Ron Hansen: Turning Books into Movies

Kicking off this month-long blogoversary event, with guest posts and giveaways especially useful for debut authors, is California author Ron Hansen.

U. S. residents may comment below by August 7 to be entered to win a hardcover of Hansen’s latest historical,
A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, courtesy of Simon & Schuster. 

Ron’s hardcover is also the giveaway for those of you who are participating in the Summer Blog Hop.  Subscribe through Feedburner for extra points.


Books into Movies

Ron Hansen

Ron Hansen was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1947. He earned an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1974 and later earned an M.A. in Spirituality from Santa Clara University where he is now the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. Professor in the Arts and Humanities.

The novel he released in 1983, The Assassination of Jesse James, was adapted for the screen in 2007 in a film written and directed by Andrew Dominik and starring Brad Pitt as James. The novel became a Finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Hansen’s 1996 novel, Atticus, about the bond of love between a father and a son who has died under mysterious circumstances, was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Hitler’s Niece (1999) is a historical novel that offers a view of Hitler as seen through the eyes of Geli Raubal, the daughter of his half-sister.

In addition to his novels and short stories, Hansen wrote the screenplay for the 1996 film adaptation of Mariette in Ecstasy. In 2009, “Mariette In Ecstasy” was adapted for the stage at Lifeline Theatre in Chicago.

Books into Movies
Ron Hansen:
A few years ago I taught a senior seminar on film noir for the English Department at Santa Clara University. Our fourth week in the course was devoted to James M. Cain’s short novel Double Indemnity, and to the fine 1944 Billy Wilder film adaptation starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson, with a script by Wilder and Raymond Chandler.


In both the novel and movie, a California insurance salesman meets the strange and alluring wife of one of his wealthy clients, finds out she wants to get rid of her husband, and hardly hesitates before deciding to help her do it. Walter knows that the insurance policy pays double its value for accidental loss of life, so he and Phyllis fraudulently get the husband to sign for a hefty amount and plot to make it appear that the husband Walter bludgeoned in his car fell in a deadly way off a train. They garner no suspicions from the police but Walter’s superior, a crafty investigator for the insurance company, is soon on the case, and all goes downhill from there.

In preparing for class, I read a biography of James M. Cain and a found a tiny footnote that indicated the plot was based “on the Snyder/Gray case.” That was all. I had heard nothing whatsoever of the case, but through the magic of Google I found Wikipedia and other entries that gave a general background on the love affair between Judd Gray and Ruth Snyder that resulted in the 1927, Queens, New York homicide of Ruth’s husband, Albert Snyder, the art editor of Motorboating Magazine.

Screenwriter William Goldman used to say that in pitching a movie to Hollywood studios the screenwriter should say the project would be “just like” some masterpiece “but completely different.” The same holds true for those who focus on writing historical fiction: we chance upon a once-well-known topic that has enormous but inviting gaps in its narrative and either has been forgotten or has been reported with gross factual errors. In my historical fiction I have sought to clarify how Jesse James was killed by Robert Ford, revive Geli Raubal, Hitler’s niece, whom he claimed was the only woman he ever loved, and give life to the five nuns featured in British Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” The Snyder/Gray case was, for me, equally compelling.

Even now some internet postings are just plain wrong about multiple aspects of a Snyder/Gray murder case that in the late twenties was called “the crime of the century.” I corroborated some information by researching library microfilms of The New York Times and The New York Daily Mirror for 1927, and was helped enormously by an edited transcript of the Queens County trial, by Judd Gray’s memoir Doomed Ship — finished just minutes before his execution in Sing Sing’s electric chair — and by Ruth Snyder’s crazy, serialized, jailhouse rant, My Own True Story — So Help Me God!

My own fascination had less to do with the details of the homicide than with the deadly progress of an eighteen-month love affair between a fun-loving, sultry, irresistible housewife and a suave, small, dandyish corset salesman who would jointly register over fifty times for a clandestine room in the old Waldorf-Astoria — where the Empire State Building is now — and gradually find themselves conspiring to kill Albert, whom Ruth called “the old crab,” a cultured, sour, loveless artist whom Judd had never met.

The novel is not a whodunit. Even the book jacket gives away those facts typically withheld in mysteries. The interest for me was in the psychology behind Ruth’s fantasy of perfect happiness once her husband was done away with and she received the $96,000 in insurance money — an enormous sum then — that she’d deceptively got Albert to give his signature to, and Judd’s slavish devotion to his strong-willed lover, letting lust, lots of whisky, and his own pliant nature determine what he would do.

Books into Movies

The fun of writing historical fiction is finding out new things all the time. At a Christmas party, I asked Tim Healy of Electrical Engineering what the green tint was on the copper roof of the old Waldorf-Astoria, and the next morning received an e-mail from him telling me it was a patina called verdigris. With this book I also discovered that in 1925 Noxema was called Dr. Bunting’s Sunburn Remedy; cars were still without heaters or radios; hip flasks and lipstick became fashionable; the term “bimbo” referred to a man, not a woman; Mayor Jimmy Walker made it possible to watch movies on Sundays; most people worked six days a week; and even though it was the era of Prohibition, someone arriving at the Port Authority Terminal in New York City could find illegal alcohol for sale in less than a minute.

Also surprising was the speed of the justice system then. Judd and Ruth murdered a sleeping Albert with a five-pound sash weight in the wee hours of Sunday, March 20th. Both were in jail by Monday night. The first interviews with jurors took place on April 18th; the trial — which was as famous then as O. J. Simpson’s was in our time — took only seventeen days; Albert’s character was never called into question; and even with appeals, the lovers were executed in Sing Sing just seven months after their sentencing. (I got a sense of Ruth’s skylark nature when I found out that sentencing took place on May 13th and Ruth joked to a jailer, “This is my worst Friday the 13th ever.”)

All during the two years or so that I was writing the novel I was waiting for a title and finally found it in a newspaper editorial written by Cornelius Vanderbilt III just after the couple were arrested. He wrote: “The instinct of motherhood, the desire of a father to shield his child from harm, common sense, any feeling of decency toward a loving mate were all swept away before a wild surge of guilty passion.”

Of such Aha! moments are novels made.

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  1. I think it was in 2001 that Ron Hansen spoke to our South Bay California Writers Club in San Jose. It was an inspiring and memorable evening. During Q&A after his talk, someone asked what he thought of critique groups and Ron said that for some people they’re fine, but he shared his work with only one person: his best friend and former college roommate, John Irving. Both authors are products of the literary community in Iowa, my home state. The famous Iowa summer writing workshops in Iowa City make me proud to be corn fed.
    I would love to own another one of Ron Hansen’s books.

  2. I am actually new to Ron Hansen. I’ve never read anything by him but I’m very intrigued by his work. Thanks for posting this & alerting me to your giveaway. I would love to add Hansen’s most recent book to my library.

  3. I have read Desperadoes and Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen. I haven’t had the chance to read all of his other works but these two were splendid. I anxiously await my chance to read A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion for more story magic from this author.

  4. Thank you for the heads up Stephanie. I am an avid reader so utilizing the web and social networking to expand my exposure to more authors and books has been such a blessing.

  5. I didn’t realize that Ron Hansen also wrote The Assassination of Jesse James, a great book! I saw the movie first and then read the book and loved both. Even more interested in the new book now.

  6. One of my favorite movies is Double Indemnity. I’m excited to read A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion. Presently I’m fascinated with The Roaring 20’s and 30’s.

  7. I haven’t read any books of Ron Hansen either. So I am pretty excited to start reading them soon, they all sound great. Thanks for letting me know about the giveaway :-)!

  8. This book is on my wishlist. I’ve never read his work before, but I love novelizations of real historical events. 31 Bond Street is another example of a crime turned into a novel and superbly done! Thanks for hosting this giveaway.

  9. I’ve not read any of his past books but this one piqued my interest. Certainly I remember Double Indemnity from my film school days!

  10. I recently saw The Assassination of Jesse James and added it to my list. I didn’t realize it was the same author. A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion has been on my list from the get go. I love Double Indemnity…one of my favorite movies. That whole decade (the 20’s) has always held a special allure for me. I can’t believe the speed w/ which the capture, trial, sentencing, and executions all took place. It drags on for decades now. Thanks for the heads up Stephanie, Loved the info I read here.

  11. I am interested in reading this novel. Ron Hansen sounds intriguing as does this book. Many thanks.

  12. I’ve read The Assassination… book (it’s a long title so I decide to abbreviate) and Mr. Hansen’s earlier book Desperadoes about Emmitt Dalton remembering his days of crime. From what I understand Gray & Judd were not very good at keeping their secret once the police starting questioning them, so I would think this story would be like The Assassination… in which the story builds up drama from the accumulation of details. I’d love to read it.

  13. I have not read any of Hansen’s previous books, but this one definitely intrigues me. The title immediately captured my attention and the story, based on a factual case, sounds fascinating. I’m a lover of historical fiction. I also like film noir. I recently reread Cain’s Mildred Pierce. I can’t wait to try Hansen’s newest novel. Thanks for the opportunity to receive a copy!

  14. I haven’t read any of Mr. Hansen’s books but I’ve read a couple of interviews and he seems like he’d be an interesting guy to speak with.

  15. Thankyou, Stephanie, for this link. Ron’s comments make the prospect of reading this book even more interesting.

    I enjoyed reading his Jesse James novel, which both added mystery in places and solved mysteries in others. Seemingly ordinary people sometimes do such extraordinary things!

  16. The kind of historical fiction I enjoy is the type based on actual people or events. I have already put A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion on my wishlist… from the description it sounded a bit like Body Heat, a movie I really liked.

    Thanks for the excellent interview and background on the book. I didn’t realize Double Indemnity, another movie I enjoyed, was based on real people.

  17. Ron, thanks for a delightful interview. Especially amused by the word bimbo, and it’s original usage! Yes, that’s a big part of what I write–learning all the neat stuff out there that I didn’t know before I started the research. Delightful blog post. Thanks, Steffer.


  18. I am very interested in reading Guilty Passion. It sounds like a very good book and is definitely on my to-read list.

  19. Thanks for sharing this link. When I read a review of A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, I didn’t make the connection that Mr. Hansen had written Exiles, a book I read and enjoyed. I’ll also be adding his Jesse James book to my to-read list.

  20. Mariette in Ecstasy was my first exposure to Ron Hansen. Loved his writing and his ability to get inside the head of nuns. This is a great post, especially about historical writers looking for that detail, unfinished storyline, etc. Also loved the quote about Friday the 13th. Said a great deal about the character and exploring what I call the landscapes of the mind. I’d love to win his book!

  21. It is a fascinating thing indeed when close bonds and common sense are swept away by passion or some sense of misplaced hope.

  22. I’d love to win this book.

  23. Just finished A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion moments ago. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but the prison sequence was mesmerizing. All in all, a teriffic read.

  24. Sounds intriguing. I have never read his work, but would love to. Count me in!

  25. Yes, this book does sound interesting. I’ve never read any of Hansen’s books but would love to win and read this one.

  26. I found Ron Hansen’s new book on GoodReads and it sounds wonderful. I have not read any of his works before and hope to add him to my growing library. Thank you for alerting me to this write up and giveaway. I will definitely add his work to my to read list whether I win a copy of A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion or not.

  27. Sounds like a good book. I’d like to read it.

  28. I’ve never read a book by Ron Hansen……but Guilty Passion looks so intriguing!!!

  29. I heard about this book from a review on NPR, looking forward to reading it. Glad to be introduced to your blog.

  30. Wow! Thank you for the information. This isn’t my usual read, but I’m very interested. Thanks for the opportunity.

  31. Thanks for the info & chance to win, exciting! My hubby is a journalist, looking to maybe one day publish a book, ironically. I do a little writing myself but am a little rusty @ the moment, I found out about this site from my bookclub. 🙂

  32. I am not familiar with Ron Hansen but am interested in reading this book. Thanks for posting this & alerting me to your giveaway.

  33. This was fascinating, thanks! I love Hansen’s novels – and Guilty Passion seems like vintage Hansen. Fingers crossed!

  34. Very interesting… I can’t wait to read his book!

  35. I love historical fiction and am just starting to get back into it after years of not reading. This sounds perfect for me. A little history, a little true crime…what’s not to love? Definitely adding it to my wishlist.

  36. I read and really enjoyed Atticus, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, as well as the short story collection titled Nebraska by Ron Hansen. I’ve read some good things about A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, so I’m looking forward to reading it.

  37. This book sounds so good and I would love to read about this time period. Thanks for the chance!

  38. An avid fan of historical fiction I’m surprised I’ve been reading this long and haven’t run across Ron Hansen until now. I have to admit A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion was on my to-read list, not only because of the subject and Jazz Age setting, but also because of the fantastic cover art (most film-like) and alluring title.
    Hitler’s Niece, his ’99 novel, is joining Guilty Passion on my list.

    I enjoyed reading Mr. Hansen’s comments about the process of writing this most recent book. An author of historical fiction must be not only a novelist, but a historian and detective as well. I’d never really thought of it in those terms until now.

  39. I love historical novels and am looking forward to reading this one. I enjoy learning new historical facts mixed in with fiction.

  40. We read Ron Hansen’s book A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion for our book club. Everyone really enjoyed it and it produced some great discussion. It was great reading about that time period. After reading the book, we watched the 1944 version of “Double Indemnity” which was great fun! Also looked up on the Smithsonian website the camera that the journalist used to capture the picture of the electrocution and the old newspaper clippings. Fascinating!

  41. I am even more excited to read this book now than I was after seeing the review on GoodReads. Thanks for dropping me a note on my page and alerting me to the giveaway. This will be my first Ron Hansen, but not my last.

  42. I’ve never read any of Ron’s books before, but this one sounds like such a good one, I can’t wait to read it!!

  43. Hansen is a new name to me, but I love all the details he included of what he’d learned from doing research for his story. I will definitely be looking for his name on my next trip to the bookstore or library.

  44. I have never read any of Ron Hansen’s work but because of this blog post I will add more of his work to my to-read list. Thanks!

  45. nice – I enjoyed the historical tidbit about Noxema

  46. Thanks so much for telling me about your giveaway! I am new to Ron Hansen, but I love historical novels, and this one sounded really interesting to me. I can’t wait to read it! =)

  47. I’m reading Ron’s book now and loving the juice of the characters. At the same time that I am horrified by the sheer coldblooded nature of Ruth and amazed that she was able to get this man to do anything she wanted him to. I like the geographic and specific references to New York in the twenties.

  48. I’ve not read any of his past books but this one piqued my interest. It sounds interesting and I would love to read it.
    I’ve also subscribed via Feedburner for extra points.

  49. This sounds fascinating, great piece. I would love to win the novel.

  50. Wow! His book sounds really interesting. I can’t wait to start reading 🙂 Thank you for the info about the giveaway and thank you for giving me another amazing book site to visit – living in a small town in Croatia doesn’t give you many opportunities to meet authors or publishers or be “in the loop” with what’s going on so this will be a very useful (and fun) site to visit. All the best from Dubrovnik.
    Lukrecija (aka Whisper19)

  51. I am an email subscriber interested in reading this book. Thanks for the giveaway.

  52. A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion sounds fascinating and I’m looking forward to reading it!

  53. i enjoyed this posting very much…thanks for the opportunity to read Ron’s novel, too.

  54. I absolutely love historical fiction and this book looks great! Please include me in the giveaway. Thanks.

  55. Love historical fiction. All his books sound great.

  56. I love historical fiction. I am an email subscriber.

  57. I’m very much looking forward to reading Ron Hansen’s A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion.

  58. The book sounds really interesting as was the article.

  59. In 1981 I had the privilege of accompanying Ron and his brother Rob and their good friend Patrick Higgins on a research visit to the Jesse James farm in Missouri. For me, the resulting novel (and film) stands not only as a riveting portrait of the outlaw in the last year of his life, but also as a beautifully written reminder of a day spent in the company of one of this country’s most talented writers. If Surge is half as good as any of Ron’s previous work, it is one hell of a read.

  60. Thank you for the chance to win!

  61. Thanks for the giveaway. I am interested in reading this book. It sounds very good.

  62. I would love to read this. It sounds really good.

  63. I absolutely love historical fiction and this book looks great! I would love to read it!

  64. Would love to read!

  65. I loved Atticus and can’t wait to read his next novel, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion.

  66. Fascinating and informative post! Ron Hansen’s Wild Surge of Guilty Passion sounds like a riveting read by a meticulous researcher with the gift of words! Best wishes and thanks for a chance to win this fantabulous giveaway!

  67. Mmmm extra points for email subscribers, count me in!

  68. Ooh! This looks like a great read! Pick me! 😉

  69. I love historical fiction and would like to be included in the giveaway. Thanks.

  70. Hansen wrote that the fun of writing historical fiction is finding out new things all the time. I think besides the entertainment and escape, one can learn a lot from reading too.

    For example, I learned some interesting trivia from his post. I didn’t know that originally “bimbo” referred to a man not a woman.

    Thanks for the giveaway. I would love to read this.

  71. Email subscriber

  72. Thanks for the giveaway and for participating in this blog hop! I’m already an e-mail subscriber.

  73. I loved Ron Hanson’s Atticus and in my opinion he should have won both the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for this novel. His latest book looks to be just as interesting. I had no idea that Double Indemnity, a wonderful noir film of the 40s, was based on a true story ,and I look forward to reading Mr. Hansen’s take on this interesting piece of trivia.

  74. I’m currently reading Hitler’s Neice and enjoying it immensely. I can’t wait to read A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion!

  75. This book sounds great, thanks!

  76. Great post – very interesting. I have already added this book to my to-read list! I loved the way he found his title also. I am a new email subscriber!

  77. Awesome give away. Thank you for the chance.

  78. Thank you for the giveaway!!

  79. would love to read this book

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