Interview: Tommy Zurhellen

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October 10, 2011 by markstani

Tommy Zurhellen’s ‘Nazareth, North Dakota’ is a spectacular re-telling of the New Testament set in the 1980s Badlands. It’s a landscape of love motels and dirt bike daredevils. It’s published by Atticus Books, and you can read an excerpt here, and a full review here. Below, the author tells all about religion, truck-stops and wave machines.

Do water-beds with built-in wave machines really exist [Early in Naz, Roxy and Dill escape to a Motel de Love where they hole up in the Here To Eternity suite, complete with a water-bed with a wave motion button]?

If they don’t, they should. Luckily I write fiction, so I don’t have to worry; if something sounds believable to a reader, then it is, and it becomes an authentic part of the illusion. There’s no such town as Nazareth, ND on any map, but in my world there is. In the waterbed scene, I wanted the room that Roxy and Dill chose at the Motel de Love to be completely over the top, almost a cartoon, so when it came to the bed, you know I had to go big. Personally, I’ve only slept on a waterbed once, back in college, and there was no wave motion, except when my girlfriend out of the bed.

Did you set out to write a contemporary novel frameworked by the New Testament; to what extent did it help or hinder your plot development?

Good question. I did a lot of research on the New Testament accounts, and what I liked most was all the things left out — whole chunks of time left up to the imagination. One thing I didn’t want to do with this project was simply ‘fill in’ those blanks – I wanted to celebrate those omissions. That’s why the book is so fragmented, I guess. Knowing the framework helped me because I knew where I had to end up. The fun of writing this book was choosing the path to get there.

Why choose North Dakota, in particular, for the Second Coming?

The book is really about loneliness and family, and there’s no better place to talk about those things than the prairie of western North Dakota. Plus, if your hero has to go out into the desert to be challenged by Satan for 40 days and nights, well, you need a desert. If you haven’t been to the Badlands of North Dakota, you’re missing one of the most beautiful deserts in the world. Another reason I chose North Dakota for this book was the idea of Nazareth itself, two thousand years ago: in the New Testament, when folks find out this Messiah is from Nazareth they scoff, because it’s just some rural backwater. I wanted to simulate that in our modern world.

To what extent are your characters based on real people?

Some characters in Nazareth, North Dakota are based on historic characters from the Bible stories: the wicked Sheriff of Galilee County, Severo Rodriguez, for example, is my best guess for King Herod. And Daylene Hooker, the new girl in town, is the modern version of Mary Magdalene. It was a lot of fun to create characters based on any details I could glean. And then there are characters in Naz who aren’t based on history. There’s Daredevil Lonnie, for instance. He’s not from the Bible, but every good story needs some guy named Daredevil Lonnie, so he made the cut.

What’s more daunting: Nineveh, or Saturday night at a Flying J truck-stop?

Depends on what you’re looking for. If you want old fashioned sin and deprivation, go to Nineveh. But if you want a patty melt and a brawl with a guy named Noogie, stick with the Flying J. Truck stops in America are a world all their own, and you can get almost anything there, for a price. If you are down to your last twenty bucks, I’d definitely choose the J.

Do you see your book as in any way making a comment on the extraordinary influence of religion in the US today?

To be honest, it didn’t start out that way. But if you’re going to set your Messiah story in contemporary America, you can’t help but think about the influence of religion in everyday life here. It’s a source of a lot of hypocrisy, especially when election time comes around. But I didn’t want to make fun of the Messiah story, I wanted to tell it straight. Hopefully I did that.

What kind of reaction has your book received from religious folk?

I do know a few people who kindly refuse to read it, solely on the basis that it’s about Jesus. I think they automatically think I’m trying to tear down the Bible story, but that’s not the case at all. You have to tread lightly though. I’m not out to offend anyone, I just want to tell a good story.

Tell me as much as you can about the sequel?

Zombies and werewolves galore! No, I’m kidding. The sequel is called Apostle Islands, and it comes out in August 2012 from Atticus Books. I’m working on it right now! Nazareth, North Dakota ends with the Messiah walking out into the desert for his 40 days and nights; Apostle Islands picks up where Naz leaves off. It’s a challenge, because he comes out of the desert and does things that are hard to describe, like miracles. There will be twists and surprises just like the first book. I don’t want to give it away, but everyone knows someone betrays the Messiah… but did they blame the right guy? So, if you enjoyed the multiple voices and collage-type narrative of Nazareth, North Dakota, you’ll definitely enjoy the sequel.

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