Stephen Carter on his new collection of personal essays

WhatofTheNight_LGZarahemla Books has recently published What of the Night?a collection of essays by Stephen Carter, Director of Publications and Editor at Sunstone. Stephen was kind enough to answer some questions about the anthology and about his role as a writer and editor and critic in the world of Mormon letters. So read on for his thoughts on being both a writer and an editor, Eugene England, Mormon comics and the craft of writing.

For those AMV readers who haven’t followed your career as it has unfolded over the past several years (and documented on the AML-List), could you briefly explain your journey into creative non-fiction?

I had been working as a news reporter for a few years and having the time of my life, but my wife and I could tell that it was not going to pay the bills. So we made the decision to give our careers a much needed boost by earning MFAs.

I know. Not the smartest way to boost one’s career. But we were young.

So we moved to Alaska with our two young children to go to UAF’s creative writing program. I went in to learn fiction, but the thing that was taking up most of the space between my ears at the time was my relationship with Mormonism. I found myself writing to understand that relationship, going into my past and teasing out the experiences that had brought me to this point.

My first attempts weren’t very good, and my essays turned out to be undisciplined and wandering. Fortunately, my studies in fiction had started to teach me how a story works. Once I learned to use those mechanisms, the essays began to take on a constructive shape and people started to like them. I got rejection letters with handwritten notes attached. And one day, Dialogue decided to print something I had written. Dialogue has always had good taste.

I can’t entirely tell from the Zarahemla Books description — are the essays in What of the Night? focused mainly on Mormonism, and mainly personal rather than topical? What’s the scope of this collection?

The essays document my journey through Mormonism. For much of my life, I had this idea that, being born in the Church, I had been born at the Tree of Life. I felt sorry for the poor schmucks who had to follow the iron rod through the dark swamps of Lehi’s dream in order to find the truth. My life, as I saw it, was not a journey but an orbit. I just had to endure to the end at the tree, resisting the temptations of the Great and Spacious Building, waiting under the branches until I died and went to heaven.

I started to realize in college that, just like the next schmuck, I had to take my own journey. I sometimes say that I had to leave the Tree of Life in order to seek the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil–and that required forging into the dark swamps. The book’s cover very much captures that idea.

So you’ll see me getting my first glimpse of the difficulties of my spiritual journey as a Cub Scout, and then heading full force into the tensions of religion and spirituality as a missionary and then as a father. At the end, I try to bring the elements of all the essays together to create–not a stopping place, but the staging area for the next journey.

Anyone writing personal essays that come of the Mormon experience has to account, at least somewhat, for the looming presence of Eugene England — not only as a writer of the form, but also as a theorist. As a critic who claims a special place for the personal essay in Mormon letters. What’s your take on England, his work, his discussion of the personal essay, and your own work and theorizing?

I worked as Gene’s administrative assistant for the last year of his life–an experience I write about in the book–and yes, he influenced me deeply. By far the most important idea he gave me is the overarching importance of giving every side its due. His essays are often uncomfortable to read because he goes very deliberately to places in Mormonism and in his own life and prejudices that are tense and volatile. But he does so not to expose corruption or trumpet the cause of righteousness, but to gain the wisdom that comes from dwelling in the tension of spiritual and religious difficulties.

I’ve taken a different narrative path than he has, though. My essays are very story-based, almost never heading into argument or analysis, as Gene’s do. That’s just my style. Stories are good soil, adding to the richness of person’s moral imagination, enabling more complex thoughts to grow.

I think Gene had a point about the personal essay being a genre especially adapted to Mormon expression. There’s a pragmatic strain in us that makes us value “truth” over novelty. If it really happened, it’s more important because a real person is attached to it, and real people have real souls. We all see ourselves as being the main character in a long story, beginning in the pre-mortal life and–in fact–never ending. We work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Eternity hangs on our choices. I don’t think that personal essay has a corner on important Mormon literature, but I understand its power. After all, I found my voice as a writer when I went into my own life.

I like the cover. Who created it and what was the thinking that went in to it?

The cover art was painted by Anna Waschke, an artist I was friends with in Alaska. I’ve used her work in many of my projects, such as on the covers of issues 150 and 155 of Sunstone. Another of her paintings also serves as inside art for the book. This cover image comes from a series of “portraits” she made, none of which had anything to do with my essays. I think the image encapsulates the basic tension of the book: the head versus the heart in matters of religion. How those tensions inevitably bring us to dark, chaotic places, but how a strange beauty can arise from that chaos. Interestingly, Anna is an atheist and not into religion, but everything she paints resonates with me on a deeply spiritual level.

Okay I have to ask this, and to be honest this may just be me projecting my own fears, but: you’ve written a fair amount over the years about writing and craft and even championed some specific approaches to thinking about writing. Does putting yourself out there in such a, well, collected way, bring with it any anxiety at all? Like you are a poster boy for an approach and have to live up to it? If so, how do you deal with it?

Well, you have to understand where I’m coming from. Before I started my study of fiction, I was a terrible storyteller. Despite all my reading and my English degree, I could not write a story to save my life. I’m kind of like my son who has Asperger’s syndrome: he had to learn to read emotions by making a study of the human face. He doesn’t possess the mental tools most of us have that allow us to read emotion innately. That’s me with stories: I had to learn the mechanisms that run a story, because otherwise I’d never be able to write. You people who have a natural ability to tell stories, I honor you and would like to throw a maltov cocktail through your window.

My dad, who is a computer scientist and an inventor, tells me that once he understands a program or a system, he can picture it as a working schema in his mind and manipulate it to see how it works, and how to improve it. The same thing now happens to me with stories. I can read a novel or watch a movie and all the pieces of the story will come together in my head. I can see how each part affects the others. I can see what would happen if parts were manipulated. It’s like having a Terminator brain.

This was such an exciting discovery, and I worked so long to gain it, that I wanted to share it around just in case I could save some other people some trouble. But I did a terrible job. Perhaps one or two people will benefit from anything I’ve written. But for the most part, I think the little manifestos I sent into cyberspace were mostly me working out the system that serves me so well.

I do use a set of storytelling principles when I write. It’s impossible not to, they’re hardwired into my brain now. They take the anxiety out of writing and open up creative space. I know my work will stand up the way an architect knows that a building he designed won’t fall. Someone may not like my style or my content or whatever, but I can always demonstrate the soundness of my structures.

Related to the previous question: you are a reader, writer, editor, managing editor, blogger and critic. How do you balance all those roles and where do they help and hinder each other?

It’s true that I’ve done a lot less writing since I became an editor. I find that a great deal of my creative energy goes into bringing out the best in an article or essay. But I get a lot of satisfaction from editing, so I don’t feel cheated at all. I do wish that I had more time to read stuff I don’t have to edit. The New Yorker helps with that. I sometimes get a little teary at how good the writing in that magazine is and how I didn’t have to do one bit of work to get it that way.

What specific works of media/art — Mormon or otherwise — have you consumed recently that you totally dig and would recommend, especially to a radical middle reader/viewer/listener?

It’s either because I’m lame, or because I read soooo much on a day-to-day basis, but my main source of entertainment is movies and television. I’ve become a devotee of the Sopranos, which, in my universe, is far and away the best television show of all time and an epic work of art. I don’t know if I could recommend it to the radical Mormon middle, since every episode would be rated R. But if you want to see what happens when masters of storytelling are given a camera and a budget, watch this show. I always feel more solid after watching an episode.

What’s next for you as a writer? Any projects you can reveal to us at this time? What’s getting you charged up to get to work at this point in time?

I should probably feel silly about this, but I’m not going to. I’m writing comic books, and I’ve never had so much fun in my life. Toward the beginning of my tenure at Sunstone, I put together an issue on Mormonism and Asia and thought, “Hey, I should get some Mormon manga in there, just for kicks.” So I wrote up the arm-hacking story of Ammon, storyboarded it, and sent it to my illustrator, Jett Atwood (who, I must say, did a bang-up job). The response was so positive that I decided to make the Book of Mormon comic a regular staple at Sunstone. (The stories recently won the coveted “Book of Mormon Retranslation Prize” from Salt Lake City Weekly. The competition was fierce!)

The thing that has satisfied me the most about this project is that Book of Mormon characters are finally starting to be interesting to me. My whole life, I’ve been pretty bored by the Book of Mormon. It’s just so danged didactic–every character is a walking sermon. Writing these stories has forced me to dig deep and find out what would motivate these characters to act in the ways they do, and I’ve found some very compelling characters that have really grown on me. When I scripted the martyrdom of Abinadi, I just about broke down and cried.

Sunstone subscribers can follow these stories from issue to issue (we’ve worked our way through Zeniff and Noah, and now we’re heading into Alma). But next year, we’ll likely release a collection of the comics to bookstores, or maybe on an iPhone app. I’m also working with Jett on a graphic novel about Abish, which should be out next year. I’m also working on editing The Mormon Tabernacle Enquirer vol. 2, using material from the Sugar Beet, and the special comics issue of Sunstone, which will rock. Hard.

Thanks Stephen!

6 thoughts on “Stephen Carter on his new collection of personal essays”

  1. Great interview. Always enjoy that Carter humor. _WofN?_ is a well-written and challenging book. Do read.

    Now about this:
    >(The stories recently won the coveted “Book of Mormon Retranslation Prize” from Salt Lake City Weekly. The competition was fierce!)<

    I’ve seen this stated elsewhere about the comics (which are awesome btw), but I can’t decide whether or not it is, well, sarcastic. It is right? You’re kidding about the competition being fierce, aren’t you Stephen?

  2. .

    I rarely buy books of essays but I’ve decided to make an exception here. (Haven’t actually bought it yet but I will. Not until I’m done borrowing this Kindle, though.)

    And I want to amen the hard-rocking prognosis of the Sunstone comics issue. Yall should subscribe just to get it in your mailbox.

  3. Yes, Lisa. I was being sarcastic. I thought you knew everything about me.

    There are plans to get this baby on the Kindle. I am willing to work with the electron market.

  4. I know you’re kinda weird, Stephen, so it was a toss up in my mind. ;)I mean, look at that cover!

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