“An Artist is Like a Big Fat Blender”: an interview with Kristen D. Randle

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When I read Kristen D. Randle’s Slumming–which I found on the AMV Book Club list– I was completely surprised. The main characters were not vapid gossip girls looking to lose their virginity or angst ridden, beer drinking, wannabe boys (also looking to lose their virginity), like the characters in so many popular bestsellers aimed at young adults. No, these characters were different. They were Mormons.

Sam, Nikki, and Alicia are the only three Mormon kids in their school and it is that familial-type relationship that drives them to set up a great experiment for their senior year. A Mormon twist on the Pygmalion myth, the three teens decide to find someone who is “obviously untapped” and help them live up to their potential (was there ever a more Mormon phrase!). Nikki picks the biggest nerd in school. Alicia picks the bad boy who does drugs in the woods behind the bleachers during lunch. And Sam picks Tia, the eyebrow ring sporting, chip on her shoulder Goth girl. Throughout the book their ideals–which the three LDS kids can’t help but wear on their sleeves–are questioned and deconstructed as they discover that teenagers can be cruel but what hurts more is when trusted adults betray you. And that, sometimes, doing the right thing is painful and comes with untold costs, but it still feels good in the long run.

Kristen D. Randle is a fiery woman–a woman who doesn’t settle for compact answers and can’t help but complicate her own thought processes. Her passion shows in her writing and in her interview.

LC: Slumming is a very Mormon book–it has Mormon characters and it talks about Mormon theology–and it was published by a national publisher. That’s supposed to be impossible! How did you do it?

KDR: My editor at Harper, Rosemary Brosnan, is an incredible woman. We began working together when she was at a smaller company that was dissolved and she brought me along to Harper. When Rosemary was looking for a position – not hard for her, because her reputation in the business is glowing and offers came thick and fast – the choosing of a job WAS hard for her – because had two sons and her work schedule had to accommodate them.  Not the other way around.  She had to be home when they were home – period.  How many women in this competitive, shallow little world of ours would have that kind of depth of character, love and sense of duty and responsibility. This was a woman I could respect.

This is a long answer.  But I have to explain these things so that you will see that I did not, in fact, “do it.”  Rosemary did.  I had written the book, expecting to have to pull back all of the specific religious elements in it to almost nothing.  But when she, who is Jewish by lineage – but whose religious practice is personal and private, read this manuscript, she loved it.  She loved the fact that I was treating – almost examining –  a religious ethos in the story.  She said, “Nobody does this!”

We found out why.

The reviews of Slumming were very good, most of them.  Some of them glowing. Some saw the social aspects of having kids recognize and cross social lines as the heart of the book.  But some seemed to resent any mention of religion whatsoever and let a cynical tone carry that displeasure.  On top of that, the hard back YA market is mostly libraries.  And the National Library Association tends to the PC–which disallows serious mention of anything like a “predominant” religion.  My downfall, then, was not the LDS characters, but the “Christianity”  of the characters, which is deeply ironic.

You can write the word “God” as an explicative.  But you cannot put the word into the mouth of a character who uses it reverently and with meaning.  Not unless your story is ironic, hinging on the cruel inequality of religion and its rejections of certain behaviors, and thus proving your character to be a fool or a hypocrite, or something even worse.

Thus, even though Slumming sold far more hard back copies than my other books did–which were both award winning books; The Only Alien on the Planet went into seven printings in paperback–it languished and never made paperback.  Either that, or people just didn’t like it – but the sales numbers didn’t suggest that at all.

Pretty much the entire religious expression in the book was character development – a basic statement of where he was coming from, from a boy who was not perfect, who did not have a perfect life, but who cared deeply about doing the right thing.  And found out that, even in that effort, he was far more flawed than he’d ever dreamed.

Including “Mormon” characters?  It wasn’t really their LDS affiliation that the book was about.  It’s just, in writing what I know, I knew very well the oddly intimate relationships that can form in LDS wards – kids who end up feeling more like family in that consistent and germinal experience of participating in a ward long-term.  I wanted kids who were more than friends, who shared heart.  Thus, the church affiliation was really a plot element.  Obviously, those with no experience in this particular culture wouldn’t understand the power of that element, so I knew I was taking a chance.  But Rosemary recognized it right away.  So I became more confident about it as we went along.

Actually, I think that using the three voices to narrate was more controversial in many ways.

LC: Besides the LDS teenagers you knew, what was the inspiration for Slumming. Why did you write it?

KDR: Slumming was written differently than my other books.  It was a deliberately written book rather than a mystic download out of whatever place stories come from.  There are a lot of elements to its coming to pass.  One of the main things was reading a Louise Plummer novel–it was called Dance for Three, in which she used several voices to tell a story.  That simple unconventional convention allowed me the freedom to stage a story I had started fifty different ways only to leave after several paragraphs.  There had been no flow.  No real narrator.  No reason to tell the story.

But with three voices or two or four (and I had written in two before), suddenly the story could be told as it needed to be.  So there was a beginning.  Many things were happening in our lives during those days, and in our friends’ lives.  Some very distressing and strange.  And some of those things got woven into the story.  While I am not really much of a people person, and while I can only take so much of the happy fecklessness of kids (before I brain somebody), I care very much about what adults do to their children.  Adults, in our age of the world (as opposed to, say, the Greatest Generation – a generation of self sacrificing, shoulder-to-the-wheel people) are simply well furnished adolescents.  We don’t give up our angst as part of our matriculation from childhood.  It’s all about us – finding ourselves – defining ourselves through our stuff.

I was very involved with my kids’ schooling from the beginning.  And when high school rolled around, I knew their friends–knew and loved them and sometimes wanted to kick them in the pants.  Those years of experience with kids from other kinds of families (there are as many kinds as there are families), coupled with some very intense experiences with kids and their families when I was teaching in Salt Lake and Lehi showed me just how much damage idiot, selfish, self-enamored parents do to the children they have brought into the world.  Brought in and betrayed.  So that went into the story.

Living in Utah also crept in there. There is plenty of diversity here, and people run the same gamut that they run elsewhere.  It’s just, here – you somehow expect people to be preternaturally and consistently good, and since you know your neighbors, you also know they are flawed.  I think that I was writing about the person behind the “you” in that last sentence.  The one who somehow feels that, being who they are, they are in a position to make assumptions about the people around them.  Maybe that’s all of us.  So I wanted to explore good characters who do it, too–and who have defined the world so vividly in their own terms, they have little idea that there might be anything acceptable outside of those terms.

The book had the impact I’d hoped it would.  I saw it in the reviews and read it in the letters I was sent.  And that was a good feeling.

But primarily, I think, I wrote the book because I needed, for myself, to write a book.

LC: Why do you write for the YA market?

KDR: I think that writing to kids – that even teaching Sunday School to 13 year olds – is one of the most important things you can do.  Their brains are at an odd place – the brain is re-written back to front starting at age 11 and ending at around 24.  If you think you know something about life – about how to live it well, how to live it with meaning – this is the time to teach it.  This is the time you can get in on the wiring.  Adults have already made themselves, either into something significant, or into something – else – but kids?  They are waiting for the things that will help them sort out what is significant from what is glitz and not significant.  I tell other writers (arrogantly) that they better look at their lives and see if there’s anything in them that makes them worthy to write to children.  Because too many people use writing as a way of escaping the reality of the lives they have  – allowed to grow up around them.  That’s not a place from which to write to kids.  Kids don’t need to be enlightened and given direction by grown up adolescents.

LC: You are a woman of many interests. What are some of them and how do they interact with your creative process?

KDR: It’s funny that we speak in terms of “creative process.”  Is that not an oxymoron?

I’m interested in family.  And in the people I care about.  And in my animals – you’ll note that all of this amounts to: interested in creatures over which I have a some influence. I quilt.  I turn wood – really, really small pieces of wood. I love glass and so I dabble in stained glass and fused glass.  And I love beads (I would’ve sold Manhattan for beads, easy).  I guess what I really love are all those books with the shiny pictures you can spend big bucks on just to look at what other people have done with this kind of stuff.  I love making things.  I don’t love the process – I just love the idea of finishing. My house is full of tiny, amateurish little weird things. I’m also a genealogist–a primary source researcher.  Love the hunt.  Love the puzzle.   And I sing.  And I have five horses.

There is too much to do – there are too many wonderful, amazing skills and materials and projects to do in one lifetime.  There better be an eternity.  People who are bored are nuts.

How does all that interact with my CP?  I’ve learned this: when you put all the fabric of a certain color and texture group in one box, and all of another in another box, your brain has to come up with color concepts all out of its own little imagination, which is limited.  But if you take all the fabric and dump it on the floor, there will be combinations of things you NEVER would have thought of, lying right there on the carpet in front of you, free for the discovery. I recognize a shortfall of that kind of chaos with my circumscribed human world.  And yet, that world affords me endless concerns and joys and fuels my action full time.

An artist is like a big fat blender.  All the experiences of his life, all the news stories he’s heard, everything he knows about his friends, his world, his sex, his own particular brand of order – all of the museums he’s been to, and movies and books he’s partaken of – all experiences inside and outside go into his head and the blender goes on, and all that stuff gets shredded and sent racing around until everything falls out in new combinations.   The more you experience, the more elements you can combine.  The more you put your hand to, the more basic laws of physics you learn.  The more questions you ask, the more interesting your thinking–and your writing–becomes.

Check out Kristen D. Randle’s two other award winning books, too. The Only Alien on the Planet is like an in-depth, more hopeful version of the old LDS classic, “Cipher in the Snow.” Breaking Rank also has LDS characters, although only covertly. It’s a great book for examining the dynamics of the erotics of abstinence and how our good intentions can lead us to good and bad places at the same time. Definitely worth reading–especially if you have teenagers.

32 thoughts on ““An Artist is Like a Big Fat Blender”: an interview with Kristen D. Randle”

  1. Kristen was the best Sunday School teacher ever. And one of her early romance novels was the first non-Blaine M. Yorgason Mormon fiction I ever read.

  2. You were in her Sunday school class? Cool! I’m jealous 😉 I loved interviewing her. It was so hard to cut it down–it’s still long–because she said so many, many smart and interesting things.

    I’m curious what romance novel it was? I wasn’t aware she wrote one.

  3. I don’t recall the name of the title. The hero drove a Saab. It wasn’t a great novel (although the quality of the prose and the plotting was decent), but this was in the early days of the Mormon romance novel market and of her own career as a novelist. I think Kirsten really hit her stride when she turned to young adult fiction (although I haven’t read any of her YA novels because I ready very little of that genre — not out of the standard snobbishness of many English majors, but because I can’t read *everything*, and I figure I’ll hit YA hard when my daughter is a little older).

  4. .

    Is there some policy against posting different parts of one interview more than once? Which reminds me….

  5. I believe Stephen has already connected with Laura (or will shortly), but just as a reminder to readers — see that “Contact Us” link up on the top nav bar? Yeah, we really mean it. Go ahead and contact us.

    ;-P

  6. Kristen Randle bibliography:

    Home Again. Embryo (a small Mormon press),1981.

    One Song for Two. Bookcraft, 1984.

    The Morning Comes Singing. Bookcraft, 1986.

    On the Side of the Angels. Bookcraft, 1989.

    The Only Alien on the Planet. Scholastic, 1995. An ALA Best Book for YAs.

    Breaking Rank. Harper Collins, 1999. An ALA Best Book for YAs.

    Slumming. Harper Collins, 2003.

    Forthcoming (according to her website):
    The Gardener. Raincoast Books (a Canadian publisher).

    Short stories

    “Tim” (short story) in Turning Hearts, ed. by Card and Dollahite, Bookcraft, 1994.

    “Between the Nails” (short story) in Once Upon a Christmastime, Deseret Book, 1997.

    The first three novels are the “romances” that William mentions. Randle does not mention them on her website, she makes it seem like “On The Side of the Angels” (her last novel published by a Mormon publisher) was her first novel, so I guess she is not happy with them either. They are very hard to find. After falling in love with her later novels, I tracked down two of the earlier romances. Home Again is pretty bad, I could not finish it. The Morning Comes Singing was substantially better, but still not on the level of the later YA books. All novels are about young musicians whose lives are changed by Mormonism and their Mormon friends, and what happens next. Some characters run through all three books. Randle’s husband runs a recording studio in Utah County, and it appears that she draws on her experiences with musicians that came through there. There is even a discussion of Marvin Payne and the start of Mormon pop music in one of the books.

    The later four YA novels are wonderful books. The plots have a clear pattern. A troubled or damaged outsider teenager is befriended a more conventional, vaguely Mormon teen, who is somewhat naive, but posses an inner strength fostered by his or her strong family background. The pair are of the opposite sex, so there is romantic tension. The Mormon teenager hopes to help or improve the outsider, gets more than he or she bargained for, and may even be seriously hurt, but still generally was right to make an effort.

    (From my review of “Slumming”)
    Although the Mormons’ attempts at “conversion” are presented in a completely secular manner, I think Randle is trying to say something about the blithe way in which some Mormons butt into other people’s lives in the name of religious conversion. Not to say that Randle is supporting a hands-off policy, clearly she feels deeply that those with something to offer, particularly Mormons, to reach out to those in need. Rather, she seems to be saying that one does not meddle lightly in the life of another–outreach is a serious business.

    Incrementally the reader finds out that although all three Mormon teens are active, believing members, they do not come from ideal backgrounds. Alicia appears to be heading towards an emotional breakdown over her mother’s recent abandonment of the family. Sam’s father left when he was child, although his mother has remarried and his step-father is a good man. Even Nikki fears that her generally stable family relies too much on yelling as a major form of communication.

    I am glad Randle openly presents her characters as Mormons, the first time she has done so in a nationally-published novel. It is not a big part of the narrative on the surface, but the values and culture of Mormonism underlies the trio’s thoughts and actions. Sam, for example, tells about praying before he makes a decision. Later, suffering from the pain he sees in his friend’s life, he feels guilty that he lives in such a happy home. His mother comforts him with these words:

    “This life of yours didn’t come free, remember. It’s the result of generations of choices and work and teaching. My folks got it form their folks and then passed it on to me. I made some unwise choices,” she goes on, looking away. “I was lucky–I got you kids, and I got a second chance.

    “Since then, I’ve respected the gifts–the work ethic, the values, the faith, the self-discipline–they handed on to me. And the gratitude. You know what would really be bad? If you were ashamed of this gift so many people passed on to you–ashamed instead of grateful and determined.”

    “But,” I tell her, holding my stomach, “I don’t deserve it.”

    She laughs. “Who does?” she asks. Then she gets serious. “Spend your life making everything you touch more beautiful and peaceful and healthy for other people. That’s how you end up deserving it. The trick here is to tell the difference between what you can fix, and what you can’t. Or shouldn’t.”

    Another moral of the story is that when faced with a friend with a big problem, one should not try to deal with it by themselves, even if the friend demands secrecy. After some hesitation, Sam turns to his parents and a school councilor for help, while Alicia does not, and suffers. Nikki reminds Sam about the right way to rescuing someone who has fallen through the ice–to make sure you are on solid ground yourself first, otherwise you could be pulled through the ice yourself.

    Here is a link to my review of “On the Side of the Angels” and “Slumming”
    http://www.aml-online.org/Reviews/Review.aspx?id=3721

    Melissa Proctor’s reviews of The Only Alien on the Planet and Breaking Rank.
    http://www.aml-online.org/Reviews/Review.aspx?id=3051

    http://www.aml-online.org/Reviews/Review.aspx?id=3230

  7. I believe I read _One Song for Two_ and _The Morning Comes Singing_ but I don’t really remember.

  8. .

    I’m intrigued by the idea of writing for YAs in order to alter them on a deeper level than can be done with adults. It seems so—-schemey. But really, why not? Why not write a book and then position it to make the greatest impact?

  9. I’ve only read a bit of Kristen’s work–the first few pages of Slumming, which I own. She’s very good at getting what seems to me to be a genuine teenage voice. Quite remarkable. The only reason I haven’t read it yet is that it’s *too* good, in a painful, been-there-done-that kind of way. I like her characters, and I’m embarrassed for them and agonize over the mistakes they’re making on the page.

    It seems to me that in Slumming, at least, Kristen writes New Era characters: kids who are articulate and alert and smart and understand and are trying to live their religion–but she shows the parts of their lives that don’t make it into Church magazines. I’m not talking about stuff that violates reader sensibilities, but the kind of stuff that makes these characters *real*.

    And now sometime I have to actually finish the book to see if my first impression holds true throughout…

  10. Jonathon–I had the same experience with _Slumming_. It dredged up a lot of stuff–in a good way. I read _The Only Alien on the Planet_ and it happened again. Same with _Breaking Rank_. She is very good at the teenage voice.

    Th.–you do need to find you a copy. If you don’t want to buy it (although I’m betting your “spawn” would enjoy it when she’s older), check your city library. They probably have it. Are you going to start writing YA? You know, a LOT of mommy-readers (and other women) say YA fiction is their favorite. If you did choose to write for the YA market, you’d be aiming for a pretty big market segment!

  11. .

    Berkeley has a copy and I’ve been meaning to get a card there anyway.

    I do want to write YA–and I think a lot of my work functions as YA lit–but I suspect I won’t really write meets-all-the-criteria YA lit until I can write it for my own kids. This is my suspicion, anyway. So give me a few years.

  12. I’m hoping that someday someone will tell me if *my* book is YA. I don’t think it is. It wasn’t meant to be. But…

    Sorry. When you’re in the middle of a project, everything reminds you of your project.

  13. Laughing. Yes, *Home Again* was less than stellar, but I’d call it “dorky” rather than bad. I wrote it in response to the other two or three LDS novels of the time – books my high school students were beating their hearts over in 1978 and 9. Believe me, next to those, poor H.A. is lit.

    I didn’t include those older books on the website, not because I was trying to downplay them, but because the site was supposed to be geared to a dynamic commercial market. Those books were hard to find, and were specifically LDS – I didn’t write them for an open audience. I expected the audience to connect with certain assumptions and conventions. Including them would not have been appropriate, sadly.

    I did not, by the way, mean them to be romances, but character studies. I couldn’t help it if luuuuuv entered the equation – after-all, I was young and full of that kind of energy back then.

    I have appreciated reading your comments, guys. Thanks for not tweaking my nose too hard. I have several other manuscripts out there, right now – it’s a tough market. Very tough. Evidently, the gov isn’t bailing out books –

  14. .

    So I just bought it ON Amazon THROUGH the Motley Vision link which, if I remember correctly, means everyone here now owes me a dollar.

  15. Incorrect. It means that 10 pages of the book get ripped out and sent to me.

  16. I am greatly relieved to hear that SOMEBODY is taking responsibility for all those “What is a Truck Driver” bits of doggerel that are out there, fouling the markets. I think we had a bunch of them in our neighborhood, just down the street – parking all over the lawn, leaving slant rhymes in the gutter. Nice to see that reality caught up with them. Can fiction be far behind? Oh, man – if they’d just buy up Dirk Pitt –

  17. By the way, I should mention that the early-Randle romance novels did do some good — the two that I read planted in me the notion that one could be totally hip and urban (I mean the dude drived a Saab and lived in a beach house in Santa Monica [of course, the Saab crashes and he loses some of his worldliness by converting — if I’m remembering this correctly]) and Mormon at the same time. Sadly, I never quite made it to hipsterdom, and whatever urban credibility I used to have was lost in the move to Minnesota and the Minneapolis suburbs.

  18. Umm, by the way, I was kidding about the Truckdriver bit – I’m sure that guy has made a whole lot more money – and a whole lot more people happy – than I ever have. So I take back the “fouled” and the “doggerel”. Shoot. I should have picked on love poetry – or the romantics.

  19. Actually, he was not a real worldy guy to begin with. A sensitive soul, pretty concerned with meaning. And the crash wasn’t his fault – it was some teenager person who ran into him. But he had enough bucks – he was dripping famous – a beach house? In SoCal? The guy was rolling in it. I could stand some of that hipness, urban or not –

  20. Tangentially connected with hipness…

    Back when my wife and I were young and newly married, we wondered if it was possible for Mormons to actually be yuppies, or if being in the Church just inherently raised one’s dorkiness level too high. I mean, we liked brie and we sometimes would make and eat quiche (by the way, did you know that real men don’t cook quiche? They eat it raw)–but toddler reality soon took its toll. Besides, we were science fiction geeks anyway, which may in and of itself be incompatible with yuppiness…

  21. Wow! I can’t believe it’s still being *called* yuppies. (Or Yummies, as the case may be.) I mean, it was over 20 years ago that Laurel and I were talking about this. Oh, well…

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