It's been quite a year for Ethan Hawke. The actor earned his first Oscar nomination alongside Denzel Washington in Training Day; his directorial debut, Chelsea Walls, arrived in theaters; his first son was born (Roan is his second child with wife Uma Thurman); and, of course, Knopf published his second novel, Ash Wednesday.
Introducing AWOL "goomba" Jimmy Heartsock and his pregnant girlfriend Christy Ann Walker, Hawke's sophomore effort represents a brave step forward. Whereas his 1996 debut, The Hottest State (about a young actor in New York City finding love), "definitely falls closer to the line of autobiographical fiction," the characters in Ash Wednesday will take readers entirely by surprise. True, their conflicts reflect the recent sea change in Hawke's life - becoming a husband and a father while he worked on the book - but after those questions of intimacy, identity, and accountability, the similarities end. (Well, except for Jimmy's (and Ethan's) deep rooting interest in New York Knicks basketball.)
"The thing is, the guy can write," Tom Chiarella admitted in Esquire. "Ash Wednesday unfolds pretty much the way a book should, tracing a herky-jerk romance from Albany, New York, to New Orleans and Texas in a bizarrely mature narrative - straight, unapologetic, even funny."
Dave: When you started working on Ash Wednesday, did you have anything in mind that you wanted to do differently from your first novel?
Ethan Hawke: There are a lot of problems doing a second book. A lot of times the first one really happens out of naivety. That's certainly true in my case. The Hottest State was so much fun to write. I hadn't over-thought the idea of publishing, so what was really exciting was getting to work with an editor and the rest. Without publishing something it's hard to feel like you've finished it; you're always tinkering.
The second time around there's a lot of pressure to apply what you've learned. At the same time, it's kind of like second albums in music: it's exciting to come out with a book so you want to write another soon, but that can be a real fool's gold. If you don't have anything to say, there's no point in saying it. So I tried to take my time.
As I worked on The Hottest State, I showed it to tons of people. I was so excited about sharing it, getting criticism. Ash Wednesday I barely showed to anybody. I felt much more protective about the book and much more insecure. I wanted to know what I was trying to say before I let anybody inside my head. I know I'm very easily influenced. If someone tells you, "That's a terrible idea," there's a real danger that you'll believe them when maybe it's not a terrible idea; maybe you just haven't articulated it right yet.
Writing both of these books has given me a really enjoyable private space to work out ideas. That didn't change.
Dave: Where did Ash Wednesday start for you? With the idea of this couple? The road trip?
Hawke: Jimmy's voice came first. I had the idea of a character.
My whole approach to writing, coming from acting, is through characters. I started thinking about this kind of goomba guy who was going through a crisis. Then I fell in love, got married, and had a baby, and everything but the guy named Jimmy and the girl named Christy on the road completely changed. When my life changed I started to see these two characters as an opportunity to do a meditation on intimacy and identity and accountability.
I picked the road thing because I know I struggle with plot. At least I have the realization. What's great about an odyssey tale is that you have a built-in plot: they went from here to there to there to there. It's cheap, perhaps, but I've never been as interested in plot as character. The book begins with them in one emotional place and ends with them in a different emotional place. That's the actor in me. The emotional journey I'm comfortable talking about.
Dave: I haven't seen Chelsea Walls yet, but my impression, from what I've heard, is that it's very much like what you're describing in terms of the absence of plot.
Hawke: It's completely nonlinear. Maybe it comes from acting so long that I can see a plot coming from ten miles away, but as an actor that's one of the most boring things to do: to service the plot. You're so much more interested in what the person is going through.
"The Russians are coming at twelve?! We've got to get going!" Lines like that are like a noose for an actor. I've developed an antagonistic relationship to plot that I probably need to get over.
Dave: I just saw Training Day, which was excellent. There's no lack of character in the movie, but there's no lack of plot, either.
Hawke: One of the things that's great about Training Day is that you have two very distinct personalities, but it's true: it also has a great plot. If you can do both, it's incredibly exciting for the audience.
Oftentimes, you have art films that have no narrative to speak of and instead offer characterization; then you have mainstream movies that are simple formulas, A-B-C-D. Training Day is a good combo.
Dave: The Hottest State. In that respect, I felt like you were stepping out a bit.
I was reading some of Jimmy's lines to people at work today. One of my favorites is: "Some people piss and moan about the sacrilege of putting a Ford engine in a Chevy, and intellectually I agree, but the shit hauls ass."
Hawke: The Hottest State definitely falls closer to the line of autobiographical fiction. First fiction, you write what you know. I wanted to take what I'd learned and create some characters, give it more texture.
Dave: As a reader, I know that unless Jimmy and Christy get completely off track they're headed for Texas. But some of the stops along the way I didn't anticipate. Did any of those intermediate stops take you by surprise as you were writing?
Hawke: Particularly the basketball chapter, which is one of my favorites in the book. I had no plan to write that chapter. But how to talk about Jimmy's relationship to his father, his immaturity, and the push and pull between that...I felt really happy with the idea of him meeting someone half his age and having some kind of battle - because he's having a battle with the thirteen-year-old boy inside himself. He comes face to face with it. I worked really hard on that chapter.
Dave: It's a good scene. That's one that I was explaining to some people who were asking about the book. "Well," I said, "John Starks..."
Hawke: I did a reading in Central Park. They wanted me to read for forty-five minutes or so, so I read that chapter. It was one of the highlights of my whole professional life: being in Central Park, reading what I think in a weird way manages to encompass almost all the themes of the book - in New York, to New Yorkers, about John Starks. The metaphor sings out in Central Park.
Dave: As I read the book I didn't imagine you in the role of Jimmy, but for whatever reason I was thinking of Uma as Christy.
Hawke: You're thinking of my wife? That's because she's a better actress.
To me, both characters are extensions of my own identity, as if I'm doing some kind of masculine-feminine split there, but knowing my wife, falling in love with her, the power of her personality...all that obviously affected me very deeply.
I'm in no way trying to do a portrait of her - I wouldn't be interested or even capable of doing that - but what I would do, as I would work on the book: I wanted to write a great character, and I would think, "Would Uma want to play this part?"
She has a lot of opinions about women in film and the parts they get, the simplicity of most of them. So I'd often ask myself, "How could I make this part worthy of a great actress?" That's where I'm coming from. In that way, she really did affect me.
Dave: One of the stories you listed as a favorite in a recent Book magazine profile was Sonny's Blues by James Baldwin, which has always been a favorite of mine, too. When I taught creative writing, it was one of the stories I assigned.
Hawke: To me, that story just defines voice. It's not overly done; it just pops. And James Baldwin, despite his immense intellectual prowess, doesn't ever seem to show off. Sometimes his anger gets the better of him, but in "Sonny's Blues" his vocabulary is very straightforward; it's always the perfect word. It's perfect.
That's cool that you taught it.
Dave: The students loved it.
Of all the pieces that I've read about you in the last couple weeks, the best was Rick Moody's profile in Details. And here's something I've noticed: Almost everything I've seen written about you by someone who has met you has been immensely complimentary; and almost everything I've seen written about you - as a writer, I mean, not as an actor - by people who've never met you tries to somehow discredit you or mock you for writing fiction, even if they have nice things to say about the book, itself.
That was interesting to me, particularly when I started thinking about it in light of Rick Moody's recent experience with reviewers. Dale Peck's review of The Black Veil for The New Republic started with the line, "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation." And it only got more scathing from there.
It seems so pronounced in your case that some people are simply out to knock you down. What's your relationship to reviewers? Even if, suppose, they're talking about someone else's work.
Hawke: That's an interesting question. In the theater it's particularly hard because a review comes out and then you have to go out on stage again. It's as if I'd have to read some terrible review of the book, then finish writing it. With movies and books, it's easier. You're done.
Austin Pendleton, an actor I really respect - he's a member at Steppenwolf, a wonderful character actor; you've seen him in a million movies and he does a lot of plays - Austin started by saying, "I will not read any of my reviews." That was kind of liberating for him. Then he decided that he wouldn't read any criticism, because, while there's value in criticism, as a creative person he felt that the critical mindset was of no value to him. All that was of value was enthusiasm, joy, creativity, self-expression...those kinds of things.
I thought that was an interesting thing to do, though I'd struggle to do it, myself, because I'm such a fan. I love movies and books and records. I just read a review of the Bruce Springsteen record today, and I enjoyed reading that.
In general, if somebody says Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation, he's more or less announcing that he's an idiot. He's taking such a stance of anger; he obviously has an axe to grind. Rick must be doing something interesting to spawn that kind of aggression. You always have to remind yourself of that.
There's a great Allen Ginsberg piece about this. A collection of interviews with him came out last year, Spontaneous Mind, where he talked about how important it is to let people make fun of you, to play the fool, to relinquish control of what people think about you; that just because somebody hates you or you're ignored doesn't mean what you're doing isn't interesting.
Our actions have to be their own rewards. You can't expect anything back. If you disregard the positive, it's really easy to disregard the negative. It all seems kind of frivolous.
The only reason that guy wants to write such a negative review of Rick Moody is because so many people like Moody's books. He's gotten plenty of "the best writer of his generation," too.
Dave: He has quite a cult following.
Hawke: Rick's a real writer. Some people are going to like what he does and some people aren't.
Have you ever had the experience of loving something so much, giving it to a friend, and having them tell you that they don't like it? That's what I try to think about when I get a bad review: it's still possible that somebody's enjoying this. Because what scares you is that all your friends are lying to you; you're utterly worthless.
Dave: What's excited you artistically lately, whether it's music or film or books, whatever?
Hawke: Oh, wow. I don't know. I think what excites anybody is what takes you by surprise, gets inside you and moves you.
Dave: So what's the last album that got inside you?
Hawke: I'm a Wilco fanatic, so Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Dave: You worked with them recently, right?
Hawke: I did. And working with Jeff [Tweedy], knowing a bit more what he's trying to do, made me respect it even more.
I love The Flaming Lips. They're terrific. And that kind of poppy Norah Jones record I think is dynamite. What was the last thing that moved you?
Hawke: A book.
Dave: I thought The Lovely Bones was amazing. Other than one scene toward the end, I thought it was pretty close to perfect. It's a great book. It's about the most depressing subject in the world and it still manages to be completely invigorating and graceful.
Hawke: What's it about?
Dave: A fourteen-year-old girl named Susie Salmon is raped and killed; that part of the story is captured within the first twenty pages or so. Susie narrates the rest of the novel from heaven, describing what happens to her family and friends after she dies.
Hawke: That sounds amazing. I'd like to read that.
Have you seen Waking Life?
Dave: I just saw it over the weekend.
Hawke: It's an interesting movie. I don't know what it's about, exactly, but I've seen it a couple times, and I'm left with the feeling that it's something like the first fifteen minutes of consciousness of somebody who has just passed away.
Dave: I knew virtually nothing about it when I sat down to watch other than the fact that it was animated, so I wasn't entirely prepared for something so cerebral.
Hawke: And even the animation is totally out to lunch. No movie has ever been animated like that. It was shot on video, then downloaded into a computer. The images' foundations are real, but then they're drawn on. I thought it was beautiful.
But The Lovely Bones sounds awesome. Have you ever read books by Lisa Reardon? She's really good, too. She wrote a book called Billy Dead that I loved. Not enough people know about it. She wrote another called Blameless that I haven't read, but I've heard it's good.
Dave: Religion plays a role in both of your books. I bring this up because when Stephen Carter was here recently he talked about the fact that the great majority of Americans say that they believe in a God of some kind, yet unless it's a main plot element religion is rarely part of mainstream novels in America.
Hawke: Particularly if you don't count horror novels.
Dave: Your novels certainly aren't religious novels by any means, but in each one people are struggling with some pretty big questions, particularly in Ash Wednesday.
Hawke: I've noticed that schism too. You might go read the Dhammapada or Thomas Merton, some kind of religious text, but the only people talking about religion are religious gurus. Then there's the rest of our life, all the stuff we're really interested in: having sex, music, going to coffee shops, going to the movies, whatever it is that people are doing. We compartmentalize our lives. If something really bad happens, for a window of time you really start asking the big questions. Then you get caught up in your daily life again.
But I really believe that people think about this kind of stuff. There's a line that Jimmy has in the first chapter: "If somebody asks me if I believe in God, I shake my head like I couldn't give a shit, but the truth is, I do. I just don't know what to do about it." That's kind of how I felt for years. I've always believed I was born for a reason, and you were born for a reason, that life has meaning, but I couldn't even begin thinking about what that point might be, why or in what context, in what relation to things.
What happened to me really is that in expecting a child, in falling in love and trying to act on that feeling rather than just experience it...To really try to get to know somebody, to try to give what they need even when it's not what you want...What parts of your identity are the right ones to shed? Which are the wrong ones? How much of your ego are you supposed to let go of? All of it? All these questions were brought up for me in the simple action of really loving some girl.
In a way, I think it was the first step toward religion. The first step toward some grander scale of compassion is to go there with one person. Then it's even easier with a child.
Maybe this is too much of a digression, but I was bullshitting in the street with some guys, including a sixteen-year-old kid who works as the elevator guy in a building where I was also working, doing some editing. I started talking to him about how bad the Knicks played the night before, and he had such an insightful take on why the Knicks didn't play well, and how overly critical people were, that people didn't really understand how good these guys were. He launched into this as if he'd spent hours thinking about it. It was rooted in a real compassion for the players. For some reason that struck me. I thought, Everybody's thinking about things more deeply than they let on. Everyone's looking for meaning.
If you start talking about religion you feel like you should be smarter than you are. And we've all been so inundated with freaky zealots that it makes us uncomfortable, so as soon as you mention the word God half the people you're talking to drop out; the other half come up with too much information. But I'm interested in it, and it's one of the things I wanted to do with Jimmy's voice, to create this kind of oddball guy who's going to talk to you about religion - but who's not going to know anything about it.
I didn't want to do any moralizing and I didn't have an agenda. I thought using two voices, switching back and forth between these two characters that think very differently, might dissipate that a little.
Dave: Is there something you can't do that you'd like to? Lots of writers want to be musicians, for instance. Lots of bankers, undoubtedly, want to be pro basketball stars.
Hawke: Who said, "All art aspires to be music"? Fiction, acting? it's all about rhythm. Nothing gets inside people like music. That's the obvious one.
I'd like to be a professional athlete. And I wish I were more active, to be honest. I admire people that really act on what they believe in. I admire the courage of conviction. That's what I admire in athletes sometimes: the dedication. Eleanor Roosevelt might be my biggest hero; I love her. So I don't know. What about you? What do you wish you could do?
Dave: Well, I wish I had more musical talent.
Hawke: I'd kill to be able to open my mouth and have a beautiful song come out.
Dave: I've always been interested in music more than just about anything else. Now I'm old enough to realize that I probably would have wound up a drunk or heavily into drugs if I'd been a musician - I don't think I could have handled the lifestyle - so it's probably a blessing that I'm pretty much tone deaf.
Hawke: It would be so easy to become a junkie.
Dave: I was laughing when I saw that you made a hypothetical soundtrack to Ash Wednesday. One of the songs you included was "Gimme Shelter" - one of the best rock 'n' roll songs of all time, but the movie of the same name is also amazing. You look at Keith Richards playing guitar in that film - I think particularly of the scene where the band is listening to the recording of "You Gotta Move" and Keith's lying on the floor behind the piano - and you think, "I can't believe that man is still alive." But at the same time, despite how completely strung out he is, you're entirely compelled by it because he's inside the music?
Hawke: He is the music. It's like watching Michael Jordan at the top of his game. Watching Keith Richards, there's no separation between him and the music.
I actually repeated that quote to Robert Thurman, my father-in-law, and he started in about how the statement represents a complete misunderstanding of detachment: "It's actually the opposite of signing off; it's about signing in." He had strong feelings about it, but the quote did make me smile.
Dave: What's on your agenda now?
Hawke: For the first time in about four years I have no idea. That whole time I've always had this book, so if one project ended I was diving back into the book.
I daydream about a third novel. I sometimes think about making one of the books into a movie. I think if I do direct another movie it'll be something I wrote, and it takes so damn long to write something that I might just do one I've already written. It might be kind of fun.
I took the last year after Training Day to finish this novel, so I haven't acted in about eighteen months now. That's my bread and butter. That greases the rails of my life. I should probably do another movie, but they're making fewer and fewer of the mid-range movies that I generally like. You're either in a really big movie or some uber-indie movie; the schism is getting wider and wider between mainstream and independent movies. It's nice when you can meet in between and find a movie with independent thought that has some production value and can be entertaining to the audience.
It's just now getting close enough to the end of my book tour that I'm starting to think about it. I'm going to take my daughter to the beach for three weeks when I'm done.
The reason that I write books and things like this is that I can't stand waiting around to get hired. The life of an actor... it's why some are so unhappy. The beauty is collaboration. The problem is waiting around for someone who can green light a project to want to collaborate with you. That's the tough part.
Ethan Hawke visited Powell's on August 6, 2002.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State