The Power of Language

Ethan Hawke links new novel to acting roots

January 23, 2021

Ethan Hawke
Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

For Ethan Hawke, the premise of his latest novel, A Bright Ray of Darkness (Penguin Random House, February) is familiar territory: an actor makes his Broadway debut as his marriage implodes. Calling himself “an old actor but still a young writer,” he purposefully set out to write about the world he’s inhabited in his decades as a performer. He shared his book’s origin story—and drew parallels between acting and writing—at a session of ALA’s Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits Virtual on January 23.

“One of the great benefits of being an actor is, if you do it long enough you realize that what it truly is at its core is a celebration of writing,” he said. “There’s a feeling that you get when you read something beautiful, whether it’s a Wallace Stevens poem or a comic book, and you feel that desire to give it to somebody you care about. That’s what actors do.”

The actor and director, who is also the author of the novels Rules for a Knight, The Hottest State, and Ash Wednesday, said he learned about the power of language by working with playwrights such as Tom Stoppard and Sam Shepard.

“When you see a master at work, your respect for the art of communication rises,” Hawke said. “That accuracy and honesty in how we express ourselves—it’s so vital, but it’s something we know is getting lost. Places like libraries fight for that; they fight for making ideas and words and language important, and we need to communicate how important it is we be honest with ourselves and honest with each other.”

Hawke said that his mother, an editor, instilled a love of reading at an early age. “Really what she valued most was literature and the art of expressing yourself,” he said. That ultimately led him to acting.

“For me, my whole life, performance has had a profound healing impact,” he continued. “Often in life, our feelings, our emotions are in our way. We’re trying so hard to not let feelings ruin our day or run our lives. But in acting, it’s this one place where your emotions are needed, are wanted, they have value, you can use them in service of others. They’re necessary to tell the truth about the human experience.”


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