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Jon was interviewed for the Premier Issue of "Lake Country Journal".  Here is a reprint:



Of Colleges, Characters, & Courage



An interview with Jon Hassler 

by Joe Plut 

Photos by Chip Borkenhagen 

 

Jon Hassler and I met in September 1968 when Mr. Chalberg hired him to teach English at Brainerd Community College. He and I did not initially "hit it off." Each was wary of the other; our beliefs and opinions seemed opposite. In the fall of 1971, Jon invited me to visit his art appreciation class in Wadena to share art highlights from my summer European trip (the Prado, Louvre, National Gallery, Rijksmuseum). On the way to and from Wadena, we discovered how much we had in common--St. John's University (our years there even overlapped by one), a deep admiration for the writer Flannery O'Connor, and more. We talked as if we would never quit. That time together began and secured our friendship which has continued to flourish and deepen ever since. 

The interview for this article took place at Sexton Commons, St. John's University on a rainy Monday, August 19, 1996, with Chip Borkenhagen, publisher of LAKE COUNTRY JOURNAL, taking photographs. We sat in a second floor corner of the lounge on wine-colored divans with windows behind us. The rain poured as we began, but subsided later on. Jon wore a white sweater and chinos, and he hung his long-billed cap ("to keep my nose safe from the sun") on top of a floor lamp. Sounds in the background--textures of life--continued throughout our visit: a child screaming, noises from the cafeteria closing for the day, people walking by. 

We both enjoy excuses to get together, so we're planning to do this again with reversed roles. Jon will interview me for LCJ's September '97 issue. 

Joe: Since LAKE COUNTRY JOURNAL is based in the Brainerd area, would you please tell us how your twelve years in Brainerd, 1968-1980, influenced you as a writer? 

Jon: Well, Brainerd was very important to me, because that's where I began to write. You see, my life settled down to the point where I could begin to write in Brainerd. That was because of the rather peaceful existence at Brainerd Community College as compared to Bemidji State, where I had been before. 

Joe: Publish or perish? 

Jon: Well, no, nobody was publishing. If in Bemidji they had been publishing I could have done it. It was because I had to have a doctorate degree, and I wasn't interested in getting one. So, I found the job in Brainerd and took it. I was very happy there for twelve years. In September, 1970, I took a notebook to school one morning and went into the library after my eight o'clock class and I began to write a story called "A Story Worth Hearing." It was about a group of farmers sitting on a bench in a small town just passing the time of day. One tells a story about a love affair he once had with an old flame, and a guy at the other end of the bench happens to be married to this woman. The way the first guy tells it could have made the story. It wasn't a bad idea, but it was a bad story, because I was such a poor writer. I had a lot to learn. 

Joe: How have your many years of teaching English affected your own writing? 

Jon: Well, that was important because, you see, before I ever wrote a novel, I had twenty years of teaching the best literature there is. And it was by reading the best that I kept up my standards. Now I've taught for forty-one years and I'm still relying on that for that fund of wealth to inspire me as l write. 

Joe: Where did you teach? I know that you were a number of places before Bemidji. 

Jon: After graduating from St. John's, I went to Melrose and taught there for a year. But I wasn't very successful because of discipline: I smiled too early in the year.  My students caught on that I was a Friendly Joe, and I never did get much done there, so I left that job. 

I wanted to get married, so I thought I'd just give teaching another try. It was August of 1956 and I was at home with my parents. The telephone rang, and the man on the other end said, "I'm the superintendent at Fosston, Minnesota, and I was wondering if you'd want to come and teach for me?" Well, I thought he said Austin and said, "Fine!" At that time Austin was the largest high school in the state of Minnesota. But he did mean Fosston, and after we got that straightened out I went up there anyway, and I really liked the looks of it: a small town which was so different from Minneapolis and so different from Melrose, as it turned out, because there were hardly any Catholics there. It was like moving from Rome to Oslo. I remember the day I signed my contract. The superintendent said to me, "You're the first Catholic we've ever hired at this school, but English teachers are really hard to get." So they made an exception for me, and it was a good experience for me. I was there for three years, and I was afraid that if I stayed there any longer I'd be there forever. So I left and went to Park Rapids. The rest is history, as they say, because I made Park Rapids the setting for Staggerford. 

Joe: Wasn't Fosston in there also? 

Jon: Fosston was in The Love Hunter, yes, that was where Chris and Larry taught.  Where they had to get the janitor to go buy the beer because teachers couldn't buy beer. It was sinful.There were two huge Lutheran churches in Fosston and one very small Catholic church and the priest there had three parishes. He was kind of a pathetic figure. I liked him a lot. I lived next door to him, actually. He had a very messy housekeeper. When she was around, the house was always messier. But whenever she would take an extended leave, he couldn't cook so he ate popcorn--every day. 

"He was kind of a pathetic figure. I liked him a lot."

Joe: Who inspired you when you began to write? Did you have a mentor? 

Jon: Well, I had John Cheever to read. I had been reading him incessantly because I loved his sentences. I still do. Just yesterday I picked up his journals and I began to read again. Just for the sake of wallowing in the lovely prose he writes. Not that I liked his subjects or his people so much but it was his sentence structure.  I think of him as my mentor, although I never met him. I just kept imitating him. 

Then in Brainerd I had a friend who was trying to write about the same time. It was important to have a friend to talk to at that point in my career. When you're failing all the time, it's important to have someone to encourage you. 

Joe: What other authors do you particularly read and admire? Do you choose them for their style or story line or a combination? 

Jon: I guess it depends who the writer is. With William Trevor it's the story. William Trevor gets to the heart of the character faster than anybody I ever read. And he breaks your heart in the process. Alice Munro--it's the same thing--it's the story with her. She puts so much into her stories it's like she's saying to you, "When you write, don't hold anything back." I decided to do that with Staggerford. I remember when I began to write it, I thought I had some things I could hold up my sleeve for a while, maybe use them in another book. But I decided no, I'll pour everything I have into this book. And I've been doing it ever since. I think it's a good policy. 

Joe: How did you get your big "break" into publishing? 

Jon: I got my first big break by publishing, without an agent, six stories in literary quarterlies. 

Joe: After how many rejections? 

Jon: In the process of publishing six I got eighty-five rejections. And then this New York agent saw one of the stories and volunteered her services if I should ever write a book. So as I was writing Staggerford I knew I had a reader in New York. I finished the novel in the spring of '76 right before you and I left for England, and I mailed it to Harriet Wasserman, my agent, and she didn't respond. Six weeks later I called her up and asked her if there was any good news. She said very sleepily, "The good news is that I believe in your writing." And that was all she said. But that was enough, because she did place me with Atheneum and they published 5,000 copies, and they went out of print in six weeks. 

Joe: And how much is it worth now, Staggerford? 

Jon: Well, I've heard of people paying $125 for a hardbound copy of Staggerford, now a rare book because it never went back to press. By
1985, in fact, I had five novels published and all of them were out of print. 

Joe: And what company was, of course, your "savior"? 

Jon: That was Ballantine, who came through and decided to publish them all in paperback. So then beginning in July 1986, I had the nice experience of watching each of my books come back into print, and they haven't been out of print since. I don't know of any other authors who have ten novels in print. If you don't have a paperback you aren't going to stay in print very long, and you won't get many students reading it. 

Joe: I know your first editor, Judith Kern, talked about your writing as "dealing with the ongoing quality of life." Do you agree, and if so, could you expand on this? 

Jon: I agree. That was in response to Miles Pruitt's death, of course, that she was saying that. She thought that what happened after his death was important in that
book because it illustrated "the ongoing quality of life," as she called it. And I think that's one of the things that interests me about writing: portraying the endurance of
the human spirit in my characters.

Joe: Which of your characters reflect the endurance of the human spirit? 

Jon: Larry Quinn endures MS. Simon Shea endures old age. Agatha McGee endures the coming on of the Dark Ages. Frank and Libby struggle with the conflict between love and vocation. One more example would be Connor's struggles with marital strife and alcoholism. 

Joe: The writer Cynthia Ozick once said, "Writing is essentially an act of courage." Could that sentiment tie in with your own life? 

Jon: To pursue any art you have to go into the desert first, and that takes courage. For example, when I began to write, I gave up the newspaper, television, my social life, and my garage--I turned my garage into a den for writing. J.F. Powers said that giving yourself up to your art is like diving off the high board. 

Joe: Symbolism is an English teacher's question. Do you consciously use symbols in your writing, or do the symbols emerge from your subconscious? Or neither? 

Jon: Well, they do emerge, but I often don't know about them when they do. I don't think I've ever purposely put a symbol in a book, and yet they are there. I've had readers point them out to me and I agree with them. I've had the thought recently that no book is finished until it is read. I think every reader brings his own experience to complete the book.



I had a reader recently point out something that I never knew was in a book of mine, but there it was, clear as can be. It's in North of Hope
where there's a reference to this pioneer priest who died crossing Red Lake, or in the book it was Sovereign Lake. He was taking communion to
the Indians across the lake on Christmas morning. He got almost across the lake, and a windstorm came up, and he got lost and froze to death on
the ice. And then later in the book at almost that very same spot on the lake another kind of "priest," bringing another kind of "salvation" in the
form of drugs to the Indians, goes through the ice and dies on that same spot. That's interesting, I think. 

"I've had the thought recently that no book is finished until it is read. I think every reader brings his own experience to complete the book."


Joe: The holy and the profane. And you agree with it, of course. 

Jon: Of course. It's there. I like it. I never thought of it. I couldn't like it better even if I had thought of it. 

Joe: Well, it's like theater. The actors need an audience and the writer needs the readers. I admire your courage in going public in the Star Tribune about your having Parkinson's. Your readers feel so close to you because of your writing that I know they would like an update on your progress. 

Jon: First of all it wasn't hard to do because it was easier for me to say it that way rather than have people wonder why I might be limping around or losing my balance now and then. It would be embarrassing to me if I thought people didn't know what was going on. I also wanted to alert people to the Struthers Parkinson's Center in Minneapolis, which I go to. 

Joe: To help give courage to others? 

Jon: Well, I guess so. And that is what's coming to fruition. I was at a book signing at Barnes and Noble and I seemed to be gathering a Parkinson's crowd around me. I saw these people coming to me and looking me over and judging what I'm doing. They would say, "I have Parkinson's and was diagnosed at such and such a time, and how long ago were you diagnosed?" It's gratifying to know they relate and share with me. 

Joe: And what was your comment? 

Jon: Well, I felt like the Parkinson's poster child. 

Joe: But you have given hope to many people. 

Jon: Well, I hope so, because I'll probably live to regret this, but I still say, if you're going to have a terminal disease, Parkinson's is the one to have because it's so slow. The medication takes away the pain, and there's a lot of research going on, so I could even benefit by that. 

Joe: You have written at least one chapter of your memoirs about houses that you have lived in. Obviously, yours won't be the typical memoir. What other chapters are you contemplating? 

Jon: I have a list of at least fifteen. Teachers, nuns, friends. Each one would be a chapter and so, you see, it won't be a chronological book. It will be chronological within those chapters but each chapter will be a different aspect of life. I think that would be interesting to write. 

Joe: Almost a new genre for memoirs? 

Jon: I would like to think so. 

Joe: I know that one of your novels, Green Journey, was made into a television movie entitled The Love She Sought, and I know that there's been a flurry lately about other novels of yours. Would you like to comment on that? 

Jon: Well, it goes in waves, you know. And there's now a wave of interest in my work. The one that's closest right now is North of Hope, since I do have an option on that. It's signed by a producer named Warren Stitt who's now coming out with Spitfire Grill. We'll see how that does. 

Joe: Your fans send you these incredibly affirming stories. They must make you feel astonished and gratified. 

Jon: Yes--very much so--certainly. There was this woman in Minneapolis who told me that her mother read Dear James till she couldn't read
anymore and then her daughter read it to her, the rest of it, and then she died. And then I heard from two different Jewish women, one in
Minneapolis and one in L.A., who came up to me and said, "I'm married to a Catholic but nothing I've ever learned about Catholicism taught me
as much as your books have about the religion." That's interesting. I was coming out of Barnes and Noble last Saturday and a woman said, "You
know, I just wanted to tell you what a difference your books have made in our marriage. My husband always thought I was frivolous for reading
novels. And then I got him to read yours and now he reads novels." And recently a teacher thanked me for making more sensitive human beings
out of her students. They had read my short story "Rufus at the Door" and came to better understand the mentally handicapped in our society. 

Joe: It's amazing. Almost like an artist playing the role of a priest. 

Jon: Well, I hadn't thought of that, Joe. 

Joe: But the reaching out--healing? 

Jon: Well, maybe. That's a nice way to put it. 

Joe: And people do respond, like in Love Hunter, that you really touch a nerve. 

Jon: Yes. People who have MS wrote me about that one. There's a fellow at St. John's who has MS. He told me he was a little afraid to read that book and see what I was going to do with it. But he decided that what I did with it is just what it is. I've had nurses comment on that same thing too. Although I didn't approach it from a medical standpoint, but just from watching my friend Bob Nielsen die of it over several years. He and I started teaching together the way Chris and Larry did in that little town of Fosston. 

Joe: And how did priests respond to North of Hope? 

Jon: I got a letter from a priest in the Yukon. He felt isolated. He said he was living near an Indian reservation just as Frank does in the book, and he drew strength from the book because of the similarity. A lot of readers, Protestant and Catholic, respond to my work. 

Joe: You are finishing or have finished a novel The Dean's List which takes place at Rookery State twenty-five years after Rookery Blues? 

Jon:Yes, it does. It's a contemporary setting. And I have a set of five main characters. I have one from the other book--he's Leland Edwards.
He's the hometown boy, son of Lally Edwards, the pianist in the quintet. He's dean now, and the main thrust of the plot centers around this world
famous poet who comes to his campus from New England and gives a reading. And it's Leland's dream to put on this reading and establish
Rookery State in the literary firmament. 

"I think that's one of the things that interests me about writing: portraying the endurance of the human spirit in my characters."

Joe: Princeton among the pines. 

Jon: Exactly. Instead of being known for hockey sticks, you know. They make that unbreakable Blue Heron hockey stick in Rookery and that's how everybody knows Rookery: hockey. So Leland's going to establish Rookery as a literary light. He imagines advertising this poet, who is like Robert Frost. His name is Richard Falcon. Leland imagines people coming from miles and miles away and filling the brand new hockey arena which has not been used yet. Of course, the hockey coach thinks this is a sacrilege-- the idea of inaugurating a hockey arena with a poet. And it happens exactly the way Leland expected. It's a triumph. They come from all over, with bus loads of kids and teachers and parents because two generations of people have been brought up on this man's poems. He's an old man, you see. I thought that was going to be a hard chapter to write when I finally got to that reading because there was such a build-up to it. But, gee, it went smoothly. It's kind of beautiful, that reading. I was so moved. This little old man standing down there with 5,000 people cheering him. Just like a hockey game. And then he loses him. Leland can't find Falcon anywhere. And that's even more interesting yet. And so he's afraid now that Rookery State will become known as the black hole of higher education. Richard Falcon disappeared there. But what he doesn't understand is that Richard Falcon is trying to run away from his life. And that's why he came to Rookery in the first place--he was running away. 

Joe: And this is the first time you have used first-person narration. 

Jon: Yes, except for Four Miles to Pinecone. Every time I've written a novel, I've started using first person point of view for the first fifty pages, and then I've changed because I got trapped in that mentality and I had to get out of it. But this one just seemed right from the start. I'm now at page 540 and I'm still going in the first person. And it's been so smooth, it's like Leland is talking through me. 

Joe: This question is one that only I could ask. You and I have talked a few times about writing the other's eulogy. Of course, I hope that I die first since you can
write so well, and I would not be able to compose such a literate and moving eulogy. However, to speculate, what would you like to be included in your eulogy? 

Jon: Oh. Joe. I can't say. That's why I wanted you to write it. I don't know. 

Joe: St. John's has really had some moving eulogies. Are there any eulogies that really struck you? What should a eulogy do? 

Jon: Maybe you could quote me. I'm thinking of Betty Wahl's funeral (J.F. Powers' wife). Betty Wahl's brother was a monk here so he had the funeral. And his
homily was in large part a selection of the letters she had written to him over the years. 

Joe: It was very affecting then. 

Jon: Oh, it was very good. And I remember I met their daughter afterwards. I said to her, "Well, your uncle sure delivered a nice homily." She said, "Well, it should
have been nice; it was mostly written by my mother." 

Joe: I understand that the LAKE COUNTRY JOURNAL will publish a selection by you in its next issue. What might that be? 

Jon: (laughing) Anything but my eulogy. 

Joe: Any final comments for our readers? 

Jon: I'm excited about this magazine, the LAKE COUNTRY JOURNAL. I'm happy to see this start up. And I'm proud to be in it and flattered to be asked. And
it's fun to see you both, Joseph and Chip.

Joe Plut, a Crosby native, graduated from St. John's University and received an M.A. from Columbia University. Plut began teaching English and humanities at Central Lakes College (formerly Brainerd Community College) in 1965. Over the past three years he has appeared in the two-character play, Love Letters, produced by the CLC Theatre. 

Editors Note: In the May/June 1997 issue we'll print a chapter from Hassler's newest novel, The Dean's List. 

This article appeared in the Premier issue of LAKE COUNTRY JOURNAL. (Volume 1, Issue 1) March/April 1997 issue. LAKE COUNTRY JOURNAL is published bi-monthly by Evergreen Press of Brainerd, LLC., 1863 Design Drive, Baxter, MN 56425. 

 

 

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