A priest named Dan

Writing professor’s first book, ‘Via Negativa,’ is heading for the big screen


It is an exciting moment when a writer’s first novel is published. But when that first novel is also turned into a movie, the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction can be intense.
Dan Hornsby has achieved that goal with his book, “Via Negativa,” published in 2020 and in the process of going into film production.
The book has a simple premise. A priest named Dan sets off on a road trip and picks up a coyote that has been hit by a truck to make the journey with him. Dan has been dismissed from his conservative diocese, and he plans to make a slow and contemplative road trip, heading to see old friends and hoping to find some answers.
Naming his main character after himself was kind of a joke, Hornsby said. “He really doesn’t say his name for quite some time,” Hornsby noted. “I think it’s natural if you’re alone, you don’t say your name. There is this genre of auto-fiction, where people kind of explain their characters. He is 70, and I was 29 when I began writing the novel. The name just kind of stuck, and there are a lot of priests of Irish or Italian extraction who are named Dan. So it kind of works out.”
Hornsby said there were a lot of ideas that are part of theology that he wanted to explore, so the character of the priest was a way for him to think about the mystery and conflict that comes with spirituality.
Writers are often advised to write about what they know, and Hornsby has done that. Originally from Indiana, he holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan and a master of theological studies from Harvard Divinity School. He is currently a visiting professor teaching creative writing at Macalester in Saint Paul.
“Via Negativa” is defined as a way of describing something by saying what it is not…it refers to the stream of Christian theology which emphasizes the unknowability of God and the inability of positive theological attributes to define God.
“I know a Latin title is not the catchiest thing in the world,” said Hornsby, “but I’m putting out a narrative that the priest is very much in denial. That’s kind of what his life has been like. One nice thing about having a narrator who is not exactly my age, he has more of a life lived than I have.”
When taking a trip by yourself, it is only natural to start thinking about your past life and reflect on it, according to Hornsby.
“We think about the mystery of our lives and try to figure things out, and that doesn’t ever stop. Whether you are middle-aged or older, it doesn’t stop. You die, and you are still trying to figure it out,” Hornsby said. He said there are moments of insight in Dan’s life.
Hornsby said people tend to think of older individuals as not having new interests, but that is not correct. He said he liked the idea of having an older narrator.
“I started this book in a couple of different forms,” Hornsby stated. “Maybe the real draft of it started in 2016, and the book came out in 2020. I was working the first draft for about a year. I kept polishing that and bringing it to friends to have them read it.”
Hornby said he spent two years of really hard writing, then spent time copyediting and getting ready for publication. He got an agent.
He said that publishing a first novel is like a journey, discovering and figuring out what you need. “For example, if you go for a hike and pack just a Snickers bar, you can go really fast for a while, run up a mountain and then you die. But if you carry a fridge on your back, it’s way too heavy. You have to figure out how much stuff to take out. When you make the trip, there are some kind of immediate physical things to solve, like the title. I needed a couple of working parts, and then it moved ahead.”
Hornsby also hired a film agent and shopped the book around. Hannah Peterson is scheduled to adapt and direct “Via Negativa” for the big screen. Hornsby said Peterson is a protégé of Chloe Zhao, the Oscar-winning director of “Nomadland.” The production company for the film is Complementary Colors. “The producers really got the book,” Hornsby said.
He said they are now just waiting for the next step in production. Peterson took the book and adapted it. “I gave some help, nothing too much. I am a producer on the project, but I am not directing it. I respect these people who know what they are doing.“
He observed, “I think I wanted to present the character as looking at more marginal forms of spirituality, more marginal expression, especially in the kind of Catholic tradition and the kind of Catholic guilt.
“I wanted to get inside those ideas and show what it is like to embody that.” He said he wanted to show what it is like for somebody who came up in the Catholic tradition, who either doubles down and becomes more conservative or authoritarian or isolates and tries to be good. He noted that with this book, he wants to make the Catholic tradition more accessible to those who did not grow up in it.
Hornsby said he does much of his writing at Milkweed Café, a coffee shop in his neighborhood. “I come over and write a couple hours in the morning, then go teach, and sometimes come back later and write some more,” he said.
His second book, “Sucker,” is set for a February publication. It is the story of the son of a millionaire who has to find employment, and gets involved with a start-up tech firm that may have ties to the mob. The book is a satire of Silicon Valley and the 1 percent.
Regarding his writing, Hornsby said he first likes thinking of an idea, seeing if it has legs, and doing some research to see if it will hold water. “You see it’s working, and it’s fun figuring out what you are doing,” he said. “First you require a bigger burst of energy, then you get down and try to make it pop. There’s something underneath what you think you are doing that has to be brought out.”


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