Kieth Merrill, Oscar-winning filmmaker and creator of such Mormon classics as Legacy and Testaments, has a new credit to add to his list of accomplishments: successful novelist. His novel, The Evolution of Thomas Hall, debuted in May to rave reviews from critics and readers alike. Author Emily Freeman says,
"The Evolution of Thomas Hall is a visual journey that will lift your heart and invite you to view the miracles of the Savior in a way you haven't before. The magic of this book comes in its ability to inspire you to become the person you were always meant to be."
The story of an arrogant, faithless artist whose life is transformed by an artistic challenge, a faith-filled woman and a child in distress, The Evolution of Thomas Hall features Kieth’s natural flair for narrative as well as his remarkable talent as an artist. Readers comment on the power of his descriptive language. One enthusiastic reader from Arizona raves:
“In films the writer's pen brings a story into existence, the actor's words bring it to life and the director's vision gives it wings. With his film background, Kieth Merrill has taken all these elements, rolled them into an incredibly visual piece and written an amazing story. Through the eyes of an artist, Thomas Hall, you see the growth of a person from depending only upon himself to a person who finds healing, forgiveness and finally freedom through Jesus Christ. One of the best LDS novels I've ever read!”
Recently I caught up with Kieth, and asked him to tell us more about his transition from filmmaker to novelist. I was interested in his unique perspective on both fields of endeavor:
Q - You've been successful in so many areas. Tell us how you came to write a novel?
Isn’t writing a novel everyone’s fantasy? You know, on that long list of ‘Things I’m going to do before I die?’
I love to tell stories. Make stuff up. Exaggerate the truth until there’s not much left but a lot of little white lies that are way more interesting than reality. I can’t help myself.
The bridge from telling stories to writing them down is short. Writing has always held a certain fascination for me. A sort of sense of destiny I confess. Even in grade school I was writing illustrated stories and creating characters. Only my fourth grade teacher knows Gregory the Ghost existed at Farmington Elementary long before anybody ever heard of Casper.
I wrote my first journal when our family took a road trip across the United States in a chartreuse and cream Studebaker. I was thirteen. Since then I have written thousands of pages of personal journals. Words excite me. Language is fascinating. I love to write. And in case you wonder, ‘thousands of pages’ is neither a white lie nor hyperbole.
But you ask ‘how I came to write a novel.” The first acknowledgement at the end of the book says, “Special thanks to Sheri Dew for asking me to write this book. Nay, for browbeating me ten years until I finally did it.” That may be the most honest answer; the raw truth of it. I’ve a head full of stories and a file stuffed with over forty scripts, treatments and tales that ought to be told. Only a few of them have made it to the big screen and most of them never will. I shared my twelve favorite movie ideas with Sheri. She picked Color of Miracles, based on a short film I wrote twenty years ago. By the time I turned it into a full length novel only fragments of the central dramatic question remained, and the book was published as The Evolution of Thomas Hall.
Q - Your main character, Thomas Hall, is a painter, and the descriptions of painting in the book are some of the finest passages. Tell us about your background as an artist and how it influenced the evolution of Thomas Hall (to coin a phrase!) as a character.
When I was in the second grade, I drew a picture of a frog. I knew a thing or two about frogs. We spent Saturdays in the marshes west of the old highway and caught dozens of them. The whole class was painting pictures of frogs I think. Mrs. Welling looked over my shoulder and gasped. She took my drawing to the front of the class, tacked it on the board and told everyone how wonderful it was. ‘Very good Kieth, what a fine artist you are.” I remember the room and where I was sitting and how I felt. It could have been last week instead of 65 years ago. That was the day I discovered that not everyone could draw. Who would have known? From that moment onward ‘artistic talent’ whatever it is, wherever it comes from and however it is measured began to define my life.
My father was a gifted artist. Our home was filled with my father’s paintings, sketches and sculptures. His mother, grandma Eliza whom I never knew very well, was sitting at her easel almost every time we visited. My passion for creating images, my life-long fascination with art is clearly DNA mixed with opportunity.
Q - Speaking of evolution... we used to talk about this issue quite a bit in the church. Where do you stand on the subject, and why did you choose to make it a major theme in the novel?
I’m smiling. Church discussions used to be a lot more interesting when the lesson manuals were written by intellectuals like B.H. Roberts, Hugh Nibley and Joseph Fielding Smith. But that wasn’t your question.
My stance on evolution is evolving. Yeah, OK, that’s a play on words but the answer of course is I DON’T KNOW where evolution—to the extent it exists at all— fits in the grand plans of God.
Man did not evolve! Man is the offspring
In a flash of insight I stopped using the words of science, “genus, family, and species,” and used instead the word from scripture, “kind.” Is ‘kind’ the genus, family, species or subspecies? I don’t know. Similarities in DNA and other factors argue in favor or ‘evolution’ within certain biological classifications but that does not negate the creation of KIND by God. Commonly used names—perhaps the painfully common names of the animals named in Genesis—refer to an entire species or (as in the case of deer to a family with myriad species or even to a genus to whom it is grouped by virtue of similarity) in DNA.