An Interview with Hart Hanson
Words By Dani Hedlund
Let me start with the most cliché of questions: What inspired you to write a book like this?
I started out intending to be a writer of fiction, but my girlfriend—who is now my wife—got pregnant when I was in grad school. She was the breadwinner then, a graphic designer, and I thought to myself that I better pull my weight. I hoped I could sell a couple of TV scripts because I’d heard you could get ten grand for a half-hour script. So I figured if I could sell two or three of those a year, I could be a responsible father.
It didn’t turn out that way. Once you stick your toe into TV you just get pulled in. So here I was, almost thirty years later, thinking, I’m going to write a book. I was on an overall deal at 20th Century Fox to do TV. I’ve done this show called Bones, which did pretty well and made it so that I had options. The option I decided to take was to quit writing television for a year and write a book.
All of your characters have very distinct voices. For example, Lucky, the Afghani translator, speaks as if he is capitalizing random words when he talks. How did you create such unique voices for each character?
That’s some TV training again. Early in my television career I found out that you have to sit down with an actor and really discuss the character. If you don’t fill in the character’s voice, then the actor will. It’s part of the writer’s job to do that. They are making an audio book for The Driver, and they called to ask how to do a number of things with people’s voices. For Lucky, I’ve noticed that people who speak many languages have very distinct cadences. I’d be hard pressed to say who I stole that from, but that Victorian way of capitalizing nouns appealed to me.
Many of your characters are veterans, and they have a very intense bond that is not necessarily accessible to the average reader. Are you a veteran yourself, or did you do research into that culture?
Every day I feel guilty about veterans. It’s amazing how many times veterans make their way into what I write. In Bones, one of the lead characters is a veteran. In The Finder, a show that I created, there was a character who was a veteran with brain damage from explosions. I feel like we live in a culture that does not acknowledge that we are at war. We send people off to war and then blithely live like there’s no war going on. It’s not like other wars we’ve had in history, where we are painfully aware of what’s happening. We’re not rationing butter or tin foil. We just go on as if we live in a world of peace.
The fact that we live this way and they give up so much—it horrifies me when veterans come back and they aren’t treated like heroes. Because they are heroes, for the most part.
That’s my highfalutin reason. The less highfalutin reason is that I’m jealous of what I perceive to be bonds that veterans seem to have with each other. They take care of each other. I’ve watched every documentary I can get my hands on, and I’m just fascinated by the way they connect. What the female soldiers put up with, too, is amazing to me. Female vets are going into that male-dominated world and we’ve all heard what they’ve had to put up with.
The long and short of it is: I envy veterans’ relationships. I think that it’s a magnificent set up for stories. People coming back to a world they barely understand, that they’ve sacrificed so much to protect. They’ve gone through a kiln and none of us who haven’t gone through that experience can know what it’s like. They can really only help each other, so they do. It’s really too good a resource for stories. The vampire part of the writer looks at that and says, “That’s too good of a resource to pass up.”
There’s a large dichotomy that divides the characters in your novel, and you word it so beautifully: “The people who walk on the surface of the earth, and the other people.” Was that idea important for you to explore, or did it organically form when you started typing?
I’ve been chewing on this idea for a long time: that some of the people we look upon as heroes were terribly shitty to their loved ones. I’ve never been able to like the Kennedys, especially JFK—the bright, shining president—because he was really shitty to his wife and family. Thomas Mann’s Nobel speech against the Nazis is one of the greatest things ever written. It’s brave, and he had to flee Germany because of it and move to Santa Monica. Yet he was unkind to his wife and children.
So I’ve always wondered: Are the people who change history able to take care of their families? Can you do both? And it appears as though you cannot. There are very few people who change the world and take care of their interpersonal relationships. This is a theme that has been on my mind since I was a teenager. So it was bound to make its way into the novel.
You know, I’m a Canadian, so I’m a bit of a lefty. And for a while it appeared that the right-wing politicians seemed to get along better with their families, but they also wanted to destroy the world, as far as I was concerned. Whereas the left-wing politicians wanted to save the world, but they were shitty to their families. That may not be the case anymore because everything now is the dog’s breakfast, but I remember being fascinated by that idea. If your ambitions are to stride across the stage of history, what does that do to your relationships with your loved ones? And I will work on that theme in probably everything I write for the rest of my life, trying to figure it out.
Here’s what I now know: don’t read biographies or autobiographies of any artists or politicians that you love.
How does that work for you as a person? You’re a pinnacle in the TV community, and you’re changing minds and hearts, which is the whole crux of changing the world. Have you managed to do something big and important and not become a complete jerk?
Thank you for thinking anything I’ve done is big and important, but I don’t quite see it that way. There are people who change the medium or change their art form. You’d have to ask my kids if they think I’m a good dad, and I’ve been together with the same woman since 1980. So either they’re wrong or I am. Who knows? Maybe we’re just codependent.
I haven’t become a mogul. I have a very good friend whose ambitions are to be a mogul, to run a company that has several TV shows running at the same time. I have always been working as the creative head of on one TV show at a time—not two, and certainly not six. I have no desire to be a mogul. I don’t care about winning awards. It would be very nice, but it’s not a desire I have, and I don’t have a desire to change history.
The only other person to ask me a question like that is Rainn Wilson. We did a show together, and he has a website called Soul Pancake—he’s a spiritual seeker. On his video blog, he asked me what I hope my legacy is in TV, and I had to admit to him that I have no hopes about a legacy in TV. Thank you for letting me have fun and make a living there and write stuff, but I’m not thinking about whether people will be talking about my work in fifty years.
What is the thing that gets you up in the morning and say, “Yeah, I’m going to bang my head against this keyboard until something good comes out?”
I’m sure it’s the same thing that makes you do it. It’s a profound question because then you have to ask yourself what happened to you, what happened to any of us who try to make a living out of things in our heads—artists, musicians, entertainers, tap dancers—that would make us want to do this. I can’t think for a minute what that might be, because I had a pretty good childhood. You’re a writer, you’ll know what I’m talking about, and if you have a better way of saying it that would be wonderful: You go to a place, you sit down with your method of creating something, and it’s fun. Well, fun isn’t the right word. It’s satisfying to make something. That’s what I’m going to say.
I hesitate because TV is very fun. Even with all of its drawbacks—lack of sleep, lots of fighting. Making a television show is buckets of fun because of the people you spend all your time with. I didn’t spend my time with anyone who, at least in my case, wasn’t way more amazing than I am.
But when you write a book, it’s just you and whatever you use to write, whether that’s a piece of paper or a computer. And I still love going to that place and making something.
As I was reading, I kept thinking about how many settings throughout the book are worthy of film or TV. I could see those places as sets—visually stunning and very, very expensive. Even though you were working on paper, was there still a part of you that was looking through the camera?
I am very, very aware that just deciding to write a book after doing TV for three decades doesn’t mean that I’m going to be able to write a book. I’ve seen plenty of wonderful novelists turn their hands to writing scripts, and their books are definitely better than their scripts. You have creative habits. When I started out as a writer, I was much more interested in narrative and emotion than I was in cinematic visuals. So I worked very hard as a scriptwriter writing cinematic visuals, and now that’s in my toolbox. It’s just a truism that if you’re designing a TV series and you want a top-notch production designer, then you’d better have something special in the script so that top-notch production designers say, “I want to work on that pilot. I want to work on that show.” That stuff just now bleeds into my writing. I’d have a hard time turning that off.
Honestly, if I didn’t know anything about this, I would assume that this is your tenth or eleventh book—you’re playing around with the narrative, you’re taking chances. That’s rare even with seasoned novelists. How did you achieve that sense of ease?
I did get training that would be very hard to get, turning a number of novels into TV shows. If you really want to break down a good novelist, try and turn their stuff into a TV show. I’ve spent years doing that, and I think it gave me a huge advantage.
If I were teaching writing, I might say, “Break this book down into scenes. Break it down into what is dialogue and prose. Break it down into sheer plot.” I outlined The Driver because I always outlined my scripts, and in that process I realized that somehow in my mind I thought that books were much, much longer than they really are. I had to pull out two thirds of my outline because I just thought books were gigantic. It takes days to read them as opposed to watching something in an hour. And that was just a really valuable lesson: I didn’t need as much plot as I thought I did.
We’ve talked a lot about your relationship to the world—whether one can achieve great things and still be a good person—but also some of the more flippant aspects of this book. Was it more important to purport these big ideas through the novel, or did you simply want the reader to sit down and completely escape from their life?
I went with the latter. I just wanted to write an entertaining book that people would like. But when I stumbled across opportunities to do the former, and really talk about things that interest me thematically, I took advantage. I was shocked that no one along the way—my agents at WME and then my editors—told me to take out that Ayn Rand stuff. It was delightful for me to put into Skellig’s mouth what I think about Ayn Rand. I knew that I would be writing a love triangle, forcing him to choose between two women who were wonderful. It was my editor Jess Renheim at Dutton who asked me, “Well, why do they want him?” Which I thought was fantastic. And I thought to myself, “Because he’s the hero of the book.”
When I started rethinking that love triangle, I realized I’ve got a cop and a lawyer that are best friends. Cops work down here, where the rubber meets the road. Lawyers work in the world of philosophy, esoterica, and history. That’s when those themes leapt into my head because I’ve always wanted to write about them. Essentially, I stumbled across places where I could fulminate on stuff that is near and dear to my heart.
I started out wanting to make people laugh a little bit and think about veterans as they come back into the world. I thought that would be the more serious part of the book. And then the characters just brought in these other thematic elements.
Since a lot of our readers are writers, talk to me about the overall process of making this book a reality. From the original idea, to each draft, to the final publication—what were the hard parts? What made the experience different than you thought it would be?
I’m jealous of people who can write while they’re walking around or in the shower. I’ve always found that I’m not working unless I’ve got my ass in the chair in front of the computer. My deal with the universe was to put my ass in the chair and eventually I’d get bored enough that I’d have to write. To be really pedantic about the process, I decided this time to write longhand with a pen on paper to help me disengage with my well-carved groove of writing scripts. I needed to do everything I could to change into writing prose. My first draft would be chapters or parts of chapters that I would write in longhand. Then, I would take that draft, put it in front of my computer, and type it. What went into my computer was a second draft. I found that process to be delightful.
I also don’t take lightly the fact that I was important to an agency for my TV work. They want to keep me happy. My TV agent helped me find a literary agent within the same company because they wanted to keep me within that context. That gave me a huge advantage. I automatically had someone representing me as a writer to get someone else to represent me as a writer. My agents Claudia Ballard and Eve Atterman are people who know the book world.
I also mentioned that I’ve turned a number of novels into TV, so I thought that if I had to, I would ask one of those novelists for help. But I didn’t have to—I was at a huge advantage.