Tom Hanks at the MJCCA Book Festival October 30, 2018.
Photo: Chris Savas
Photo: Chris Savas

Tom Hanks charms MJCCA audience, relishes talking about writing, books

Oh, and ‘The Da Vinci Code’? He knows it wasn’t all that good

Originally posted Wednesday, October 31, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Tom Hanks in films and on “Saturday Night Live” is likable, relatable and versatile. 

In person on stage before nearly 1,400 adoring fans at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta’s book festival Wednesday, he didn’t veer off that track at all. 

And behind the scenes, he brought comparable joy to the organizers. “In the first five minutes that you meet him, you are madly in love,” said Pam Morton, festival director. “He’s funny, charming, warm, self-deprecating, and so very, very entertaining. Without a doubt, he was one of the most memorable speakers we’ve ever had.” Indeed, it was the biggest audience for a single speaker they’ve ever had in 27 years. 

Over 70 minutes Tuesday, the Oscar-winning actor discussed his best-selling book of short stories “Uncommon Type: Some Stories,” why books mean so much to him and why he is even bothering to do a seven-city tour to promote the book. (He clearly likes to talk about books.)

Hanks’ brief time in Atlanta: He shot a small part of “Sully” here in October, 2015. It was obvious his time here was limited because the only anecdote he could come up with was about his driver, who gave him incredibly boring descriptives of where they were driving.

Ode to reading books: “There’s a tactile pleasure that comes from holding a book, reading a book, owning a book, sharing a book. I was on a small island in Greece. People from all around the world are on vacation.” He came across a stand of free books from multiple languages. He picked up a paperback copy of Marge Piercy’s “Gone to Soldiers” about World War II from a woman’s perspective. It was missing the first 60 pages. “This did not mar my enjoyment of the book,” he said. “It was like 1,042 pages.” [It is actually 768 but that’s still long.] “Even that came from something you can’t get from any other source. We’re looking for a different brand of authenticity in our lives. We are sort of hoarding experiences as opposed to hoarding things... As Carl Sagan said, a book is the most magical creation ever made It’s two dimensional and made of pressed wood and has big black squiggly lines that can enter a mind of a human being just like my book ‘Uncommon Type.’”

Early reader: He recalls switching to adult books at age 10, including the “The Hobbit.” By his teen years, he was into Arthur Hailey (“Airport,” “Hotel”) and Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” which “scared the living daylights out of me.” 

Why write a short story collection: “There is no reason to write anything except to scratch an itch that does not go away.” On vacation, he was reading short stories from the New Yorker and became fascinated by them. Inspired, he wrote one about kids going to the moon. The New Yorker printed it. (“If anyone wants a copy of that New Yorker, I have 6,000 of them. I gotta get rid of them. They are a fire hazard in my garage!”) When a book publisher asked him if he could do 15 more, he said, well, yah, why not?

Royal tie-in: All the stories feature a typewriter. Hanks asked the crowd who had used a typewriter. Almost everyone did, reflective of the older demographics of the audience. Only a handful, though, still use one today. He said the typewriter was a way to tie the stories together and provide the readers something to look for in each one. It also provided Hanks a framework to help write each story. 

Tom Hanks with Pat Mitchell, who interviewed on stage at the MJCCA Book Festival October 30, 2018.
Photo: Chris Savas

Junkets are hell: He wrote a short story about junkets that is from personal experience. While he admits nobody is going to feel sympathy for an actor who gets to take a free 10-day trip to Europe and Asia, he said a junket of that size is a big blur and not a relaxing vacation. Rather, it’s answering variations of the same questions over and over again. “You end up losing your soul in 10 days. It fills you with self loathing. You never want to speak for yourself again on God’s good green earth.” 

Self-deprecating Hanks: He made fun of some movies he made that weren’t all that good such as “Larry Crowne,” (36% Rotten Tomatoes) “The Man With the One Red Shoe” (47% Rotten Tomatoes) and multiple times, “The Da Vinci Code.” (25% Rotten Tomatoes.) In relation to aforementioned junkets, he said, “Who am I? What have I done to deserve this? I know! I made ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ that’s why!” 

Is he too famous to do a book tour? “Tell the people at [book publisher] Penguin that!” he cracked. He said there is far more pressure to do press for a movie, which needs to “open” big in its first weekend. A book has a longer tail to become a success. “I’m willing to go off and examine it,” he said. He wants to hear people tell them how the book impacted them. 

A fan of historical non fiction: “I’m looking for details of human behavior that I recognize as the exact things I’m going through today and happening in the world. A book I’ve read over and over again so chock a block with fascinating history and human behavior is ‘A World Lit Only By Fire’ by William Manchester about the 14th century, the Dark Ages.” 

Everything has a story: Hanks sees a potential story behind anything, his mind a fertile home for creativity. He was in Boston earlier in the day and spied a syringe by a tree on a busy sidewalk. He took a picture of it, wondering how it got there and what led to its place there. That’s how he thinks.

May look youthful but... Hanks looks great for age 62 but he admits he’s had a stent placed in his heart and he has Type 2 diabetes because “I ate s*** all my life.”

A doer, not a dreamer: When Mitchell asked him if he accomplished all his dreams, he demurred. He doesn’t think in terms of dreams. He sees possibilities, that he has a “shot” at something. In his mind, it’s the difference between a wannabe musician using a tennis racquet to play air guitar vs. someone actually buying a real guitar and learning to play the real instrument. The former person, he says, has a dream. The latter person is giving himself a chance. 

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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