You have bachelor’s and master’s degrees from BYU in sociology. What was it that got you into writing?
Actually, though I have both degrees in sociology, I never did anything with the sociology part of it. After I graduated with my bachelor’s, I had an opportunity to join the Church Education System as a seminary teacher, and it was that career path that eventually led me into writing as an extension of my teaching. It really had nothing to do with the major in sociology.
What was it about your work in the CES and teaching that influenced your writing?
I found very early in my career that I just loved to teach. I loved to teach the gospel and I loved to teach youth. After about four and a half years of teaching seminary, my wife and I accepted an invitation to go to Southern California and teach in the institutes of religion.
While we were there, I began doing some research on the prophecies of the Second Coming. It was just a particular interest of mine. I would use those quotes in class or I would use them in a fireside, and when I did so, people would say, “Gee where can I get those quotes? I would like to have a copy of them.” I said I got them out of the BYU library, but that wasn’t very helpful to people in Southern California. They kept saying, “Well, why don’t you write this up and then we could have them.” The first several times I just kind of brushed that off, but eventually I thought, why not? I love to teach, and this would just be another way of teaching.
So the first books you wrote were mostly quotes and information about the research that you did. Was The Work and the Glory your first fictional series?
No, I’d written four novels before that. The very first book was The Coming of the Lord. Then I did a shorter group of four short stories for youth that was published but was only in one printing. Then I wrote four other novels before I went to The Work and the Glory.
How did The Work and the Glory get started?
I had finished the four novels and was interested in starting something else, and I determined I was going to write a novel set in New Testament times. I had gotten about five or six chapters of that started. By this time we had returned to Salt Lake City to work in the Curriculum Department for Church Education, and one day my boss called me into the office and said, “I have a man who would like to meet you and talk about writing. He’s from North Carolina and will be up next week. Would you take time to meet with him?” I said of course I would, and that was how I came to meet this fellow, Kim Moe, who became so instrumental in what happened next.
When we met, he introduced himself and told me that he was a convert to the Church of about twenty years. He was in his mid-sixties by this point. Long before he even joined the Church he’d visited Temple Square and they’d given him a little book by Cleon Skousen on the early history of the Church. He said, “I’m a fan of historical novels, and I thought that would make a great historical novel.”
Eventually the missionaries found him and he and his wife joined the Church, and then that began to be a much stronger feeling, because he still had this little book. He was well-to-do—he had a lighting company, a factory. He said to me, “I’m not a writer. I went to the bookstore and the Deseret Book store and picked up all the Mormon novels I could find, and I like your writing style the best. I’d like to talk to you about whether you’d be interested in writing a historical novel on the Restoration.” And I said, “Well, because of my teaching career,”—and I’ve taught a lot of Church history—“I’ve always thought that would be a great novel, but it’s a huge project. And I’m sorry, but I’ve already started on my next project. I’m five or six chapters in.”
He told me later that I was cordial but not very open to his proposal. He was quite insistent that he felt very strongly about this. I just said, “I’m really sorry.” He went back home and he called me again and said, “I want to come out and talk to you,” and I said, “Kim, I know how you feel about this, but right now I’ve got this other project.” He was so insistent, I finally said, “All right, you know what? I’ll take a day. I’ll go off by myself. I’ll just look through everything—all the projects I have, this project, this proposal that you’ve got, and I’ll try to find out what I should be doing.”
And so I did. To my surprise, my experience was a strong feeling that I should go ahead and accept his proposal. That was the genesis of The Work and the Glory series.
We thought at first that it was going to be one big one-volume work. That was really pretty naïve. As we continued and it became successful, I was down in North Carolina visiting Kim and his wife, and his wife said, “I think you need to tell Jerry the story of why you felt so strongly about this project.” And he did.
In a way I was grateful that he hadn’t told me before, because it would’ve put on some real emotional pressure. Instead he had said, “I just feel so strongly about it.” But now he told me that once he’d joined the Church, he had this compelling feeling to write the novel about early Church history, and he’d tried to write it. He’d thought about it for several years and he just kept putting it off, not sure what to do about it.
One night—he was serving in the Atlanta Temple presidency at this time—he went to bed and had a dream. In the dream, a man appeared to him and said, “Kim, why haven’t you got that historical novel on the restoration of the Church done?” Kim said, “I actually argued with this man in my dream. I said, ‘I tried it and I can’t write.’ And the man said, ‘I never said you had to write it. You just need to get it written.’ And then the man said, very soberly, ‘Kim, your years on this earth will not go on forever. You’ve been given this charge. If you do not accomplish it, and you die before it’s done, you will come to know the meaning of the agony of hell—in that you have lost an opportunity that cannot be recovered.’ ”
That was so sobering to him. That was why he was so insistent—why he wouldn’t take my no for an answer. It was really a quite an unusual story when it all came out.
What is your writing process like?
Up until just the last few years, I worked full-time. I was never a full-time writer, so I always had to adjust writing time into a full schedule—family and church callings and professional work and so on. Today I’m often asked, “How do you ever find time to write?” and I finally just decided the answer is that you don’t find time to write—you make time to write.
At least that was the answer for me. I would just take whatever time came. You know, after the kids were asleep or early in the morning or on Saturdays, if there was nothing else.
When I started on The Work and the Glory, where there was a tremendous amount of research—it took almost a full year just doing base research to start—I found something else developing in my writing. In historical fiction, the research drove the plot and the writing. In other words, I’m not making up the plot; I’m taking characters and fitting them into an already-existing historical structure.
I began developing the pattern of finding books that would be particularly helpful for me, and then as I started reading those and studying them and plowing through the journals and the diaries and so on, I would find things and say, “Oh, that’s great—I want to use that.” So the research became very quickly as significant a portion of my writing style as the writing.
Sometimes when I’d reach that point in the historical structure, I’d just back off from writing and spend a week or two doing research and making notes. I write hundreds of three-by-five cards because they’re easy to go back and sort into a plot structure. I’ll write a note that I want to do and then write the source where I can go back to find it, to document it. That’s become a major part of my writing style.
The Work and the Glory books were made into three movies. What role, if any, did you play in the creative process of the films?
I was called to the Quorum of the Seventy in April 2002. A few months after that, I was approached by Russell Holt and Scott Swofford as to whether I’d be interested in seeing movies made of The Work and the Glory, which, of course, I was. I thought that was a great thing.
But by that point I was a member of the general authorities. I talked to my priesthood leaders and expressed the filmmakers’ interest and asked if was there was any objection, or if they could go ahead, with the understanding that I wasn’t going to become a major part of that process. My only role would be to review the script and other major decisions to make sure it reflected what I wanted and didn’t go in a direction that would end up embarrassing the Church.
That’s basically all I did. Scott Swofford and Sterling Van Wagenen, who was the director for the second movie, came over to England where we were assigned at that point and we spent a couple of days brainstorming, and then they went back and did the casting and all the production stuff and so on. My involvement was pretty minimal.
And you’re pleased with how all three of those turned out?
It’s always a real dramatic change when you take a five- or six- or seven-hundred-page novel and condense it into an hour-and-a-half movie. There are things that a writer would say, “I wish we could’ve kept that in,” but overall we were very pleased with the quality of the production and the quality of the acting and how the movies turned out.
Your other popular series—The Kingdom and the Crown—was well received. What was the process like for it? Was it different from writing The Work and the Glory?
Not really. The Kingdom and the Crown, though it wasn’t called that then, was that book I’d already started writing when Kim approached me. In that case, because of my master’s study in the New Testament, I’d already studied the history of that time and age, the culture of Palestine, and so on.
When I finished The Work and the Glory, I decided I wanted to finally return to that project, and eventually that became The Kingdom and the Crown. By that time, I actually had over a thousand three-by-five cards on Roman culture, Jewish culture, Jewish religion, and all that. Fortunately I had just stuck those on a shelf in the basement, so that when I finished The Work and the Glory ten years later and came back to it, they were still there.
Is there a possibility we may see The Kingdom and the Crown adapted for the screen?
I’d love to see that, but as you know, taking a book to movie is a very long and iffy process and very high-risk for investors, so we’ll see. I’d love to see it done. It would be very expensive, though, because it’s a period piece with all the costuming and the set and so on.
How has writing these two series influenced your testimony of the gospel?
Profoundly. I’ve always had a testimony of Joseph Smith, but to immerse myself in his life for almost ten years—poring over his writings, his life, his journals, his interactions with people and how people viewed him—I came out of that with more respect and a deeper testimony of him and what he was than I ever had before.
And the same thing happened with The Kingdom and the Crown and my feelings for the Savior. It’s really an interesting process for a novelist because you want to stay true to the history, but there are some things that are not in historical sources that a novelist needs, like day-to-day conversation and motives. But to even ask yourself the question, “What was Joseph like at home? What kind of a husband was he for Emma?” and then to try to find things was a whole new way to look at him that I’d never done before. It was very, very valuable.
You’ve done your post-graduate studies in Hebrew at Pepperdine and the University of Judaism—did you study Hebrew at both of those locations?
Actually, I did New Testament studies. I got all of another master’s except for completing the thesis. I didn’t go into it for the degree; I went into it because I wanted to study the New Testament, so I finished that and at the same time I just took Hebrew at the University of Judaism, because it was down in Hollywood and it was on the way to my classes. I’m not a Hebrew scholar in any way, but it allowed me to go in and look at the meanings of the original words in a lexicon and so on, and that was pretty valuable for some of the stuff I was writing.
You just released a new book, Divine Signatures: Confirming the Hand of the Lord. Tell us a little more about it.
In my youth and early childhood, I had some experiences that were not remarkable or dramatic in the normal sense of the word but which caused me to think a lot about God—that He knew me and was aware of me and blessed me sometimes, and in an unusual way. That has always been in the back of my mind.
Then, as I became a seminary and institute teacher, I began to notice there were other stories like this. People who’d had similar experiences where the Lord reached out and touched them and blessed them in a unique and sometimes very dramatic way. That interested me.
The thing that finally led me to go ahead and try to write this book happened while I was serving in the Seventy, particularly over in Europe—when we went out on stake conferences, we were asked to hold what they called “new convert meetings” before the Sunday morning session. We invited those who’d been baptized within the last year or former members who had come back to full activity within the last year to meet with us briefly so we could welcome them and tell them how much we appreciated them.
In those meetings, the mission president and the stake president would take a few minutes. I would speak to the members briefly and then ask them to bear their testimonies if they chose to. One day not long after I started doing that, I had another thought, and I said something like this to them: “It’s been my experience that when you decide to join the Church or when you decided to come back to activity, in many cases there’s what I call a turning point. Something happened that caused you to listen to the missionaries or made you decide to come back. If you feel so inclined, we’d love to hear what the turning point was for you.”
That proved to be a remarkable experience. Over and over and over we heard some incredible experiences when the Lord had reached out and touched people who the missionaries would never have found on their own. Other people started sharing conversion stories, and some of these were so remarkable, I began trying to find a way to describe them. These aren’t just normal blessings. These are blessings that come in a unique, very unusual manner, and especially with a precise timing, that makes it very evident that God’s hand is in this.
One day I thought, “It’s like in some cases the Lord autographs his blessings so we’ll know for sure it came from him.” I liked that concept, so out of that came the idea of “divine signatures.” I laid out some of the doctrine related to this, but mostly it’s just sharing those stories told to me personally or experienced by me personally, or Church history stories.
Most writers specialize in either fiction or nonfiction, but you’ve done both. Why is that?
Let me go back to an earlier question, because that leads in to this one. One of the primary reasons I write is because I love to teach. And writing is just a different form of teaching, albeit to a much bigger class, if you will. Because of that, teaching fiction can reach a broader audience. And when it came to historical fiction, I could do some things with that medium that you can’t do in a normal classroom. It’s part of the logistics.
For example, in The Work and the Glory, the main characters in the Steed family are chosen to reflect how different people reacted to the Joseph Smith story. You have Benjamin, who’s the skeptic. You have Marianne, who embraces it. Nathan is a doubter at first but seeks the truth and comes to it. Joshua is completely turned off by it. And so it goes. By creating fictional characters, I could explore the emotions and the reactions of people to the Restoration in a way that you just can’t quite do in a classroom.
As you were naming off these characters in The Work and the Glory, for me it’s almost like they’re real people.
Many years ago, early in my writing career, I was reading a famous writer—I can’t even remember who it was now—but he said something like this: “When you’re writing a novel, you have to watch your characters carefully, or else they’ll take the bit in their teeth and ride off in their own direction.”
When I read that, I thought, “That’s crazy. I mean, these are my creations—what’s he talking about?” I know now what he meant, because those people become so real in my mind. For example, take Jessica, Joshua’s first wife—my original intent was to have her come into the book, this tragic little figure that gets thrown aside by this hard-hearted Joshua. But by the time I finished that, she was like, “No way, you’re not getting me out of this family. I’m part of the Steed family now and you’re not getting rid of me.” That’s one of the joys of writing—when the characters become that real.
You’ve been married for forty-seven years and you have seven children and many grandchildren. You’ve been a seminary teacher, bishop, branch president, stake president, and member of the Quorum of the Seventy. How have you learned to manage your time between family, church work, and other responsibilities?
There was a defining point where I came to a solution on that. When Kim Moe was pressing me to go ahead with The Work and the Glory series, and I finally got my answer and called him and said, “Okay, this is a go.” One week later I got a call from our stake president and was called to be a bishop. I can remember thinking, “Wait a minute, Lord, didn’t you just tell me to do this other thing?”
As I started the process—now I had a calling of bishop on top of my employment and family, and my family was young—I decided that I’d just grab whatever time I could. But something started to happen. For example, I’d have a Tuesday night that was free. Once dinner was over, I’d go down and get in two or three good hours of writing. And then the washing machine would break, or one of my kids would come in and say, “Dad, I don’t understand my math. Can you help me?” I found myself getting really frustrated, and actually a little sharp at times—“Can’t you leave me alone?” That sort of thing.
As I was thinking about that one day, I said to myself, “Writing is not the most important thing you do.” Once I really settled on that in my heart, then when those conflicts come up, I just say, “Well, I wish I had the time, but I don’t, and this is more important.” That has been a great compensating influence for me—to just say, “This is where your priorities are.” Writing comes down that list somewhere.
And yet you still wrote all those books.
Well, I don’t play much golf. Any golf. I don’t play chess. I don’t watch a lot of sports. When I have discretionary time, it goes to my family or it goes to writing. With my family, we do a lot of fun things together, so I get plenty of recreation in that way. (And by “my family” sometimes I mean “my wife and I.”) For example, in the middle of writing the book on personal revelation, even though I was pushing for a deadline, one day my wife said, “You know, we ought to go visit the kids sometime.” Twenty-four hours later we were on our way to New Mexico and then Colorado to visit two of our children. We took twelve days to do it. But I could do that because writing’s not the most important thing I do.
Are you working on any writing projects currently?
I just finished the Divine Signatures book. I always kind of take a break and catch up. But I’m looking at a potential project with the Church that I’m just kind of sketching out now, and we’ll see if anything comes of that.
Do you have any advice for those who have dreams of making a difference through writing or teaching or the arts?
Good art is driven by vision. You have something that you want to say with your painting or you want to express through your music or through literature or whatever it is. Normally, the really great art comes from value-driven vision. Not just Mormon but Christian or Buddhist—some of that is just great art. I worry a little about today’s society with all the social networks and video games and iPods and everything—that vision comes through spending a lot of time thinking about things, pondering about things. For example, when I walk, I never take a radio or anything with me. That’s great thinking time for me. Unless you’re an absolutely incredible genius, the key to almost all great art is very hard work. Good books, good music, and good poetry are not written—they’re rewritten, rewritten, and rewritten. You polish, you hone, and you throw out. So to anyone who really wants to do something, who is fired with that vision, I encourage them with all my heart but say, “Hunker down, because it only comes with hard work.” Somebody once said that the average overnight success takes about ten years.
Is there anything else you would like to leave with our readers?
Years ago I read a talk given by Arthur Henry King. He was a British fellow who came to BYU and taught English literature. The name of the talk was “Literature and Testimony.” He said, “Mormon artists should be people who believe in the Mormon religion, who have a testimony, and who write from it; but they need not write especially for Mormons, and they need not write especially on Mormon subjects, though the treatment will be inescapably Mormon if they are true Mormons. The task of the Mormon artist of the future is to be an artist to the world and to represent Mormon values to the world by his art, and not to be turned within on himself or on his group.” I like that. That’s really been a defining quote for me. ❧