Maybe you think you know the story of the Messiah. And maybe you do. But chances are you’ve never imagined it as Tommy Zurhellen spins it. Set in the Badlands of North Dakota in the 1980s, Zurhellen’s debut novel spills forth a cast of vibrant characters with big hair and even bigger hearts. It runs the seriocomic gamut with plot twists, undeniable truths, and messages so downright biblical, they do more than transform the fictional town of Nazareth. They alter the landscape of what’s possible when an author throws heretic caution to the wind, floors the pedal, chews the forbidden watermelon, and spits out the seeds of The Quirkiest Recasting Ever Told.
Before Nazareth, North Dakota drops on Tax Day (that’s April 15 for you bumbling evaders out there), we thought it would be a real kick in the hot pants to strap Tommy to his computer chair and force him to come clean on his inspiration, the writing process, and the risk of research overkill … from scripture reading to overnight stays in seedy motel rooms.
So readers, hold on to your Gas ‘n’ Sip attendant’s mullet; it’s Tommy Z’s day of reckoning.
Atticus Books: The story of the Messiah is one of the most powerful, if not the dominant trope in Western culture, and as such, has been retold and played with by countless artists of all kinds. What sets apart Nazareth, North Dakota from more straightforward adaptations?
Tommy Zurhellen: One thing I definitely didn’t want to do while writing this book is simply “update” the New Testament into another religious allegory. I’m a fiction writer, and for me the fun of fiction is creating characters you care about, and then seeing where they take you. There’s a freedom involved there, and if you don’t feel like you have that freedom to explore, well, you might as well be completing a paint-by-numbers coloring book. And it’s important to note the story of the messiah is older than the story of Jesus; Egyptian and Hindu mythos, for example, include stories of divine beings offering their people redemption through sacrifice, and of virgin birth. So in a way, the story of Jesus is part of a larger story as well. To me, the most intriguing parts of the Bible are the parts left out; I wanted this book to celebrate these omissions, not fill them in like some other books have attempted to do. Nazareth uses multiple points of view and fragmented narration to celebrate all those delicious rough edges of the gospels.
AB: How did the idea for the novel fall into place and evolve?
TZ: In 2002 I wrote a short story called “Motel de Love No. 3” which is an early version of the “Song of Mary” section of the book, where the Christian story of the Nativity is transposed to a seedy North Dakota motel. I grew up Catholic and went to Catholic schools, so thanks to a series of priests and nuns I’ve always had a pretty good grasp of the story. But after writing “Motel de Love No. 3” I became more interested in biblical history and I thought, why not keep the story going?
AB: Rather than the Middle East, Nazareth, North Dakota is set in the Badlands of the American Midwest. What about this setting drew you to it for a story that plays with the Biblical account of the life of Christ?
TZ: Well, if your story needs a desert, you can’t find a more intriguing desert than the Badlands of North Dakota. It’s a place that seems pretty close on a map but in so many ways is so isolated and distant. Which makes perfect sense for the book, which is really about loneliness and unrequited love more than anything else. The New Testament accounts tell us the Messiah goes out into the desert alone to find solitude and to be challenged by the Devil; well, I’ve solo hiked the Badlands a few times myself, and I can tell you it’s the perfect place for that.
AB: Not only is the book set in the Badlands, it’s set in the Badlands in the 1980s. Why this time frame? How does it inform the character of the book?
TZ: I guess there’re two answers to that question. The first one is pretty much mathematics: I worked backwards from the present day; if Sam is around thirty years old now, then he probably was born right at the start of the 1980s. But there’s a more personal reason, too: I grew up in the ’80s myself, so being able to talk about all the allusions from that odd time makes the writing much more fun and engaging for me. It’s easier when you can use all the odd bits and pieces of nostalgia you already have lodged in your brain. I can remember my grandfather smoking Tiparillos, for instance. That detail gets added as a part of Severo Rodriguez’s character, and in an instant I am closer to knowing more about him.
AB: While the book is a truly entertaining and refreshingly quick read, if we start to peel back the layers, we find so much significance in the details. What kind of research went into the writing of it?
TZ: A bad sign for a writer is when the research becomes more interesting than the writing; luckily for me on this project, I had a lot of fun doing both. I spent a lot of time in the library learning not only biblical history but plenty of North Dakota history as well, particularly on Lakota culture. But my favorite kind of research is getting to go out and get to know a place: the sights, the sounds, mannerisms and dialect, everything. Sleeping in motels called the Golden Corral and eating in noisy joints called the Red Rooster, listening to folks talk about the weather and the local high school football team. But all the research in the world doesn’t mean anything if you can’t use all those details to cook up an engaging story. My hope is that a reader finds an entertaining and moving story, whether they’re interested in the deeper layers of allegory or not.
AB: Not to give anything away, but the ending of the book certainly leaves the reader intrigued and ready for more. Any hints you can give us about what’s coming in the sequel?
TZ: Naz is definitely a book rooted in hard ground: desert, prairie, farmland and dusty towns. The sequel is called Apostle Islands and it’ll be much more of a water book, which I guess is what you’d expect since the apostles are to become “fishers of men.” Lake Superior has its own secrets; if you believe Gordon Lightfoot, it’s the lake that never gives up its dead. But if you enjoyed the style of Naz, then you should also enjoy the sequel and expect more surprises like the one you get at the end of Naz. We’ll see some old characters returning and we’ll also meet some new ones.
AB: Throughout the book, we see several characters struggling with the notion of fate or destiny, whether how things are is how they were always meant to be, or whether they’re forging a new path for themselves. How much free will would you say your characters have (within the storyline, that is, so as not to wax too metafictional)?
TZ: Sam seems to be the only character without choices, and that’s what makes him unique: at some point in his young life, he’s got to realize his destiny, and that has to be a hard pill to swallow for a teenage kid. The characters around him, however, seem to be defined by their choices—like Roxy, who is perhaps the most unlikely candidate for the mother of a new messiah. The book takes a long look at the concept of family, a concept that has obviously changed over the years. What constitutes a family today? Do we get to choose the people closest to us? When you’re writing a story, the best feeling is when you create characters and they start making choices for you. That’s the fun part of writing. With Nazareth, characters surprised me all the time as I was writing: I had no idea Roxy would leave the Motel de Love with a hot baby, she kind of did that on her own. Sometimes the story starts writing you, and it’s a great feeling.
AB: On the killer cover Jamie Keenan designed for your book, we see the elephant that’s running loose in the desert in the story, and whose presence (or lack thereof) is recalled throughout the book. What’s the significance of the animal, both in the story and outside of it?
TZ: I don’t think of Nazareth as a religious book, but it’s definitely a spiritual book in some ways, and the elephant has been a symbol of wisdom and strength that’s older than Christianity. Early in the story, an elephant escapes from a traveling carnival in Nazareth, and it becomes a symbol for freedom and possibility for some characters. There’s a section at the end of the book called “A Note About Elephants” that fills in some of the blanks.
AB: If there is one hope you harbor for the readers of Nazareth, what would it be?
TZ: More than anything, I hope everyone enjoys the story. It’s a novel, you know? I hope people identify with some of the characters and see a bit of themselves in folks like Roxy and Annie and Ole Simonson. And if anyone gets curious about the deeper allegory after reading the book, I hope they’ll read more on biblical history like I did. I recommend Jesus and His Times by Daniel-Rops, that’s a good one. But hopefully that doesn’t stand in the way of telling a good story, which to me is the most important thing.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tommy Zurhellen, whose novel Nazareth, North Dakota is scheduled for a spring 2011 release, has been teaching creative writing at Marist College since 2004, and serves as director of the Marist Summer Writing Institute and the Writer-in-Residence program. He received his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Alabama in 2002. His short works have been published in Quarterly West, Carolina Quarterly, Passages North, South Dakota Review,The MacGuffin, Crab Creek Review, Apalachee Review, River Oak Review, Red Mountain Review, Iconoclast, Coal City Review, and elsewhere. His website can tell you more.