Woodworking: Jon Hassler: His personality was as genuine as his writingJon Hassler first entered America’s literary scene in 1977 when his Novel “Staggerford” was published and the New York Times called the Minnesotan “a writer good enough to restore your faith in fiction. Unlike so many contemporary writers, he creates characters you come to care about and believe in.”
By: Dave Wood, columnist, River Falls Journal
Jon Hassler first entered America’s literary scene in 1977 when his Novel “Staggerford” was published and the New York Times called the Minnesotan “a writer good enough to restore your faith in fiction. Unlike so many contemporary writers, he creates characters you come to care about and believe in.”
Since then, he’s garnered many awards and honors, has become part of the Midwestern landscape.
There’s the Jon Hassler Theatre, located in the town where he grew up, Plainview, Minn., a theatre that regularly performs plays based on his many novels. There’s the Jon Hassler Library at Brainerd Community College, where Hassler taught years ago.
Jon passed from our midst in 2008, a victim of Parkinson’s Disease. But he still resides in the hearts and minds of his many readers for the seventeen books he created and the upper Midwestern landscape he so thoughtfully described.
That’s why I’m so very happy that our local committee has chosen one of Jon’s works for its annual “River Falls Reads” program.
The book chosen is “Grand Opening,” a wonderful story about a Minneapolis family’s resettlement in a small Minnesota town 50 years ago.
Once the program gets underway, the library will sponsor discussions about the book, a movie based on another Hassler novel and the appearance of Jon’s widow Gretchen, who will appear at the library on Feb. 1.
Jon and I became friends after meeting at the Sinclair Lewis centenary at St. Cloud State, just a spit from St. John’s University where Jon was writer-in- residence. I’m telling you he was quite a guy.
Unlike many successful authors, Jon was self-effacing. I used to love hearing him read from his work during his numerous public appearances. He’d be reading along, then he’d pause, scratch his head and say, “Here’s a passage I wish I wouldn’t have written.”
He liked to tell the story of the Grand Rapids plumber who came to unplug the septic system at his cottage near Nevis.
“The plumber crawled out of my septic tank, dripping with the waste that had accumulated there. He asked me if I was from ‘The Cities.’
“I said I was. He asked me what I did for a living and I told him I was a writer.”
“’Geeze,’ said the plumber, ‘sure would hate to do THAT.’”
On another occasion, Jon was in a Dinkytown bookstore near the U of M. He noticed that there were 20 copies of his first novel remaindered at $1 apiece. A bargain.
“So I bought them all, knowing they’d appreciate in value. The clerk said, ‘You must be a real Jon Hassler fan.’ I said, yes, I AM Jon Hassler and showed her my picture on the dust jacket.”
“She said, ‘My goodness you are Jon Hassler.’ I wrote a check for the purchase. And then she asked me if I had some identification.”
On another occasion, Jon was asked to ride in the parade at one of the small towns where he had taught when a young man.
“I rode in a convertible with LaVryle Spenser, the famous romance novelist who had grown up in the town. After the parade we were taken to the city park where we were to sell and sign our books.
“The lines were long in front of LaVyrle’s table. I had no line. Finally, LaVyrle asked me to watch her table when she went to the portapotty.
“I figure that this was my chance to spear some of her customers. But it didn’t happen. As soon LaVyrle went to the portapotty, the line moved over and stood by it until she came out.”
Again, whatta guy!
Unlike many successful authors, Jon was always willing to admit that it wasn’t just his great creativity that made his novels so readable. It was also because he often took his incidents from real life.
I mentioned to him once that I loved the father-son duck hunting scene from his novel, “The Love Hunter,” which Robert Redford bought the movie rights to but never made because he got too old to play the part.
Jon said, “I took that right out of my daily journal. I was the duck hunter and my son was the duck hunter’s son.”
Jon once told me he went with a group of St. John’s and St. Benedict college students on a trip to Italy. On the bus he asked a girl which town she liked best, Rome or Florence.
“Oh, Rome, definitely,” said the girl.
Why is that? asked the author.
“Oh, in Rome, they have Diet Coke.”
A year later I was reading Jon’s novel about a trip to Rome. Guess what? There was the girl, and the Diet Coke.
Journal readers who dig into “Grand Opening” will marvel at Jon’s very wry humor, one of the charms of all his novels.
Years ago, my wife and I hosted a dinner party for several novelists and friends. Lorna Landvik, who had just written the wildly popular “Patty Jane’s House of Curl,” suggested we play a parlor game.
“You drop your first name and last name. You put down your middle name and add the name of your first pet dog. And the name you come up with will be your stage name when you become a porno star.
“Around the table we went with much hilarity. We got to Jon, who never smiled much. He looked up gravely and said “Francis Poochie.”
Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.