Susan Baller-Shepard: From Jesus to Hollywood: Author Jay Parini


Perhaps you know his name from his book Jesus: The Human Face of God, or perhaps you know him as author of The Last Station, which was turned into an Academy Award-nominated film? However you might know Jay Parini, Jay's a man of many stories. I asked Jay about his work, here are his answers:

Q: As a poet, author of historical fiction, and non-fiction, what difficulties did you encounter taking on Jesus, in Jesus: The Human Face of God, and now the Apostle Paul, in your latest research?

I wasn't used to writing about religious matters. Although I knew a good deal about the Bible and Christianity, including modern theology, this was still a stretch. I had been thinking I would write a novel about Jesus, and had done a huge amount of research. But then the opportunity presented itself to contribute to a series edited by my old friend Jim Atlas; so I decided to tackle the subject as nonfiction, as biography. My research involved reading the gospels again carefully, studying the Greek meaning of words (I had studied Greek many years before, in graduate school in Scotland), reading a lot of new books on Jesus, getting familiar with some of the nuances of the search for the historical Jesus, re-reading the Gnostic gospels, looking at the literature about these, reading up on Second Temple Judaism, reading the Dead Sea Scrolls and about them -- that sort of work. It was an immense project for me, but I found myself thrilled by the work, and I'm happy with the results. I'm hoping to do similar work on Saint Paul, although NOW I will write a work of fiction, not a straight biography.

Q: Did your view of Jesus change after your research? How so?

I came to understand a lot of things that were, even after sixty years in church, a mystery. I came to a fresh understanding of the gospel narratives, their gaps, their suggestiveness, their mysteries. I think I really came to understand that the Easter Triduum is really something we live again and again, not just once a year. We all move from Good Friday to Easter Sunday several times a week! The mythos of Jesus has so many contours, and I learned about their edges, the shape of the mystery.



From Jesus to Hollywood: Author Jay Parini

Q: Where else do you see "the human face of God" on earth, or do you?

I think we meet Jesus every day in our neighborhoods, where we encounter people who become the hands of Christ in the world, helping others, doing good, comforting those in need. I'm amazed how present Jesus has become to me. He is everywhere. And he can't be pushed down.

Q: As an author, you have written biographies about a very impressive line up of people (Robert Frost, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Walter Benjamin, Leo Tolstoy, Gore Vidal, Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul). What life lessons have you taken away from your research and your knowledge of these men?

These are very different men. Jesus isn't really a "man," of course. He's a god-man. I think I learned a good deal about the aspirations of genuine artists by studying these fragile, often depressed or difficult, men. Frost was a genuine depressive. Steinbeck and Faulkner were alcoholics. Gore Vidal was an alcoholic and one of the most difficult men on earth, although he was a close friend of mine for three decades; in writing about him, I came to understand what went into his huge output of glorious essays and a handful of splendid novels. I am just beginning my work on Paul, but I am eagerly heading in his direction.

Q: You're a prolific writer. Is there a book that you haven't written that you would still like to write?

I have a long list of titles in my head. I plan to write a book about what it means to practice Christianity. I want to write about FDR. I have a memoir in me somewhere. And poems. I write poems as often as I can. I spent today working almost exclusively on new poems, for instance. That is not uncommon.

Q: Your novel about Leo Tolstoy's life, The Last Station, was made into an award-winning motion picture, and now you're working on your book Benjamin's Crossing being made into a movie as well, how does that feel for your written work to become a visual work? What surprised you in that process?

I have always loved the movies, and so it was a thrill to begin the work with Anthony Quinn -- twenty-four years ago -- on The Last Station. Tony hoped to play Tolstoy, and he and I wrote together about eighteen versions of the script. I learned a lot in working with him. He used to say: "These are moving pictures. Remember that. Moving pictures." I wrote the script of Benjamin's Crossing with my wife, Devon Jersild -- a terrific writer. We worked together in a way that surprised and delighted us both, with lots of help from the director of the film, Pat O'Connor. It will be shot in the summer, with Stanley Tucci playing Walter Benjamin. It feels really good to see a novel transmogrified in this way, turned into visual images, sound, bright colors.

Film adaptations of Benjamin's Crossing, written with Devon Jersild, and The Passages of H.M., a novel based on the life of Herman Melville, are currently underway. Additional books are in the works as well, so stay tuned as author Jay Parini moves between worlds, real and imagined.

Trailer for The Last Station

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