Ethan Hawke was born in Austin, Texas and grew up in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, where he studied acting at Princeton’s McCarter Theater. Hawke made his feature film debut in 1985 in Explorers, and shortly thereafter he appeared in Dead Poet’s Society. He has also appeared in Dad, White Fang, Rich In Love, Waterland, A Midnight Clear, Alive, Reality Bites, Before Sunrise, Gattaca, The Newton Boys, Great Expectations and Snow Falling on Cedars. Most recently, Hawke has appeared in Training Day, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Supporting Actor.” He has recently directed Chelsea Walls and has written two novels, The Hottest State and his latest, Ash Wednesday. Ethan Hawke lives in New York with his wife and two children.
Robert Birnbaum: Tell me why you wrote this book.
Ethan Hawke: Um, why did I write this book? Because, I got married and had a baby within a couple of weeks of each other. And it was like a bomb went off in my life, and I felt myself changing, being asked to change my orientation to my family and identity and to any kind of faith I may have held. Everything kind of felt altered, as if I walked through some door and found myself in another room, and I felt really unsure about where I was. I came up with these two characters as a way to begin a dialogue with myself to kind of figure out where I was.
RB: It wasn’t that you were writing in a journal everyday and as these big things happen in your life you decide to make a story, and then that blossoms into a novel. It was more that…
EH: No, it’s a little bit of both, a little bit of both. Once I had the idea for the book and started working on it—as soon as I figured out really, what the book was going to be—I’ll admit I had this idea for a book that involved this character Jimmy Heartsock. I could hear his voice, but it was a very different book. And then I had this idea for another book I was going to write. Then these things started happening to me, and I set it down for 9 months or a year. When I came back to it, I’d have these ideas. I’d write three or four chapters at a shot, and then I wouldn’t know what to do with it, and then I would walk away from it for 4 months. Then this idea for a new chapter would come to me. Once I had a first draft, I realized what I’d been doing. When I presented that sentence to you just now about why I wrote the book, it implies all this forethought, which I didn’t really have. I realized that’s what I was trying to do. So then I went back over it and began working in earnest on making it be that.
RB: Did anyone read the first draft before you started working on the second draft?
EH: My agent. And one friend. The first book I wrote, I shared with a ton of people. I was so excited to have written 20 pages in a row or whatever. I was real naïve about the whole thing. I was really excited and terribly earnest. This time around, I felt a real obligation to figure out what I was trying to say before. I knew a lot of people were going to tell me not to write it in dual first person. For some reason I really wanted to. I felt that I’d learned a lot on The Hottest State and that I should be able to articulate myself. I didn’t want a lot of, even constructive criticism. I don’t feel like you can handle criticism in the right way unless you are sure of what you are trying to get across. If you are sure of what you want to get across, then people can tell you how you are succeeding or not. If you are not, you can’t start writing the book so that it makes your best friend happy. So that he likes it more.
RB: So your first draft is like a brain dump?
EH: Kind of, yes. It had lots of similar elements and lots of completely dissimilar elements. I really come at this whole thing as an actor. I have these couple of characters that I think about. I see some little idea, like some guy getting married and he feels the whole time he’s getting married he’s like Jackie Robinson—he relates his whole life to sports metaphors—even though he is not a professional baseball player and he is never going to be a hero like Jackie Robinson. This is his one small way of becoming a man. He really feels it. I have this thought and it makes me laugh and I think, “That sounds like Jimmy.” It’s this alter ego.
RB: You wanted to express something about important events in your life…why didn’t you, given your day job, write a screenplay or play—media that you are more immediately connected to?
EH: I don’t know. If I had done that, I would have saved myself a lot of hassle. So many actors write, they just do dramatic writing. For some reason I feel compelled to write prose. Part of the reason is, I’m friends with so many filmmakers, and it’s a bitch to raise the money to make a movie and to still maintain creative control over it. I watch all these directors that have to cast people they don’t want to cast. They have to change the ending, change the centerpiece. They can’t go on in the sections they want to go on. I just think, “Why would I put myself through that?” I get enough of that as a performer. The great joy of acting is the collaboration. I get so much of that I feel really drawn to the isolation and solitude of writing. It’s a real joy for me.
RB: Is it hard?
EH: Yeah. I‘m a novice at it. This is only my second book, and I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a writer and hope I would continue to do so. It’s definitely difficult, but I think it’s harder for people that sold an idea for a book and have already spent the money. Then they have to hand it in. I’m doing this for fun. I’m doing this because I love it. So the thing that’s hard about that is maintaining some kind of self-discipline to finish. My family is okay and my rent is paid, so it’s not like if I don’t finish this damn chapter—I can really try to let it happen organically. Which is a luxury.
RB: When you decided to write this story, what was it going to be?
EH: I did this both times, and I probably won’t be able to do it again because it was some kind of weird trick I played on myself. I just read, before I started Ash Wednesday, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. Which I just flipped over. I thought it was amazing. So I wanted to write a collection of short stories with the same protagonist. That’s why I started writing in a dual voice. I didn’t think it would have any kind of narrative at all. I thought it would go backwards and forwards in time. And just be this collection of short stories that involved these two people. That kind of liberated me. So I didn’t think, “So, I’m starting a novel.” I wrote that first chapter and her first chapter, and they both don’t have the other one in them. I started doing that and started feeling it was meandering and it was unclear what the point was. That’s why when I said that thing about being clear about what I wanted to write about, I realized that these chapters all did have a theme. I cut out the ones that were completely dismissive of any kind of narrative. The third chapter is the first chapter where they both appear in it, and I knew I needed to bring them together in a way that felt compelling to continue reading. That was really hard. That was where I made the switch of it becoming a novel. The chapter where they get married is the only chapter where I internally rotate voices.
RB: I was very impressed with two scenes in this novel. The episode at the basketball court in Cincinnati where Jimmy, a 30-year-old AWOL soldier, is goaded into playing one-on-one with a 12 year old for $100 was gripping, emotionally exciting. Also, when Jimmy visits the priest who had confirmed him.
EH: The 2 pieces you mentioned are the heart of the book. They’re my 2 favorite chapters also. They certainly crystallize Jimmy’s crisis. The basketball chapter is probably my favorite piece of writing in the material.
RB: These two, Jimmy and Christie, seem to have a normal set of abnormalities. His father is a Viet Nam vet who goes crazy and kills himself. Her father is a philanderer, and her mother and stepmothers all walk out on them. She leaves Texas for NYC at 17 and marries her drunkard, junkie boyfriend. They almost seem to be caricatures of problems.
EH: Almost all problems that we actually experience—I buy into this idea, hopefully it’s not caricatureish in a way that’s boring—are experiences that are really not all that unique. They feel unique. We are unique. Most of the people you meet have had some kind of cliché happen to them, “I had my heart broken.” Or, “I fell in love with a drunk.”
RB: Was it the priest who says, “Emotions are nothing”?
EH: Yeah, they don’t mean much of anything. It matters what you do with them. I buy into our actions are the substance of our life. It’s how we define ourselves. You can cry your eyes out, but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything is happening. I don’t know.
RB: Readers frequently play the game of guessing what the writer really thinks.
EH: Do they know what they mean there? Yeah.
RB: I don’t want to ask that but rather whether you believe some of the values held by some of your characters—there is a good amount of moralizing in the novel. The interior dialogues sketch out some ethical positions.
EH: To me, the whole book is about some young people learning the idea of accountability. I don’t have a moral position on the book. I don’t think the characters usually do, except their understanding this idea that you are accountable for your actions. That you are starting to be defined by them. I wanted to write about that. One of the things that I thought was useful about two points of view was that I could border on some moralizing and then do the contrary in the next chapter. Hopefully that might create some kind of ebb and flow that might be interesting and wouldn’t feel like the book was moralizing. It is dangerous terrain to walk.
RB: It certainly is. Did you know how you were going to end this book when you started it?
EH: Yes. And I didn’t end it that way. I enjoy reading a book in which I feel what’s happening in the moment. One of the things I struggle with in a lot of modern fiction right now—I could talk about this in relation to film too—with computers it’s really affected the editing of film. All this cross-cut and rapid-fire editing, that’s all by virtue of the computer. You don’t have to hand cut and glue them back together. You sit there at the computer and it’s so easy to do. The same is true with fiction right now. You get all these polished paragraphs and it makes me think, “Charles Dickens didn’t have that.” One of the things that’s great about Dickens is the feeling of spontaneity. He doesn’t know where he is going. Pip is going on this adventure now. He definitely has point. He is driving at an idea, but there is spontaneity in the writing and the voice. I was longing for that, to create that. I had this idea. I thought it was a pretty great idea, how I was going to end the book. And I wrote it, a last chapter for her and a last chapter for him. I cut them both. I realized that all was doing was wrapping it up. I know the ending now is kind of abrupt. I like it because it has forward momentum. You may not be a 100% happy with it when you just stumble on it…I’ll tell you what happened to me when I read the book. I was getting ready to give it to my editor. I sat in my office one night, I read the whole book, beginning to end. I felt really disappointed by the ending. I felt like, “Shit.” So then I went out for a drink and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I started realizing that I liked it. The more I thought about it, the more I thought I was done, actually. That there really is nothing else to say. You might want something else to be said, but there is nothing else for me to say. So, I lived with it.
RB: Are you done with these characters?
EH: I think so, yeah. It’s entirely possible when I’m 52 or something like that I could think, “You know it’d be fun to pick them up where they are now.” I dig that in other people’s writing. John Updike. Or Truffaut would do that as a filmmaker, kind of pick characters up…
RB: Julian Barnes did it recently. He wrote Talking it Over and then about 9 or 10 years later he wanted to see what happened and wrote Love, Etc.
EH: With me it’s really where the actor in me comes out. I start hearing Jimmy’s voice again. That was the impulse of this book. I could just hear this voice and it really made me laugh. If that starts happening to me, I’ll do it. But right now I feel done.
RB: When you mentioned modern literature, it reminded that that given the intimate relationship of fiction and film, the new generation of actors seemed to provide new hope to literary fiction. That is, young actors like yourself were aware of fiction other than best sellers.
EH: I think that may be true.
RB: For among other reasons, it appears that young actors read.
EH: I don’t know about older actors or not. Times change. If you go back to the ‘40s, the bulk of Hollywood movies were coming out of New York theater. Elia Kazan becomes a big, hot shot movie director. Most of the great writers learned their craft in playwriting. That’s not happening anymore. What’s happening right now that’s interesting that wasn’t even the case when I started, movies are so cast dependent. Like if you don’t get X actor or Y actor, you are never going get the financing for your movie. Which is empowering the actor. It makes me very critical of actors because I feel like, “Hey listen, if you guys didn’t say yes to that schlock and take that 12 million bucks, we all wouldn’t have to go and watch it.” America will ultimately go to what plays at the Cineplex Odeon. That’s what they’ll go to see. You can give ‘em something good or you can not. You see The Lord of the Rings, for example. It’s so great to see people spending 100 million dollars on a movie that has a theme, has metaphor, a complexity of characters. All this stuff that you find in fiction that you don’t necessarily find in movies. If you’re gonna spend that kind of money, give the people something good and look, people loved it. They’ll eat that up as much as they will Waterworld or whatever dopey 100-million-dollar movie somebody has made. Acting stems from a love of writing. Acting is all about articulating writing to an audience. (Stage whispers) “I love this scene,” you know. That same feeling that you have when you want to read a friend a passage. That’s the feeling that makes you want to do a movie. A lot of times it’s one scene. You go, “Ah that scene, it moved me so much. People need to see this scene. I know exactly how he touched that woman.” It makes you want to do it. As actors get more and more say in the matter, you run into actors who say, “Hey, did you ever read The English Patient? Let’s do that.”
RB: Actors forming their own production companies seems to be a commonplace today.
EH: It’s because they are feeling this power they have.
RB: I noticed your first novel was copyrighted by you, but this one, Ash Wednesday, was copyrighted by Under The Influence Productions.
EH: Are you serious? I didn’t even notice that. Isn’t that funny?
RB: Is that your production company?
EH: I guess it’s what I sign my contract to. That’s so cool. I didn’t see that. I wish it was to me. That’s something that totally slipped by me. Under the Influence is a company that I created—I made my movie with that company. So it’s just me. It’s just another legal word for me.
RB: Tell me some of the things that you have read recently that you have liked? Or filmworthy.
EH: Filmworthy? I don’t know. I would say that my take is a little different. Movies are so the art form of our time that people often times read these books and think, “Wow, this could be a movie!” If a book’s really good I don’t have that impulse. I feel like it’s done. It’s not like if it turns into a movie it’s fulfilled. It’s already fulfilled its ultimate potential.
RB: That reminds me of the story that Anthony Quinn offered Garcia Marquez $1 million for 100 Years of Solitude.
EH: What did he say?
RB: Turned him down.
EH: Well, Salinger did the same thing. Kerouac vacillated on On The Road. Lucky for him nobody has done it.
RB: If you type in On the Road on your computer’s web browser it will bring you to a Microsoft site. That’s so disgusting!
EH: So disgusting. Sad. Really, man.
RB: It’s really curious to hear the music backing TV commercials these days. Some people you would never have believed that they would allow their music to be used this way: Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, The Beatles. Charles Mingus.
EH: Once everybody starts doing it, you start feeling like, “What am I being the hold out for?” I’ve met some of those people who have done it. They always have a good answer for doing it, “You know well, Time-Warner’s got the 2 million bucks. Give me the 2 million bucks and I’ll give it to Greenpeace.”
RB: Do they?
EH: Eh, I don’t know. If they did, I’d think it was alright, I guess. I secretly kind of like the arrogance of artistic integrity. I miss it.
RB: Everything else is predictable.
EH: It’s one of the things I liked about this movie I did, Gattaca. The central idea of that movie was that we would no longer be defined by our country but by the corporation we worked for. Like, I’m not an American, I work for Sony. You see that happening more and more.
RB: Reminds me of the standing joke in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Corporations could buy naming rights to years. So that 2003 could be the Year of MCI World Com and so on.
EH: That’s great. The year of Beatrice, the year of Coca Cola. Hmm.
RB: Sorry, I haven’t seen Gattaca.
EH: It’s an interesting film, not flawless, but interesting. I like it.
RB: We kind of went off in the wrong direction. Tell me some books you’ve enjoyed.
EH: I’m a big Denis Johnson fan. What have I read recently that I really liked?
RB: Did you see the film of Jesus’ Son?
EH: I did. I did. Yeah it was pretty good. The book was kind of magical and gutsy and wild. I don’t know. In the last year or so I haven’t been reading as much fiction because I was trying to finish this. Let’s see, there was The True History of the Kelly Gang. A phenomenal book. I liked Colson Whitehead’s book, John Henry Days. It was a powerful book. Those would be the things I like this last year.
RB: So now that you are out here talking about your novel, is this a different iteration of you, a different character?
EH: One of the things I like about it, I don’t know how this will sound to you. There is this kind of glass wall of celebrity that the movies creates. This glamour idea. There is something that puts a hammer to this little box by doing this. You do a movie and you talk about it, you are obligated to say nice things about Warner Bros and say nice things about the producer. Even if they are not true, you are obligated to, because what’s the point of saying unkind things about anybody else? And they paid you. The great thing about books is that you can be a little bit more your self.
RB: You would seem to be totally exposed.
RB: You could blame your editor, if necessary.
EH: Well, then you would be a fool for listening to them.
RB: How much longer do you do this book tour?
EH: A couple more days. I’ve been doing it almost 3 weeks. I was Seattle yesterday and Portland the day before and San Francisco the day before that and Austin the day before that. Chicago, Toronto.
RB: When I talked to Richard Russo recently, he observed that that there was a lack of generosity in the publishing world and among writers. What’s been your experience?
EH: I have a lot of friends who are playwrights and screenwriters. And they, of course, are very supportive. The literary community—I’m on this board of the Young Lions of the New York Public Library. We try to read everything written by people under 35. There are about 20 of us. I’ve met a bunch of other writers doing that. The NY Public Library wants to give an award—Colson got it this year. I gotten to be friends with Rick Moody over the last year. He’s an interesting guy.
RB: He’s taken some big knocks lately.
EH: Yeah. That’s the thing about it, if you really want to put yourself out there as a creative person. They celebrated the shit out of him for years, and now it’s time to take him down, and if he can handle it they’ll build him back up.
RB: It seems more now than ever writers are participating in these subsidiary activities, subsidiary to writing. Certainly, more than in the past.
EH: They didn’t. I know Sam Shepard a little bit. He wrote a collection, Cruising through Paradise. It was dynamite. Sam is so old school about that. He won’t do any press. He won’t do any readings. He’s not interested in cultivating his own myth. Which, of course, cultivates it. He sold about 5 books. It’s a terrific collection. As far as the literary community goes, I feel like there is going to be a lot of skepticism towards me. A natural, healthy skepticism that somebody is going to publish me not on the merit of the writing but on the fact that they think they can sell it. So that’s gonna create some negativity my way.
RB: What about the reviews?
EH: I got a good review in the NY Times.
RB: There you go. Who wrote it?
EH: I don’t remember. I try not to read them until I’m done with my tour. It makes you feel so damn vulnerable. If you get this bad review and you have to walk out in front of a couple hundred people and read and you feel like they all have the review in their back pockets. My basic attitude is that if I’m serious in my aim, then the work should overcome the skepticism. If it doesn’t, I still enjoy it. I think anybody who can get published should get published and let readers and time decide what’s of value to the community. It ain’t up to me to decide what’s good. Basically, I believe, whether it’s movies or books or anything, you should give it away.
RB: What? (Laughs)
EH: I know that’s why I haven’t been in too many successful Hollywood movies, I’ve managed to…
RB: Or why you are sitting on any Boards of Directors.
RB: The cut off for the Young Lions award is 35?
EH: For that particular award. This one trying to bring young people into the library. It’s so hard for a young literary writer to find an audience.
RB: Is it that hard? Dave Eggers and his coterie seem to be successful.
EH: All that shit helps. The thing about reading a book is, it’s a big commitment. You sit there and watch a movie, and it’s 2 hours of your time, and you get to sit, and there are pretty pictures and music. It’s never that bad. If you read a book, you want to know it’s going to be good. For me personally, there are so many classics I haven’t read. So much Jim Harrison I haven’t read. People want to know it’s going to be good. To put that effort forward for someone and I’m not sure they are going to be good, why should I do that? I haven’t read Moby Dick, for crying out loud. That’s where those kind of things are valuable. I think that Oprah club was fantastic. Anything that you can do to make books sexy and part of the culture.
RB: Are there a lot of books where you live?
EH: In my house? Yeah, my wife’s a big reader. My mom was a voracious reader. It sparks this thing, “What is she doing over there? Why is that so interesting?” And then it sparks it in you.
RB: Do you fear that people under 35 won’t read?
EH: I did my first—I’m going to digress to get to that question—I made my first movie when I was 13. I’m 31, so I’ve been acting in movies for almost 20 years. (Rosie starts barking) I like movies, is my point. But it is a much more passive form and a much less in-depth form. One of my favorite movies of all times is One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and the book is much better. So nothing has ever gotten inside of me—l don’t know if I have ever seen a movie that has changed my life. I’ve loved ‘em. Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge, when read these 2 Maugham books, all of a sudden I looked at the world with a different eye. When I was 18 and read Jack Kerouac for the first time, I felt like the world turned Technicolor…And I don’t know how much people are reading, but I know that movies are the dominant art form. The theater is really in danger of becoming a lot like the opera. It’s really for the educated and the wealthy. The great thing about movies is you cross class boundaries, and I would love for that be true, to maintain its truth in fiction. For a while, I think that was true.
RB: It would seem that literature’s audience is, to borrow from the quote on Freud’s memorial in Vienna, “small but persistent.”
EH: I think so, too. It always needs some fresh energy thrown at it. That’s all I’m doing.
RB: Well, good. Thanks so much.
Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing