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You've Got to Read This: Contemporary American Writers Introduce Stories That Held Them in Awe

You've Got to Read This: Contemporary American Writers Introduce Stories That Held Them in Awe

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by Ron Hansen, Jim Shepard (Editor)
Thirty-four of America's most distinguished fiction writers—including Oscar Hijuelos, John Irving, and Joyce Carol Oates—introduce the short stories that inspired them most.

Author Biography: I believe that it is risk that energizes a writer," says Ron Hansen. "I am challenged when I write from a woman's perspective or set my work in a historical


Thirty-four of America's most distinguished fiction writers—including Oscar Hijuelos, John Irving, and Joyce Carol Oates—introduce the short stories that inspired them most.

Author Biography: I believe that it is risk that energizes a writer," says Ron Hansen. "I am challenged when I write from a woman's perspective or set my work in a historical period, because there is so much more that I have to imagine." Hansen has been imaging fictional worlds since his childhood in Nebraska, when stories of old west outlaws helped shape his future writing. In fact his first two novels, Desperadoes and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, retell Wild West legends. His other novels are Mariette in Ecstasy and Atticus, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Nebraska, a collection of short stories, received an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. With fellow novelist Jim Shepard, he edited the anthology You've Got to Read This: Contemporary American Writers Introduce Stories That Held Them in Awe. He also wrote the screenplays for Mariette in Ecstasy and, more recently, for Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Hansen graduated from Creighton University in Omaha, and went on to the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop where he studied with John Irving. Having spent many years as an itinerant scholar, he is now Gerard Manley Hopkins, S. J., Professor in Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University in northern California. Hanson earned a Masters degree in spirituality from Santa Clara in 1995.

His strong personal interest in theconnection between religion and literature is the focus of his next book, A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction, which HarperCollins will publish in January 2001.

A conversation with Ron Hansen about Hitler's Niece

When did you first hear the nearly forgotten story of the strange love affair between Hitler and his niece, Geli Raubal?

I was reading Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives by Alan Bullock, and he mentions Geli Raubal several times. I had never heard about her, but was struck by the fact that she was the only woman that Hitler every loved or wanted to marry. I at first intended to write a short story about her, a story that would consider what it might have been like to be loved by this evil man, one of the monsters of the 20th century. Was she seduced by Hitler, was she an accomplice, or was she in love with him? I started reading other books, mostly reminiscences of people who knew her, and as I got into it I realized that there was so much more than a short story. I had a novel.

What was it about Geli's story that attracted you and inspired you to write a novel?

I've long been fascinated by Hitler's character. How did this monster have such control over people and almost win his war? He was an unprepossessing character with no education—seemingly nothing going for him except his incredible oratory skills. Why was that enough to sway a whole country? I thought that by looking at Hitler through Geli's eyes, from her perspective, we might gain some insights.

What did you feel you, as a novelist, could bring to the story that may have eluded historians and biographers?

Historians are stuck with the facts as they've been presented, and in some ways they are facts that were massaged by the machinery of the Nazi party. And, in the case of Hitler, there are enormous gaps. But if you read between the lines, it all makes perfect sense. And that's what novelists do. I try to take the facts and fill in based on what I've observed about human behavior—to try to figure out what would be the likeliest way for a character to get from one point to the next. That's what I've done with Geli Raubal in Hitler's Niece.

And, as a novelist, you needed to get inside Hitler and, sometimes surprisingly, imbue him with human characteristics.

I think the one thing we learn from fiction is that people are never totally good or totally bad. As hard as it is to believe, this has to have been true about Hitler as well. He had that extraordinary ability to dominate and control people, to keep people coming back to him. He had to be more than a selfish bore or people would not have been drawn to him.

Many years after the war, Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, was released from prison and he watched film footage of Hitler for the first time in many years. He said he was struck by how dull Hitler seemed on film, as opposed to how he really was. Hitler must have had qualities that have been lost to history, that we might even label redeeming.

So you think Hitler had a human side?

Human, if not good. But, I believe he was a brilliant actor who could only present himself publicly through these personas. We have no way of knowing how he transmitted this energy, yet the millions of people he seduced could not have all been idiots. He must have been charming. Of course, the idea that Hitler was charming is startling. We think of him as that figure on the podium, spewing vengeance against the Jews.

Back to Geli, who is at the center of the novel. What did you gain by casting the novel from her perspective?

For me, she was the pleasure of the book, because unlike the others in Hitler's circle, she could make wry comments. She treats him with irony, she is not swayed by his politics. She never becomes a Nazi and even holds herself up in opposition to his ideas and gets away with it. She becomes a heroine for these reasons, a stand-in acting the way I hope I could have acted in that situation.

But she doesn't really get away with her ideas? She is killed because of her independence....

True, she is doomed from the very first moment that Hitler falls in love with her. Everyone he ever fell for was doomed, because he didn't know how to have a love affair. Eva Braun had a terrible life, and was force to commit suicide. Renata Mueller committed suicide or was pushed out of a window. I think Geli was murdered.

Yes, of the numerous theories explaining Geli's death, you have chosen the one in which Hitler himself killed her. Did you make this choice for the purposes of narrative drama, or do you believe it is the most plausible solution to the mystery?

It seems clear to me that it was not suicide. Everything goes against that, especially the conflicting testimonies of what happened the day of her death. So, once you say it was a homicide, then you're left with only a few people who could have possibly done it. That Hitler would have allowed someone else to kill her and get away with it is preposterous. It's possible to dream up a scheme where one of the others plotted the killing, but they were so afraid of Hitler than they never could have carried it out. That Hitler did it makes the most sense—he was in love with her and needed to control her. And, even it she did commit suicide, it would have been because of Hitler, so it's metaphorically, if not historically correct to put the blame on Hitler.

Geli is simultaneously repulsed and seduced by Hitler's hypnotic hold. Is this duality symbolic of Germany's seduction?

Yes. I was consciously making that connection. You could say it was true about everyone he came in contact with. He was a seducer, and he did what he could to draw people in. Contemporary accounts talk about how Hitler worked on people—he would spend the first hour he met someone just listening, then after an hour he had that person figured out, and then he used that knowledge to manipulate him or her. They would feel that he was a person that understood them completely. They were in his thrall. All these fierce people who headed the Nazi party and caused irreparable damage and homicides by the score, they all confessed that they felt like children around Hitler. He had some sort of talent for mind control. I used Geli to show that in the same way that he imprisoned her in his apartment, he imprisoned people in a psychological way. In some ways Geli was more resistant, but in some ways she was equally susceptible.

On the surface, your novels might seem very different from one another, but are there common themes or concerns that you find yourself returning to in your fiction?

One thing I would say is that almost all my novels are about outlaws, people on the fringe, outside of normal society. People who don't fit in. Nuns in a cloister are women who have removed themselves from society and yet are trying to establish their sense of worth. Jesse James, the Dalton brothers—all these people feel excluded from the conversation, and yet they have the ambition to realize their goals and they do it in their mangled way. Even Atticus, so in control at home in Colorado, is walking on the fringes when he gets to Mexico. And Hitler and Geli, too, were outsiders.

Once again, as with Mariette in Ecstasy, you've written a penetrating story of a female point of view. Isn't this unusual for a male writer?

I believe that it is risk that energizes writers. I think writers are in many ways contrarians, we like threats. Writers like to imagine things, so the more imagining we get to do, the happier we are as writers and, we hope, the better our work is. I am challenged when I write from a woman's perspective or set my work in a historical period, because there is so much more that I have to imagine. Concrete details are what make fiction believable, what writers need to create for their readers. If I constantly push myself in creating these details, to try to see things the way other people would have seen them, it makes me a better writer. And that, of course, is better for my readers.

Editorial Reviews

Donna Seaman
Writers are passionate readers because literature is an ongoing dialogue. And you can learn a lot about writers by knowing what they love to read. Editors Hansen and Shepard decided to ask some of their favorite American writers to identify stories that fell into their you've-got-to-read-this category. The end result is an anthology of terrific tales introduced by essays that open windows onto the creative process of 35 top fiction writers. Each story is introduced by the writer who was inspired, intimidated, or moved to extreme emotion on reading it. Here's some examples: John Irving chose "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens; Mary Gordon selected "The Dead" by James Joyce; Oscar Hijuelos acknowledged his debt to Jorge Luis Borges' "The Aleph"; Lorrie Moore was stunned by John Updike's "Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car"; Joyce Carol Oates picked Kafka's unforgettable "In the Penal Colony"; and Louise Erdrich couldn't get over Robert Stone's "Helping." This is almost a two-for-one deal for story-lovers: a glimpse into the reading minds of one set of popular and talented authors, together with a selection of outstanding stories by their mentors and peers.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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1st ed

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A Mother's Tale
James Agee

The calf ran up the little hill as fast as he could and stopped sharp. "Mama!" he cried, all out of breath. "What is it! What are they doing! Where are they going!"
Other spring calves came galloping too.
They all were looking up at her and awaiting her explanation, but she looked out over their excited eyes. As she watched the mysterious and majestic thing they had never seen before, her own eyes became even more than ordinarily still, and during the considerable moment before she answered, she scarcely heard their urgent questioning.
Far out along the autumn plain, beneath the sloping light, an immense drove of cattle moved eastward. They went at a walk, not very fast, but faster than they could imaginably enjoy. Those in front were compelled by those behind; those at the rear, with few exceptions, did their best to keep up; those who were locked within the herd could no more help moving than the particles inside a falling rock. Men on horses rode ahead, and alongside, and behind, or spurred their horses intensely back and forth, keeping the pace steady, and the herd in shape; and from man to man a dog sped back and forth incessantly as a shuttle, barking, incessantly, in a hysterical voice. Now and then one of the men shouted fiercely, and this like the shrieking of the dog was tinily audible above a low and awesome sound which seemed to come not from the multitude of hooves but from the center of the world, and above the sporadic bawlings and bellowings of the herd.
From the hillside this tumult was so distant that it only made more delicate the prodigious silence in which the earth and skywere held; and, from the hill, the sight was as modest as its sound. The herd was virtually hidden in the dust it raised, and could be known, in general, only by the horns, which pricked this flat sunlit dust like little briars. In one place a twist of the air revealed the trembling fabric of many backs; but it was only along the near edge of the mass that individual animals were discernible, small in a driven frieze, walking fast, stumbling and recovering, tossing their armed heads, or opening their skulls heavenward in one of those cries which reached the hillside long after the jaws were shut.
From where she watched, the mother could not be sure whether there were any she recognized. She knew that among them there must be a son of hers; she had not seen him since some previous spring, and she would not be seeing him again. Then the cries of the young ones impinged on her bemusement: "Where are they going?"
She looked into their ignorant eyes.
"Away," she said.
"Where?" they cried. "Where? Where?" her own son cried again.
She wondered what to say.
"On a long journey."
"But where to?" they shouted. "Yes, where to?" her son exclaimed, and she could see that he was losing his patience with her, as he always did when he felt she was evasive.
"I'm not sure," she said.

Their silence was so cold that she was unable to avoid their eyes for long.
"Well, not really sure. Because, you see," she said in her most reasonable tone, "I've never seen it with my own eyes, and that's the only way to be sure; isn't it."
They just kept looking at her. She could see no way out.
"But I've heard about it," she said with shallow cheerfulness, "from those who have seen it, and I don't suppose there's any good reason to doubt them."
She looked away over them again, and for all their interest in what she was about to tell them, her eyes so changed that they turned and looked, too.
The herd, which had been moving broadside to them, was being turned away, so slowly that like the turning of stars it could not quite be seen from one moment to the next; yet soon it was moving directly away from them, and even during the little while she spoke and they all watched after it, it steadily and very noticeably diminished, and the sounds of it as well.

"It happens always about this time of year," she said quietly while they watched. "Nearly all the men and horses leave, and go into the North and the West."
"Out on the range," her son said, and by his voice she knew what enchantment the idea already held for him.
"Yes," she said, "out on the range." And trying, impossibly, to imagine the range, they were touched by the breath of grandeur.
"And then before long," she continued, "everyone has been found, and brought into one place; and then . . . what you see, happens. All of them.
"Sometimes when the wind is right," she said more quietly, "you can hear them coming long before you can see them. It isn't even like a sound, at first. It's more as if something were moving far under the ground. It makes you uneasy. You wonder, why, what in the world can that be! Then you remember what it is and then you can really hear it. And then, finally, there they all are."
She could see this did not interest them at all.
"But where are they going?" one asked, a little impatiently.
"I'm coming to that," she said; and she let them wait. Then she spoke slowly but casually.
"They are on their way to a railroad."

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