Stewards of the Imagination: Ron Hansen, Larry Woiwode and Sue Miller

Article excerpt

RON HANSEN, Larry Woiwode and Sue Miller, three nationally celebrated novelists, differ significantly in their writing and in their personal religious histories. Yet they share common ground in their commitment to both literary art and theological values. Recently the three responded to questions about how that uneasy set of concerns has influenced their work and its reception.

Ron Hansen, on leave as chair of the creative writing program at the University of California at Santa Cruz, is writing full time under a foundation fellowship. Hansen has received multiple awards for his work. Following the publication of his first two novels, Desperadoes (1979) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (1983), the Christian Science Monitor called him "one of our finest stylists in American historical fiction."

However, Hansen's work is eclectic in both genre and topic as his third novel, Mariette in Ecstasy (1991), indicates. In this book, a young postulant at a cloister in New York State throws her world into chaos by exhibiting stigmata. The novel succeeds, said Newsweek, in re-creating the close spiritual atmosphere of the convent, while also making it one in which "an irreligious reader can still breathe."

Choosing to write Mariette in Ecstasy, with what some might call "hard-core religion" as its subject, must have entailed some risks for you. What motives were involved in the choice?

I've always felt a great deal of freedom in choosing what I want to write next, and in not letting book reviewers and publishing houses define who I am. Catholicism and my own grateful acceptance of Jesus as Lord are so much a part of my characterization of myself that I thought it honest and necessary to be more revealing about Christianity's meaning to me. And so with some trepidation, but also in defiance of the fashionable, I looked for a topic that would frankly represent who I was, knowing that my own private concerns and obsessions would make it fascinating for others, if only a few, because that's how literature works. Mariette in Ecstasy was a novel I wrote because I felt compelled to, with a "Who cares?" attitude about its critical and commercial reception. I knew there was an audience for it, but suspected it was tinier than it turned out to be.

As to subject matter: I was primarily inspired by Therese of Lisieux's autobiography, The Story of a Soul, and its portrayal of a young woman's ardent love for God. I found it a page-turner in spite of the fact that so little really happened in it, and I wondered upon finishing it why nobody seemed to be writing novels like that. I thought, "If not me, then who?" and I began fooling around with a possible plot. I felt no tension as a Catholic writing Mariette, because it's hardly unorthodox, but as a writer I worried that the book would be misunderstood by reviewers and that I would be ridiculed in academe. But if you predicate any writing project on that basis, you might as well hang it up.

Did you meet resistance in your efforts to publish Mariette?

Yes. The first publisher to look at the book wanted it, but my agent wasn't satisfied with the offer. He then sent the manuscript to eight publishers simultaneously and told them to respond within a few weeks, and I saw how some were confounded by Christian spirituality in fiction. One publisher thought it was "exquisite, but we don't see how we could sell it." Another hated it so much he couldn't understand why my agent was representing it. One editor said he thought the book "might one day be a classic, but publishing being what it is today, that's not enough." Finally there was a handful of bidders just because there were so few novels like it around, and the genuine excitement of Edward Burlingame at Harper-Collins convinced me to go there.

Have you been surprised at readers' reactions?

At first I was hesitant about reading the book publicly, but after a few occasions I found that people were not only receptive to the material but gratfied that a writer had taken religious faith so seriously. …