Zurhellen Merges the Surprising with the Familiar
“What if I told you that I carry my favorite book since I was 12 in my bag right now?”
As one may carry a talisman or a good luck charm, Thomas Zurhellen totes a copy of “Ivanhoe” by Walter Scott – a story he’s read approximately 50 times. As an associate professor of English marking his 20th year teaching in academia, he has always fostered a passion for fiction.
Zurhellen loved to read as a child, but it wasn’t until high school when he discovered he wanted his name on a book cover. Perusing his high school library, he happened upon Ernest Hemingway’s classic, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” thinking it would be about the Metallica song. Instead, he found a harrowing story of the Spanish Civil War. He read it in one night, and his dreams of becoming an author began to percolate.
Today, Zurhellen has fulfilled his childhood fantasy of authorship with a complete trilogy and an avant-garde new project told in serial form. The Messiah Trilogy retold the story of Jesus set in North Dakota and merited three Independent Publisher Awards.
With his newest project, Zurhellen reimagines Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” in Nazi Germany. Zurhellen collaborated with artist Hyeseung Marriage-Song, who created paintings reflective of both Zurhellen’s story and the original text. Both his writings and Marriage-Song’s paintings were featured in the Marist College Art Gallery from Sept. 27 to Oct. 20.
In both the Messiah Trilogy and your new “Frankenstein: Konfidential” project, you take a story and place it in a new historical time frame and setting. What inspired that idea?
The idea for Frankenstein was easy because I already did the trilogy, which is a reimagining of the New Testament. When I found out it was Frankenstein’s 200th anniversary this year, I was looking for a new project and I kind of figured I had to do something special for that.
My mind set to work on, “How can I make it surprising yet familiar?” – that’s the mark of a reimagining. That’s something creative and new that I haven’t seen before, but at the same time if you’ve read the original Frankenstein you want to reward people for reading that and say, “Oh wow, this is just like Frankenstein!”
[In Frankenstein: Konfidential] We have characters from the original book but there’s also historical characters from World War II... And that’s the fun part: making it new but yet still paying homage to the original.
What is the most difficult part about writing a book?
The hardest part for me is the first third of the book...there’s a tipping point where you get to where everything just clicks. Most of the time, you never reach it. Most novel projects are 30 pages long and they’re in a drawer somewhere. But when you reach that tipping point for that particular book everything starts falling into place. All the tendrils, all the plot threads are coming together magically.
How did the idea for Frankenstein: Konfidential collaboration with Hyeseung Marriage-Song come to be?
I already knew Hyeseung Marriage-Song. We were at the Vermont Studios Center together, which is a big artist colony up in Vermont...I befriended her there about seven or eight years ago. So about two years ago, I came to her with this project because I admired her work and I particularly wanted to work with because she does great portraits. I was imagining what her take would be on the characters.
She loved the project...It was true collaboration in the sense that when I saw her portrait of, let’s say, Victor Frankenstein, I [said], “Boy, that gives me so much information about the story and the look on his face” and all these kinds of things and it gave me a lot of options.
It was really a beautiful thing to collaborate...If you want to know how good you are at something, collaborate. It’s really the best way, plus it’s a lot of fun.