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Tom Hanks on the ‘high wire act’ of writing

Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks is crossing over into the world of literature with a new collection of short stories that explore how people seek connections with others. The first-time author sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss his book, “Uncommon Type,” his love of typewriters and his obsession with American history.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

    Tom Hanks is one of the most recognized and acclaimed actors in the world. Now he has done something new, written a book titled “Uncommon Type,” a collection of 17 short stories, mostly about people seeking connections of one kind or another.

    Several of the stories include an obsession of Hanks, typewriters.

    Jeffrey Brown met up with Hanks here in Washington this past weekend, and began their conversation by asking about the different approaches to acting and writing.

  • Tom Hanks:

    As an actor, my job that I figured out a long time ago was to get beyond self-consciousness, because it’s the death of acting.

    If you have this outside presence, and you’re seeing how you look and sound, you will never be able to get free enough in order to pursue the truth of what the character or the story is.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Here, you’re creating the character.

  • Tom Hanks:

    Yes.

    And once I could get involved in the individual stories, then I sort of roll up in the back of the head, just like it is in performing, and out it comes. But getting to that point where the eyes roll into the back of the head, that’s just a battle of self-consciousness.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But self-consciousness as in, hey, I’m an actor trying to write, or this isn’t my medium, or…

  • Tom Hanks:

    How about all those things?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All those things.

  • Tom Hanks:

    Plus a few other things, such as, have I really thought this out? You put it on your laptop, or you make notes, you say, well, gee, it looks like notes, you know? It looks like a paragraph. It’s about as long as a paragraph should be, but is it really saying anything?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Were you nervous, though, sort of putting yourself out in this way?

  • Tom Hanks:

    No, and I will tell you why. It’s because I cannot be nervous in my day job.

    I cannot go in front of the — a camera, or in a rehearsal, or in front of an audience and be nervous for a moment.

    I’m lucky, in that…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, you could. Some people…

  • Tom Hanks:

    Well, you could.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But you’re not?

  • Tom Hanks:

    No, it’s petrifying all the way, but you have faith in your balance.

    It’s all a high-wire act. And I have walked on a high wire before, so I trust I will be able to do it again.

    And so I wasn’t nervous about delivering unto the powers that be these blocks of work, because it’s no place for ego. It is a place for protection of what your original instincts are.

    But you can’t deny, when somebody says I read your piece, I liked some of it, and a bunch of it doesn’t work. What are you going to do, argue with them, and say, yes, it does, it does too work?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Tom Hanks:

    You can’t — you can’t say that. You can only…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, you could, perhaps.

  • Tom Hanks:

    Well, you could, but you do have to weigh it, and come back and reexamine it.

    And over and over again, just like any cut of a movie that you might see early in the process, it just does slowly get better. And you do discover that combination of your own voice and of a style of working that is void of self-consciousness.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You know, from what I had read beforehand, I half-expected all these stories to be really about typewriters.

    Instead…

  • Tom Hanks:

    Yes.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Instead…

  • Tom Hanks:

    Wouldn’t that be a great volume of 17 stories about typewriters?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, yes.

    But, instead, the kind of references are strewn about. There’s a sort of “Where’s Waldo?” It shows up in different ways.

  • Tom Hanks:

    Yes, they’re little Easter eggs we scattered throughout all…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Is that how it felt to you? What’s with the typewriters? I mean, what’s — for many people, it’s this sort of nostalgic thing. It takes us back.

    What is it for you?

  • Tom Hanks:

    Well, I collect them in the way somebody would collect vintage guitars or postage stamps or, you know, stolen coffee cups from the great hotels of the world, which I have done a couple of times.

    There’s a beauty and an aesthetic quality to them that I just — I just admire them. But the main thing, I think, that is my fascination to them is that they are perfect devices. They do one thing, and only one thing. You can’t make a phone call on a typewriter, and you can’t pull up today’s New York Times.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Imagine that.

  • Tom Hanks:

    They literally take what is in your head, and with a tiny bit of physical training, it transposes it into fibers on a piece of a paper, that, if you take care of that piece of paper, is as permanent as a wood carving or something chiseled in stone.

    And if you put something good down on that piece of paper, even if it’s just a birthday letter to your 7-year-old daughter, or, you know, William Manchester’s “The Glory and the Dream,” you have got something that runs the gamut from something that is incredibly simple to something that captures the — you know, the entire zeitgeist of the human condition.

    That’s impressive stuff.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You know, I’m thinking of a story like “A Special Weekend.” It’s about a boy shuttling between divorced parents, which I think was you.

  • Tom Hanks:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    People are always wondering. I talk to a lot of writers. There’s always this question of, how much of the writer is in the stories, how much of it is you?

  • Tom Hanks: 

    There’s plenty of beats where — or either specific things, moments — I think moments of confusion that I had throughout my entire life, not just when I was a little boy, but up until the elevator ride down here to talk to you.

    I had an awful lot of ammo as far as that goes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Tom Hanks:

    But there is a time when he’s 9 and he — they drive — he and his mother drive to the house that he grew up in.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Tom Hanks:

    And, for the boy, 9-year-old, it’s a moment of just the most glorious nostalgia that he could possibly — and he’s only 9. He’s only looking at the only other house he’s ever lived in.

    And it’s magical. But, for the mother — he lived there for half his life. She lived there for this fractional, uncomfortable blip of bitter compromise and unhappiness.

    And I don’t have necessarily the right to write that about my own parents. But, as you have gotten older, you realize that my own parents were — they weren’t doing anything to us. They were just trying to get by in their lives and deal with levels of unhappiness and reality that — that a 9-year-old boy, it’s not really apparent.

    So, finding….

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And when you become a parent, you realize these things, right?

  • Tom Hanks:

    Oh, my lord, yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You’re here in Washington partly to get an award from the National Archives for your work in honoring and supporting history.

    Now, this does seem like, for all of us who’ve followed your work for so long, an obsession.

  • Tom Hanks:

    From “Bosom Buddies” on, yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, I didn’t mean “Bosom Buddies.”

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    OK.

  • Tom Hanks:

    I have always…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But is it an obsession?

  • Tom Hanks:

    Yes, it is.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    To tell the American story?

  • Tom Hanks:

    Well, I am — an obsession of being fascinated with the American story and the great march of time and history.

    I read history because what really happened is always 10,000 times more interesting than anything you could make up. You think you know something about a subject matter because you have studied, or you read it, or you saw a movie about it a long time ago, and getting down just a little, little bit deeper not only puts history in a great perspective, but it also puts the present day…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, but where does this tell — what does it tell you about the state of the American story today?

    I mean, here we are in Washington.

  • Tom Hanks:

    Alas, there has always been fake news. There has always been alternative facts. The danger lies in someone hiding behind that truth, as opposed to exposing them.

    I could — there’s a — you go back and study the — the first true contested election in the United States of America, between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, after Adams’ first term, that was probably the first time really there was fake newspapers. There were editors that put out absolute blatant lies.

    I think the danger is there in which someone says, because there is fake news — I wonder who we’re talking about right now, by the way — because there is fake news, you cannot believe anything. It is the death of truth.

    No. No. The hard work then is becoming — and discerning what that truth is. The important work of democracy and liberty and our republic comes in to determine, what is the truth?

    But hasn’t truth always been this incredibly elusive quality that people either pursue or obfuscate?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, one more subject.

  • Tom Hanks:

    Bring it on.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Which is, you project decency in many of your characters.

  • Tom Hanks:

    How dare I?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    How dare you?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You’re, by all accounts, a very regular guy, friendly to strangers, even…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Tom Hanks:

    Up to a degree.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Up to a degree.

  • Tom Hanks:

    I don’t allow my good nature to be taken advantage of.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Oh, really?

  • Tom Hanks:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And a long, happy marriage.

    It’s real? I mean, this is who you are?

  • Tom Hanks:

    Look, you’re talking to a man who is — I have enjoyed the benefits of being — some of which I was entitled to, some of it not.

    I believe I have worked really hard. I can’t believe this is a job that you get paid for. When I was in high school and I saw friends of mine in the high school play, and knew that they were getting credit for taking this class, I thought, why am I wasting my time in sociology and biology? I can take this class in school? What a racket.

    And it hasn’t been that much different ever since.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The new book “Uncommon Type” by first-time author Tom Hanks.

  • Tom Hanks:

    I — thank you, because people say, we’re here to talk to Tom about his new book.

    No, we’re not. We’re here to talk to Tom about his book.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Tom Hanks:

    Not latest, not new, just — just book.

    But thank you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Thanks for talking to us.

  • Tom Hanks:

    Pleasure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tom Hanks fans everywhere are swooning.

    Online,

    you can watch more of our interview

    with Tom Hanks, where he discusses “The Post,” his new film about The Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers.

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