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Kieth Merrill: The literary evolution of a painter

Published May 11, 2011 12:15 pm

Interview • Filmmaker Kieth Merrill explores the creative tensions of an artist in fiction.
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Kieth Merrill is that classic American archetype among artists, the person accomplished in one medium who decides to take up another.

In this case, the 71-year-old native of Farmington, who made his name as screenwriter, director and film producer, has turned from the screen to novel.

"Telling stories on film is very time-consuming and expensive," Merrill said by phone from the offices of Deseret Book during a week of book signing events in Utah. "I just wanted to expand the tools of my storytelling."

As author, Merrill is also part of another enduring American archetype, the religious person troubled by Charles Darwin's writings on evolution. Merrill's first novel arranges that "collision," as he puts it, as an inner struggle in the heart, soul and mind of painter Thomas Hall.

The gifted painter is set between two commissions — one an homage to Darwin, the other a children's hospital mural of Christ — and struggles to do what's right, as events, and a girl named Christina, polarize his soul.

Merrill, who received an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for his 1973 film "The Great American Cowboy," said he's got at least one other book in him. His publisher, Shadow Mountain, an imprint of Deseret Book, is for now tickled that a screenwriter who set out to write a book is now getting offers to adapt his first book to film.

Why write as opposed to directing a film?

I've written probably more than 30 screenplays and treatments. One day I realized I may not live long enough to make all of them as movies, and it might be fun to convert some of my stories into a book. I wanted to tell stories in other ways to make sure they get told.

What interested you most about the story of an artist with "competing" commissions, for a science museum based on Charles Darwin and a mural of Christ for a hospital?

It was a way for me to visualize in a single character the collision between science and religion and science and evolution and divine creation. It isn't a conflict for me, but it's a huge conflict for other people. I accept evolution within species, but I do not accept evolution as an explanation for the origins of humankind. The conflict is really between divine creation and the purist view of evolution, which is that man evolved from a lower order. I think it's a fundamental conflict all of us struggle with. Science is very confident in trying to explain all things, but science falls short by its own admissions. The book explains both sides of those issues.

Do you believe, then, that God created each species individually, after which they then evolved to varying degrees?

I do, but not in simplistic terms. To talk about cats and dogs and cows is simplistic. "Species" is a scientific word. When you talk about divine creation, there's no question in my mind that God created all things and they then evolved after their "kind," which is a word from Scripture. I don't know the answers, but I believe God created all things. ... The fun for me has been to take my own journey and inculcate it into the journey of Thomas Hall.

What interested you about the story of a painter? Do you paint as a hobby?

I'm an artist of sorts. I minored in art in college. I'm a fourth-generation artist by virtue of DNA. My paternal great-grandfather, my paternal grandmother, my father and me all had the mystical ability to draw what we saw. I thought I'd create a character who could paint as well as I wished I could. There's a lot in my character of Thomas Hall that comes from my passion of art. Understanding the mind of the artist — to see things that others don't see and go places others might not go — that is a very personal experience and one that characterizes Thomas Hall. The book is really about that mystical place where artists go.

Do you plan on writing another book?

I do. I have about 70,000 words for a new book called Treasure of a Thousands Slaves. It's an action-adventure novel.


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Kieth Merrill book signings

The filmmaker, who won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1973 for 1973's "The Great American Cowboy," has published his first novel, The Evolution of Thomas Hall.

When • Friday, May 13, 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.; May 14, noon and 3 p.m.

Where • 11:30 a.m. signing at Deseret Book downtown, 45 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City; 4 p.m. signing at Layton Hills Mall Deseret Book, 1096 Layton Hills Mall; also, Saturday, May 14 noon signing at Sandy Costco, 11100 S. Auto Mall Drive; and 3 p.m. signing at West Jordan Deseret Book, 3751 Center Park Drive, Jordan Landing.

Info • Call 801-517-3295 or visit http://www.shadowmountain.com