The Deacon's Bench

Here’s something that’s so unusual and rare, well, it’s just, just…incredibly cool: a deacon who’s a novelist, and who just had his book made into a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt.

Ron Hansen has been published a lot in the Catholic press — his name pops up periodically in anthologies of spiritual writing –but I didn’t know about his connection to Hollywood, or his surprising backstory.

Until now:

Deacon Ron Hansen, who serves in ministry for the Diocese of San Jose, is also a novelist and English professor, and recently received a professional compliment about his writing from actor Brad Pitt.

“He said, ‘Hey, man, great book,”‘ Deacon Hansen told Catholic San Francisco, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

“He was a really nice guy, very generous and gracious,” the novelist said, adding: “I was prone to like him.”

Deacon Hansen met Pitt on the set of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” a movie starring Pitt as the paranoid post-Civil War outlaw and based on Deacon Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same name.

What Deacon Hansen appreciates even more than Pitt’s compliment is the movie’s faithfulness to his story. The director, Andrew Dominik, who spotted the book at a Melbourne, Australia, bookstore and thought it would make a great movie, adapted the novel in a remarkably light-handed way for a Hollywood treatment of literature.

“What Andrew did with my novel was go through it with highlighter and take all the parts he wanted right out of the novel,” Deacon Hansen said. “Even the action descriptions were taken right out of the novel. There wasn’t a single thing in the script that didn’t appear in the novel, which is strange and wonderful for an adaptation from an author’s point of view.”

Jules Daly, a member of the film’s production company, wrote in an e-mail: “Andrew gives great accolade to all aspects of Ron’s writing. For me, Ron delved so deep within the characters, the culture and the landscape – so deep that one wonders when reading how he conceived of this time, place and story, almost as though he had known it himself.”

Pitt, who also produced the film, became involved with the project because he had wanted to work with Dominik and agreed to play James for less than his normal fee, making the movie feasible on a $30 million budget.

The novel’s hero is Bob Ford, the 19-year-old kid brother of one of James’ gang members. Ford killed James in 1882 by shooting him in the back of the head while James was tidying a picture with a feather duster. Ford, played by Casey Affleck, had reason to believe James intended to kill him and that the crime boss might have been planning the deed to take place in conjunction with a robbery the gang had scheduled the next day.

In real life, Ford became a celebrity who toured the country. The public, reveling in the blood and guts of James’ career, initially elevated the assassin to the status of hero for eliminating a public menace but later turned on him for shooting a man in the back. A popular 19th-century tune branded Ford as a “dirty little coward.”

The Ford story, like all Deacon Hansen’s novels, has a Christian theme. His characters cope with the forces of good and evil and his settings dramatize the moral struggle.

“A lot of people would be surprised you could find a Christian idea in a story about Jesse James, but I think it’s implicit in the text,” he said. “A lot of times it’s about recklessness, ambition, ego and how those can really ruin your life, and I think a lot of times there is this sense of peace and redemption operative in most of my books.”

Deacon Hansen cited the influence of the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola on his storytelling. “One of the exercises is you are who you follow – Christ or the evil one?” he said.

Born into a Catholic family in Nebraska, Deacon Hansen attended Catholic grade school, a Jesuit-run high school and graduated from Jesuit-run Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. His twin brother was a Jesuit and a sister was a Dominican nun.

His mother and father were converts to Catholicism. His father’s father had been Mormon, and his mother became a Catholic while living in an orphanage run by Dominican nuns.

While working on his 1991 novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, about the phenomenon of stigmata, Deacon Hansen returned to school for a mid-career refresher in the faith. In 1995 he graduated from the University of Santa Clara, also a Jesuit school, with a master’s degree of arts in pastoral ministry with an emphasis on spirituality.

He later finished the first year of a three-year master’s of divinity program at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. He left to enroll in the diaconate program of the San Jose Diocese and was ordained three years later.

He assists at Masses, serves on the diocesan formation of clergy committee and is assigned to campus ministry at the University of Santa Clara.

In 2006 he was appointed Gerard Manley Hopkins professor in the arts and humanities at the university. Deacon Hansen’s forthcoming novel, Exiles, is about a poem titled “The Wreck of the Deutschland” by Father Hopkins, a 19th-century English Jesuit.

Congratulations, Ron. Have your people call my people and let’s do lunch.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus