Hollywood star turned author Tom Hanks appeared at a sold-out event with Penguin Live last night (1st November), marking the finale of Southbank Centre’s biggest ever London Literature Festival at the Royal Festival Hall.
Hanks was interviewed by journalist and literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, Gaby Wood on his debut collection of short stories, Uncommon Type, published on 17th October, and claimed by publisher William Heinemann as the UK’s biggest selling debut collection of stories in the first week of sale. Nielsen BookScan puts Hanks' book sales at 14,109 copies for £159,414 thus far.
Ribboned together by the author's love of type writers, which make an appearance in each of the collection's 17 stories, subjects of his short stories include four friends' bid for the moon in a rocket constructed in their backyard, a second rate actor's experience of a whirlwind press junket, and the lasting impact of World War II on its veterans.
During the event, Hanks spoke about his love of typewriters, of which he said he now has over 150. "I'll tell you this, collecting typewriters is a lot cheaper than collecting cars," he joked, revealing he is drawn to their "permanence". Not only do the machines last, he said, but when a typewriter imprints a letter, word or thought, it actually sinks through to the fibres of the paper.
Hanks also spoke candidly about his writing processes, inspiration and literary heroes on stage. Asked whether it helped him to read aloud in order to write his stories, he said in self-deprecation: "There is always the merciless experience of recording the audiobook until you hate everything you have ever written." Uncommon Type's audiobook is narrated by Hanks himself.
Tom Hanks discusses Uncommon Type with Gaby Wood at Southbank Centre's London Literature Festival in the Royal Festival Hall. Photo: Alice Boagey.
He went on to talk about how he started writing as an actor when he started writing screenplays and was urged to "find his voice" by Norah Ephron, director of "Sleepless on Seattle", to whom the book is dedicated. "Nora always said ‘well you wrote that.’ And I said, ‘I didn’t write that, that was just me complaining in a rehearsal!’ And she said ‘no, no, that’s what it is, that’s what writing is," Hanks said.
Exploring themes of fatherhood in the book, he commented: "All I can be… to them is, that place where someone says, ‘you, will figure this out. And you will be ok.’ I can’t tell them how to figure it out but I think I try to get to that in some of the father and son stories. I’ll take that!"
By way of an explanation for the nostalgia prevalent throughout his stories, after it had been said his stories presented a "so hopeful", "so optimistic", "so American" vision of America, he commented too on his outlook on life: "I have no defence to any of those charges - guilty! It's because I am not a cynic. I am pessimistic about plenty of things. I think the best you can do is 51% decent decisions. You'll screw up 49% of the time. But if you can make 51%, you're ok, you know? Just 51, go for 51! And that is the opposite of going 'well, 51% you're going to make the wrong decision'; that is cynicism and I am not a cynic. I am pessimistic 49% of the time. But I have faith 51% of the time and that turns the tide just enough. And I think that is part of what the book is. You end up having a degree of faith you will learn from every mistake you make. You will learn. So bring them on, all 49% of them!"
Revealing a preference for non-fiction, he divulged his literary heroes meanwhile include the likes of Bill Bryson and "magnificent historian" William Manchester, while his favourite library is the reading room in the New York City Library: "Although frankly it is so beautiful you can't do any reading in there."
Hanks was the final guest in Southbank Centre’s 2017 London Literature Festival's festival line-up, which ran across 20 days of live readings, performance, talks, debates, visual displays, workshops and music, and included Anne Carson, Tracy Chevalier, Goldie, Karl Ove Knausgård, Annie Leibovitz, David Mitchell, Philip Pullman, Claudia Rankine, Sjón and Hillary Rodham Clinton, among others. The full interview with Hanks can be viewed via Penguin's Facebook Livestream.