The Rift in Mormon Literature: an interview with Todd Robert Petersen

Some writers might be born great and others achieve greatness, but Todd Robert Petersen had greatness thrust upon him when, in 1998, he won first, second, and third place in the Sunstone fiction contest. The book that came out of those wins, Long After Dark, is Mormon Literature straddling an ontological rift–the rift between simple faith and reality, the rift between easy options and hard choices, the rift between plain ol’ writing and art. If you haven’t read it yet then go ILL or buy it right now–you might be offended or uncomfortable at times but you certainly won’t be sorry you picked it up. If you’re jonesing for a hit of intense, welll-crafted writing to round out the end of your summer reading this is the book for you.

While you’re waiting for your copy to arrive you can read my interview with Todd Robert Petersen. It’ll ease the ache. I promise. You might not agree with everything Petersen says, but you’ll be glad you took the time to think about it.

Oh, and he has a new book coming out!

Laura Craner: When the vision for Long After Dark was born?

Todd Robert Petersen: I was studying with Brian Evenson at Oklahoma State University, which is where he went after leaving BYU. I went up to see him in his office and said, “Hey, man. I just hit a trifecta in the Sunstone contest.” He was pleased. He kind of laughed. He said, “You should do a whole book of those Mormon stories and I’d write an introduction for it if you want.” Seriously, before that moment, I hadn’t thought about a project like this at all. I was only mildly aware that there was something that could be called Mormon literature. I wasn’t trying to write it, I was just trying to explore religious themes in my writing because I was a religious person and I was interested in the struggles and conflicts that religious people have. What I was doing was pretty much the weirdest thing going on in my workshops. Creative writing programs are a pretty secular environment. So, I was working on the premise that if I could make a religious story play in a graduate creative writing workshop it would probably avoid some of the pitfalls of “religious writing.”

LC: What made you write such a Mormon book?

TRP: I asked myself that question a lot, especially after pretty much all of the presses that do Mormon stuff said they couldn’t do the book, and I tried everybody, including Deseret. Everyone who responded to the book said they liked the writing but they either didn’t do short stories or the content wasn’t right for their readers. I had an early response from Cedar Fort, but that turned into more of a author subsidy deal, so I passed. After that I stuck the collection away and tried to forget about it. In the meantime, a lot of the stories had been published on their own in venues like Dialogue, Irreantum, and so forth. A couple appeared in national university-based literary journals, but I couldn’t get anyone interested in the stories as a book.

Chris Bigelow’s Zarahemla Books changed all that. He was looking to publish Mormon stuff with a bit of an edge. He’d read many of the short stories as they’d been published in the literary magazines. It was a perfect fit, really. Because of his publishing model (he does short printing runs digitally as opposed to offset print runs, which have to be bigger to make the set up costs worth it. I think this kind of printing model is a really big deal, especially for small publishers who want to get less corporate kinds of material out there.), the book can sell slow and steady and stay viable.

LC: One of the surprising things about Long After Dark is how atypical most of the Mormons in it are (i.e. Luis, the Argentinian in “Now and at the Hour of Our Death”, and John, the Rwandan, in “Quietly”).

TRP: I’m not sure what a typical Mormon is. I joined the Church in Oregon and lived outside of Utah for a really long time before moving to Cedar City and experiencing an abundance of Mormons. I think I used to know, or that I used to have some idea what that was, but the more I meet people, especially as I serve in Church callings, the less I seem to know. This new guy in our ward looks like a typical Mormon in his Sunday clothes, but the other day as he was reaching for some napkins at a ward barbecue, I noticed a red and black skull tattoo on his right bicep. I loved it as much as the tattoo of the young women’s medallion my friend Liz has on her shoulder. This guy cries about the 4th of July and started his answer to a question in priesthood with the phrase, “When I was getting out of jail and staying at my mom’s house…” So, looks can be deceiving. I am almost always surprised by people.

Typicality is all a matter of perspective. The idea of typical or stereotypical is interesting because it makes me automatically start thinking about people who don’t fit the category. Isn’t that how we define categories anyway? We are what we aren’t.

LC: Where did the inspiration for those “atypical” characters come from? Were they based on real people?

TRP: I don’t believe in acts of pure imagination as creation out of nothing, like the Big Bang. I’m always watching people and taking notes. I have this catalogue in my notebooks of bits and pieces stashed, waiting for the right situation. My wife sews, and she does the same thing with fabric. She has all these bins and piles of material she’s saved and reclaimed from old clothes. For her, part (maybe even most) of the joy of a sewing project is going through all that fabric, making selections. Many of my characters are amalgamations of people I run across or know. I try to make sure they I mix them up pretty well to avoid that problem you get in Woody Allen movies, where someone gets furious because they are in your story and they don’t like what you’ve done to them. . . Writers are larcenous. I feel bad about that sometimes. It might make us bad friends.

LC: What kind of response have you gotten from readers?

TRP: It seems like people are most disturbed by the sex in the novella, “Family History.” I tried pretty hard to play that the way Alfred Hitchcock might have done. The sex is all there, but it’s not in there. I hope that distinction makes sense. That first section is also supposed to represent the telestial world. That’s why I have the stars, moon, and sun marking each section. The telestial world is supposed to be full of chaos, enmity, and trouble. Still the sex bugs people a little, even non-Mormons. A colleague of mine took umbrage with the term “monkey sex,” which I use. She thought I was being a little hard on the simians. So, you can’t please everybody, and that’s okay. Art is (or can be) good practice for learning how to deal with the troubles of this world.

LC: Has that response changed at all over the last couple of years?

TRP: Response, generally, has been really good. Salt Lake City Weekly gave the book an ARTYS Award, which is great. I love getting props for a book of Mormon stories from a publication that also runs gay and bi-sexual personal ads. Reviews have been really strong, too. I was pleasantly surprised, as was Chris Bigelow. The coolest thing that happened was that my neighbor Sue came over after reading the book. She wanted to talk about it. She’s in her 70s and said that the stories made her think of the people in her family with troubles of their own. I think I like that kind of thing, you know a variation of the Holden Cauldfield line where he says a good book makes you wish you could call up the writer. I think it was cool that my neighbor just came over. I really liked that, and I wish it would happen more often.

LC: What can you tell me about your upcoming novel, Rift?

TRP: It’s been a long project for me. I started it in the fall of 2001, when I first got to Utah. I took the main character, Jens Thorsen, from a few short stories I’d written about this crotchety old Mormon guy–he appears in the opening story in Long After Dark. I wrote two more and figured that I wasn’t done with this guy, or that he wasn’t done with me. I took a few trips from Cedar to Sanpete County, where the book is set, and the place really captivated me. My wife has a lot of family there, in Manti and Spring City. It seems like a place frozen in time, which captured my imagination.

I took the basic idea for the novel from an 1869 Harriet Beecher Stowe local color piece by called “The Village Do-Nothing.” It’s about a guy who seems to just putter around, but he’s really looking after his neighbors in a small village in the Northeast. His wife and a lot of people in town think he is neglectful and a bit disrespectful, and it causes all kinds of tension. I felt like this fit the context of small towns anywhere, but especially in an isolated, tight-knit, church-based community like the ones in Sanpete County.

Rift is about a retired highway contractor who is trying to fill up the days by keeping this crazy home teaching route, one that he has assigned to himself. There’s an old lady who thinks her husband is coming back from the other side to see her, a family whose son is incarcerated for some antics with a gun, the Jewish doctor and his wife, an inactive man dying of emphysema. He’s also nursing an old feud with the bishop, who’s wayward daughter returns at the beginning of the novel. There’s also some shady land dealings, a barber shop, and dash of Lysistrada.

I’m pretty excited to have it finished and out. I’ve worked on it on and off (mostly on) for a really long time. I’m anxious to move on to some other projects that have been sitting on blocks in the garage. It comes out some time this fall. It’s getting ready for printing right now.

LC: Your writing, especially in Long After Dark, really walks the line between gritty and gratuitous in its visceral details and subject matter. (Skinny dipping! Murder! Wild sex!) Does that make it harder to find a publisher?

TRP: You can get skinny dipping, murder, and wild sex out of story of David, can’t you? I think it’s not a problem of content but context. The world is full of these kinds of things, and I think writers have to deal with the world. Since I teach at a state university in Utah with a high percentage of Mormon students, I find myself in a really strange position. Students seem to expect that literature is going to be free of subject matter drawn from the world we live in. I make sure we always have a discussion of the important distinction between representing something and advocating for it. I try to make sure that I don’t advocate for murder in my fiction but rather show its effects, or its causes. I might advocate for skinny dipping, though, it is a truly joyous experience.

For me the problem in Mormon writing is that Mormons as a group are so disinclined towards conflict. This perspective makes most fiction impossible. But look again at the scriptures–they are full of visceral details and conflict and bad choices. In fact, I often point out to my students and in Gospel Doctrine class that the standard works lack happy endings. I mean, have you read Revelation? It makes me think of what would happen if Sauron slit Frodo’s throat and took the ring for himself. In the Book of Mormon, Moroni wanders the countryside dodging blood thirsty marauders like some character out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. Joseph Smith is murdered at the end of the Doctrine and Covenants. The one thing I have taken from the scriptures is that the good guys are going to blow it and the bad guy is going to win, for now, at least.

What I tried to do was write a book with real stuff from the real world in it, then I tried to match it with some sense that somewhere down the line everything is going to be okay, maybe not now, but someday. That feels more like the world I live in. In a perfect world where nothing goes really wrong, we wouldn’t need Jesus, and I’m not sure I want to write about a world that doesn’t need saving.

Todd Robert Petersen lives in Cedar City and teaches creative writing and visual studies in the English Department at Southern Utah University. He studied film in college and has a master’s degree (Northern Arizona University) and PhD in Creative Writing and Critical Theory (Oklahoma State University). His second book, Rift, won the Marilyn Brown Novel Award and will be published by Zarahemla books in the fall of 2009.

20 thoughts on “The Rift in Mormon Literature: an interview with Todd Robert Petersen”

  1. Thanks, Laura.

    I was leery of the small town Utah setting, but the story and characters won me over. Plus it has funny bits.

  2. I make sure we always have a discussion of the important distinction between representing something and advocating for it.

    Amen.

  3. I’m not sure I want to write about a world that doesn’t need saving.

    Love that line.

    Thanks for the great interview, Laura. I think this is one of the most interesting ones I’ve read lately. I may need to track down a copy of Long After Dark now…

  4. I have yet to read The Backslider and watch God’s Army. Of course, I do realize that at some point that’s going to become an example of prideful literary criticism and give in.

  5. In my case it is because I have publicly repeated that I have refrained on both of those works several times now.

  6. Eh, God’s Army isn’t that great, but I really liked States of Grace. It’s still useful to watch it sometime just to be ‘in the loop’ 🙂 At least that’s my excuse.

    I just barely read The Giant Joshua and surprisingly liked it a lot. But that’s a subject for another post.

    BTW Tyler, I think Long After Dark is one of the titles currently being offered at a discount by Zarahemla Books. If you buy it, you should also get On the Road to Heaven if you have not read it yet.

  7. No offense, Wm, but I’m not sure what that pride is buying you. It always comes across more as laziness than anything else. 😛

  8. hurrah : Petersen is fantastic : In a perfect world where nothing goes really wrong, we wouldn’t need Jesus, and I’m not sure I want to write about a world that doesn’t need saving.

  9. I agree, Michelle. And, of course, this is why the LDS version of the afterlife is rather attractive — there’s always more to the story.

    —-

    Laziness is why I haven’t got around to the LDS genre novels that I’ve been intending to read. This is straight up willfulness somewhat along the lines of my refusal to watch “Dead Poet’s Society” because everybody told me I’d like it so much.

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