There were likely more than a few raised eyebrows when readers opened the Oct. 27, 2014 issue of The New Yorker and discovered the name Tom Hanks. This wasn't a profile of the two-time Academy Award-winning actor and director, nor was it a review of his latest film, but a short story, appearing in the hallowed space that has been occupied by the likes of Alice Munro and J.D. Salinger. The piece, Alan Bean Plus Four – named after one of only a dozen men to have skipped across the lunar surface – told the story of four friends who organize a DIY-exercursion to the moon and back.
"I've been around great storytellers all my life and, like an enthusiastic student, I want to tell some of my own," he told the magazine at the time.
Now, almost exactly three years later, Hanks is about to publish his first-ever collection of short fiction, Uncommon Type. In addition to Alan Bean Plus Four – and two pieces that revisit the characters introduced in that tale – the book includes stories about a previously unknown actor thrust into the limelight (A Junket in the City of Light), a divorced mother trying to get her life back together (A Month on Greene Street) and a man who repeatedly visits, thanks to the magic of time travel, the World's Fair of 1939 (The Past Is Important To Us). What links the stories, beyond their gentle charm, and their preoccupation with the past, is that each one features a typewriter, which Hanks has been collecting for several decades.
The Globe and Mail's Mark Medley recently spoke to Hanks about his new book, Nora Ephron, nostalgia and his addiction to – er, interest in – typewriters.
Alan Bean Plus Four was published almost three years ago. At the time, in an interview with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman, it didn't seem as if more stories would necessarily follow. So what happened?
Penguin Random House said "Do you want to write some more stories?" That was it. The question was, "Well, how many?" Peter Gethers [his editor] said, "I don't know, maybe 15?" I squawked: "Are you nuts!?!" But then I began to think, and I just started writing down these themes and titles and ideas that I was interested in exploring. I just kept going at it until I had, well, it turned out I had 17 [stories], not 15. The big question everybody asks is "Why? Why did you do this? What's the point of these stories?" There's no point at all. I'm involved in storytelling. As an actor in movies, you assemble as intricate a backstory for your character as possible so that any time you have a moment that you have to create on-screen, you know where it's coming from. You don't tell anybody those stories, you don't write them down, you don't have a meeting about it, you don't go over it and okay it with the director. You keep it completely to yourself.
This book is dedicated to your family, but you write it's "because of Nora." Why is it because of Nora Ephron?
As I began to write, I would send the stuff that I was working on to Nora. I would say "Is this anything?" and she would say "Yes, this is something. It's probably an essay. You need to tell us up front what it is you're going to be talking about, and then you need to talk about it, and then you need to tell us that you just talked about it. This needs to be changed here." So it says "because of Nora" because any time I was even beginning to ponder something I ran it [by] her. And, by the way, I'm not the only one. I've since met all sorts of writers who said "My book came out and I got an invitation from Nora Ephron to have lunch." She did that constantly. She did that with all sorts of people, well-known and not-so-well-known.
I found this to be a rather nostalgic collection. Many of the stories are set in the past, characters discuss how things used to be, there's even a story about a man who can't stop travelling back to 1939. Do you find comfort in the past?
It's not so much a comfort in the past. Look, nostalgia is cheap sentiment. There's a degree of swill to it – "Oh, I yearn for the TV shows that were on when I was a kid." Those TV shows were crap, man. It's not wanting to live in the past, I think it's a dissatisfaction with the present. And I think it probably – embodied [by] my fascination with typewriters – comes down to you are seeking a degree of permanence and authenticity. Something that sticks. That remains. That is not lost. And that lasts longer than a moment. If you travel with your family by way of an airplane, there'll be memories of what happened on it, but they might not be nearly as indelible as memories of a three-day car trip together. Those are the kinds of tactile memories that seep deeper into your DNA. Although if you did that today, probably everybody would be on their phones the whole way. So maybe not. I think it's not so much a yearning for the way things were in the past – that's just a waste of time. I think it's instead – not a dissatisfaction but a confusion as to why are things still so difficult.
The woman at the centre of These Are the Meditations of My Heart buys her first typewriter for five bucks at a church parking-lot sale. What about you?
The first typewriter I had was given to me by a friend, because he'd got a new Olivetti. So he gave me his old hunk of junk. It was 1973. It was probably a Smith Corona, but who knows. It was mostly plastic. That story is essentially the story of how I got my first true typewriter, which was a Hermes 2000. It was the greatest typewriter in the world.
I've read that you now own more than 250 typewriters.
No, I don't have that many now. It's more like 180. Look, I'm going to be a burden to my children when I pass on, so slowly I'm getting rid of a lot of my typewriters. One of the problems is you don't want to have a lot of typewriters sitting around doing nothing. It would be like having a collection of pianos that you don't play. I'm slowly whittling it down. My desire is to eventually only have about 30 typewriters scattered across the country. There's not a lot of reasons to own a typewriter, which means there's absolutely no reason to own more than three. After that, man, it's overkill. I overkilled it a long time ago.
When did your hobby turn into an addiction?
Let's call it a harmless vice, shall we, as opposed to an addiction. The more interesting question is "When was the first time I bought a typewriter that I did not need?" I think the first time I started getting really into typewriters was when I got a Hermes 3000. Then, somewhere along [the way], I said "How does this eBay thing work?" Cut to: I probably bought 12 typewriters in one sitting. It was insane. I've bought typewriters from Australia – literally shipped from Australia. The shipping cost me $85 (U.S.). The typewriter itself cost me $5.
In that story, a woman says: "Nobody uses typewriters any more." In another story, a character opines that "a man needs a typewriter these days like he needs a timber axe." Do you find yourself having to defend your hobby to people?
No, actually people are swept up in the glamour and romance of typewriters. There's never been a little kid who has not been delighted to be able to type out letters on a typewriter. They just love the way it works. There is a sensibility to it that is pleasing, because it's only meant for one thing – to write something. A typewriter can't tell you the time. It doesn't show you pictures. Unless it's electric, you don't have to plug it in. At the end of the day, [I'm] probably nuts for paying attention to this stuff. Other people do things with cars and airplanes and guitars. Mine is typewriters. They're smaller and easier to carry around.
Did you write any of these stories on a typewriter?
Oh no. I only wrote the first few pages of A Month on Greene Street on a typewriter that I bought in Atlanta. Are you kidding? Do you write your columns on a typewriter? You can't do that! It'll drive you nuts! This was all on a laptop.
This interview has been edited and condensed.