim, luminous novel that burns a laser-bright picture into the reader’s imagination, forcing one to reassess the relationship between madness and divine possession, gullibility and faith, sexual rapture and religious ecstasy. ... Though considerable space is devoted in this novel to Roman Catholic beliefs and liturgy, one need hardly be familiar with that church’s teachings to be moved and amazed by this fable. With Mariette in Ecstasy, Mr. Hansen has written an astonishingly deft and provocative novel.”
Hansen brings a deeply rooted Catholic imagination to his work, finding holy in the ordinary, sacred in the secular. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford(Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), which parallels the theme of sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel, was such a well-told story that it became a widely praised movie, starring Brad Pitt, in 2007. Having written both the novel and the screenplay, Hansen was invited to visit the film set in Canada a few times, where he met director Andrew Dominik and some of the actors, including Pitt, whom he advised on the character of Jesse James.
“I have a photo of the two of us together,” Hansen remarks wryly, “but I had to promise not to let it be published anywhere.”