A question I’ve been getting interested in, as I compare my history to that of other writers, is how did you get permission to be a writer?
Well, it’s always been an “and” thing. When I was little, I thought, “When I grow up, I’ll be a brain surgeon and a writer,” or “I’ll be a ballerina and a writer.” When I got older, I combined neuroscience and high art by getting married and having six kids. So now, I’m a wife, mother and a writer. Writing has never been a secondary thing, though. It’s the one constant in my life.
When I was 21, I read Rita Mae Brown’s book on writing, in which she declares that to be a “real” writer, one couldn’t and shouldn’t even try to be a writer and a spouse, or, heaven forbid, a writer and a parent. She felt like having a cat was about as far as a writer should extend oneself emotionally. The rest of life had to be devoted to writing—first, last, and always—or the writing would inevitably suffer.
I read that and thought, “That’s baloney. I’ll prove her wrong.” I guess I’m still trying to do that.
I know what you mean. Writing’s something I’ve always known I would do, but I didn’t have a clear path on how to get there. The only adults I told my ambition to told me “and” was the only way. And by “and” they meant a cute hobby you can do when you’re dead. Do you have specific means for getting writing in now while you’re still alive?
It was a lot harder to do before August 14th. That’s the day our youngest child started kindergarten. Before that, I had at least one child at home for almost twenty years. I would write during naptime or anytime people were entertaining themselves.
But now I have the house to myself from eight until two Tuesday through Friday (Monday is what I call “late-in/early-out day, but it still means I have three kid-free hours). I’m still adjusting to my childless state, but on the whole, I’ve been a lot more productive in the past six weeks than I ever have been before. I can give a lot of the credit for that to my accountability partner, Annette Lyon. We help each other stay on task.
Let’s get less practical. Your latest (prepublished) novel relies a lot on religious symbolism—it’s darn near an allegory. This puts you in a long tradition.
I dig symbols and structure. There are amazing snippets and glimpses of things, like this from Pilgrim’s Progress:
When he had read this letter to her, he gave her therewith a sure token that he was a true messenger, and was come to bid her make haste to be gone. The token was an arrow with a point sharpened with love, let easily into her heart, which by degrees wrought so effectually with her, that at the time appointed she must be gone.
Or, get this, from Everyman:
Be no more sad, but ever rejoice:God seeth thy living in his throne above.Put on this garment to thy behoof,Which is wet with your tears,Or else before God you may it miss,When ye to your journey’s end come shall. Gentle Knowledge, what do ye it call? It is a garment of sorrow;From pain it will you borrow;Contrition it is,That getteth forgiveness;It pleaseth God passing well. Everyman, will you wear it for your heal? Everyman puts on the garment of contrition. … Everyman, hearken what I say;Go to priesthood, I you advise,And receive of him in any wiseThe holy sacrament and ointment together. … For of the blessed sacraments pure and benignHe beareth the keys, and thereof hath the cureFor man’s redemption, it is ever sure,Which God for our soul’s medicineGave us out of his heart with great pain,Here in this transitory life for thee and me. … Into thy hands, Lord, my soul I commend;Receive it, Lord, that it be not lost;As thou me boughtest, so me defend,And save me from the fiend’s boast,That I may appear with that blessed hostThat shall be saved at the day of doom.
Which is as good a time as any to segue into your endowment references. I’ve never read a work of Mormon fiction that relies too heavily on that narrative. Before I start breaking out examples though, question: how much do you want me to bring in examples? And how specifically?
My initial reaction is “Not at all.” Allegories have never been more out of fashion, and I think a big part of the fun of a well-done one is for the reader to have that initial shock of pleased recognition, and then discover the layers of symbolism on his or her own.
Which is more likely to happen when you’re writing for a shared community. Which is an obvious segue to talking about being Mormon and writing for Mormons. Although Dispirited and your new novel are not explicitly “Mormon,” you are tapping into allusive veins of meaning that give your works astonishing vigor and depth to a Mormon audience. The passion people have for Dispirited is something I can’t quite get my mind around. People love that book! And I think that’s largely because of your below-the-surface constructions. What think ye?
Yes, I think you’re right. I think back to the first story I read by Orson Scott Card in Omni magazine when I was thirteen. I immediately realized that the main character was Mormon, even though Card never said so. This was a very popular nationally published magazine, and some LDS guy I’d never heard of had written a story good enough to be printed in it. I was thrilled; I felt like I knew this cool secret, and that Card had written the story just for me. I think most writers want to “pay it forward” and give the kind of pleasure they themselves have gotten as readers. That’s part of what I’m trying to do when I write.
I’ve had that experience too (though I don’t have a formative moment I can quote as readily as you have). But it reminds me of James Goldberg’s brilliant essay in Irreantum a couple years ago, “Wrestling with God: Invoking Scriptural Mythos and Language in LDS Literary Works”—essentially, he argues that Mormon writers have an unfair advantage over other writers when writing for (or at least when read by) an LDS audience. It’s hard to pick out just one piece, but let’s take this:
By the standards of the century in which we live, this [the Latter-day Saint relationship with scripture] is about the best raw material for allusion a writer can get. I suppose those writing literary fiction for audiences composed almost exclusively of English professors have a wider range of potential narratives to access. But even a highly literary audience likely won’t have the same level of investment in those narratives as LDS audiences have in scripture: how many living people really connect with and care about Achilles the way many Mormons are invested in Nephi?
Card’s talked about how being Mormon is so entrenched into his being that he can’t not write Mormon stories—and I guess that’s what you saw when you read his Omni tale. But deliberately tapping into that well of shared allusive knowledge is powerful. We’ll get specifically how you do this in your new novel in a second, but first I want you to try to capture your philosophy on using these layers of meaning which are so immediately available when writing Mormon-to-Mormon. Maybe use Jer3miah as an example?
Well, first of all, the layers always have to be subject to the story. I never want to hit my readers over the head with a baseball bat labeled Theme. But skillfully done, allusion can add so much delight and depth.
Jer3miah was so fun to write (and the sequel is proving even more enjoyable for just the reason you mention). When fans have mentioned particular scenes to me as their favorites, my theory as to why they like those parts best is that it’s because one or more of those layers of allusive goodness is surfacing.
There’s one part of the story that people seem to love in which Porter, the faithful, heavyset sidekick, gets spurred into lifesaving action—right after he’s indulged in a bit of a binge:
That awesome fudge was now starting to feel like a lead weight in his stomach. Wheezing, he stopped for a moment. … Please help me find [Jeremiah], Heavenly Father, he prayed as he ran. Please help me not to have a heart attack on the way.
Miraculously, he felt energy course through him. Was it the Spirit or the sugar? Or was the Spirit using the sugar? Did it even matter?
Hopefully, it’s a funny beat in the midst of a very suspenseful passage, but it has allusions to Moroni 10, D&C 46, Isaiah 40, and several of Paul’s letters. How does the Spirit work in our lives? When a thought occurs to me, is it the Spirit, or is it just me? Does it help me to know the difference?
Jer3miah’s narrative has all kinds of moments like that, but it’s in the interstitial materials—the pages that are made to look like documents from an investigation—where the deep level of Easter egg geekery are all planted. Those were a blast to create.
Exploring the Spirit is something you do in a more fantasical way in Dispirited. Our science fiction/fantasy writers often say that writing in the genres gives them the freedom to explore these ideas in a forum in which general readers will more readily accept the ineffable. You’ve dealt with these aspects of religious life both fantastically and more realistically (even if Jer3miah is science fictiony). What are the strengths and weaknesses of both milieux?
Speculative fiction obviously has a much bigger potential audience than LDS fiction does, so that’s a strength, assuming that you want to disseminate the exploration of a given idea as widely as possible. The advantage (I’m not sure it’s a strength) of writing for an LDS audience is that the writer doesn’t have to deal with exposition-overload problems. We have shorthands and shibboleths that most of us understand.
But that advantage of LDS fiction can definitely be a weakness. It can be tempting to rely on the cliché; it can be easy to pretend that we Mormons have all the answers. We don’t, and when we think we do, we’ve just closed ourselves off to anything new the Lord might want to tell us. For me, the biggest strength of speculative fiction is the way it encourages the reader to keep the mind open and flexible. The reality is that life is confusing, harsh, and difficult, even with the advantages of personal revelation and priesthood power.
In that regard, I’d like to see more tragedy in LDS fiction. My first novel, Shannon’s Mirror, is about an LDS teenager who struggles with anorexia—and loses. When I started the book, I envisioned her triumphing over the disease. But one night, I literally woke up in the middle of the night and realized that Shannon had to die. (I’d write “SPOILER ALERT,” but the book has been out of print for seventeen years.) So I killed her. It’s an ending that shocked a lot of readers—but no one complained. It was the right thing to do.
In a previous email conversation between us, you said this:
I was eighteen when I first saw The Magic Flute, and I fell in love with it at once—even though the plot is zany and nonsensical at first glance. I went through the temple for the first time when I was twenty-one (a couple of iterations of the endowment movie ago). The similarities between the endowment and Mozart’s opera struck me at once.
Similarly, what struck me most about your new book is your use of my mind’s wide access to the endowment. The endowment might not be “scripture” precisely as we usually use the term, but, going back to James, no text eclipses it in importance. We’ll get to your novel in a second, but first I want to know more about your reaction to the endowment, as you had the opposite experience, as the ritual engaged with another text you already loved.
Well, it would be easier to talk about this in the celestial room, but basically, I just had a series of flash-bulb, “aha, of course” moments. I instantly made connections that I think eased my way. Each narrative has enriched the other as I’ve gotten to know them better.
Let’s step away from the temple for a moment then. The first clear allusion I recall is when a seemingly halfwit character tells the protagonist “I can teach you correct principles, but you govern your sthafar yourself.” [Note to readers: I’m quoting from a pre-final draft.] This line appears as we’re heading down the rabbit hole and sets our attention on agency and responsibility. But it also suggests to me that you view this as a fundamental concept. Tying it to art, how do correct principles allow you to govern yourself as an artist?
I need divine help to do my art well (or at all). I don’t feel worthy of that help if I’m not living correct principles: taking care of my family, studying the scriptures, doing my best in my callings. When my life is in balance—including my having the self-discipline to make time for writing—the words flow far better.
Balance and moderation are correct principles that are foreign to the natural woman in me; I tend toward the extreme in all areas of life. So working to fit writing in to my days, along with everything else, is a constant exercise in areas of personal weakness.
I wanted to get deeper into the temple references, but I looked over my list of extracts and we would need New Yorker space to get through them all. But what I really, really must address is your depiction of evil, which is very much of the “Mormon Satan” variety—your bad guys consistently attempt to hijack your protagonist’s agency through either direct means, or an only-sorta-honest form of sharing information, or direct threats, etc. But no matter what, it always comes down to compromising another soul’s agency. What is so terrifying about that?
I don’t think I’m alone in hating the feeling of being powerless in a situation. A lack of control—often caused by a lack of knowledge in a given situation—is at the root of the fear induced in nearly every horror novel or movie I can think of. Audiences respond with anxiety and sympathy, especially when the most vulnerable among us—women, children, the handicapped—are somehow involved.
I’ve always felt like dishonesty is a subtle and pernicious attempt at usurpation of agency. We learn this in the temple. When we don’t have all the information—or the correct information—our capacities to decide and act are hampered.
This is a complaint sometimes levied against fiction by the righteous: it’s all a pack of lies anyway, so how can it be a force for good in the world? Although it’s a question I find maddening, it’s not totally unfair either. What’s our justification for telling untrue tales?
Well, it’s good enough for Jesus. That’s the short justification.
The longer justification is this: fiction, being somewhat abstracted from reality, is a safe place to explore ideas without incurring any real-world consequences. Examples from Mormon literature: What if Zoroastrianism is the true religion? What if sociopaths could self-impose moral codes to keep those around them safe? What if I actually knew my husband for aeons before this life? What if a malevolent spirit took over the body of my brother? Thus exploring, we can draw conclusions, form opinions, and even glean truth—all from that pack of lies.
Plus, fiction is generally better edited than real life—which makes getting the point of it all much easier.
In your new novel, as your characters are told fairy-tale renditions of true stories, they are told that they who have ears to hear, will. And in the world of your novel, the fairy tales are a useful if enigmatic source of truth. Ritual and scripture don’t have the same demands of believability placed upon them as fiction—ironically, I suppose, but it suggests an interesting split between faith and belief. What counts as valid storytelling in your novel’s inserted tales would not work as part of the novel proper. After all, the novel, though fantasy, behaves as most modern fiction must: realistically.
How did you navigate the line in this story between “believable” fiction and “faithful” capital-s Story?
Well, I’ve always felt that there was a big difference between “truth” and “reality.” We accept the symbology of parables because we’ve been trained to; in a different way, we’ve been trained to see reality in a very specific way that is much different than the way our ancestors perceived reality.
Carolly Erickson’s book The Medieval Vision opened my eyes to the fact that perception of reality has changed pretty drastically through the centuries; that was reaffirmed when I read the first chapters of Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling. But most people in the modern era don’t even see the shift that has occurred. I find it fascinating.
Believable versus faithful? It’s a problem for Mormons, even ways we don’t expect. I wrote a novel a few years ago about four LDS women who are good friends. A fifth woman, who is mentally unbalanced in aggressive and unpleasant ways, tries to enter their circle. The four are torn between feelings of responsibility and guilt on the one hand and a desire to keep their circle intact on the other. They reach out to the intruding woman reluctantly; she becomes hostile and paranoid. It doesn’t end well.
Anyway, a major NY publisher was on the fence about it for a while. He loved the writing and the format (it was told through blog posts—very much a novel of 2007) but finally rejected it because he didn’t believe that the four women would work so hard to be so kind, even though they really didn’t want to. I felt they behaved exactly as most active LDS women I know would in the same situation. But this editor had never been to Relief Society.
Likewise, some of Jeremiah’s actions in Premonition are highly unbelievable—unless you’ve read the Book of Mormon. But Jeremiah’s flaws are always apparent; I think that helps the reader identify with him.
Your new story weaves through various renditions of Eden and the world, and similarly, it deals with various conceptions of romantic love and marriage. The characters must decide, in the text’s words, “Was the joy worth the agony?” You’re alive. Is it?
I hope so. I have an anxiety/depressive disorder, and many days, the world seems pretty bleak—even though I have a fairy-tale, Ensign-cover life. Six kids, great husband, plenty of food and clean water. Why should I ever not be jumping for joy? It’s chemistry; it’s mortality. I fight the chemistry hard. Most days I win.
I’m all for win. How does your work contribute to the building of Zion on this crazy old world of ours?
As a reader, a good story can get me through a lot. The best stories—the dark ones, full of anguish and conflict and redemption—make me want to be a better person despite my own struggles. I find real strength and wisdom in them. So many writers have given me that gift. I’d like to give it to others. ❧