Decades ago, Minnesota writer Jon Hassler taught a fellow novelist that what matters most is what’s on the page—and in the heart
When Jon Hassler and I were neighbors back in the 1980s—he the established novelist at St. John’s University in Collegeville, I the newly published novelist in St. Cloud—we were discussing an ambitious writer we both disapproved of. This young man had taken a writing class from me, and he was one of those students who, uninvited, insist on helping the instructor teach the class. Jon noted that this same fellow was just then presuming to “help” the head of the English department at St. John’s. “I think I’ll send him a Black Spot,” Jon said.
The line was typical of Jon: a wry literary violence that depended on your knowledge of popular books or old movies in which the traitor discovers a bit of paper slipped into his pocket. Grimy fingers unfold the scrap, which bears a single large ink blot. It’s pirate language for: We know, and you’re done for.
Jon wasn’t entirely joking. A sometime pirate himself, he knew how to insinuate oneself into a position at a small college—he’d used such tactics to get on the faculty at Bemidji State in the 1960s, when he was running the local drive-in theater on summer nights, drinking heavily, and supporting his family by teaching high school English. He let those years of despair serve as the world of his first novel, Staggerford. Though the English-teacher protagonist meets a tragic end, Jon himself understood self-preservation. The ways of the world struck him as ripe material for comedy—though first you had to survive them. Then tell the story your way.
He learned those skills early. His mother taught him the tricks of close observation. Growing up, Jon helped in the grocery store she and his father owned and ran in Staples. “I learned to see the world with her eyes.” The tricks included a respectful face for the public, while staying tuned for the eccentric and telling detail—the gap between words and actions—and finding a worthy audience for the fun.
I loved being Jon’s audience. Everyone did. As for the writer we joked about, Jon sent him a Black Spot, along with a clarifying scrawl: “Collegeville isn’t big enough for both of us.” I don’t imagine he signed it. That wasn’t part of the pirate code.
He was far more generous to me when I met him in 1982. My copy of his third novel, The Love Hunter, bears this inscription: “Rebecca: How fortunate that you should be the other writer in this part of the world. Jon Hassler.” This was a concise description of who we were to one another, and a significant departure from the way he told me a writer ought to sign books. “Write ‘Best Wishes,’ and your name,” was his adamantine instruction.
He specialized in defending against the many traps for a writer’s energies. Adjacent to the desk in his office at St. John’s stood a cafeteria table stacked with papers, piled in the order he meant to attend to them. Some were his manuscripts. Others were student papers or correspondence or car-insurance quotes. The table angled away from his desk, a barrier to the man behind it. The first time I dared survey the stack, he made a slow introductory flourish with his large hand. Gravely: “This is my life, Rebecca.”
When I met him, he was living in a dormitory at the college. He thrived among the academic and monastic Benedictines, since women and children were, for him, two of the traps writers faced. He had obtained an annulment from his long marriage, and saw raising kids as burdensome. What I, with two small children, most needed to know was how to be productive amid the traps—how he, in his hard-won priestly refuge, had hammered it out for himself.
As we crossed the wooded acres at St. John’s, speaking of writers and literature and life, anyone who recognized Jon would have the benefit of his humorous patience. But after we were out of earshot, I’d have the benefit of his ironic reduction: “The man has been hobnobbing with Minneapolis literary types. Those people think life is some kind of fable. If they ever ask you what I think of them, Rebecca, tell them I think they’re fabulous.”
The writers he favored back then were John Cheever, for his dark suburban comedies of manners; Graham Greene, for his guilt-driven narratives rimed with Catholic retribution; William Trevor, for his laser eye. “Think story,” Jon wrote to me on a postcard, when I complained about revisions I contemplated. He rightly deduced that I’d been keeping company with ideas. He claimed he didn’t have any. He was concrete, instinctual. When his novel Grand Opening was twice rejected by Harvey Ginsberg, his editor at William Morrow, Jon buried it—here we’re talking a shovel, brogans—in his yard. He found his own impulses as amusing as any of his characters, but he unswervingly did what peace of mind required. He said if the novel could sprout a few shoots on its own, it might be worth rescuing. It must have done so. He dug up the novel a year later, pruned it, and Harvey published it.
If Jon woke with a sentence in his mind, he trusted it. Used it verbatim. A writer’s job was to sit at the desk every day to catch the scent of story “should one happen to waft by.” Preparation for that job was to spend quiet evenings without society, so the next day found one fresh for the task of sitting at the desk. He apportioned his time. “No” came easily. He didn’t sulk if he’d given a “Yes,” but on one occasion, he was noticeably quiet. I asked why. “After teaching all these years, I begin to think it’s not worth my time to open my mouth unless at least 33 people are listening,” he said.
I began to assume that he’d remain a bachelor, walking the woods at St. John’s, forever. But men who are intriguing and talented and gentlemanly and recalcitrant and say “No” have deadly magnetism for women. In 1986, he got married—having twice cancelled within 24 hours of the wedding day—to the writer Elizabeth Anderson, 23 years his junior. The marriage lasted less than a year, and ended in agony for both. His dread of marriage did not abate, but Jon did later marry and live in contentment with Gretchen Kreml.
He and I were never again as close. Life intervened, as it will do. I moved to Georgia, then Colorado; he left St. John’s for Minneapolis and Florida.
It may be that he meant to disinter the friendship one day. Indeed, after some years I wrote to him. We exchanged letters, forthright and personal in the old manner. He never failed to mention having twice eluded the death-grip of intimate connection to the wrong woman. Perhaps the failure of love haunted him, as it haunts us all. Plainly, he wanted me to collaborate in his version of the story.
In 1994, he was diagnosed with a progressive neurological disease, a near cousin to Parkinson’s called supranuclear palsy. Thus arrived Jon’s own Black Spot, which he referred to as simply “My Parkinson’s.” He wrote and published five more novels, at nearly his usual pace. “If you don’t get a book out every two years, the public forgets you,” he said.
As the disease progressed and affected his limbs, he kept a running count of the number of times he had fallen. Jon had a practical, let’s-stick-to-the-facts reliance on numbers. In our progress reports to one another, he led with a page number. “I’m on page 179, Rebecca. Yesterday, it was 182, but I hit a snag.” He required the same of me: the page number in the manuscript I was working on. A writerly palaver on how you were feeling might be all very well, but from Jon I learned that a page number said it all. It said you were working. Only when you were finished working could the stack of pages on your cafeteria table be called anything as grand as a novel. In the meantime, requiring the page number was Jon’s own brand of kindness, meant to keep me in fighting trim alongside himself. A writer wrote, that’s all. Unless of course the writer painted—as we both came to do as we grew older. He favored landscapes, colors dashed on boards with a palette knife. The knife was more expressive, easier to clean, quicker. Even painting must not become a trap for the writer’s energy.
In 2006, typing in all-caps to reduce the number of small hand motions now awkward for him, he wrote: “PARKINSONS IS MY CONSTANT COMPANION. IN 12 YEARS I HAVE FALLEN 743 TIMES.” His last letter arrived with my address typed, then roughly scissored out, with that scrap of paper Scotch-taped to the envelope—a labor of love from my endlessly stubborn, endlessly hard-working and beloved friend. I considered it a valentine.
Rebecca Hill is the author of the novels Blue Rise, Among Birches, and, with co-author Judith Guest, Killing Time in St. Cloud.