Mormon Artist

Jack Harrell

Jack Harrell grew up in Parkersburg, Illinois. When he was nineteen years old, he packed his guitars and record albums in his 1964 Chevy Impala and moved to Vernal, Utah, where he joined the Church. He is now a fiction writer and essayist who teaches at Brigham Young University–Idaho. His novel Vernal Promises won the Marilyn Brown Novel Award in 2000. His collection of short stories, A Sense of Order and Other Stories, won the Association for Mormon Letters prize for short fiction in 2011. Website
Photo courtesy Jack Harrell

You wrote a short story for the first time in a creative writing class at BYU. How did you go from there to writing professionally?

Professionally, I’m a teacher first. But teaching English and creative writing often complements my work as a writer—and vice versa. I regularly bring into the classroom what I’m learning as a writer, and what I teach my students helps me with my own work. I believe that writing in any area helps one’s writing in other areas. Writing a PhD dissertation helped me to become a better fiction writer. Even the business writing class I taught for a few years, back in the early 2000s, helped me to better understand writing principles like audience, conciseness, and precision.

After those first creative writing courses at BYU, I kept writing as I attended graduate school and started my teaching career. It’s difficult to make a living solely as a writer. Most novels published today are written by people who “have a day job.” The hardest thing, for anyone, is finding the time. I try to write an hour each morning, and I take full advantage of holidays and breaks. One of the best things about writing is its portability. I carry a journal with me most of the time. I jot down ideas or refine my thinking in the in-between moments—waiting to pick up our son from soccer practice, for example, or taking my laptop on vacation to write in the morning while the kids sleep in.

Stephen King once said that he was first a husband and father, second a member of his community, and third a writer. He said that if he ever got those mixed up, it would be detrimental to his writing. I feel the same way.

How does the gospel influence your work?

To be a good writer, you need to cultivate qualities like discipline, patience, knowledge, empathy, humility, creativity, and honesty. Living the gospel helps me with all these. But good writing often involves conflict too. Conflict in life is inevitable. In art it’s essential. Conflict, tension, difference, contrast, ambivalence—pick whatever term you like—it’s all necessary for art. The Latin root of the word conflict means “to strike together.” The goal is not to avoid conflict, but to ensure that the conflict yields something valuable. I could apply a musical metaphor here. Even if two notes are in harmony, they’re still different notes. That difference creates a whole which is greater than its parts. In music, even dissonance can be moving and enlightening. Two notes that push against one another can yield an unforeseen perspective.

Recently I’ve been reading and re-reading a book on aesthetics by Roger Scruton, a book simply titled Beauty. Scruton says that sacrifice is at the heart of virtue and at the heart of all good art. Sacrifice is at the heart of the gospel too. In order to write a good book, a writer must sacrifice. You have to sacrifice all that time, for one thing. But you must also sacrifice what you want the work to be for the higher goal of what the work itself needs to become.

Often the reader, too, must sacrifice for a good work of literature. Readers must give themselves over to a work to make it come to life. As for the stories themselves, the best ones involve some kind of sacrifice, a climactic moment in which a principal character gives everything for something or someone else.

The main character in your novel Vernal Promises shares a lot of similar background to what you describe in your own conversion story (working at a grocery store, selling drill bits, a party lifestyle, etc.). How much is Jacob based on you?

Some of Jacob’s experiences are my own. As a teenager, before I joined the Church, I experimented with drugs and alcohol. I worked in the oilfield equipment business. I held several grocery jobs while working myself through college. Though most of the novel is fiction, the struggle in Jacob’s heart reflects my own struggles as a young convert to the Church. I had to learn hard lessons in order to bend my will to the will of the Spirit. I also had to learn that I had worth in the eyes of God, that I was worth the sacrifices which had been made for me by God and by others who loved me.

In one way or another, the principal characters in Vernal Promises are denying Christ and his atonement. Jacob does this because he believes he isn’t worth the price Christ paid. That kind of withdrawal is a perversion of humility. His wife, Pam, tries to deny the atonement by wishing for a time before she had ever sinned. Jacob’s mother, Regina, believes in easy grace that makes the atonement shallow and meaningless. And his father, Harvey, doesn’t believe there’s any such thing as sin in the first place. Jacob only finds peace when he accepts what has been done for him—when he sees how high the price is and allows it to change his life.

Some of your writing deals with pretty difficult subjects, such as adultery, suicide, and drug abuse. How do you balance honestly addressing challenging topics with keeping your literature appropriate and conducive to the Spirit?

The Spirit testifies of truth, even when the truth is dark or unpleasant. I suspect that the Spirit would communicate much more broadly to each of us if we would allow it to. I don’t worry a lot about offending the Spirit in my writing. I feel I have a pretty good sense of what is sacred ground. My greater concern is the risk of offending my fellow Mormons, and some have been offended by my work. But this isn’t my goal.

There’s a movement in visual art called “Abjection,” in which artists seek out that which is transgressive or taboo. I’m not interested in that sort of cheap shock value. It’s easy to cross a line just to get a rise out of people. I’m interested in honesty, in bringing things to light. They say the best healing comes with good doses of light and air. I believe that the best art and writing is redemptive. If something is in need of redemption, it must be in jeopardy first. That state where trouble is, where redemption is a possibility, that’s the place where I find writing meaningful.

How has writing brought you personally closer to the Savior?

Writing fiction especially requires a empathy for characters. Eugene England, who was one of my professors at BYU, said that writers must love their characters even when they make mistakes—just as we might love a friend who we feel is in the wrong.

The Gospel of John says that Christ was logos, “the word.” In Greek, logos means word and speech, but it also means reasoning itself. As a writer, if I’m trying to tell the truth, if I’m striving for the right word, if I’m trying to make any sense at all, then the work I’m doing will help me to move closer to the Savior. This is true for writing just as it’s true for every other worthy endeavor in life.

You teach creative writing at BYU–Idaho, so you get to see a lot of young and aspiring writers. What kinds of traits or skills get you excited about a young writer’s potential?

The best quality of all in a young writer is being teachable. Writers need maturity, life experiences, even some disappointments before they have something to say to the world. That all comes with time. Young writers may not have a lot of experience, but they can be teachable. They can love language. They can be curious. Young people who are easily bored won’t see that stories are all around us, waiting to be told.

Non-writers think that finding the story is the hard part. But as one of my writer friends says, “Good ideas are a dime a dozen.” What’s needed after the good idea is a lot of hard work. That’s something else I love to see in students—the willingness to revise again and again. I once told a friend that writing a story is like digging ditches. It’s mostly just a lot of work.

You write both fiction and essays. If there is a theme you want to explore, or truth you want to highlight, how do you decide whether to address it in fiction or nonfiction?

The medium of fiction or nonfiction usually presents itself with the germ of the idea. Typically, I write nonfiction when I have an academic concern, something that needs to be spelled out with lots of definitions and reasoning and specific examples from my life. With fiction, I usually begin with a question that troubles me on a much deeper, more mysterious level. It requires a question so big that I wouldn’t know where to start from a nonfiction point of view.

For example, a few years ago I learned that a man I knew very well—or thought I knew—had been arrested for being a pedophile. This man had been my escort when I got my temple endowment. He was the father of the family that had been a surrogate Mormon family to me. I just couldn’t understand it. How could that man, who seemed so religious and faithful to the gospel, how could that man be a pedophile?

In order to make sense of it—for my own sake—I had to write about it. I had to make him a character in fiction. Not to justify him, but to understand him. To understand the turmoil that must have existed within him for years and years before he finally got caught.

How do you see your work helping build the kingdom?

Zion is said to be a place where none are poor. I assume this also means no one who is poor in their literature or art. I like Brigham Young’s attitude, that in the Church we claim all truth, whether it comes from heaven or earth or hell.

I’m very interested in Mormon literature, but there isn’t a lot of good Mormon literature out there. We live far below our potential. Most of what sells in the commercial Mormon bookstore is pablum. Yet we have such an amazing theology, so comprehensive and gracious. It’s also a religion that is not without contradictions and mysteries. Our writers do so little to capitalize on this. Mostly, I think, we’re afraid of offending one another. We need to be bolder, on one hand; and we need to be slower to take offense on the other hand. Any act of creativity can run the risk of going wrong. That shouldn’t be a problem for people who know how to forgive. There’s nothing wrong with honest mistakes or false directions, if we’re quick to right ourselves once we discover our errors.

The idea of a “second anointing” is a major element in your story “Calling and Election.” That’s not a topic one often hears about in General Conference. Do you worry about going too deep or having readers misunderstand your stories?

Before writing that story I did a good deal of research on the topic of “calling and election.” I found a lot of people who claimed to understand it, and they all disagreed with each other. I concluded that no one who truly understands it is doing much talking—which is probably as it should be. So I felt there was plenty of room for poetic license. I don’t claim anything in the story to be doctrinal. It is fiction, after all. But there is a larger truth in the story: that God will try his children, one way or another, before he selects his jewels.

I have another story that was published a couple of years ago called “Hank Toy’s Devil.” That story is about a devil who’s seeking a mortal he once knew before the War in Heaven. I don’t know if such a thing is possible, but it’s not impossible either. Since no one had ever written about this, as far as I know, I felt free to do so. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is whether or not the story works.

Your fiction is very character-driven. How do you come up with the characters you write about?

Interesting people are all around us every day. I think the job of the writer is to listen, to get to know people and how they tick. In one family any writer can find enough material to fill volumes. Coming up with characters isn’t hard. The hard part is making them as real on paper as they are in life.

Your fiction has won several awards in the Mormon writing community. (Vernal Promises received the Marilyn Brown Novel Award from the Association for Mormon Letters, “Calling and Election” won the 2007 Fiction Contest from Irreantum, and “A Prophet’s Story” won the 2009 Brookie and D. K. Brown Fiction Contest from Sunstone.) What does that mean to you?

It’s nice to be recognized. The kind of writing I do doesn’t sell very well. Neither of my books has sold more than a thousand copies. Contrast that with the constant stream of Mormon romance novels that each sell in the tens of thousands. In the absence of sales, I suppose I can find comfort in a small prize or two along the way.

What are you writing now? Do you plan to publish more books in the near future?

I’ve finished a new novel, Caldera Ridge, that has been accepted for publication by Signature Books. I’m currently shopping around a manuscript of essays on Mormonism and creativity.

I work on more than one thing at a time. When the trail on one piece runs cold for a while, I switch to something else. I have four or five stories I’m working on, a couple of academic essay ideas, and the beginnings of two novels that, so far, consist of a hundred or so pages of nonsense.

Writing takes a lot of time—time to work and time for the work to stew. I once told a friend, “I can’t wait for five years from now, when you get to see the piece I worked on this morning.” It was a joke, but one with a lot of truth to it.

What do you hope your readers take away from your stories?

I hope my writing helps readers feel more connected to others and to the world. So many good and deep things rest just below the surfaces of our lives. We rush past so much, overlook so much—I’m preaching to myself here. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I write. Good writing, good art, arrests us, causes us to be immersed in an instant of humanity. That’s what I want to do for my readers. I want to make them stop and look and really see, even if just for a moment. ❧

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