Interview: Alan Rex Mitchell

Alan Rex Mitchell is the author of Angel of the Danube: Barry Monroe’s Missionary Journal, the winner of the Association of Mormon Letters 1998 Marilyn Brown Novel Award. Trained as an environmental soil physicist, Mitchell has taught courses in technical writing, chemistry, biology and soil science and conducted agricultural research with the USDA and Oregon State University. He, his wife Elizabeth (Bennion) and their children currently live on and work the historic Bennion Ranch in Vernon, Utah.

Last year you posted a message to the AML-List that claimed that literature — particularly fiction — was a superior form to film. The post generated a lot of discussion and you went on to write an essay on the subject that appeared in the last issue of Irreantum. For those readers who weren’t in on the debate, could you briefly restate your argument?

It was during a time on the list when we were inundated by dozens of posts about a couple of LDS feature films that were flops. I thought there was too much attention given to lousy movies, so I proposed a moratorium on discussion of film, reasoning that they are really just Reader’s Digest Condensed Versions of Moby Dick in 16 pages. Some listers realized it was tongue in cheek and others thought I was a film Nazi. The list editor even admitted he let down his guard and let the attacks get personal.

Films are less logical, and most of them are based on a lie that you could never get away with writing fiction. For example, The Godfather told us that bad guys are really good guys. Stars Wars violates all the laws of physics. The Graduate has us cheering when Elaine runs off with her mother’s ex-lover. Titanic suggested that true love happens between two people from different social classes within 24 hours on a fated ship (Ditto An Affair to Remember). And don’t get me started on how bullets miss good guys, that good-looking people are moral, and how injuries can be healed in mere seconds. But we are too muddleheaded to even realize the lies, or else we don’t take movies seriously. If there was ever a movie that emphasized war was necessary for survival, it was Lord of the Rings, but nobody even considers that as applicable in real life.

Don’t get me wrong — I watch movies. They have their place for telling simple stories quickly and cutely. I also understand that rarely is a movie worth discussing for insights into the human character. At least no more so than the Sunday comics. (Look out — here comes the hate mail.)

I know you are well aware of the irony that after stating that opinion, you then went on to tie for third place in the LDS Film Festival’s 2004 — beating out the likes of Orson Scott Card and John Moyer. What made you decide to try your hand at writing a screenplay?

For a couple of years, I had been thinking about a movie I would like to see. When I went to the AML fall meeting, I attended a seminar by Jon Enos that he called something like, “Everything you need to know about screenwriting in 50 minutes.” He convinced me I could write the screenplay in a week. It actually took longer than that, two weeks (working halftime) and two weeks of editing before I submitted it to the LDS Film Festival.

My writing a screenplay was not as inconsistent as one might think — it was quick and fun like the movies. And, of course, the icing on the cake was beating out Scott Card — that was my hope when I heard we had both made the final cut. I’ll have to kid him about it the next time I see him, which will probably be like the time I accompanied my teenage son to a book signing. I imagine the conversation would go something like:

“My screenplay beat yours in the contest.”

“So what? I’ve sold a billion books.”

What is the screenplay about?

That’s Got His Own. Budding NBA man-child BB MARTIN is once again in trouble with the law. Back home, his mother, ANITA, is impressed with brawny Mormon missionary DAVID STUCKY, who is about to return home to his Idaho farm boy roots. ANITA recruits STUCKY to baby sit BB for the season for $50,000.

I would describe it as a sports, buddy, clash-of-culture movie with the feeling of Jerry McGuire and 48 Hours. A PG-13 movie that talks about NBA vs. missionary life, whites that love black culture, blacks who are culturally White, and the barriers of race, religion, and success.

Interestingly, William, the film takes place in Oakland, where you live. Do you think the cast and crew could stay in your spare bedroom during the shoot? Seriously, perhaps you could review it for technical accuracy.

You’ve written a fair amount of fiction and quite a lot of non-fiction. What about the screenplay form do you find easier/more challenging than the other writing you’ve done?

The easier part is that screenplays are short, by necessity. Remember they are 100 minutes long, and the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of Moby Dick. And they are mostly dialogue. That limits everything, but my art teacher always maintained that limitations are what free the artist and give him direction.

The challenging part of screenplay writing is getting the movie produced. The odds are slim, and I have no experience in directing or producing (yet), nor reworking the script for lighting, camera angles, etc.

I think Angel of the Danube is a true Mormon classic. Have you ever considered writing another novel about Barry?

Thank you. At first, I thought Barry would be good for only one novel, according to the axiom that “sequels suck.”

However, Gideon Burton of BYU suggested I write a novel about Barry and Maggie dealing with the problem of cross-cultural marriages in the church. I’m still thinking about that — unfortunately, I have no first hand experience and I don’t suppose my wife will consent to me getting any. By the way, my wife is not Austrian, to the chagrin of those who think the book was autobiographical.

I’m curious to know what the response has been to the ending of Angel of the Danube. At first I didn’t like it. It seemed too easy, too O. Henry-esque. But the more I thought about it, the more it grew on me, and I now feel like the novel couldn’t end any other way — that the ending fit the narrative and the main character and worked in terms of form and plot (i.e. is more than just a good thing for Barry). How have others responded to the ending?

When I started the book, I had no idea where the ending was going (WARNING, don’t try this at home), but as it progressed, I felt Barry would either experience joy or else throw himself off of a high building.

In my reading, I’ve found that most, if not all missionary fiction ends with marriage. The transition of coming home doesn’t end until the missionary acts out the principles that he has been teaching. That is especially true for Angel, because it was a book about the transition.

Another way of looking at it is that Barry eventually got what he wanted. I guess I’m enough of a dreamer (cynic?) to think that all people eventually get what they desire. Take the Clintons: Hillary gets to be a senator who everybody is afraid of, and Bill gets to entertain admirers in his penthouse in NYC.

I haven’t gotten much feedback on the ending other than I should have omitted the word “netlike,” which is a valid point. Interestingly, a non-Mormon reviewer, Ruth Starkman, really enjoyed the ending with the temple and all, but didn’t like what she perceived as conformity when Barry overcomes his anti-institutional bias. Who’d a thunk it? What worked for Mormons confused the outsiders.

What have you recently read that totally knocked your socks off (Mormon literature or otherwise)?

Perhaps this is too revealing of me, but if I were to read some Mormon fiction that totally knocked my socks off — I would probably not feel motivated to tell the story as I see it. I love reading P.J. O’Rourke, although he is not a novelist, because he tells stories with humor and cuts through the erudite BS.

What creative projects are you currently working on?

I’m just finishing my second novel, The American Goddess, and trying to find an agent to take it national. I believe a Mormon novel will someday make it nationally, and I’m silly enough to hope it will be mine.

I’m currently working on a second missionary novel set in Vienna that would be more adaptable to cinema. And there are a couple of projects on the back burner including a Shakespearean-style play about the Martyrdom.

Finally, as the descendent of ranchers who worked the Colorado Arizona Strip, I have to ask — do you run sheep or cattle? And — what’s your brand?

Last first; the brand of the Bennion Ranch is a Greek letter omega on its side. [Ed. — I believe that would be “lazy O” in cowboy parlance.]

We raise cattle because they are less harmful to our range here. The Bennions tell a story about their grandfather who, after he had shot a coyote who had ventured to close to the campfire, gathered his four sons around and confessed that he had committed a grave sin: “Think of how many sheep that critter would have eaten in his lifetime.”

Thanks, Alan!

8 thoughts on “Interview: Alan Rex Mitchell”

  1. I really like the interviews you do here. I’m not sure if anyone else in the ‘Nacle has that kind of an approach to a post. Maybe I’ll have to think about whether anyone I know is worth interviewing. It could be a fun feature. It might be even more interesting if it’s kind of random … though I appreciate the fact that your interviews are basically with writers.

    Danithew
    http://www.wump.info/wumpblog

  2. I’m not sure what happened but it looks like a glitch caused Danithew’s comments to be posted twice and also erased a comment by the Semiotician.

    Here is the Semiotician’s comment:

    “‘Films are less logical, and most of them are based on a lie that you could never get away with writing fiction. For example, The Godfather told us that bad guys are really good guys. Stars Wars violates all the laws of physics.’

    Umm, it seems that is just as true in literature. I’d say evil is portrayed as good as often as not. And science fiction that knows anything about science is pretty rare. And most always violate physics by allowing FTL travel without looking through the implication that this would imply time travel.”

  3. Nice interview. I’ve never read any Mormon fiction but it sounds like it may be coming of age. Plus it seems like Orson Scott Card has been to Mormon fiction what Hugh Nibley was to Mormon apologetics and Leonard Arrington was to Mormon historians–the first Mormon to do it right and inspire a host of “followers” into trying their own hand at it.

  4. “Finally, as the descendent of ranchers who worked the Colorado Strip…”

    Eh, Will, don’t you mean the Arizona Strip?

    -Matthew

  5. i would like to know whether Alan Rex Mitchell ‘s Angel of the Danube is based on his personal experience as a missionary in Vienna or strictly a work of fiction.
    Thank you for your response.
    Horst Jarka, U of Montana, Missoula

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