Thomas Hall is a gifted artist with amazing talent. He knows it and thinks the world should know it, too. He feels entitled: to recognition, to wealth, to adoration, to glory. Hall has no need of or belief in any power higher than himself.
But a series of bad business decisions leads him to conflicting commissions. He has been hired to paint an honorarium to Charles Darwin and his Theory of Evolution for a science museum, and to do a mural of Christ healing the sick and downtrodden for a children's hospital. It's a conflict that eventually rocks Hall's soul and changes his life.
Hall's journey makes a compelling story, told with equal artistry by Kieth Merrill, film director-turned-novelist, in "The Evolution of Thomas Hall" (Shadow Mountain, $27.99).
Merrill has worked in the film industry as a writer, director and producer for 35 years. He's produced 45 films, including "The Great American Cowboy," which won an Academy Award in 1973, and "Amazon," which was nominated for an Oscar in 1997.
But this is his first novel.
"I met (Deseret Book president and CEO) Sheri Dew back when we were working on the 'Windwalker' movie," Merrill said in a telephone chat from his California home just before he was heading off to China for a project. "She's been after me to write a book ever since. She finally made me promise I'd write one. Doesn't everyone kind of want to write a book?
"Finally, while I was waiting for some other projects, a window of time came along, and with it, the peace of mind necessary to focus on a book."
Merrill came up with several ideas, most of them based on unproduced screenplays, outlines and proposals.
"I'm sitting on about 70 of those altogether," he said.
He actually came up with an elaborate, extended outline for an adventure story featuring a character named Jack Stone. But when he sat down with Dew, she picked the story of Thomas Hall, the artist who found faith. "So Jack Stone had to wait; but I do have a lot of ideas for him," Merrill said.
Writing a novel rather than a screenplay was a pleasurable experience, he added. "I've always loved language. But screenplays are by nature terse and abbreviated. So, it was fun to plunge in."
Merrill has a "dream cottage" in the woods that "was built for writing. I can go back there and close off the world. It's a pleasure beyond words." Not to mention, he says, "all you have to deal with is the characters. You don't have to find someone to give you $10 million to make a movie."
With a movie, you have the finished story in hand before you begin, he said; you try to find the action to fit the description. "A film has to speak for itself. When the lights go down, it's what's on the screen that counts. I hope the same works for the book. I'm still trying to project the movies in my mind into the minds of others, but now it's through the written word."
Writing a novel is "a whole different process," he said. "It lets you play with language, chew on words, find subtle messages and metaphors — all things that are not appropriate in a screenplay. It's a joyous process."
And one that may have changed him.
"People tell me that the screenplays I've written since are different, have more prose," he said. "It used to be that the car just skidded around the corner; now, the tires squeal."
In the end, however, whether it's movie or book, Merrill said, it's all about story.
"I'm a storyteller, and storytellers want to have their stories told and heard," he said.
Thomas Hall's story means a lot to Merrill. "The best stories are the ones in which we can find ourselves; stories that take us somewhere. I believe, at some point, everyone must confront the ponderous questions of life: science, faith, evolution, creation and God. We wonder who we are, where we came from, if there is meaning in the universe and whether we survive the death of our brains."
Merrill hopes that taking the journey through these questions with Thomas Hall will help readers "broaden their perspective, open new windows, bolster their faith, even offer answers or help them discover things they have not known in their search for meaning."
Merrill has "always been fascinated with the collision of religion and science," just as he's always been interested in art, so combining these three elements in a story was a natural. "I come from a family where I'm the third or fourth generation of artist. I minored in art in college."
But, with the idea of actually getting a job, he majored in communication. His first job was in public relations, and on an early campaign, he persuaded the company to let him make a movie. "That led to making another movie in Australia, and I decided that was my life. I called my wife and told her to come down, and we'd go around the world. We'd better do it then, I told her, because life was about to change, and we might not be able to do it ever again."
It was a struggle at first, he admitted, "but after the Academy Award, all kinds of doors opened." Merrill had found his true vocation.
"I'm so right-brained that sometimes I think my left lobe is vacant," he joked. "Everything is so visual to me."
That is perhaps both a curse and blessing, he said. "To me, life is a movie. I'm always thinking about how it would play on the screen. When I read a book, it always unspools as a movie in my mind."
The ability to translate visual ideas to written words gives his writing a richness of detail, a clarity of setting that makes for enjoyable reading. But Merrill also wanted a story "with meat."
Hall's journey is not an easy one; he struggles like many others do. "It's not a religious book," he said. "It's not at all dogmatic."
There's humor, romance, conflict, history.
"But it poses fundamental questions that every human being at some point wrestles with," Merrill said. "The core message is simply this: If man in fact slithered out of a primordial mix, then nothing matters. But if you have an absolute belief in God and in purpose in the universe, then everything matters."
Merrill says he has "a profound belief in God," and he hopes that those who take the journey with Thomas Hall "come away with a sense of how miraculous life is; how the unanswered questions give us hope, not despair. How dismal it would be to live life with no expectations."
Kieth Merrill book signing
Where: Deseret Book, 1076 S. 750 East, Orem
When: Thursday, May 12, 5 p.m.
Where: Deseret Book, 45 W. South Temple
When: Friday, May 13, 11:30 a.m.
Where: Deseret Book, 1096 Layton Hills Mall, Layton