The will to write

June 5, 2005

Like some of his characters, celebrated Minnesota author Jon Hassler struggles with illness.  He has his “Why me?” moments, but they’re puny compared with the loves of his live – his writing and his family.

Minnesota novelist Jon Hassler, who has lived with Progressive Supranuclear Palsy – a Parkinson’s-like disease for 11 years:  “My writing carries me through.  I have something to get up for.”


Story by PEG MEIER and photos by CARLOS GONZALEZ, Star Tribune Staff


WAY BACK IN 1981, actor Robert Redford bought the movie rights to "The Love Hunter" by Minnesota novelist Jon Hassler. It's a powerful and dark story of a love triangle, with a main character who has multiple sclerosis. Redford was to play that part.

One day Hassler got a phone call from Redford's producer.

"Did you have any other disease in mind -- a substitute for the MS?" the producer asked.

"No," Hassler said succinctly.

Well, the producer explained, Redford didn't want to look as sick and old as the character in the book.

"Too bad," said Hassler.

Partly aggravated and partly amused, Hassler did ask his literature class at St. John's University for ideas of an alternative disease. A student laughingly suggested herpes, probably also not a Redford-preferred affliction. For whatever reason, the film never was made. That's fine with Hassler, who protects the characters who have sprung -- and crept -- from his brain.

Now Hassler is 72 and ill with an incurable Parkinson's-like disease called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP). It's what killed actor Dudley Moore, but it's advancing slowly enough in Hassler that he can write almost every morning, from 7:30 to 10:30. He had two books published in 2004, another is due in December and he's busy with two more novels.

PSP claims most of its victims in six to 10 years. Hassler has had it for at least 11. It gives him no pain and despite the illness' name, he has no tremors. His mind is good. His vision and voice aren't. The muscles controlling eye movements are affected, and he sees double up-close. His gait is slow and wobbly. He falls often -- 746 times in seven years. That's not a guess; he keeps track. Often he uses a cane or his new motorized wheelchair. He still rides a bicycle in Florida; for some reason, his balance is better on a bike than on foot.

Hassler admits to streaks of "Why me?" but says he's not depressed. "I've been spared that," he said, his words coming slowly but understandably. "My writing carries me through. I have something to get up for."

And someone. He and his third wife, Gretchen Kresl Hassler, have been married 11 years. His PSP was diagnosed just months after their wedding. A former special-education teacher in the Minneapolis public schools, she tenderly cares for him, reads aloud to him each evening and says she doesn't regret her caretaker role. "He never complains; he never gets crabby," she said. "He's still the same wonderful guy."

Photo by Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

With a steadying hand, Gretchen Kresl Hassler guided her husband up the stairs to the office where he writes.  She said she doesn’t resent the caretaking role:  “He never gets crabby,” she said. 

JON HASSLER’S FAVORITES:  CAREER:  Writing novels.  “I liked teaching and I was good at it, but I couldn’t anymore because of my voice.”  BOOK:  “Dear James” (Ballantine, 1993), in which Agatha McGee, a retired Catholic school teacher, discovers she’s in love with a priest.  CHARACTER:  Agatha McGee stars in five books.  In the first, she’s teaching school, and in the next-to-be-published she moves to an apartment for the elderly.

"It must be love," he said, grinning.

They have a townhouse in south Minneapolis and another in Florida for winters. Last month they sold their Florida place for one that's more handicapped-accessible. Several times a week, he falls at home and can't get up, and the Hasslers have figured out a way to restore him to verticality. It involves a nudge from her leg and strength from his arms.

Hassler also draws encouragement from his three children -- Liz, who runs a bookstore in Brainerd, Minn.; David, who is a service technician for a company in Alexandria, Minn., that makes packaging machinery, and Michael, a Brainerd poet -- and his two granddaughters. On his wife's side of the family are three more children and three more grandchildren.

Sometimes he wonders which disability he'd choose if he could switch. He can't come up with a substitute. Despite PSP, he can think critically, he can write, he could travel to Italy last year, he can enjoy life, he can pray. His fictional characters still speak to him, still surprise him with what they say and do. And happily, his wife said, "When we get out and people recognize him, I see a little extra gleam in his eyes."

Just like his favorite character, Agatha McGee, he keeps on plugging. "Life goes on" -- that's their philosophy.

Better get started

If his wife had her wish, every Hassler fan would have a copy of his first and bestselling book, "Staggerford," and also his account of writing it. It's called "My Staggerford Journal" and begins like this:

"I can trace my desire to be a writer back to the age of 5 when I was being read to by my parents and cousins and uncles and aunts. However, not until I was 37 did I, upon waking one morning in September 1970, hear a voice in my head saying, Half your life is over, Hassler, you'd better get started."

With a pen and notebook, he headed for the library at the Brainerd community college where he was teaching, and began "A Story Worth Hearing." He hasn't looked at it in years but doubts that the never-published story was worth hearing. It was, however, a start.

He took a sabbatical in 1975-76, moved into his nonwinterized cabin 75 miles northwest of Brainerd that October and started what became "Staggerford." It was based on diaries he had kept of his real-life teaching experiences. He had been haunted by a murder in the small northern Minnesota town of Clearbrook in the 1950s, and its echo is in the book.

Hassler had no idea at the time that he was putting his teaching and his family behind him. His first marriage, to the mother of his three children, didn't survive many years beyond "Staggerford." As he put it, "I did nothing to help it my closing myself up in the garage all evening during the school year and retreating to the cabin most of the summer."

Readers, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, have told Hassler that they suspect "Staggerford" was his farewell to teaching, "which is true," he has said. "Though scarcely conscious of it at the time, I was putting the teacher in me to rest as I took up the profession of writing. Not that I didn't spend another 20 years in the classroom, but hardly ever again as a full-time teacher, and never without a divided mind, never without holding back a bit of my energy for my work in progress."

It's his voice that made him quit teaching. His spoken words are sometimes weak and quavery, and his reaction time is slower. Listening carefully to this storymaker requires patience, a trait not abounding in college students.

Forthcoming fans

Hassler's work is clearly Minnesotan -- landscapes, weather, language, humor, heartaches. The novels are set in the small town he named Staggerford. It's peopled with funny, sensitive, wise, vulnerable, believable characters, most of them Roman Catholic, the faith in which Jon and Gretchen Hassler grew up and continue to practice.

Most of his characters are good people. In fact, he's written a nonfiction book called "Good People ... from an Author's Life," his look at real and fictional characters who have influenced him.

His readers have always let him know what they think of his work, not all on the positive side. A man, disgusted with Hassler's character of a priest with lusty thoughts, wrote: "You're a porn king. You're as bad as Ferris Alexander" (a 1970s Twin Cities pornography magnate). A woman wrote to Hassler, "Do you write the dirty parts yourself? Or does your editor make you put them in?" Hassler wrote back that he puts them in himself.

Some fan mail is coming in now because some readers know he is ill. But a wide spectrum of people write simply because they like his stories:

"Hi, my name is Jake Garin and I have just finished your book 'Staggerford' and it is now one of my favorite all-time books! Actually, my 9th-grade honors English class [at Eastview High School, Apple Valley] got to choose a book from a list and over ¾ chose 'Staggerford."'

From an older reader:

"Here I am, 81 years old, and I just discovered Jon Hassler! What a treat. Keep it up. Robert H. Dodd."

'It's like breathing'

Even as a young man, Hassler was fascinated by the old and the sick. He likes how they see life, that they value it so deeply. A recently published novella, "The Life and Death of Nancy Clancy's Nephew," traces the interior life of a taciturn old widower who lives on a turkey farm with his daughter and son-in-law. The sorrowful, unsentimental and plainly told story "reminds us to take no quiet older person for granted," one reviewer wrote.

Hassler said he hears the voices of his characters in his head -- especially the old men and Agatha -- and that's comforting, not spooky.

He said he doesn't think about leaving a legacy. He just needs to write: "It's like breathing." (Never mind that his breathing now is sometimes labored.) As he said to a newspaper reporter at the time Redford wanted his story, "I suppose as long as I have ideas, I'll write novels."

A Seattle reviewer once wrote of him, "Not only a very good storyteller, but also a compassionate man." Hassler said he could think of no finer tribute. Surely Agatha would not object to the characterization.

NUMBER OF BOOKS: 16. | FIRST AND BESTSELLING BOOK: "Staggerford" (Scribner, 1977). | Newest book: "The New Woman" (to be published by Viking in December). | LIGHTEST BOOK: "The Dean's List" (Ballantine, 1998). | DARKEST BOOKS: "North of Hope" (Ballantine, 1996) and "The Love Hunter" (William Morrow, 1981). MADE FOR TV MOVIE: "A Green Journey," starring Angela Lansbury. | Novels converted to plays: "Simon's Night" and "Grand Opening." | Most recent books: "The Staggerford Murders" and "Nancy Clancy's Nephew" (Plume, 2004), and "Stories Teachers Tell" (Nodin, 2004), a compilation of essays by teachers and edited by Gretchen Kresl Hassler. | NONFICTION: "My Staggerford Journal" (Ballantine, 1999), diary items from the time Hassler was writing his first book, and "Good People" (Loyola, 2001), a memoir.

Peg Meier is at pmeier@startribune.com.

If you wish to send a message to Jon Hassler, write to him in care of his former employer: Department of English, St. John's University, P.O. Box 2000, Collegeville, MN 56321-2000. The e-mail address is bradaich@csbsju.edu.


Source:  Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com/variety)  Sunday, June 5, 2005.  Variety Section, page E1 continuing on to page E6



Webmaster's note:  Link to more information about the condition Jon has: Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000767.htm



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