Interview: Author and former Irreantum editor Christopher Bigelow

Last spring Christopher Bigelow stepped down after five years as managing editor of Irreantum, the Association for Mormon Letters’ literary magazine. Bigelow and Benson Parkinson co-founded Irreantum in 1999, taking what was the AML’s newsletter and turning it into a full-fledged literary mag. Parkinson moved on to other projects after the first year of publication, and Bigelow was left as sole managing editor. He farmed out the major departments — poetry, fiction, essays, reviews — to others, and then did much of the grunt work, overseeing the production and distribution of the magazine and handling the interviews and publishing news. The first few issues were rather thin on content and roughly designed, but with the winter 2000-01 issue, Bigelow and his team had generated enough submissions to fill 100+ pages. He also came up with a minimalist, but pleasant and professional design. During the next four years, the magazine published quality fiction and poetry, landed interviews with many of the major Mormon writers and filmmakers, and became the most complete source of reviews and news of Mormon fiction, film and drama. Throughout this time Bigelow and his department editors held to the vision that he and Parkinson began with — to put out a publication that appealed to a broad spectrum of Mormon readers.

Bigelow holds a B.F.A. in writing from Emerson College and an M.A. in creative writing from Brigham Young University. He did a six year stint at the Ensign, co-founded the Mormon satirical publication The Sugar Beet, and has edited fiction and non-fiction titles for the major Utah publishers. The AML presented Bigelow with an award for editing at its March 2003 annual meeting.

A Motley Vision decided to catch up with Chris and ask about his post-Irreantum plans:

Although I enjoy all of Irreantum‘s content, what I value most are the short stories. What are your favorite stories that Irreantum published during your tenure?

One of my favorite writers we published was Darin Cozzens, whose story “The Darlington Girls” appeared in the summer 2001 issue and “Vigil” in summer 2002. In addition, I really enjoyed his memoir titled “Porch Haircut” in the winter 2003/spring 2004 issue. Cozzens’s writing strikes a chord of authenticity and brings scenes and characters to life so well it makes my eyes water.

During my five years, we published a fair bit of speculative fiction (a.k.a. science fiction and fantasy). While I didn’t personally enjoy all this fiction, two stories in particular engaged my imagination and made a lasting impression: Lee Allred’s “For the Strength of the Hills,” a long piece that we split between the winter 2000-2001 and spring 2001 issues, and Susan J. Kroupa’s “Harden Times,” which appeared in spring 2002.

I enjoyed and appreciated two emerging authors who, while writing pretty close to the mainstream, brought clear-eyed realism and a subtly sophisticated style to their work. Darlene Young’s “Companions” appeared in winter 2001-2002 and “Rissa Orders Cheescake” in autumn 2002. Angela Hallstrom’s “Trying” appeared in autumn 2003. I’d like to see some novels from these writers in a similar voice and form.

Of the more established literary writers whose work we published, I found the following two stories most beguiling and memorable: “Long after Dark,” by Todd Robert Petersen, appearing in the summer 2000 issue, and “The Care of the State,” Brian Evenson, winter 03/spring 04.

You did most of the interviews. Assuming they would have agreed to do it, who else would you have liked to interview?

I would have liked to do a special issue on Mormon drama, with Eric Samuelsen as one of our main interviewees. I never could find a guest editor to head up a drama-themed issue, however, so the plan never came to fruition. I probably should have just gone ahead and interviewed Samuelsen anyway. Also, at the time I stepped aside, I was planning to interview two Mormons who are working in New York publishing: literary agent Amy Jameson and editor Anne Soward. Perhaps, after I take a year or two off from Irreantum, I may still eventually do these interviews, if the new editors want them and someone else hasn’t already done them by then.

In your opinion, what is the coolest thing (individual work, publication, phenomenon, trend…) in the world of Mormon letters right now?

In the area of Mormon novels, the two I’m most excited about remain unpublished: rich, provocative works by D. Michael Martindale and Todd Robert Petersen. I believe both speak more to the Mormon audience than to a national audience, but it’s hard to imagine a mainstream Mormon publisher picking either one up, so I don’t know who would or could publish them effectively, beyond Signature perhaps doing a 500-copy edition.

I love the plays of Eric Samuelsen, which are what first drew me into the world of Mormon literature starting back in 1992 or 1993, when I saw “Accommodations” produced at BYU. I hope he does another one soon.

I think Mormon satire is a cool movement, which I’m involved with through The Sugar Beet, although I think too much of it crosses the line into anti-Mormonism (never The Sugar Beet, of course). I’d like to see some of this get into print rather than just remain an online phenomenon, but perhaps most Mormons see it as too scurrilous.

I have some interesting Mormon-related memoirs on my shelf that I’ll probably read before any more Mormon novels, such as one by a woman who was raised in polygamy and several by people who have left the faith or encountered the faith from outside.

I don’t feel very excited about Mormon film right now, because there’s been too much mediocre Halestorm-style stuff for my taste. I’ve seen only about half of the available films in this movement, and the only one I’ve liked since “Brigham City” has been “The Best Two Years,” and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Mormon film that I absolutely loved. I’m hoping Richard Dutcher brings up my interest level again with his next project.

What about on the national scene?

I don’t pretend to be particularly up to date on the national literary scene. I still think the memoir trend is cool, but that’s been going for several years now. I’m worried by recent reports confirming that people are buying and reading ever fewer books. As for me, when it comes to fiction I tend to read mostly mainstream literary novels, not anything too esoteric. My favorites that I’ve read over the last year or so have included The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Seek My Face by John Updike, and Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood.

What’s next for you as an editor/writer?

Right now my main project is co-authoring Mormonism for Dummies with Jana Riess, which is scheduled for publication in February 2005. There’s a lot of fun, substantial writing going into this, and the collaboration is working out very well. It’s gratifying to have a real book contract, receive real advance checks, and look forward to seeing a real book on the shelves, even if it’s not the kind of book project I originally set out to do.

By the end of this year, I will have finished up three years of writing and editorial work on The Sugar Beet, a Mormon satirical newsletter. During 2002 and 2003, our online edition attracted 10,000 — 20,000 monthly readers and was featured by several newspapers and radio stations, including an article on the front page of the Salt Lake Tribune. During 2004 we’ve been experimenting with doing a print edition, but with only 250 subscribers we’ve decided it’s not worth doing beyond this first year. It’s possible that we’ll continue to e-mail around some reportage in dribs and drabs after our organized publication efforts conclude at the end of this year, but it’s also possible that The Sugar Beet will have completely run its course by then. Another possibility is that a new web master will arise and rejuvenate the online enterprise. I’d love to see a Best of the Sugar Beet book sometime.

I have two potential projects for 2005, a memoir and a novel. I’ve already done several proposal versions for the memoir, focusing on different aspects of growing up Mormon and serving a mission. My agent has gotten three or four editors very interested, and some of them still seem open to the possibility down the road. At one point we even penetrated into the top decision-making committee at HarperSanFrancisco. However, a contract hasn’t yet materialized, and this project isn’t currently on anybody’s front burner, although it may heat up again after the Dummies project is completed. My novel is about a Mormon woman in Boston who inadvertently marries into a nonreligious polygamous situation. A few years ago I wrote a first draft that I’ve never gone back and read straight through, but I’m getting excited to revisit this project with some real time and effort.

And finally: what type of situation would be so attractive that you would consider acting as a managing editor again? Would you be interested in editing a mainstream literary journal, another Mormon studies journal, a book series?

If I felt that I had some new way to attract lots more readers and generate more buzz, I could see myself taking the helm of Irreantum again someday. However, I wouldn’t want to go back to the same plateau on which I left the magazine, with circulation static at 500 and little or no reader response, media acknowledgement, etc.

I would not be interested in editing a mainstream literary journal unless it made sense in the context of a larger career move, such as trying to get involved with a university. As far as other Mormon journals, I’ve given serious thought to applying for the editorships of Sunstone and Dialogue when they’ve come open in recent years — in fact, I even interviewed with the Sunstone people — but I’m not sure I’m as academic or intellectually omnivorous as would be optimal.

Theoretically, I would love to be involved with Mormon book publishing, because I’ve encountered several authors and manuscripts that I’d like to see published well. However, I’m skeptical about reaching the audience I’m interested in serving any better than Signature is already doing. I guess the bottom line is that I don’t feel enough trust, faith, or respect for the Mormon reading audience to get real excited about getting into book publishing, either for an established publisher or with a new enterprise. I’m more intrigued by the potential in taking Mormon stories to an outside audience.

Frankly, I continually feel a fair bit of angst and ennui related to career. I have a good corporate job, but I still haven’t found a way to earn a living doing what I really love, which is working on my own creative writing and editing projects.

Thanks, Chris!

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