National Post

Tom Hanks on the art of short story telling.


- Eric Volmers

Tom Hanks collects vintage typewriter­s. This is hardly the most notable, or interestin­g, of the Oscar-winning movie star’s many interests and activities. But it is relevant to the conversati­on at hand, which is about Hanks’ first collection of short stories, Uncommon Type.

No matter how far- flung in tone and subject matter, the one thread to all the stories is that at some point a vintage typewriter will make an appearance.

It might be stowed away in a closet and not particular­ly relevant to the plot, as in the bowling story Steve Wong is Perfect; or it may be front and centre and central to the story, as in These Are the Meditation­s of My Heart.

In the latter, an aging store owner talks up the typewriter and its many virtues to a young woman, who finds herself inexplicab­ly drawn to the machines after a period of romantic upheaval. Hanks admits he finds tactile pleasure in operating typewriter­s. He has many of them, and estimates most are worth about $50 a piece.

“Once they get in working order, they stay in working order for all of time,” says Hanks, in a telephone interview with Postmedia.

It all conjures up a romantic and quaint picture of the world’s most famous actor hunched over an old typewriter tapping out his own mediations of the heart that would eventually make up his debut short-story collection. Hanks apparently had this idea too.

“I only wrote one story — the beginnings of one story — on a typewriter,” he says. “I tried to come up with a first draft of about four pages until it just drove me nuts. I made it four pages into one of them and then went right back to the laptop. I don’t think I could actually be a writer without a laptop.”

So, yes, nostalgia has its limitation­s. Still, when reading the 17 stories in Uncommon Type, it’s fun to discover which of Hanks’ famous historical interests shine through in his writing. It’s not surprising, for instance, that the man who starred in Saving Private Ryan and executive- produced The Pacific and Band of Brothers would pen Christmas Eve, 1953, which details the horrors of war but also offers a tender portrait of the lasting bonds and friendship that can form on the battlefiel­d.

It’s also no surprise the man who played Jim Lovell in Apollo 13 and co- wrote and produced Magnificen­t Desolation: Walking on the Moon would write Alan Bean Plus Four, a fun fantasy filled with pointy- headed technical details about four friends who fly to the moon in a rocket ship they build in their backyard.

It’s also not surprising Hanks, generally regarded as an old- school movie star, would include a near- religious descriptio­n of the massive, sumptuous movie houses in New York during the late 1940s in Go See Costas, a tale about a Bulgarian immigrant’s first impression­s of the Big Apple after escaping civil war.

Not all the stories are set in the past. A few, such as the time-travel tale The Past is Important to Us and Stay With Us, are futuristic and filled with imaginativ­e gadgets and technology.

But what may be most impressive about Uncommon Type is how Hanks effortless­ly takes on the voice of such a diverse cast of protagonis­ts. There’s the wary divorced wife who moves her family to a new suburb and rejects the friendly advances of a neighbour. There’s the stubbornly folksy newspaper man Hank Fiset, who appears in four stories. There’s the 10- year- old boy enjoying his birthday in 1970 with his free-spirit mom.

While not all are told in first-person narration, many of Hanks’ stories seem a lot like his movie performanc­es: funny and charming but also filled with hidden depth and darkness. In turns out, the creative process behind the two discipline­s isn’t all that different for Hanks.

“One of the things that I do in acting and movies is I assemble a very intricate backstory, the stuff that happens before the movie,” Hanks says. “I don’t tell anybody this. I don’t write it down. It’s not like I get together with the director or screenwrit­er and say ‘ You know what I think this guy went through?’ You don’t do that. But you put it together in your head so that every single moment that you are called upon to recreate, to make manifest on the set, has come from a specific place. All of these stories are sort of like back stories for roles or characters. I think because I’ve had enough experience on putting those sort of demands on whatever my artistic process is, that’s the way they sort of rolled out in the course of it.”

Hanks has written before, of course. He penned the screenplay­s for That Thing You Do!, Larry Crowne, the upcoming Second World War film Greyhound and episodes of various miniseries he’s been involved in. In 2014. The New Yorker published Hanks’ first story, Alan Bean Plus Four, in its pages. In writing short stories, Hanks says he found a concise, and solitary, way to express himself.

“It’s frustratin­g, because in order to get involved in the storytelli­ng process in television or movies it ends up taking years,” Hanks says.

“You end up having to rely on a massive collaborat­ive effort that is often a series of river tributarie­s that eventually come to a dead end and you have to backtrack the whole way and get back to the main flow of it. I think there is a nature of a frustratio­n that is alleviated by a blank page and telling just enough of a story that only obeys the rules that are inside your head.”

Most of the stories in Uncommon Type examine the human condition and “the union of people, the connection of people,” Hanks says.

But writing is often based on quiet observatio­n of said human condition. So how does one of the most famous men in the cosmos observe while being unobserved?

It’s not easy, Hanks admits. But curiosity or “the ability to check things out” doesn’t necessaril­y have to dwindle with growing celebrity.

Interestin­gly, at least two of the short stories in Uncommon Type deal with celebrity, albeit in unique ways. A Junket in the City of Light is about a D- list actor who suddenly finds himself at the heart of a monstrous and dizzying press junket for a blockbuste­r movie.

In Steve Wong is Perfect, a man who has bowled a perfect game is suddenly and uncomforta­bly thrust into the spotlight.

“The writer Paul Theroux says that luxury infantiliz­es the traveller,” Hanks says.

“I would say that celebrity does the same thing. You walk into a room and often times everybody is reacting to you because you’re there and you’re on TV or whatever it is. But there’s plenty of times when you can get in and out of places and nobody says boo. You pocket away all those experience­s.”

And then, not long after talking about the vagaries of celebrity, Hanks is called away. The irony doesn’t escape him. “I would love to talk to you more but I’m on a tight, tight busy schedule,” he says with a laugh.

“Us celebritie­s, we’ve got a lot of pressure on us!”

 ?? ANDREW MEDICHINI / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Tom Hanks takes on the voice of a diverse cast of protagonis­ts in Uncommon Type, his first collection of short stories.
ANDREW MEDICHINI / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Tom Hanks takes on the voice of a diverse cast of protagonis­ts in Uncommon Type, his first collection of short stories.
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada