In Hotly in Pursuit of the Real, Ron Hansen, the beloved bestselling novelist — who has brought to life a gallery of unforgettable characters, from a stigmatic nun to a frail Victorian poet to Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and even Hitler’s niece — opens the doors of his writing studio to share with us his passions for history, scandal, theology, Jesuits, the American West, and golf (which he plays even in bad weather).
If Hansen’s novels explore people very different from himself, the meditations in this book do the opposite, allowing us to glimpse the wellsprings of his imagination, the places and traditions and books that drive him to create made-up worlds. In that sense, the reflections in these pages truly serve as “notes toward a memoir.”
Taking his title — and his cue — from Flannery O’Connor, Ron Hansen goes in hot pursuit of the real, beginning with the memory of a little boy sitting in Mass in Omaha, Nebraska, listening to the priest read the words of the Gospel, instilling in him a reverence for narrative as a way of shaping and evoking the meaning of things.
As each section unfolds, we gain a clearer sense of Hansen’s aesthetic, the parallels he sees between writing and the sacraments, between literature’s capacity to make history present to us and the Church’s rich array of traditions, including the Jesuit charism that has inspired great writers such as Gerard Manley Hopkins (and himself). Equally adept at telling a hilarious anecdote and guiding us through a complex, ambiguous episode in history, Hansen’s language remains fresh and invigorating. Hotly in Pursuit of the Real takes you inside one writer’s imagination, only to send you back out into the wide world with new eyes.
For forty years now, I’ve followed Ron Hansen’s writings, wherever he has chosen to lead. Whether it’s the Dalton Gang or Billy the Kid or Jesse James or a murder in Queens or a stigmatic in a convent in upstate New York, or a young Hopkins, an exile himself, writing of the death of five Franciscan nuns who perished off the coast of England, all events dating back a century and more and each vividly and convincingly portrayed in the alembic of their own particular historical moment, or whether he’s writing about his home state of Nebraska or hitting golf balls into a howling wind or in hundred degree weather, he manages to hold the attention of his readers, mesmerizing them with his magical prose that rises again and again to the realm of the poetic. So, here, in his aptly named Hotly in Pursuit of the Real, he shows us in these incandescent, often comic and self-effacing notes toward a memoir, that he is a writer’s writer in whom we can delight and from whom we can all learn.
Paul Mariani, author of Ordinary Time
From his first haunting story collection, Nebraska, to his astonishing novel Mariette in Ecstasy, to his absolutely riveting A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, Ron Hansen has never failed to transport me somewhere I didn’t even know existed, much less wanted to go. Thanks to this lovely new book from Slant, I can finally put into words what his erudite intelligence, wide-ranging spiritual imagination, and gorgeous prose have meant to me. He says this of his mentor: “In John Updike, I found the exact writer I wanted to be.” Ditto for Ron Hansen in my own writing life.
Paula Huston, author of A Land Without Sin