Interview with Jack Harrell
After last week’s discussion of Jack Harrell’s award-winning story “Calling and Election,” I sent some of your questions (and a few of my own) Jack’s way. But before we get to his answers, a little bit about Jack himself:
Jack Harrell teaches English and creative writing at Brigham Young University-Idaho. His novel Vernal Promises won the Marilyn Brown Novel Award in 2000. “Calling and Election” will be included in his next book, a short story collection forthcoming from Signature Books. Jack and his wife, Cindy, live in Rexburg, Idaho.
I must also add that Jack is a real pleasure to work with. Now on to the interview.
-What was the genesis of “Calling and Election”?
As an undergrad at BYU, back in 1992, I presented a paper on King Lear at the National Undergraduate Literature Conference. My paper was called, “The Unburdening of a King.” In the first act of the play, Lear says,
’tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age;
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen’d crawl toward death.
I was intrigued with the idea of Lear being “unburdened” of his worldly cares and duties. The thesis of my paper was that Lear only lost things of worldly value, and nothing of eternal value. Therefore, the story was not a tragedy.
So a couple of years ago, I was teaching Lear in one of my literature classes, and the idea came to me to have a Mormon protagonist who loses everything of worldly value—his job, his money, his house, his reputation—but loses nothing of eternal value—his wife and his testimony. That’s what got the story started.
-Many readers have questioned whether or not Jerry’s brain tumor is intended to indicate that Jerry’s experiencing a delusion. Although I’m sure you’re reluctant to impose your authorial interpretation on this story (its open-endedness is part of what makes this story effective, in my opinion), could you speak in some way to how the brain tumor functions in this narrative?
In the conclusion of my novel Vernal Promises, Jacob, drunk and confused, bails out of the bishop’s moving pickup and has a vision of Christ while injured on the side of the road. Some readers could call his experience non-miraculous and explainable, due to his drunkenness and injury. They could say he’s just imagining it all. But for me, the vision is literal. I feel the same way about Jerry’s experience. I think it’s an interesting reading to call it all a hallucination—I’m open to the possibilities there—but I don’t read it that way myself.
-The spousal relationship between Jerry and Camille is also integral to this piece. Could you speak to Camille’s role in the story, and to her thematic importance?
For me, Camille is one of those “eternal” things in Jerry’s life that we won’t lose. No matter what Brother Lucy puts them through, Jerry and Camille will have each other forever.
-Brother Lucy is another fascinating character. How did this character evolve? What role do you see him playing in the story?
Brother Lucy is obviously a trickster figure. One could ask, is he good, and truly working for the brethren? That seems unlikely in the context of the church as we know it. Is he a bad guy, then, a tool of the devil? That doesn’t fully satisfy me either. However, he does remind me of something Flannery O’Connor says about how the devil is always accomplishing means other than his own. Though Satan tries to inflict misery upon us, we often end up turning, in our pain, toward God.
In the process of writing the story, I was also thinking about the Book of Job. In that story, God and angels and the devil are just sitting around chit-chatting one day, when God asks the devil, “What about old Job?” God says, “of course he serves faithfully, because you always bless him.” So God allows the devil to torment Job. Fascinating! In the end, though, the devil fails and God’s servant is proved.
-Did you do much research on having one’s calling and election made sure, or did this story grow out of your general knowledge of the doctrine, mingled with your own imagination?
Well, I’m no expert, but I feel like I know at least as much as the next person about Mormon doctrine. When I joined the church in 1981, I immediately started a pretty hearty habit of reading everything about Mormon teachings—Talmage, McConkie, Brigham and Joseph. (I think I read almost everything by Cleon Skousen back in those days, too.) Since then I’ve added others to the list—B.H. Roberts and Sterling McMurrin, for example. When I started this story, I probably did about an hour of Internet research, enough to assure me that—though some talk as if they know what this calling and election business truly is—we really don’t know much about it at all. One Internet source said that an early 1900’s Salt Lake Temple record of ordinances listed about ten performances of the ordinance of having one’s calling and election made sure. I’m not sure if I even believe this. I did enough research to satisfy myself that I wasn’t messing with something that’s cut and dried, but is, instead, something that’s pretty fuzzy in our collective understanding—and thus open to a bit of interpretation on my part.
-Some have labeled this story as Mormon magical realism. Do you think this label is apt, or you consider the story to be a generally realistic depiction of something that could, conceivably, happen?
I like that idea of magical realism, though I’m only now learning what that means. After seeing this mentioned by readers on your blog, I asked a colleague for some further understanding of the phrase “magical realism.” My understanding now is that it describes stories set on this planet, contemporary to the writer, in which everything in the world is basically normal—everything except a few magical things that are experienced by the characters as though they’re ordinary.
This fits nicely with the Mormon worldview, I think. As a Mormon, I believe in the material world in the same way that someone with a contemporary scientific worldview might. But I also believe in the ministry of angels—and lots of other things, like the Spirit. Not just any kind of angel, but Mormon angels. Some angels have resurrected, physically-real bodies. Others have bodies of spirit, which Joseph described as still being material, but of a more refined nature. So our Mormon worldview is pretty material and “real.”
-This story is inextricably bound up with LDS theology. Do you consider yourself a writer of “Mormon literature”? Is most of your fiction as “Mormon” as this story? Do you think non-Mormon readers would find this story (and other fiction you write) accessible?
As for “Mormon Literature,” I like how AML and Irreantum try to continually revisit what that phrase means. We’re in trouble if we try to fix it too strictly. Concerning non-Mormon readers, I’ve heard a lot of writers say that the way to the universal is through the specific.
A lot of my stuff is Mormon, but not all of it. I always ask myself a question: Must this piece be “Mormon” in setting and characters? If the answer is no, or if it doesn’t matter either way, then I don’t make it Mormon. But this particular story genuinely had to be Mormon because the conflict and circumstances are totally connected to the Mormon idea of calling and election.
-How does your work as a teacher affect you as a writer?
A few years ago I saw Robert Redford, on TV, giving advice to would-be actors. He said, “Have a day job,” and for two very good reasons. One, it’s nice to get a paycheck and eat. Second, he said the artist’s craft is always drawn from the real lives of others.
The fringe benefit of being an English teacher is that I get to assign my students all these great stories, and I get to learn from the stories and how the students engage them. Beyond that, I’m always hearing things from my students—about their friends, parents, church leaders—that make me think about how people really relate to each other. But this goes for any profession that keeps one interacting with others. There are lots of lives and experiences out there, and these real lives are the stuff of good writing.
-What are you working on now?
I just finished a novel about an Idaho state park ranger, a convert to Mormonism, who’s struggling in his marriage and with his father-in-law, a Mormon religious extremist. A lot of the novel deals with questions about pre-existence and how promises made there affect our fate or free will here. I’m just beginning to look for a publisher for it. We’ll see if I have any luck.
Thanks so much, Jack! It’s been fascinating.