In which we talk with Ron Hansen M.A. ’95 about truth and fiction and Billy the Kid—and when you can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys.
Ron Hansen earned a place in American letters early on with a story collection, Nebraska, and two remarkable novels on the Old West: Desperadoes, about the Dalton Gang, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford—a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and later made into a film directed by Andrew Dominik and starring Brad Pitt. His fiction has grappled with faith and identity—in the spare and haunting Mariette in Ecstasy, and in the shipwrecked lives of Exiles. He has told the tale of Hitler’s Niece and, in A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, traced the paths of a scheming couple who committed a murder in the 1920s that became known as the crime of the century. Atticus, his story of a prodigal son and grieving father, was a finalist for the National Book Award. His two most recent books are She Loves Me Not: New and Selected Stories, and a novel that returns to gunfighters’ territory: The Kid, telling the tale of Billy the Kid like it’s never been told before. “One of our most honored and prolific authors,” assessed critic Sven Birkerts in The New York Times Book Review. “Easily one of America’s truest and finest living writers,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle.
Hansen has taught at Santa Clara since 1996. He directs the creative writing program and holds the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. Chair of Arts and Humanities. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, he graduated from Creighton University, went on to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop—where he studied with John Irving—and held a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. He also holds an M.A. in spirituality from SCU and is a deacon in the Catholic Church.
SCM: Let’s start with a question that is usually answered by critics. Looking at your work—the cadence of the sentences, the voice, the subject matter—are there elements that you can point to, given the range of subjects that you’ve tackled over the years, and say they are uniquely yours?
RON HANSEN: You know, I try to write differently with each book, but there is something inescapable about your own voice. And I think mine would be characterized by maybe an annoying fondness for turning nouns into verbs. I also have a fondness for imagery, especially metaphors. And I would like to think that you could read one story in the collection She Loves Me Not, and then another, and they would seem to be by someone else, but I know there are probably some elements that people are picking up that indicate, “Oh, this is by Ron.” I don’t know any more than that. I was thinking about how you develop a style. Most writers begin as imitators. I was very influenced by John Updike and Edgar Allan Poe early on, and so I was imitating their prose. But I don’t write like either one. Eventually, your own voice starts to leak through, and pretty soon for better or worse it’s only yours, not anybody else’s.
SCM: What about the role of the exterior world in your work—the weather, the sense of the outside?
HANSEN: I was once talking to John Gardner about my fiction, and he said, “You know, whenever anybody picks up a tool or a gun in your work, it gets hot.” And he thought that about my descriptions of weather, as well. I’m not an indoor writer. I started as a painter—I wanted to be an illustrator for newspapers, of all things, and I got into doing portrait painting. Then I decided I could make multiple copies of books a lot easier than multiple copies of paintings. But that experience with visual art made me very aware of color, of the outdoors, and of particularity of detail. I wasn’t very creative as a painter, I was just a copyist, and that’s one reason why I decided to turn to fiction writing. I’m still a very visual writer, in that I’m actually seeing the scene appear before me while I’m writing it down. There’s kind of a cinematic aspect to a lot of my writing because I’m already seeing the movie in my mind.
SCM: What was it that drew you to writing about Billy the Kid?
HANSEN: I read a nonfiction book by Stephen Tatum called Inventing Billy the Kid back in 1983. I was fascinated because he followed the journalistic accounts and showed how their perception of Billy changed over the years. Billy was treated as a demon at first, and then he became just an outlaw, but in 1926 in The Saga of Billy the Kid Walter Burns depicted him as a sympathetic, misunderstood swashbuckler. And he’s mostly remained that way. Even the description of what he looked like changed as his hair transitioned from a satanic black to blond.
After reading Tatum’s book, somebody asked me what I was gonna write next, and I said, “I think I’ll do a book on Billy the Kid,” and then I promptly forgot about that entirely. More than 20 years later, I went to receive the Golden Spur Award from the Western Writers of America for the screenplay adaptation of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Someone in the audience said, “Whatever happened to that Billy the Kid novel?”
I had totally forgotten about that project. It just so happened that I was looking for something to write next, and I thought, “Why not complete a trilogy about the famous outlaws of the Old West?” I began by reading everything I could on Billy and Pat Garrett and then eventually started writing. In fact, chapter four is the first thing I wrote, because I was just toying with the right tone for the novel and that was a scene I felt was easy to do.
In chapter four, we meet Billy as he was then called Henry Antrim. He gets involved in a barroom fight and in desperation ends up shooting the oversized guy he was fighting. The Kid runs off and, in that escape, he chooses a new alias, William H. Bonney. His original moniker was William Henry McCarty, and then he took his stepfather’s name of Antrim, and finally he became Bonney, which may have been his mother’s maiden name.
There was kind of a narrative voice that I was looking for that would have the flavor of an Old West patois but would also have a vocabulary available to me now. There was a historian who was famous as the preeminent scholar on Billy the Kid, but he died without writing anything—and some regret that he failed to put all he knew into a biography. So I imagined myself as him, an old codger living in the West but also a scholar who has access to all the research material out there.
SCM: How did you find that voice? In the first line you’re talking right to the reader: “You’ll want to know about his mother, she being crucial to the Kid’s becomings.” You already sort of have the sense that the history is unfolding. And later on you have a cameo by Jesse James.
HANSEN: Yes, there’s a yarns around a cracker-barrel quality to some of the writing that I hope meshes with more literate and poetic prose. And that’s supposedly a true story—that Jesse James was seeking out people to replace the gang that was shot up in the Northfield, Minnesota, raid, and he somehow had heard about Billy the Kid. He found him in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and tried to recruit him. But Billy told him that he only stole horses and cows; he didn’t steal from people or banks or railroads. And so Jesse gave up on him, went back to Missouri, and found some rubes to do his bidding.
SCM: How different are they in terms of character? Because I think a lot of your readers have Billy the Kid and Jesse James in the same constellation.
HANSEN: I think that Jesse James was a charming psychotic who could con people with his seeming good nature. Whereas Billy was mainly sociable with only brief periods of violence, of anger, and usually he thought the anger was justified, that he was righting an injustice. Jesse thought that he was justified because he thought of himself as a guerilla in a Civil War that had never actually ended. But he still seems much more determinedly vicious than the Kid.
SCM: One of the scenes that you write is when the Kid is still just a kid, and he gets back at the blacksmith who’s been taunting and abusing him really horribly.
HANSEN: He had to borrow a gun to do that. Even later, he was constantly having to acquire new guns after repeatedly having his weapons stolen or taken from him. Same with horses. Unlike most cowboys of that era, he didn’t have a special horse he doted on or wrote cowboy poetry about. He would ride a horse for a while—the longest period he had a particular one was about three months—but after a while, he gave that horse away without a pang of regret and found some other horse to thieve.
SCM: In the novel, people are constantly stealing one another’s horses, constantly stealing cattle—you name it.
HANSEN: Even Pat Garrett, the supposedly noble sheriff, stole his first hogs and cows to get his ranch started. In unfenced, wide-open country with cattle herds of perhaps 10,000, it was a very common practice.
SCM: It’s hard to tell who the good guys and the bad guys are a lot of times.
HANSEN: Right, it is. Because a lot of the businessmen were corrupt, a lot of the sheriffs and government agents were corrupt, chicanery was omnipresent. It was a wild and woolly time, and it often must have been hard for Billy to determine what was the right thing to do, because he could see so many evil people working against him.
SCM: There’s even the scene where you have competing posses going after one another: “We’re coming to arrest you.” “No, we’re coming to arrest you!”
HANSEN: Exactly. It’s an amazing period. The chief prosecuting attorney for the district court had himself killed a competing attorney in the lobby of a hotel, yet he pretended to be holier-than-thou.
Attorney Thomas Catron, the first elected senator from New Mexico, stole tens of thousands of acres from Mexican people who’d been living in the Territory for centuries and all because he argued they didn’t have legal titles to the land. Everywhere the Kid looked, he found wealthy people trying steal something.
And, of course, because New Mexico was a territory rather than a state, there were a lot of things the government couldn’t control. By 1912, New Mexico had gotten fences and roads and telephone lines, enabling it to seem respectable and worthy of statehood.
I loved writing the scenes with Lew Wallace, the general who came from Indiana but got an appointment as governor of the New Mexico Territory and hated it. He would have preferred to be an ambassador in the Ottoman Empire, which later happened. Wallace was writing Ben-Hur then, which seemed to occupy most of his time, but between pages he was dealing with Billy Bonney. Eventually, like Pontius Pilate, he washed his hands of the whole thing—and even though the Kid had been promised clemency by the governor, he went to trial.
SCM: Another recurring motif is this: Because the Kid looks so young, and he’s so much the ladies’ man, people are always making fun of him and creating situations where he’s gonna have to get back at ’em.
HANSEN: He was about 5-foot-7 and weighed maybe 115 pounds. So, there was a lot of heavy work he couldn’t do—he wasn’t physically capable of vying with vaqueros, and he hated working indoors. But handling a gun he was very, very good at. So, he first got hired to be on night watch on cattle ranges, but gradually he found out he could steal a calf or maverick very easily, sell ’em for a few dollars, and move on.
Every memoir by those who knew him talks about how handsome he was, how magnetic, how funny, and what a nimble dancer and heartthrob he was. The description is completely different in the accounts of journalists of the period who thought of him as the offscouring of creation.
It’s hard to account for this sporadic violence and the feeling that it was OK to kill an enemy. It might have been an aftereffect of the Civil War, where he was aware that friends would battle friends, and even loyal family members would try to kill each other. When the rebellion was over, they returned to their normal pursuits without much revenge, letting bygones be bygones. Perhaps the Kid thought that settling scores was natural and something he could just walk away from.
SCM: The one photograph of Billy the Kid plays a role in the novel as well.
HANSEN: I was struck by the fact that everybody talked about what a groomed dandy he was, how he loved fancy clothes—and then you see the sole photograph of him in which he looks really shabby. Instead of his usual sombrero, he’s wearing kind of a stovepipe hat that’s been caved in, an overlarge sweater, a sailor shirt, and frumpy trousers.
I hypothesized that Billy had seen others in their finest clothes and formal poses and wanted to be completely different, purposefully dressing himself up like a tramp. He looks like a goof in that photograph, and I don’t think that was unintentional.
SCM: One moment that I love is near the end where you have him talking with a journalist. Of course the journalist wants to know, “What would you tell our readers? What’s the lesson that we can get from Billy the Kid?”
HANSEN: He said, “I would advise your readers never to engage in killing.” He was always kind of skylarking and that may have been just a quip that he knew would play well in the papers.
SCM: One of the other elements, in the confusion of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, is that this takes place against a backdrop of what became known as the Lincoln County War. It’s not just that people were going around and stealing.
HANSEN: Lincoln County then was about as large as the state of Maine, a vast tract of mostly nothing, and the war was basically the Irish against the English. L.G. Murphy, Jimmy Dolan, Sheriff Brady—all these opportunists were Irishmen who journeyed to America during the potato famine, joined the army, and by hook and by crook acquired power and wealth, and they wanted to keep it. The Englishman John Tunstall, who owned a rival mercantile store, was a threat to that status and so he was murdered. Billy was just one of his cowhands who was out to exact revenge.
Alexander McSween was the only practicing lawyer in Lincoln County and on the Kid’s side. There was also just one sheriff, who would finally be Pat Garrett, the Kid’s killer.
SCM: Let’s talk about some of your earlier work. One character and inspiration you’ve turned to is Gerard Manley Hopkins. What first drew you to Hopkins—and has brought you back to him? Especially after a novel like Exiles, is he still very much a presence for you?
HANSEN: I was a huge fan of Dylan Thomas when I was in college, and read his poems over and over again. Then I read something that said he was very much influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins. My college poetry textbook only had two poems by Hopkins. But I started reading his other work and really loved it. What excited me about it is, every time I reread it, I found something new—Hopkins is limitless in the things that he hid inside his poetry, because he was so multilingual, very much into etymologies, and fond of puns. His perfect wording was often very layered; he’d chosen it because it could mean two or three different things. A full poem of that groans with interest and complexity.
SCM: What about Mariette? Is she a character who inhabits any special place?
HANSEN: I really loved writing Mariette in Ecstasy. She’s still with me in many ways. You can only stay with the process of writing a novel by liking at least one of the characters a lot, or finding them really intriguing or establishing some kind of identification with them. Soon after I started the book I registered for Don St. Louis’ course on Western Christian Spirituality here just to get somewhat current on convent life. And I liked that class and a dozen others so much that I finally earned a master’s degree in spirituality. I was getting near the end of the novel when I took a Christology class from Fran Smith, S.J. ’56. At the time, he was spiritual director for a young woman who was trying to decide whether she was going to get married or join a Carmelite convent. She told him that after two months of praying about nothing else she still had no clear idea what she should do. Fran said, “Well, maybe God’s saying, ‘Surprise me.’” As soon as I heard that, I recognized, “That’s my last line!” So that did become the last sentence in the novel.
SCM: The sense of surprise was something instrumental in the arrival of the book Mariette in Ecstasy in the world, too, after your first two novels—Desperadoes and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. There’s a radical shift in tone and subject matter. You’re not writing about dust and horses anymore, as one Hollywood person once described the first two books. But also, the role of faith in fiction came very much into focus.
HANSEN: I think James Joyce was the one who used the phrase “saying the unsayable.” A lot of people consider religion and spirituality too intimate to talk about. We used to be instructed, at least when I was growing up, to never talk about politics or religion at the dinner table. So there’s a reticence to address a subject that’s in fact extremely important to them. But I thought some of the greatest stories were those that had a religious background. I always thought that my Catholicism was at least subterranean in my first two novels; there’s talk of Barabbas and Judas in the Jesse James book, and Jesse James is somewhat painted as a Jesus figure, at least in the way he’s perceived by the public. But I wanted to be more overt about my faith, and I thought, “This is a really crucial part of myself. Why should I keep it secret?”