Tom Hanks Is Obsessed With Typewriters (So He Wrote A Book About Them)

Oct 16, 2017
Originally published on October 16, 2017 8:13 am

Actor Tom Hanks has made us believe he can be anyone and do anything on the big screen.

Now he's taking us on a journey on the page: Tom Hanks has written a book.

It's a collection of short stories, with varied subjects: a World War II veteran on Christmas Eve in 1953, a California surfer kid who makes an unsettling discovery. There's time travel. In every story, Hanks sneaks in the machine he's so obsessed with — the typewriter.

"I have too many typewriters, David," he says, beginning a riff. "You want one? I should have brought one for you and the staff, just to help out, man. I don't want these to be a burden to my children when I kick the bucket. I don't want them to say, 'What are we gonna do with dad's typewriters?'"

Sometimes the typewriter is a plot device; sometimes it really does feel almost hidden. Fittingly, the book is called Uncommon Type. And in talking to Hanks, you learn that his thing with typewriters is not a gimmick – more like a love affair.

"There's something about – I don't know, it's a hex in my brain – there is something I find reassuring, comforting, dazzling in that here is a very specific apparatus that is meant to do one thing, and it does it perfectly," he says. "And that one thing is to translate the thoughts in your head down to paper. Now that means everything from a shopping list to James Joyce's Ulysses. Short of carving words into stone with a hammer and chisel, not much is more permanent than a paragraph or a sentence or a love letter or a story typed on paper."

Interview Highlights

On the story 'These Are The Meditations Of My Heart'

That's actually the story of how I got my first typewriter. A friend of my had gotten a new Olivetti electric that was gorgeous – state-of-the-art typewriter for 1973. ... He gave me his old typewriter. But I used it for about a year-and-a-half or so, and I just wanted to get my typewriter serviced, just like the girl [in the story] did. What happens to her in the shop is almost verbatim the conversation I had with the old man.

That guy altered my concept of the place a typewriter can hold in your life. It is equal to a wooden chest that your great-grandfather carved, or the perfect set of doilies that your grandmother hand-stitched themselves, or a quilt that your mom passed down to you, that she made for you when you were 5 years old. A typewriter is — you can carry it around, it can go with you anywhere in the world. Even the biggest one you can put in a box and lug if you're dumb enough to try to get through airport security with something like that.

On people-watching others as a celebrity

One is, you just show up. You don't have the black SUV and the guys in suits that are opening the doors and clearing the way for you. But if you're not working — you're just a guy in a pair of pants and a sweatshirt — and you just go in, and some people might notice you, but you'd be amazed at how often you can hide in plain sight.

Danny Hajek and Shannon Rhoades produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Patrick Jarenwattananon and Sydnee Monday adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here is a guy who is crazy - just crazy about typewriters.

TOM HANKS: I have too many typewriters, David. You want one. I should have brought one for you and the staff...

GREENE: (Laughter) Next time.

HANKS: ...Just to help out, man. I don't want these to be a burden to my children when I kick the bucket. I don't want them to say, what are we gonna do with dad's typewriters?

GREENE: So that is, of course, the Tom Hanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "APOLLO 13")

HANKS: (As Jim Lovell) Houston, we have a problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SAVING PRIVATE RYAN")

HANKS: (As Captain John H. Miller) I don't know anything about Ryan. I don't care. Man means nothing. It's just a name. But if finding him so he can go home - if that earns me the right to get back to my wife, well then, that's my mission.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN")

HANKS: (As Jimmy Duggan) There's no crying in baseball.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAST AWAY")

HANKS: Wilson. Wilson.

GREENE: Hanks has made us believe he can be anyone, do anything on the big screen. And now he is taking us on a journey on the page.

So the first question I have about your new book...

HANKS: My new book...

GREENE: ...Your new book (laughter) - your book...

HANKS: (Laughter) How about, that's it?

GREENE: Your first book (laughter)...

HANKS: That's it. That's my only shot.

GREENE: OK, Tom Hanks has written a book - just one for now. It's a collection of short stories with varied subjects. There's a World War II veteran on Christmas Eve in 1953. There's a California surfer kid who makes an unsettling discovery. There's even one about time travel. And in every story, Hanks sneaks in the machine he is so obsessed with, the typewriter. Sometimes it's a plot device. Sometimes it really does feel almost hidden. His book is called "Uncommon Type." And talking to Hanks, you realize his thing with typewriters is not a gimmick. It's a love affair.

HANKS: Yeah. Yeah, it is. There's something about - I don't know. It's a hex in my brain. There is something that I find reassuring, comforting, dazzling and that here is a very specific apparatus that is meant to do one thing. And it does it perfectly. And that one thing is to translate the thoughts in your head down to paper. Now, that means everything from a shopping list to James Joyce's "Ulysses." Short of carving words into stone with a hammer and chisel, not much is more permanent than a paragraph or a sentence or a love letter or a story typed on paper.

GREENE: Yeah, there's - you talk about the authority - I mean, that a to-do list takes on a whole different life when it is imprinted on a piece of paper in that way.

HANKS: There's no doodles. There's no happy faces that you use to dot your eyes with. And I feel very free in writing almost anything on a typewriter, provided it's not much more than a, you know, a page and a half. You do cut and paste your typewritten documents with scissors (laughter) and a stapler and glue. That's the only way you can do it.

GREENE: It gets a little messy.

HANKS: Yeah. Yeah...

GREENE: And then sudenly a computer seems like maybe that would be easier to use.

HANKS: That would be the greatest thing in the world (laughter).

GREENE: There's a beautiful story in your collection, "These Are The Meditations Of My Heart."

HANKS: Oh.

GREENE: And I mean, it starts with a woman who has gone through a breakup and has no need necessarily for a typewriter for anything. But she buys this plastic typewriter...

HANKS: ...Hunk-a-junk typewriter.

GREENE: Yeah, like a toy essentially...

HANKS: Yeah, yeah.

GREENE: I mean, how did that story come together for you?

HANKS: Well, that's actually the story of how I got my first typewriter. I had - a friend of mine had gotten a new Olivetti electric that was gorgeous state of the art typewriter for 1973.

GREENE: When was this?

HANKS: 1973.

GREENE: You got your first ever in...

HANKS: Yeah. He gave me his old typewriter.

GREENE: OK.

HANKS: But I used it for about about a year and a half or so. And I just wanted to get my typewriter service just like the girl did. And it's that - what happens to her in the shop is almost verbatim the conversation I had with the old man.

GREENE: This is a reading. I'd love for you to do it...

HANKS: All right.

GREENE: ...From page 232.

HANKS: Now this man speaks with an accent that I probably won't do here, but...

GREENE: Do it anyway you can.

HANKS: All right.

GREENE: Yeah.

HANKS: (Reading) Look here. The old man waved his arms at the typewriters that lined the wall mountain shelves. These are machines. They are made of steel. They are works of engineers. They were built in factories in America, Germany, Switzerland. Do you know why they are up on that shelf right now? Because they are for sale? Because they were built to last forever. That guy altered my concept of the place a typewriter can hold in your life. It is equal to a wooden chest that your great grandfather carved or the perfect set of doilies that your grandmother hand-stitched themselves or a quilt that your mom passed down to you that she made for you when you were five years old. A typewriter is a - you can carry it around. It can go with you anywhere in the world. Even the biggest one, you can put in a box and lug if you're dumb enough to try to get through...

GREENE: (Laughter).

HANKS: ...Airport security with something like that.

GREENE: But it's - I mean, it's not just typewriters. I mean, it's just gadgets and appliances and cars. I mean, the Plymouth with the power flight auto transmission, Kelvinator fridge and Mr. Coffee Maker...

HANKS: Yeah, yeah.

GREENE: It goes on and on. I mean, do you have a reverence for machinery?

HANKS: There was a time when you as a 6-year-old kid were really invested in the choice of a refrigerator because you'd seen all these commercials - you know, Frigidaire. What a beautiful name - Frigidaire. You look - you know what it means? It means frigid, cold air - frigid air. And that's what's inside a refrigerator.

GREENE: My god, I never even realized - I'm kind of stupid for admitting I never made that connection, but - yeah.

HANKS: Then there was was Norge - N-O-R-G-E. And the jingle was knock on any Norge (clapping). And if you knocked on a Norge, you could hear how solid this refrigerator was. A Norge was a solid refrigerator. You know how you knew? - by (singing) knock on any Norge (clapping). I remember being a kid, and I'd go into somebody else's house. And I'd say, wow, you got a Norge.

GREENE: (Laughter) Yeah.

HANKS: That's exciting. And I'd open up the door and see how it would click and see how the shelves were...

GREENE: And you felt like an expert in this. I mean, you knew a lot about fridges.

HANKS: I watched TV.

GREENE: Yeah.

HANKS: There's a book in there, "The Great Refrigerator Wars Of The Early 1960s."

GREENE: That's coming...

HANKS: It'd be a good nonfiction piece.

GREENE: Yeah. That's amazing.

HANKS: Yeah.

GREENE: I find you to be someone who enjoys some personal moments of reflection, looking at the world.

HANKS: Oh, yeah.

GREENE: It was funny. I was finishing a book last night at a really quirky bar-restaurant in Santa Monica.

HANKS: Which one?

GREENE: The Galley.

HANKS: (Laughter) Galley - good steaks at The De Galley

GREENE: Good fish, too...

HANKS: ...Good fish - yeah. No...

GREENE: I had grilled - yeah - grilled fish...

HANKS: ...Galley's a great place...

GREENE: ...On a salad last night. No, it's great.

HANKS: Yeah, yeah.

GREENE: But I was people-watching. There was this couple next to me and they were just, like, such personalities. She was complaining to the server about everything. He was, like, wishing that she weren't doing that. Can you do that because of your celebrity? Like...

HANKS: Yeah, yeah.

GREENE: Can you - how do you do it?

HANKS: Well, one is you just show up, you know? You don't have the black SUV and the guys in suits that are opening the doors and clearing the way for you. But if you're not working, you know, you're just a guy in a pair of pants and a sweatshirt and you just go in - and some people might notice you, but you'll be amazed at how often you can hide in plain sight.

GREENE: Tom Hanks, thank you.

HANKS: Thank you, David - pleasure talking to you.

GREENE: Tom Hanks. His collection of short stories is called "Uncommon Type." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.