Hello Derald, thank you for taking some time to join us today.
DH: Thank you for inviting me, and for this opportunity.
PBR: I would like to first take a moment to tell you how much I enjoyed reading your book, and what struck me was in your first-person style of writing, I often tended to believe this was your autobiography and not just a fiction novel. How much is “you” and how much is “Ishmael?”
DH: It is fiction. I have been asked that question before. And the only answer I can think to give is, “How much of Mark Twain was Huckleberry Finn? How much was Nick Caraway inThe Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald at a certain time in his life? How much was the unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man Ralph Ellison? And foremostly, how much was the Ishmael in Moby Dicka portrayal of Herman Melville’s psyche? In my exposure to literature, every time I’ve come across a character named Ishmael, he is always portrayed as somewhat of an outsider. Sol Yurick’s The Bag is one such example.
I drew a great deal from the Ishmael persona portrayed in Moby Dick and also from the Genesis account of the Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael story. All three of these stories (mine, of course, being the third) give an account of Ishmael being the perennial outsider, the pariah, and the person linked to a community by title, but least desired in the construct of the social order. In the Genesis account, Ishmael is cast out by his father at the behest of his wife. In Moby Dick, Ishmael is the sole survivor of the Pequod. This feature serves as a damning indictment by the universal powers that be stipulating that, “You’re not even good enough to kill.” And the Ishmael of The Call is also the prototypical pariah of sorts who begins a journey intended for his long deceased twin, thereby occupying a space he has no business occupying. And this is where I drew my biblical motifs.
I also drew from some real life experiences and crafted the scenes the book portrayed. I did go to seminary and portrayed the seminary scenes as I experienced and observed. But my novel is fiction. I may draw from real life, but like any author, I don’t claim to present reality, only its illusion.
PBR: At what point did you decide to compile this chronicle – was it from a notebook or diary that you kept for all those years?
DH: I began writing this novel when I was forty. After I turned forty, I believed I had the right and authority to entertain the notion that I was no longer an amateur liver. So, I began compiling an outline of events, then began the structuring and restructuring of my novel. During the course of that time, I also managed to get four of my short stories published in such anthologies as Thoughts in Transit and Writers for Readers. It was a grueling undertaking, but I believed I had something worthwhile to offer the reading public. And this is my first full-length offering. It took several years to complete, and many revisions, but if I’m going to want the public to read my works, I want to make sure they’re getting a worthwhile read.
PBR: The most impressionable part of the book, to me, was the story about your twin brother’s death at the age of 3, and how you “felt” his spirit enter your body. Can you tell us again about this moment?
DH: I harbor major reservations pertaining to the existence and validity of such phenomena. But the use of such a feature, I felt, held great potential as a springboard for the introduction of the novel’s biblical motif. But for purposes of maintaining elements of credibility within the context of the sequence, I felt it necessary to familiarize myself with the features deemed to be germane to such an occurrence.
The first instance I found to be relevant to the notion of possession can be found in Mark chapter five, verses one through twenty where Jesus and his disciples come across a man possessed by many demons. They called themselves Legion. When Jesus commands the demons to come out of the man, at their request, Jesus casts them into a herd of swine. The swine, sensing their possession, run off a cliff and are killed by the fall.
In a more contemporary example, the book No One Gets Out Of Here Alive—The Biography of Jim Morrison, an account is given of an incident that happened during Jim’s childhood where he and his family were driving down a highway in New Mexico near a reservation. While in that proximity, the family observed an auto accident that left several of the tribesmen dead along the side of the road. Jim, upon observing their deaths, stated that he could feel the souls of the tribesmen enter his body – an incident comparable to the biblical account of Legion.
Further investigation of this incident revealed that the totem of this particular tribe of Native Americans was the snake, and Jim, near the end of his life, as an integral part of his performance, could be seen lying on the stage and wiggling around like a snake. Of course, an alternative explanation for such bizarre behavior could also be ascribed to his excessive use of drugs and alcohol. But such a phenomenon does bear out its roots in the Bible.
Within the context of Christianity what might have appeared to Jim as the souls of the tribesman would actually be demonic spirits in the guise of the souls of the tribesman. And taken in this framework, what might have appeared to my protagonist as the soul of his twin, was actually a demonic entity in the guise of his twin, and Ishmael only thinks he is possessed by the soul of his twin. I leave that to the readers’ discernment.
However, while in seminary, we also were given the opportunity to attend a non-credited course in esotericism or metaphysics. This discipline holds to the notion that a soul or a spirit cannot literally occupy another person’s body, but it can travel alongside that person and communicate telepathically with the individual, as in the instance of having a spirit guide. I remember during the Clinton administration, Hilary Clinton, although allegedly a Methodist, gave credence to this belief and named Eleanor Roosevelt as her spirit guide.
And next we come to the issue of identical twins. I have discovered that in the case of identical twins, there is a strong emotional connection, and it is speculated that they are even able to communicate with each other telepathically. There have also been instances where they develop a form of communication known as “twin babble” that only they can understand. I remember seeing a dramatization of such a feature on Law and Order.
It’s also been said that identical twins have empathic connections. When one is hurt or injured, the other feels a comparable pain. I remember seeing this feature portrayed in the 1960’s version of The Parent Trap where the father’s exasperated fiancé slaps one of the twins and the other recoils from the pain brought about by the slap. Of course, the same holds true for pleasure.
I remember seeing this other movie, the name of which escapes me, that takes place during the Viking era. There is a set of twins introduced in this movie that are referred to as “the two that are one.” In one scene, the hero of the movie has sex with one of the twins, while the other, even though she is miles away, feels the pleasure her twin is experiencing all the way up to the climax of the act.
But getting back to Ishmael and to my biblical motif, in the Genesis account of the two brothers, Isaac is the one chosen to carry out the legacy of his father, and Ishmael is the one who is cast out. But in the instance of my novel, it is Isaac who dies leaving Ishmael, besieged by the torments of his dead twin, inadvertently taking on the role of usurper.
This role begins to assert itself in Ishmael’s early teens when his father is stationed at a military base somewhere in Virginia. As in the biblical account of Abraham, then-Major Abe O’Donnell and his family are consigned to a somewhat insular community where the dictates of their lives are heavily subject to the communal demands, customs, and mores stemming from the order in question, just as in the biblical setting a comparable dynamic is present amid the tribal surroundings. Within this military communal setting, religion plays of major role in how people are called upon to conduct themselves, as is most likely true of the biblical Abraham’s community. And, like the biblical Abraham, Major Abe O’Donnell seeks to impart the will of the social order upon his son, Ishmael.
With the chosen Isaac now dead, Abe O’Donnell is now portrayed passing on both the familial as well as communal legacy to his living son. Yet Ishmael, as the involuntary usurper, cannot even begin to relate to what is going on, and Abe’s efforts are met with resistance right from the get-go.
For instance, upon the family’s arrival at the base, Abe O’Donnell insists that the family start attending chapel services together. Ishmael has never known his father to be a religious man. So, like any inquisitive youth, he asks his father why. Abe, while in a position to be the spiritual head of his family, is still not able to articulate an actual and valid reason for the move like, “So we can all experience the love of Jesus,” or “Have God as a closer part of our lives.” Instead, all he can do is exercise his inborn bent toward autocracy and say, “It’s just a good habit to get into.” And when Ishmael asks why it is a good habit to get into, all his father can do is authoritatively state, “Because it’s just a good habit to get into.” And with that said, he will allow no further debate. He doesn’t even have the capacity to deal straight with his son and say, “Well, you see, we have sort of a religious fanatic for a commanding general, and we need to put up appearances.” That wouldn’t be an acceptable explanation in these surroundings, even if it is true .
It is as a result of this paternal dictate that Ishmael furthers his roll as Isaac’s inadvertent usurper. While in attendance at their first base chapel service, Ishmael meets the chaplain’s daughter—one Becky Sutton. It is at this juncture that the spirit of Isaac evokes his full fury, anger, and desperation, emphatically telling his usurper sibling, “That’s not yours!” It takes all the will young Ishmael can muster to silence his disembodied twin spirit. And why is Isaac doing this? Well, according to biblical accounts, Rebecca is Isaac’s wife. “Becky.” “Rebecca.” Connect the dots.
From there Ishmael continues in his roll as usurper forming a deep friendship with Becky—so deep, in fact, that both seem to develop the intuitive notion that they belong together, and nothing, not even the perceived mocking laughter of Isaac, can drive them apart. Only what Ishmael terms as “the tyrannical dictates of military mission” is successful at driving a wedge between the two of them, leaving them only with a strong resolve to meet again at a later time—a resolve that is only partly neutralized by Ishmael’s innate pessimism acquired over a lifetime of experiences.
But Ishmael continues in his role as the usurper. In the biblical account, Abraham places Isaac on the altar as a sacrificial offering. In my novel, Isaac is no longer present, so that role is given over to Ishmael, as Abe disciplines him in such ways as to render him fit to follow the O’Donnell military legacy. When Ishmael fails to responds to such grooming, he is unmercifully rebuffed and rebuked by his father to the point where Abe tells him that he is ashamed to be around him. And all the while, Isaac’s mocking laughter remains present.
All this culminates in a near suicide attempt on Ishmael’s part when he hears the beckoning of another inner voice. Some might be inclined to call it the voice of God. Others might assume it to be a budding sense of personal autonomy on Ishmael’s part. If one is to assume the former, this furthers my biblical motif. Just as God delivered Ishmael and his mother Hagar from death in the dessert, so He rescues Ishmael O’Donnell from destruction at his own hands and endows him with renewed resolve to seek out his own destiny. But He does not deliver him from possession or take away his role as Isaac’s usurper.
As is stipulated in scripture, God does not play favorites, but He does have an agenda. In scripture, for purposes of carrying out that agenda, He calls forth certain people. But in The Call, He does not call everyone. I remember one New Testament passage where Jesus calls forth Peter, Andrew, Simon, Matthew, and even Judas, saying, “Come, and I will make you fishers of men.” Yet, He left Zebadee sitting in the boat.
Even when Ishmael decides he is called into the ministry, he is confronted regarding his role as usurper by both his minister and in a dream by the spectral apparition of the demonic Isaac.
The second part of my novel is presented as a satire aimed at what transpires during the experience of seminary training. My message here is, “Beware of the person standing at the pulpit. What you see is not necessarily what you’re getting.” But the biblical possession motif continues even through this part of the book, where the demon spirit always reminds Ishmael that what is there is not his. And the most jolting of these reminders come about as Ishmael overhears a conversation between undergrads with regards to his former love, Becky, and her husband. This happens twice, and both instances drive Ishmael to the brink of insanity by the incessant taunts of Isaac who is none too pleased with his brother for usurping his life.
I’m not going to reveal how the matter resolves itself. I want to give my readers some incentive to read the book. But I will tell you that another Isaac shows up, and with only marginal influence from Abe O’Donnell, does fulfill “the O’Donnell legacy.”
This Isaac happens to be the illegitimate offspring of Abe O’Donnell and one Tamara Judson, a woman he meets while stationed in Missouri. This serves as a further contrast to the biblical account where Ishmael is the illegitimate son of Abraham and Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar. So, near the end, Ishmael is seen properly relegated to the sidelines, while Isaac Judson is seen taking up Abe’s banner. And, just as in the biblical account, Isaac (Judson) and Ishmael meet at Abe’s funeral.
Of course, a lot more happens at the end than that, but I did want to give you a thorough explanation with regards to the possession incident that happened to Ishmael at the age of three and the role it played in the shaping of his life. The presence of an Isaac was essential for destiny to play out its hand, just as many have speculated that if Napoleon had somehow been removed from the historical time line, someone else would have come by to assume his role, because history, at the time, demanded such an individual.
PBR: So, what then are your thoughts about the afterlife? In your opinion, what does religion have “right” and “wrong” with the customary beliefs?
DH: On this matter, I’ll be brief. We miss so much of the point in religion’s teachings, whether it be Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or whatever, if we continue to espouse the glories of Beulahland, Heaven, Nirvana and the like, if it doesn’t serve to make us better human beings. And when all things are considered, that’s what religion is truly all about. And the second reason why we need religion is for keeping us from dying before our deaths.
True religion is a set appeal to bring out what is best in us. And how do you ascend to a satisfactory afterlife? How do you save your soul? I believe the answer is best articulated in Matthew 25, verses 31-40:
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
I believe that about sums it up. Love, compassion, and charity are the principle attributes that bring out the best in us. Of course, we all fall short. That is where grace comes in.
PBR: Do you feel “called” to write this, and tell your story to others?
DH: No. But I did feel a definite compulsion to write this novel. I’ve always felt a bent toward the ironic, the satirical, and the irreverent. However, unlike my fellow iconoclast Ambrose Bierce, I try to impart upon my readers a sense of what is hopeful, despite the bleakness of the human condition. But as for being called, I remember a certain minister once telling me, “You know son, it takes a very healthy dose of arrogance and a considerable degree of narcissism to stand up before a congregation week after week extolling your humility.” I have to say, I admired that man’s candor—and envied his chutzpah. I could never do that. Just the exposure I accord myself in the writing of this novel is frightening enough. The transparency I’m opening myself up to in this interview, taken in retrospect, can be mighty scary.
PBR: Let’s move on to some lighter topics. What type of books or authors do you most enjoy?
DH: I like humorous fiction. There was one book I read in the science fiction genre where I nearly split a gut laughing. The book was titled Space for Hire. It was all about this intergalactic private eye by the name of Sam Space. The story was conveyed in the first person, and there was no mistaking the fact that the voice is that of Humphrey Bogart. I tell you, I never read anything so funny.
Then there’s John Updike’s A Month of Sundays. That was required reading for a class I took in seminary. The professor who taught the class told us, “You can laugh if you like, but always be aware of the fact that this can become a very devastating reality for any one of you folks.” It was all about a minister who has affairs with all the women in his congregation. The irony here is accentuated, because the novel takes place at the same time the Watergate scandal is transpiring.
I’ve read practically everything of Norman Mailer’s, but the only work of his I enjoyed and got something out of was his first work, The Naked and the Dead. It was a scathing indictment of the military and went even further as an existential prophecy of man’s future, if we dare to stay on the path we’re on. And I believe this work just recently celebrated its sixth-fifth birthday. It would be like a dream if my book lasted so long.
I’ve read all the books by Sinclair Lewis. My favorite of his is Babbitt. I often find Mr. Lewis’ satire to go beyond the realm of sardonic wit and into an area of stark reality.
For instance, there is a segment in the novel where the protagonist makes a speech at a businessmen’s convention that takes up several pages, talking about how “we’re all a bunch of regular guys with our adding machines.” This speech is made with satirical intent and is set in the era of what we would term as the Roaring ‘20s, replete with careless attitudes and faulty perceptions destined to bring us to an inevitable crash in 1929. Yet, that same speech, I found, was delivered at the Rotary Club in Sacramento back in 1965 and received a standing ovation.
To me such an occurrence tends to exemplify how closely satire portrays reality. It also illustrates how little we learn from our history, and how often we turn a deaf ear to our prophets.
And, of course, I use to read comic books by the tons. But I gave up on superheroes. I mean, I can only suspend disbelief for so long, and at forty, I decided I had reached my limits.
PBR: This is quite a detailed book for your debut. Are you working on something else nowadays?
DH: I have another book coming out. It should be out sometime in 2012. It’s titled Twice upon a Prequel and Three Shorts. The book is comprised of two novellas and three short stories. The novellas take two of the supporting characters from The Call, Reginald Dexter and Elmo Piggins, and chronicle the events that lead up to their seminary attendance. Going back to a question you posed earlier, I found the Elmo Piggins novella to be a bit painful, as well. I’ve known people like this. I know there are those among us that find Elmo’s type to be quite uplifting and inspirational, but me, when I’m around such people, I get stomach cramps. Reginald Dexter’s story was a bit easier for me to write, and, in its own way, quite inspirational, and I actually came away from it feeling better about myself, and life in general.
As for the short stories, your first question was about how much I was like Ishmael O’Donnell. In my short story, “Taken up before the General,” I must confess this is as close as I’ve come to writing my own autobiography, but it’s just a snapshot. It’s the recounting of an incident that happened back during the sixties when we were stationed in Kaiserslautern, Germany.
Daryl McGregor is very much who I was back then – a hapless military brat besieged by the forces of the military social order with all its folkways and mores taking aim at him. And this was indeed painful to write. One of the people who edited this story said she couldn’t conceive of writing about something like this and wondered how I was able to do it. Of course, a number of people thought it was funny.
Then there’s the story entitled “The War Comes Home,” which is written from a woman’s perspective. I’ve been told it’s easier for a woman to enter a man’s world than it is for a man to enter a woman’s world. Oftentimes, for a man, a woman’s world can be very threatening, because that world mirrors very acutely the negative aspects of a man’s psyche — an area most of us men do not like to see or face up to.
And in “The War Comes Home,” the woman’s perspective is considerably more damning in that it comes from the perspective of a military wife dutifully trying to keep the home fires burning while her husband, one of our nation’s heroes, is out valiantly fighting our nation’s battles, a virtuous undertaking made even more pronounced by way of the platitudes espoused by the likes of such people as Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Reagan, and Sean Hannity.
What we don’t hear about is the domestic upheavals, familial dysfunctions, and abuse that take place within the homes of these heroes. The only other person I know of who addressed this theme in his fiction was/is Pat Conroy. And I’m told Pat Conroy’s mother even used The Great Santini as a basis for filing for a divorce. She just handed the book to the judge and said something to the effect of, “Here, your honor. I rest my case.”
And finally, there is my short, “A Litter Bit of Wisdom.” And you can draw whatever you’d like from that story.
PBR: We certainly wish you the best of success with The Call and your future as an author. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts with us today.
DH: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege.