Mormon Artist Magazine Literature editor and fellow AMVer Katherine Morris suggested I post here at AMV questions and answers cut from the interview. So, for your reading pleasure:
There also seems to be an underlying theme of agency in your writing: “[I]t enables those who read or hear it to create choices for themselves”. How does the concept of agency inform your writing?
The “It” here refers to “sustainable language.” Sustainable language is creative, proactive, productive language that effectively sparks others to create their own risk-choice spectrums and generate possibilities for themselves. It’s the language of life. Sustainable language goes out on its faith in others’ creativity, creative drive being a far more commonplace phenomenon in all levels of society than is popularly supposed. Good language–sustainable language–allows for that creativity and invigorates human agency.
Bad language runs the other way. Through fear, guilt, shame, and other devices of control it prods people in the direction it wants them to go, dismissing agency as counterproductive and undependable.
I believe language and human agency to be intimately bound up together. I depend on readers’ native creativity and tendency to exercise choice to make something meaningful for themselves (within reason) of the words I put out there. The question of language–what it is and what it does to and for us–lies at the heart of my novel The Pictograph Murders. At a critical moment the protagonist catches wind of a key element of the villain’s philosophy–he “perceived himself as having the power, and so he could make things mean what he wanted them to”–a version of the might makes right stance, which shows as clearly in rhetorical acts as it does in physical ones.
What role does religious symbolism play in The Pictograph Murders?
I think what symbolism comes across depends on what symbolism readers bring to the story. Since The Pictograph Murders seems to sell in a steady trickle in non-LDS bookstores on the tourist circuit here in southeastern Utah, like the local museum gift shop where people visit from all over the world, readers may well find a wider range of symbolic elements in the book than I can anticipate. To my thinking, that’s perfect. My hope is that even readers who distrust religious symbolism will find archetypal appeal in the story’s spiritual elements.
When I read your essays/posts on language, I feel your gentle urging for awareness and watchfulness in the use of language. In “The Downstream Principle” your concern is with the rhetoric of those with two different perspectives on the use of a canyon. “But given the weighty importance of what I don’t know about this place, I’m cleaning up my language”. Could people be substituted for place and what suggestions do you have for cleaning up language?
“Could “˜people’ be substituted for “˜place’?” Yes. Practices that result in exploitation and manipulation of or damage to the natural environment or that display carelessness or unawareness are only extensions of our behavior in the human environment. In other words, if I’m doing it to nature, I’m doing it to people, too, at one level or another. I don’t think we can improve our behavior in the natural sector without improving behavior in the human one. I said earlier that spirituality is a quality of character, not of place, and so carries across in person from home to church to field to canyon. Furthermore, human language now exerts tremendous influence upon the world. It creates experience for others and can affect them powerfully, for good or for ill, with some effects extending beyond sight. That suggests that how I behave in language is a deeply spiritual concern.
Characteristics of human language make it a wilderness in its own right, chock full of wild beauty and miraculous realms where fabulous adventures unfold and heroes and villains choose their parts. It contains a wealth of cultural and natural resources. Whenever I act to clean up my language, I examine it for unfortunate or wrongful intent, looking for evidence that I’ve relied on anger, fear, guilt, etc. to assert myself. I also look for shortsightedness. To me, the question of bad language reaches beyond what’s commonly considered off-colored or offensive–it goes to usual words thought clean as a whistle that are spoken in common conversations but carry the interest to control, exploit, or harm.
But really, my hope for my language is not just to clean it up but to find ways to apply the common dictum many outdoor websites and camping brochures contain: Leave the environment better than it was when you found it.