Tom Hanks: “God gave all of us burdens, and some of us typewriters”

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When we at Parnassus got hold of an early copy of Uncommon Type, Tom Hanks’ debut collection of short stories, we passed it around and fell in love. Brimming with nostalgia, with an empathetic and observant eye for what makes us all human, these stories reveal Hanks’ talent and skill for bringing characters vividly to life on the page, just as he does on the screen.

Open up this book, and you’ll meet an Eastern European immigrant making a new life in New York after his family and home are torn apart by civil war. Watch what happens when a man with a bowling hobby rolls a perfect game — and then another and another and many more until he becomes ESPN’s newest celebrity — and must decide if perfection and fame have ruined the thing he loves. Get to know an eccentric billionaire, a wistful time traveler, a veteran whose war memories still feel fresh, and more. We think you’ll love them all, and that’s why we chose Uncommon Type as the next book to send to our First Editions Club members.

Hanks recently spoke with Patrick Ryan, editor of One Story magazine. One Story, as you may know, is the nonprofit literary organization dedicated to teaching, supporting, and celebrating the short story form. Its magazine publishes one excellent short story per issue, and September’s issue featured one of Hanks’ stories, “A Month on Greene Street.” (You may have read about it in the Washington Post’s recent piece, “Tom Hanks, Ann Patchett, And the Man in Her Basement.” Ryan’s the man, although we should note that he’s not still in the basement.) Thanks to One Story for letting Musing run a copy of their interview. Here it is:

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Tom Hanks with a typewriter from his extensive collection.

Patrick Ryan: What sparked the idea for this story?

Tom Hanks: There is great potential when one moves into a new house: for adventures and friendships, for a new perspective of your town and even of the night sky. But you could also find that you now live on a block with a nut living right next door, some jerk who you will have to negotiate around until one of you moves. My family was always changing living places so we had many adventures. To me, the moves were always exciting new beginnings. The story is my attempt to capture that sense of starting all over. There are new possibilities and new perspectives to be found on new Greene Street.

PR: You do so many things in “A Month on Greene Street” that I admire. For example, you’re able to successfully juggle a large cast of characters with ease, and you use dialogue not only sparingly but to great effect — every bit of it advances character. What impressed me most, though, was the point-of-view. The narrative is very snugly tethered to Bette Monk, and the result is a very intimate story that’s written in the third-person. Did you ever consider writing this one in the first-person? How different might that have been?

TH: The collection of stories has, I think, seven that are written in the first-person, and I didn’t want to overuse that technique. Bette Monk had to be a single mom with three kids, close friends, and an ex-husband — a woman with her marital struggles not just behind her, but conquered, in fact. She needed to be moving onto Greene Street by choice, blessed by real-estate luck, into a home that is not hers by default, but by proclamation. She is declaring her future by sinking her savings into this house.

The possibility that she could have made a mistake, that Greene Street would saddle her with a permanently disconcerting neighbor, would have been, well, just terrible, no?

cover_os_232.pngPR: Speaking of which, “A Month on Greene Street” plays with the adage “don’t judge a book by its cover,” because Bette, for most of the story, sticks with her first impression of (and assumption about) her neighbor Paul Legaris. Then one thing — a keychain — changes her impression of him completely. In this respect, would you say the story is about Bette’s learning curve when it comes to strangers? Or is it more a story about Bette’s coming back into the world, post-divorce?

TH: Her divorce is long behind her — a different life she lived long ago, like her years in college. The story is about assumptions. We all make them about people, steered by everything from media stories, appearances, gossip, fashion (flip-flops on a grown man!) and the instincts we have, like Bette’s extrasensory pops. She is pretty open upon meeting her neighbors — her judgment held close to her vest. But when her line of perception is crossed — by as simple a question as are you doing anything tonight — she leaps at an assumption based on her own experiences, her intuitions, her own notions of the State of Men Right Now. She’s tough that way, but she has every right to be so.

PR: How did you come to write short stories? Does the form naturally appeal to you? Is it a good fit for your creative rhythm?

TH: In the office, where we supposedly make movies and television shows, our story ideas are batted around for a long time, trying to be fleshed out into the form that would best examine the theme. Some stories are far too detailed and complex to be movies with the three-act structure. Others would run out of gas in the long arc of a TV series. Some stories have to be documentaries. Some of the stories in this collection have been poking around in my noggin for years, and the experiences I’ve had at the office helped me see that they should take shape as short prose. In a few dozen pages, I could focus on the details that I feel are illuminating — like Bette Monk’s espresso maker and the Patel family — in just a few beats. Also, the time jumps end up carrying more expository weight so I can cut to the chase, such as when the end of August suddenly hits Greene Street and weeks have gone by.

Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 11.44.41 AMPR: Can you tell us a little about your interest in/obsession with typewriters? They appear in almost every story in Uncommon Type. I began to look forward to them—like cameos.

TH: Easter eggs, those machines—and there is one in each story. You may have to look around some of the hedges. My penmanship is atrocious and always has been. I hated it when I was in fifth grade. Typewriters are built to do one thing very simply, repetitively, on demand and (mostly) with no need for electricity. Typewriters cannot be hacked and never lose your document, unless you rip it out of the carriage and tear it up. And, typewriters can do that forever. You tell me what $50 purchase will work as designed for 100 years, other than a cast iron skillet! No one ever throws away a typewritten letter. Each is an individual work of linguistic and literary art, as delicate — and permanent — as a painting in oil on canvas. With a typewriter, one can create a story, a letter, a to-do list, a receipt, some thoughts, and semi-coherent rambles that can last as long as Sumerian clay tablets. I find such permanence to be a wonder.

PR: Do you have more short stories in the works?

TH: In my head, dammit. God gave us all burdens, and some of us typewriters.

PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?

TH: Don’t quit for the day until you know what happens next. That, and have a new ribbon handy.

Patrick Ryan is the editor of One Story magazine and the author of The Dream Life of Astronauts, a short story collection that was a Parnassus First Editions Club selection in 2016.

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Subscribe to One Story magazine here!

And if you’re quick, you can subscribe to our First Editions Club in time to get a signed copy of Uncommon Type (while supplies last — quantities are limited). While the book is officially out today, signed first editions will ship to subscribers in approximately two weeks. Sign up here.