Mormon Artist

Steven L. Peck

Peck is a biology professor at Brigham Young University. His publishing history includes lots of scientific work focused on evolution and ecology, including publications in American Naturalist, American Entomologist, Biological Theory, Biology & Philosophy, Newsweek, Evolution, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Agriculture and Human Values, and other scientific papers. Creative works include three novels, The Scholar of Moab (AML best novel of 2011, Montaigne Medal Finalist), A Short Stay in Hell, Rifts of Rime. He recently published a book of poetry, Incorrect Astronomy. His stories have appeared in the anthologies Monsters & Mormons and Space Eldritch II. Publications in Bellowing Ark, Dialogue, Encounters Magazine, Glyphs III, Irreantum, Jabberwocky Magazine, Journal of Unlikely Entomology, Lissette’s Tales of the Imagination, Nature Futures (forthcoming), Pedestal Magazine, Quantum Realities, Red Rock Review, Silver Blade, Silver Thought Press, Tales of the Talisman, Victorian Violet Press, and Warp and Weave. Website
Photo courtesy Steven L. Peck

First, sure, I know it’s called Mormon ARTIST, but you’re also a scientist. One of the expected questions in these interviews is how does your work help build the kingdom. Let’s leave art to the side for a moment. How does your science help build the kingdom?

For me, gaining knowledge itself is a way to build the kingdom. Science is the search for knowledge about how the physical universe works. The glory of God is intelligence—anything we do to enhance the knowledge of the universe builds the kingdom.

I also take the scripture that says “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21) really seriously. Those things we do that enhance our talents and abilities also build the kingdom. It may sound counterintuitive, but the more I look at the depth and promise of nature and study its contours, especially from an evolutionary perspective, the more I feel I’m lifted to higher things. Science teaches humility, because there is always more to learn. And it is wildly fun stuff.

In The Scholar of Moab, we find people looking for truth and understanding through both science and art—as well as ancient documents, revelation, scripture, alchemy, the stars, coincidence, etc., etc., etc. How do you go about balancing all the different avenues to truth we have to choose from?

I think truth comes from a variety of sources. In one interview, I claimed there is more truth in my fiction than in any science I’ve ever done, and I believe that. Important truths like those that come to us through experience, are often of much greater import than the material facts that science offers up, which are usually snatched from a reductive separation from the complexities of the world, while experience integrates multiple dimensions into a much more whole and in-context set of truths. Fiction brings people to the kind of experience that is more like real-life experiences. This is where we can bring to bear much greater ways of seeing the truth. In things like poetry we see people brought indirectly to the truth. By allowing it to bubble up inside us such that we experience the event anew.

There is so much we don’t know about the world. It is important to not let other facts or accidents get in the way of recognizing the depth and complexity of reality.

Regarding your story in the latest Irreantum (why isn’t everyone subscribed to Irreantum? don’t they know how great it is?), you gave us James Talmage in a time travel story without any time travel. And you’ve hit upon the most elegant new solution (at least, I’ve never seen it before) to the issues inherent in time travel since To Say Nothing of the Dog. You have some brilliant noodles there. I do have a question regarding this story though: Why Talmage? You could have told this story with Lao Tzu or James K. Polk or Joan of Arc’s mother or Solomon or Professor Pangloss—and it would be the same story, only, at the same time, utterly different. What about the conceit made you make it a Mormon story? Or, more specifically, a Talmage story?

Talmage has always been a hero. He was a scientist himself and he seemed like the natural person to place in this setting. Someone who could use the powers of scientific investigation to explore the strange events that were being reported. In some ways he becomes my Holmes. He is the person thrown into a strange series of happenings that make him more and more the only stable feature in the story.

I think I made him a Mormon because it’s what I know best and have the most fun with. Plus (and I bet you never guessed this!), your own story of Nephi Anderson meeting Maurine Whipple was indirectly responsible for this story because it got me thinking about world-redefining encounters and suddenly I had a picture in my head of Talmage riding on an airship with some of the other apostles and I started wondering how he got there and where he was going and the next thing I knew this story was offering itself up!

I should say I love time travel stuff. (I loved To Say Nothing of the Dog.)

Oh, cool. That warms my heart, Steve. And it lets me ask a question I wanted to ask but was afraid would seem too much about me. One reason I dug the story (besides all the reasons the story itself provided) is because I’m working on an alternate version of Church history now as well. I think it might be in the air. D. J. Butler went steampunk on Church history. Monsters & Mormons is loaded with the stuff. Scott Card’s been doing it since at least 1987.

I think you are right. It’s fun to reimagine our culture from a different perspective. I think speculative fiction offers a chance to explore things that are deeply held in ways that are safer than a straight-up treatment. I read the New York Times article about how Mormons dominate in genre fiction because it’s safer or something. For me, I like SF and fantasy just because growing up I was encouraged to speculate wildly about the heavens and the Earth. Mormonism lends itself well to a rich imagination. I am a product of that background and world.

Image courtesy Steven L. Peck

I think in Mormon literary circles you’re best known for your alternate take on the afterlife, A Short Stay in Hell. Even though I’m always preaching that the Mormon audience is more broadminded than people give it credit for, I did expect that your cheerful declaration that Zoroastrianism is the one true faith and your Mormon lead is headed to hell would raise some ire. To the best of my knowledge though, ire was not raised. People seemed to accept the book as it was. Does that seem a fair assessment?

I don’t think people mind looking at alternative worlds (at least I hope not!). For me, putting yourself in the position of someone whose expectations are completely blown away allows a bit of humility. And allows a kind of double reflection on our assumptions and expectations. I think it’s healthy for any faith.

Incidentally, I sold some kids at my school (not Mormon kids) on Short Stay and they dug it. Then, a week or so ago, a kid came in reading a volume of Borges he’d found on the shelf and said, ah, Mr. Jepson, I think that guy might have ripped off the library idea. Nonono, I said. It’s an homage. Totally legit. Which is my way of asking what other writers—fictionists, poets, scientists—have been influential on you. And how do you engage with those writers you admire?

That always cracks me up. Someone on Goodreads made the same claim—“Hey, people, he stole this from Borges!” Of course, that it says explicitly on the sign placed on the wall in Hell (repeated every few hundred meters), “Welcome to Hell! This Hell is based upon a short story by Jorge Luis Borges from your world called ‘The Library of Babel’. Here you will find all the books that can possibly be written,” should have been a hint that my borrowing was intentional. So how do people read the book and miss that! Yes, homage. Yes, yes.

My influences are very varied and I think that’s why my books are often hard to peg with a specific genre. I’ve always loved the classics, but my favorite writer is George Eliot. I’ve read everything she’s written except Felix Holt the Radical (I’m saving it to read until I’m much older, because frankly, once read, I’m not sure I want to live in a world without another Eliot to read). Some, like Middlemarch and Silas Marner, I’ve read multiple times.

As far as literary fiction goes (in the order they popped into my head), Stegner, Borges, McCarthy, Kingsolver, Atwood, Saramago, Márquez, Helprin, Vonnegut, Hesse, Brautigan, W. Berry, and more like these. I’ll bore you if I go on. Recently I’ve been on a Virginia Woolf kick. But I’ve always been drawn to great writing.

I’ve also been influenced by science fiction and fantasy. I’ve read Lord of the Rings seventeen times. I grew up with Ray Bradbury and read mountains of Ballantine Books as a kid. I even remember the smell of these fantasies (they had an almost magical odor), and the excitement I’d feel in going into a new bookstore with a large fantasy/sci-fi section… I read all of Howard’s Conan series, Burroughs’ entire Mars corpus, much Lovecraft, and all of Sherlock Holmes. Dick has become a recent favorite and I’m thinking how could I have missed him! Clarke, Heinlein, and Brin played major roles. Recently I’ve been captured by Simmons, Stephenson (especially Anathem) (did I say especially Anathem?), and Gaiman. Let me not forget to mention that I am a devoted Harry Potter fan—I’m in the middle of my third reading.

But perhaps more than any other work save The Lord of the Rings, the Gormenghast trilogy has been one of my deepest influences. (In fact, if you twist Castle Gormenghast under the right topological transformations, you might find my Library of Babel.).

I’ve always loved poetry. I always buy the “Best Poetry of (year xxx)” Series and think I have it to something like the early ’90s when it started. My favorite poets are Mary Oliver (of course) and Pattiann Rogers, both deeply informed nature poets. (You’ll notice Rogers blurbed my poetry book Incorrect Astronomy, which was so wonderful and surprising when I contacted her cold that I almost passed out when she agreed.) I subscribe to Poetry and Paris Review and try to keep up with what’s trending, but I still like many of the older poets like Williams and Frost.

Scientists. I have many heroes. Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace, Jane Goodall. Nineteenth-century astronomer Maria Mitchell is someone who intrigues me the more I read about her. I love the essays of anthropologist Loren Eiseley. I also grew up loving Carl Sagan and right now I’m completely devoted to Neil deGrasse Tyson.

How do I engage with those I admire? They become a part of me. I graft their DNA onto my own and become something new. Like Whitman I sometimes want to cry, “I am multitudes.”

Also, I would not be what I am without Star Trek. That has to be mentioned as one of my huge influences. That made the world possible.

Well. I certainly hope you edit Wikipedia now and again. The world needs your knowledge!

Something I think a lot of writers struggle with is having time. Which I think, more often than not, is really just feeling like you have permission. You have plenty of other responsibilities. How do you ignore the cultural pressures that cripple so many would-be writers into thinking I’m not allowed to do this?

I think for me it’s kind of a necessity. Writing is one of the few things I do that take me over completely. I lose all sense of time. I’m completely in the moment. It is for me almost a kind of meditation that takes me away from the usual stresses of life. I guess what I’m saying is that it is what keeps me sane. It provides a way to tame the unruliness of my head. So writing is something necessary.

Image courtesy Steven L. Peck

So are you the sort of writer who’s led around blindly by the muse, or do you try to balance poetry and squirrel fantasy and vampires from the far future in some sort of preplotted manner? (This is also my sneaky way of asking you what’s up next.)

Ha ha, a little of both, really. I’m trying to finish the sequel to Rifts of Rime (working title: Wafts of Whine), but I’ve gotten so busy with academic things I’ve had a hard time finding the time to finish it, so I try to write on it regularly and I’ve just got some wrap-up scenes to write. The action’s over and I just have to do the equivalent of having Frodo sail off at the Gray Havens, but for me that’s when it gets hard to write because all the fun parts are over.

And yes, sometimes a short story will pop into my head that just demands to written “right now!” And I’ll drop everything to do it. The muse has her demands.

But the two projects that I’m really excited about, I’ve pretty much mapped out and am ready to go to work on. The first project is my last book in the Canyonlands trilogy. This is not really a proper trilogy like Lord of the Rings, but more a loose confederation that have a few of the same characters who wander in and out, more like McCarthy’s Borderlands trilogy. The first book is The Scholar of Moab.

The second volume, Gilda Trillim: Shepherdess of Rats, is being looked at right now by a couple of publishers. It’s finished and looking for a home. It’s a bit magical realism meets Mormon lit. Ostensibly, it takes the form of the master’s thesis of a sheepherder’s son named Kittrim Mender. It’s fun in that it mimics academic discourse, including footnotes and a faux/real bibliography. Kit, in his master’s thesis, examines the life of Gilda Trillim, a fictional Mormon writer trying to find her way in a different world than the one in which she grew up. Through a series of letters, journal entries, and interviews (reminiscent of Scholar but not quite like it), we follow Kit’s explorations of Gilda’s life. The entries include everything from Gilda’s journey to a Russian Orthodox convent, where she spends a year painting different versions of an apple seed, to her shamanistic vision under the influence of a hallucinatory drug ayahuasca revealing questions about her place in the universe. We are guided through her strange life by Kit’s clear eye and his attempts to find whether she was mad, a mystic, or a charlatan. The main narrative arc begins when she joins a USO tour to Vietnam during the war. While there, she is captured and spends two years in a prisoner of war camp. During her captivity, she teaches rats to sing (after a fashion) and she forms a rat-based choir. She is released, and moves with her friend Babs Lake into a cabin in the La Sal Mountains near Moab, Utah. However, she cannot let the music of the rats die, and she attempts to enlist the help of a minimalist composer to recreate the sound. Well, there is no way to make this sound like a good book, but I think it may be my best, which might recommend or indict it. The last book in the trilogy will mark a return of some beloved characters from both books and, like the other two, will take place in the La Sals and its surrounding canyons. This last one will knock your socks off if I pull off what I intend. Maybe. Maybe it will just make you wish you’d left your socks in the drawer.

My other project is science fiction. This is really an ambitious stunt. I’ll give more details later next year and you’ll see what I mean by stunt—not a publicity stunt, mind you, just something that would seem, well … it’s hard to describe. I’ll leave it at that.

One of the things coming up that I’m most excited about is Wandering Cut films just acquired the movie rights to A Short Stay in Hell, and director David Spaltro is planning a feature-length film. He’s been sending me selections from the screenplay we are doing and it’s really going to be fantastic.

I’m on your side. What’s the point telling something that’s been told before? Either the tale or the telling ought to be … well. I certainly don’t want to bore myself, and thank you for being even weirder.

Last question. This week in my ward (it’s two Sundays before Thanksgiving), three working scientists will speak on the topic “Being grateful for God’s hand in a world I understand through science.” Then in February we’ll be having people in the arts speak on the role that being a little-c creator plays in their faith life. Sacrament meeting, of course, is supposed to be focused on Jesus Christ. And he is, in our doctrine, Creator. Which, it seems to me, describes him as both a scientist and an artist. But usually when we talking about trying to be like Jesus, we’re not talking about understanding his creation or becoming creators ourselves. And I don’t mean to knock “trying to love as he did, in all that I do and say,” but being like Jesus also means doing something with those creative talents he gave us. You’ve made two careers out of being creative. At the risk of making you commit blasphemy, how has this made you more like Jesus?

Blasphemy, indeed! I find myself so far away from any comparison with Jesus as to render the exercise hopeless. (The only way I might in the slightest compare I think lies in how radical he appeared to the ruling elite of Pharisees and Sadducees. He overturned expectations. He demanded people re-examine standard cultural assumptions, and forced them to look deeper within themselves to find the kingdom of God within. Of course, this doesn’t exhaust all the things he did, e.g., healing both mind and body, teaching how to love and exhorting us to do the same, and serving as an exemplar and redeemer, but these I can only emulate in the weakest of ways. However, expectations? Those I can overturn.)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately on how novelty enters the universe. Creativity seems to be what the universe is made for. To bring newness and richness into the world seems to be an attribute of life. I see it again and again in every aspect of the science I do as an evolutionary ecologist. If I can emulate the creator of such a wondrous and rich place in even the slightest with my writing, then I am blessed indeed. ❧

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