Ethan Hawke—yes, the scruffy, slightly bohemian actor from films such as Training Day and Reality Bites—isn't content to act, direct and enjoy married life with the lovely Uma Thurman. He's back with a second novel, Ash Wednesday, six years after delivering The Hottest State, a fiction debut that fans loved and reviewers loved to hate. Critics are no doubt sharpening the knives again, ready to take the Hollywood hottie down a peg or two.
Although he feels less like a novelty act the second time around, Hawke admitted in a recent phone interview from L.A. that some of the abuse is justified. "Part of it comes from the fact that they feel like it is so much easier for you to get published and you need to take a beating for that. And in a certain way of thinking, that's fair." Hawke didn't want to feel rushed with his second effort, so he spent five years carving out blocks of time to write between acting jobs and playing with the kids. The 31-year-old father of two estimates he tried 80 million different techniques to create discipline in himself, but eventually settled into a routine of getting out of the house before the babies got up, writing from 6-10 a.m. and then spending the rest of the day with daughter Maya Ray, 4, and son Roan, now six months.
"The first time you write something, you're so excited to have written anything at all. You're like, I wrote something that's 200 pages long! Everybody should read it!' The second time you hold yourself up to a higher bar."
The story of a hapless couple (she's pregnant, he's AWOL from the Army) on a road trip to Texas sounds intriguing, but even this reader picked up the book ready to take aim. Really, what could Big Mr. Movie Star have to say about the lives of normal folks?
"Wait, where does it say I wasn't allowed to do this?" Hawke wants to know. "Doctors and teachers and lawyers and people who work in jails [write] . . . everybody who writes also has another profession. I didn't know why it was supposed to be so taboo. Actors write screenplays; there's no problem with that. I also think it has to do with people thinking you have it too easy, and they gotta make you pay."
He has a point, and Knopf certainly liked the book enough to offer close to half a million for it last December. Ash Wednesday is told in the alternating first-person voices of Jimmy and Christy, a young couple struggling with the harsh realities of marriage and impending parenthood. Both perspectives feel refreshingly honest, and it's clear these characters are traveling a road the author has been down before. ["The book] deals with things that were very relevant in my own life," says Hawke, whose wife Uma Thurman was pregnant with Roan during the writing process. "There's a certain time in your life you have to figure out what you're living for and what the aim of your life is, and starting a family can really raise those questions."
It sounds like a no-brainer to want to settle down with Uma, but Hawke has been candid about the real-life ups-and-downs of marriage. "We all have this fantasy of finding our one true love who's going to be the perfect fit and make our whole life move effortlessly. It's just not a reality," he says.
In the book, Jimmy and Christy are at a similar crossroads. Their relationship has gone sour when Christy discovers she's pregnant and hops on a bus headed for home. Finally overcoming his fear of commitment, Jimmy races after her in his souped-up Chevy Nova and convinces her to marry him. Jimmy isn't the sharpest tool in the shed, but he relays his cliched bits of wisdom with all the fervor of a Sunday preacher. His simplistic belief that "without you, I just see, like, gray, like shit, you know?" wins over Christy, despite her well-reasoned arguments that their love is doomed.
"They are two people actively seeking a rebirth in how to orient themselves to begin their adult lives," says Hawke, "[learning] how to put their childhood to rest and how to be adults in this world and take care of somebody else."
When he refers to rebirth, he means it in both the literal and spiritual sense. Images of God and religion appear on almost every other page, and Hawke does a masterful job of subtly drawing out the question, What do you believe in? It's fascinating to follow one couple as they begin to answer that question for themselves and undergo the evolution that inevitably occurs when one person really tries to love another.
Hawke had to go through the same process when he settled down as a married man in 1998, but his struggle took place under the glare of the celebrity spotlight that has followed him since Dead Poets Society propelled him to fame at age 18. The star of big screen adaptations of Great Expectations, Hamlet and <I>Snow Falling on Cedars</I> admits, "It's tough when you have to learn in front of people. But that's the problem if you become a celebrity at 18 and you don't learn in front of people that means you're not learning anything." Wanting new experiences is one thing, but Hawke admits he doesn't take criticism well. "Uma tries to be supportive, although for Ash Wednesday she did point out that my female characters should not be talking about women's breasts so much," Hawke laughs. And he wasn't naive enough to think the publishing world would embrace yet another actor trying his hand at fiction.
"I knew I would take a beating for [The Hottest State]," he says. "It wasn't unexpected. So the real lesson I took from that was I don't think I'll ever be that susceptible to criticism again in my life. I knew that if I really did want to write, it would only get harder the longer I waited." Hawke says he plans to write another novel ("I'd be shocked if I didn't") and might try his hand at a screenplay next. He's rethinking his ban on movie adaptations for The Hottest State and Ash Wednesday, but he isn't sure he'd be the right actor or director for the job.
"I wonder if anyone has ever done that?" he says. "Adapted their own novel, starred in it and directed it? Sounds like too much, doesn't it? A little too much like looking in the mirror."