Q&A with novelist Angela Hallstrom

Angela Hallstrom’s debut novel Bound on Earth was recently published by Parables Publishing. Hallstrom lives in South Jordan, Utah, with her husband and four children. She earned an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University and currently teaches writing at Salt Lake Community College. Hallstrom has been very active in the Mormon and Utah literary communities for the past few years as a writer, editor and reviewer. She writes both fiction and creative nonfiction.

For more on Hallstrom and her new novel, see her Web site: www.angelahallstrom.com

What was the genesis of “Bound on Earth”? And can you say a little bit about the unique form you’ve chosen for the novel and how that came about?

I started writing the book during my MFA. I had written a few short stories about this LDS family, the Palmers, and every time I went to break away from them and try something new, they kept reeling me back in. I also became very interested in the idea of “staying” as a theme in serious literature. So much of the literature I was reading and critiquing in school had to do with leaving–especially when it came to relationships. And I understand why. Leaving is the archetypal launching pad for most good plots, whether it’s leaving the country to go to on an adventure or leaving your husband to take up with a younger man. But I knew there had to be a lot of great drama and conflict in the act of staying, too, because I saw all sorts of drama around me, and most of that drama had to do with the act of staying, of being committed, of pushing through darkness toward hope.

I’m also a bit obsessed with family dynamics, and marriage in particular. Part of the reason I love to read and write is because I’m an inquisitive soul, especially as far as people and their life stories and motivations are concerned, and most real people aren’t willing to spill it on the level at which I wish they would spill. So I invented this little family for myself where I could examine all the nooks and crannies of these interesting relationships to my heart’s content.

The fact that I was interested in all the individual stories of each family member dictated the form of the novel, as well. The genre of Bound on Earth can be hard to define. It’s not a traditional novel with one, maybe two, point of view characters and a relatively straightforward timeline.

Technically, it’s closer to a novel-in-stories, like The Joy Luck Club or The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing. Although some of the chapters in the book have been published as short stories in magazines like Dialogue and Irreantum, I still feel the book functions more like a novel than a short story collection because the stories and themes are interconnected. I also worked to make sure that each individual story contributed to the plot arc you’d find in a traditional novel, and I hope that readers find satisfaction in the way the book ends.

Finally, along with my desire to spend some time with each member of the Palmer family, the other reason I decided to write a novel-in-stories grew out of my interest in point of view as a literary technique. The more I started examining what a writer could do with point of view–beyond just your simple first person vs. third person decision–the more I wanted to explore how different points of view affect the way a story is told. So while each chapter in this book is told from the perspective of a different character, it also represents a different literary approach as far as point of view is concerned.

What was it like working with Beth at Parables?

I’ve got to say that Beth Bentley is one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with. She catches so much, and offered me a lot of great advice that improved my prose. I’ve never had someone spend so much time with a manuscript, and I am confident that the language in the novel is much crisper and clearer and all around better for her involvement. She’s also very committed to the idea that there IS an audience out there for thought-provoking LDS fiction. As she says on her website, Parables wants to publish “realistic LDS novels for adult readers.” There are plenty of LDS readers out there who can be served by Parables, and I’m very grateful to Parables that they’re willing to take a risk and provide such fiction. And both Beth and her husband George have worked very hard on my book, and given me lots of individual attention.

When do you find time to write? Any habits/practices/tools that you find helpful for you? Do you have other writing projects in the works? What’s next for you as an author?

I often hear about those writers who are super-organized and diligent and set aside, say, three hours every morning just to write, and don’t allow any distractions to pull them away from their work. I am jealous of those writers. The truth is, I have four kids (11, 9, 6 and 1) and the baby, especially, has thrown me into a bit of a tailspin as far as organizing my day goes. I also decided that I could find the time to teach part time at Salt Lake Community College, which I do enjoy, but grading papers is a huge time-sucker. I am looking forward to this summer when I won’t be teaching and I’ll be able to spend more time on my newest novel. This novel will be a more “traditional” novel, and I’m experimenting with adding a bit of a supernatural element to the plot. (I was a huge fan of Lois Duncan books when I was a kid, which morphed into stealing my dad’s Stephen King books when I was a teenager, so I’ve always had a soft spot for the supernatural.)

When this book is underway, I’m sure I’ll revert to my normal style of writing: stare at the computer, moan, worry; sleep on it; get up and think “ah ha!” and write and write and write for a couple of days; get stuck and mope around for a while; clean the house; think “ah ha!” and write and write and write some more.

Tell us about your relationship with the field of Mormon literature, including the Assoc. for Mormon Letters. What has involvement in it done for you as a writer? What do you think is missing the most from the field at the moment?

The AML means a lot to me. I found it when I was living in Minnesota and just starting my MFA program. Even though I had entered an MFA program, I still wasn’t sure if I considered myself a “real” writer. More, I considered myself as someone who thought she might be able to be a writer, maybe, and wanted to find out for sure. So I was exploring the writer side of myself, but I didn’t have any Mormon friends in MN who were very interested at all in literature, so I didn’t have a point in my life where my Mormonness and my ambitions as a writer could intersect. Then I found the AML-list and felt immediately at home. I lurked a lot, and was mightily intimidated by many of the super-smart people posting on the list (and this was in 2000, 2001 or so, what many people consider to be the heyday of the list) and looked forward to reading my AML emails every day much like a football junkie loves Monday night.

Beyond helping me find a community and allowing me to make some dear friends–friends that I’ve actually met now that I live in Utah–the AML gave me much needed confidence as a writer, and a foot in the door for my writing career. The first story I ever wrote about the Palmer family, “Trying,” I sent off to the Irreantum fiction contest in 2003, and I’m not kidding when I say opening that email and seeing that I’d won second place has been the most purely thrilling thing that has happened to me in my writing career. Although a lot of great things have happened since then–other contests, and, of course, the novel–I think seeing my name that day made me realize, “Hey. I can do this. I’m not crazy. Maybe I really CAN write. Maybe being a writer is a legitimate dream to chase.” It was a really big deal to me–and it didn’t matter that Irreantum’s circulation wasn’t so big (or that most people couldn’t even pronounce it!).

So, that experience led me to want to get involved in the magazine after Chris Bigelow turned over the reigns as editor. Laraine Wilkins had agreed to head up the new magazine and had called for volunteers on the AML list, and I decided to offer to help since the magazine had been so important to me. I wanted to see it continue. And although I’m no longer an editor at Irreantum–I worked on it in one capacity or another for a few years, and after the birth of my youngest decided that something had to give and stepped down–I still care about it deeply. I’m particularly invested in the fiction contest, and had a great time heading up that contest in 2006 and 2007. If anything, the fiction contest taught me that there are TONS of wonderful writers in the LDS community. It’s an exciting thing. And I hope with all my heart that the contest, and Irreantum, and the AML in general, will keep going strong despite some of the wobbliness of the last few years.

I’m not fond of asking about influences because that’s a question that I wouldn’t really want to answer myself. But I do like to find out a little about what authors are in to. So I’ll phrase the question this way: what works of art do you really resonate with?

Once, I read an interview with a popular writer of LDS romances (I’m not going to say who, I’m a chicken) and when she was asked what authors she enjoys, she said, “Well, I don’t really read much. I spend all my time writing.” It made me want to jump out my window. How can you be a good writer without reading and reading and reading some more? I write, really, because I love to read so much. It’s my favorite, favorite thing to do.

Right now, my favorite novelist is Marilynne Robinson, the author of Gilead, but my list of favorite authors are people like Michael Cunningham, Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor. I still love Stephen King, too. Some of his novels drive me crazy, but some really work, and that guy can write when he doesn’t get too carried away. And I get the Best American Short Stories anthology every year, and he edited this year and did a wonderful job. One of my favorite anthologies so far.

I also love music, but I’m not particularly edgy in my choices. I’m a big fan of Tori Amos and Ben Folds, so I must have a thing for wildly emotive piano players. (I wrote most of Bound on Earth while listening to lots and lots of Ben Folds, so if the novel seems kind of heart-wrenching and bordering on sentimental at times but not quite, maybe that’s why.)

I have to admit that I’m a bit skeptical about creative writing programs. Why did you decide to do an MFA at Hamline and what value did you get out of it?

I can see why some people are skeptical about creative writing programs, but for me, it was one of the most incredible experience of my life. (Does that sound kind of hyperbolic? Sorry if it does, but it’s true.) I decided to do my MFA at Hamline because we’d moved to Minnesota for my husband’s MBA, I had two small kids and had quit working and hadn’t met a lot of friends yet, and was going a teensy bit nutty. So I decided to take a writing class at The Loft, which is a really cool place for writers in Minneapolis. I loved the class and felt sad when it ended, because I didn’t know where to go from there.

Then, through my connection with The Loft, I found out that Hamline offered what were called “sampler classes” in their Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program. You had to pay full tuition for them, but you didn’t have to be a matriculated student, so I thought, “I’m planning on getting my Master’s degree someday . . . so maybe I can justify the tuition.” Long story short, we ended up staying in MN, and I ended up having such a fabulous experience in my first sampler class that I decided to officially enroll. Luckily, it’s possible to get an MFA at Hamline taking classes at night or on the weekends, so I enjoyed my education at a leisurely pace, leaving the kids with my husband and taking one class a semester. I started out in their MALS program, but after a few courses decided that what I really wanted to do was be a writer, and switched to the MFA.

The value I got out of it is this: Hamline’s MFA program taught me how to write. It bolstered my confidence. It helped me make connections. It gave me an opportunity to learn from some amazing writer/teachers (Sheila O’Connor, Mary Rockcastle, Deborah Keenan). In short, it was the main engine that propelled me to write this novel in the first place. And William, aren’t you living in Minnesota now? If you ever get the chance to take a fiction workshop or a course of some kind from Sheila O’Connor, do it!!! Really, if a person gets an opportunity to take a writing class from an excellent teacher, I don’t see how that could ever be a bad thing. Imagine if people said, “Well, I can play the piano naturally, so taking a class from one of those pesky piano teachers is only going to mess up my style.” Can MFA programs mess up a person’s style? Yes. They can. But I think folks are much more likely to benefit from expert instruction than to be artistically squelched by it. Plus writing classes are fun.

Slightly related to the previous question. Some Mormon authors, including Orson Scott Card and Dave Wolverton, developed an adversarial, or to put it more gently, skeptical relationship with modern literary fiction early on in their careers. Where do you situate yourself? Do you read much modern literary fiction? What doyou like/dislike/are agnostic about? And what’s the sweet spot for your own writing (and by that I mean what mode/genre do you feel most alive and/or comfortable with)?

Yeah, I’ve read some of OSC’s complaints against MFA programs and literary fiction. And I can even understand it on a certain level, because the naval gazing, the elevation of language over story, and even, at times, the sheer pomposity of writers of literary fiction themselves, can get a little tiresome. But I would venture to say that even writers of genre fiction can be a little pompous, too. Ultimately, writers are passionate people, and the whole “us against them” thing can give folks something to fight about. Personally, though, I’ve never seen the need for all the divisiveness.

Here’s my take on it: I like to read well written fiction. Period.

Truthfully, I’m most interested in books that place a high priority on characters and relationships, simply because that’s what I’m interested in.

But I do like some genre fiction, evidenced by my previous admission of being a long-time fan of Stephen King. But I suppose that Michael Cunningham and Toni Morrison would be considered literary fiction, as would all the stuff I love in the New Yorker and Best American Short Stories. (And there’s stuff in there I hate, too, by the way.) But I’ve never considered myself an elitist in my tastes. I like good stories, good characters, and good prose–and I’ll take it wherever I can find it.

Thanks for the interview, William. It was fun.

13 thoughts on “Q&A with novelist Angela Hallstrom”

  1. Fascinating interview, Angela! I already ordered your new book and am looking forward to receiving it. The cover I just saw on the website looks really terrific (and the Parables website looks a lot better now too).

  2. Agreed on the Parables Web site changes, Chris.

    ———-
    This is not necessarily a question for Angela, but for anyone who wants to weigh in: what makes a writing class fun?

  3. Thanks, Chris–I’m so glad to hear you ordered it.

    And even though the question isn’t necessarily for me, William, I’ll answer it. Writing classes are fun because writing is such a solitary experience that it does me a lot of good to be around other writers. I know that doesn’t apply to all writers–in fact, many writers are very solitary souls and prefer to be alone–but I get a lot of good mojo when I’m with other writers, read their stuff, hear their ideas. It’s energizing to me.

    And maybe I’m just a school nerd, because I’ve always loved a classroom environment (all those “back to school” displays in August give me such a thrill, even more than Christmas displays) and going to class and talking about my two favorite subjects–reading and writing–is purely entertaining to my nerdy little heart. That’s not to say that all my experiences taking writing classes have been good ones, though. I’ve had some stinkers.

    I’d love to hear other people’s opinions about writing classes, though. Oooh, and the big bad MFA debate. See, I’m not super invested in the idea that I have an MFA. I never intended to actually get one. It’s just the pleasant (and kinda expensive) result of my love of school and writing . . . and my need to get out of the house. So it doesn’t hurt my feelings if people hate ’em. But I’d love to hear people’s opinion on the topic.

  4. I love getting into the heads of writers, so thanks for this great interview!

    (And, Angela, I’ve ordered your book and have suggested it to my friends and family).

    In answer to the question about what makes a writing class fun, I’d have to echo Angela’s comment, and add that I enjoy being involved in other’s creative adventures!

    I love seeing pieces evolve, and change. I love getting immediate reaction to something I’ve written (good or bad) and watch people’s faces as they hear a phrase or paragraph that I feel is beautiful, and seeing that they feel the same way (or don’t–which is helpful, of course).

    The writing classes I’ve taken have actually pushed me towards enrolling in an MFA program myself which I’m currently working on. Despite all the controversy, and some doubts I still have, I’m looking forward to surrounding myself with people engaged in the struggle of creation (and getting some helpful deadlines to push me along).

  5. I agree with the positives you mention. But can’t those come from a writing group? I suppose there’s something to be said for authority-imposed deadlines, but from what I’ve read, a good writing group will get you to the same place.

    I don’t have much experience with either so I must admit that my opinions are all based on hearsay. But I’ve heard some nightmare tales about the attitudes of MFA students, of classroom environments that weren’t supportive unless you were part of the in group (meaning that you bought in to the literary attitudes of the group which may or sometimes may not reflect those of the instructor).

    I’m also somewhat hesitant about attempting to professionalize a field that has historically not had that kind of academic support. This is not to say that a master’s degree program should only prepare one to enter a profession — heck, mine is in comparative literature. But I’m not sure what positives this whole idea of an MFA provides that couldn’t be provided better elsewhere.

    I also wish that there was a broader appreciation of genre writing in MFA programs. From what I can tell, support for genre writers is slim to non-existent.

    But it’s quite possible that I have a stereotypical, skewed view. And I’m quite sure that there’s also part of me that’s a bit resentful of those who can indulge in an MFA degree as most students in such programs that I’ve met had some level of financial support from family or spouse — something that was not available to me (and something that once I peel back my knee-jerk reaction I don’t actually begrudge). Not that I ever wanted to do an MFA. Time to write on the other hand…

    Actually I don’t really want that either. My strengths seem to fall more into the critic/cheerleader/facilitator section of the field.

    And if I go back to school, it will probably be for an MBA.

  6. William: I have some of the same concerns about MFA programs and have heard absolute HORROR stories about certain programs and the ubiquitous availability of crummy ones. Hence, part of my trepidation and the reason it’s taken me into my 30’s before I’ve considered attending one.

    I also agree that a lot of what draws me to an MFA prog. are benefits that could be found in writing groups. But, to be honest, I’ve had a hard time finding a superior group that will still accept members. Hobbyist writing groups are everywhere, but I’m looking for what you described in your comment. I’m now to the point where I’m trying to start one of my own which is proving challenging.
    Another reason I’ve been interested in getting my MFA is so I can teach. I’ve volunteered at a summer writing program for a local high school, and really enjoyed working with teenagers/young adults, and helping them express themselves through words. It’s been very rewarding, and I’d like to make that a career.

    I will admit that it’s not a cut and dry situation for me, though. I’ve been working with some old creative writing professors of mine as I’ve been trying to develop a chapbook to submit with my applications, and I’ve had many stumbling blocks. My poetry has a tendency to focus on religious, although not inherently Mormon, themes. And that’s not going over very well.

    So, it’s a struggle. And I do question whether or not I want to censor myself (which I feel I do) in order to be accepted into a program.

  7. William and Liz, you both make very good points. There is a lot that can be learned from a writers’ group–I’m in a good one now and it’s very valuable to me–but my experience in a writers’ group is quite different from my experience in an MFA program.

    An MFA takes a much less casual approach because it’s an academic program. On top of the fiction writing, there are your standard academic readings and essays and the whole gamut of academic stuff that really enhanced the experience for me. I also enjoyed the more disciplined, instructor-driven structure (but like I said, I’m a classroom nerd).

    All this stuff is neither here nor there, though, since an MFA is definitely not a necessity. It’s just helpful for some. Of course it is possible to be an amazing writer without any kind of formal training. Some of our best writers who have eschewed formal training are certainly the better for it–their talent was innate, and didn’t end up suffering from the homogenization that can sometimes occur after being subjected to workshop after workshop.

    Where I think formal training comes in handy, though, are for those of us who aren’t literary prodigies–good writers, but not great ones–who can benefit a lot from some sit-down instruction in the craft of story-making. This kind of instruction doesn’t have to happen in an MFA program, of course, but unless you happen to find a really fabulous writer’s group, it’s nice to have a really excellent writer/teacher give you some hints and nudges. And I know the MFA stereotype is that the very worst elements of literary fiction (navel gazing, all language and no story, etc etc) are encouraged, but the opposite was true for me. My instruction was about story all the way: where is the conflict? where does the story start? is this dialogue or this flashback or this rumination extraneous? But that was my experience, and I know that horror stories do exist, and as I said before, I had some less-than-wonderful classes myself.

    And Liz, one of the ways I felt I was very lucky, stumbling into Hamline’s MFA program, was that I didn’t feel very censored at all, as far as writing about Mormon characters or themes were concerned. I didn’t have much of a Mormon agenda (meaning, I tried hard not to proselytize in my work, and just let the characters be), but most people were very open and even downright interested in my Mormonism. I know it wouldn’t be the same in a place where Mormonism was a relative rarity, though.

  8. You know what I should have learned in my MFA program? That if it’s late and you’re in a hurry, you should still take a minute and a half and re-read your post and edit out all the adverbs. Sheesh! I was hoping I could find that tiny little “e” for edit so I could click on it an nix all those verys and reallys, but such is the unforgiving world of the internet.

    The real reason I popped in for one more post wasn’t to out myself on my adverbs, but instead to say that can also learn a lot from a good writing text. John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction” and Janet Burroway’s “Writing Fiction” are both excellent.

  9. Angela, I really appreciate your perspective! I hope my experience in an MFA program is as beneficial. And thanks for the book suggestions. I’m always looking for great reads!

  10. William,

    For me, writing class gets more fun as I learn why I love so much the things which I choose to read.

    Often when I when I read, I felt like a country boy looking at abstract art. Ive Since aquired a taste that I cant imagine why anyone would not enjoy. Then I remember, it is in writing classes where I studied how to not only write well, but also discern and be able to savour a good text.

    Also, I cant say that having Angela as a writing teacher doesnt contribute to a fun writing class…

  11. true true, brady and liz. Too bad I didnt see all of this 2 weeks ago. looks like discussions all but over.

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