Q&A with Dan Harrington, author of Who’s at the Door?

Dan Harrington met the LDS missionaries, didn’t convert, but wrote a book about the experience — Who’s at the Door? A Memoir of Me and the Missionaries ( Amazon ) — which has been published by Cedar Fort. He was gracious enough to do an e-mail interview with me. You can also find out more about him and his book at his author website.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background prior to meeting the LDS missionaries?

When I met the missionaries, I was going through a tough time in life.

I had graduated college in 2002 with the intent of becoming a published writer, but by 2006 that dream was on life-support. I was shackled to a desk job that I hated but needed to survive.

To pump life back into my dream of getting published, I sent columns to various local media in the hopes of getting a freelance gig. At the start of 2007, a local paper bought my first column, and I was elated. I also realized that I had to keep the articles coming–no writer wants to be published just once.

I started wracking my brain for article ideas, and that’s when the missionaries came to my door. Almost immediately I realized I could write a story about them.

And how did that meeting lead to the book?

Initially, our meeting resulted in a newspaper article. The missionaries and the local ward were thrilled. By that time, I had grown fond of the elders and enjoyed our conversations about faith. They were so sincere, and I wanted to help them with meals, rides, or simply a warm place to get out of the harsh New England winter.

I knew they were strangers to my hometown, a place that didn’t always treat them with respect. Over time, my home became an oasis for several sets of missionaries, a place where they could feel welcome and hopefully rejuvenate their spirits.

What audience or audiences did you have in mind as you wrote it? And what about Mormonism surprised you or did you find particularly interesting?

I wrote the book largely for church investigators. When I was thinking about conversion, it was very difficult to find stories that weren’t mere attempts at persuasion. My book doesn’t try to influence people to join the church. It just puts my personal experience on the table.

I always enjoyed attending Fast and Testimony meetings. Hearing so many people talk about their faith so openly in a non confrontational way was refreshing and one of the most endearing aspects of the church.

I’ve faced so many surprises while learning about Mormon culture that it’s hard to mention them all here. The first surprise was how well I got along with the elders. I never expected it. Many of us still talk every month or so. In fact, several of them have stayed with me when they return to Maine as tourists.

In a lot of LDS media, the missionaries are treated as vehicles to conversion, nothing more. Many times ward members don’t even know a thing about specific elders. But to investigators, these young men are the church. I think most members forget that.

I can’t remember a book that depicts the unique relationship between an investigator and the missionaries. Who’s at the Door? tries to mend that gap.

Beyond that, some of the deep doctrines were quite shocking honestly. There’s an interesting aspect to Mormonism where certain things can not be discussed except behind closed doors, and that doesn’t appear to bother anyone but nonmembers. The level of trust members have in the church leadership is something I have rarely seen before.

How has Who’s at the Door? been received by LDS and non-LDS? Have you had much feedback on the book?

The LDS audience has praised the book far more than I initially expected. Becky Thomas from Mormon Times and LDS author Tristi Pinkston offered their endorsements right from the start.

I’ve been doing a book blog tour with Tristi and almost every review has been glowing. LDS authors like Anne Bradshaw, Steve Westover, Alison Palmer and many others have praised it–even saying that after they finished the book, they recommended it to someone almost immediately. It’s hard to get better praise than that!

Some of the highest praises, though, have come from the parents of the elders who were pleased with how I portrayed their sons in the story. Those compliments have been especially meaningful.

Non-LDS readers have also complimented the book. Catholics, Baptists, even a few atheists have told me they enjoyed the book’s focus as a human interest story.

Several people have noted that, at its core, the story is about meeting strangers, encountering a new culture and how those things can impact your life.

Now that you’ve entered the world of Mormon publishing have you consumed any Mormon cultural products — novels, films, etc.? If so, anything you’ve particularly enjoyed?

I’ve enjoyed a lot of Mormon cultural products before I ever signed the book deal. I have a Simon Dewey print in my living room now. He is one of my favorite artists.

Various family members have enjoyed Mormon movies with me including The Work and the Glory, Mr. Kruegar’s Christmas and The Best Two Years. States of Grace has probably been my favorite Mormon movie, but I’d like to see Baptists at our Barbeque.

I often enjoy Jason F. Wright’s column at Mormon Times. The LDS Publisher blog is full of great advice; it was a great source of information and advice when it came to submitting my own manuscript.

Incidentally, I started a group blog with several Mormon authors. Michael Young, David West, J Lloyd Morgan, Frank Cole, and I have started the Man Cave Author Blog at mancaveauthors.blogspot.com.

I approached the guys with this idea last month after visiting all sorts of blogs that seemed female-centric. They loved the idea, and we’ve just started with it.

Finally, I ask all my interviewees this questions: what cultural works (Mormon or not and of any genre or form) are particularly speaking to you right now? What would you recommend we go out find?

Anyone not familiar with Simon Dewey’s work really needs to look up his portraits of Christ. I’m particularly fond of The Last Supper. He’s one of the best Christian artists–hands down.

I also think anyone thinking about becoming an author should subscribe to the LDS Publisher blog. It’s got a lot of great advice and insight.

Thanks, Dan!

8 thoughts on “Q&A with Dan Harrington, author of Who’s at the Door?”

  1. “There’s an interesting aspect to Mormonism where certain things can not be discussed except behind closed doors, and that doesn’t appear to bother anyone but nonmembers.”

    I reject this description and I’m calling this a bluff as untrue and offensive. Perhaps Mormons aren’t uncomfortable by this practice because its not a practice except in the eyes of this author. What, pray tell, is only talked about behind closed doors? I want to know because, aside from the Temple, I have never in all my life ever learned something “behind closed doors” that I didn’t talk about openly and with non-members. Maybe I am different than a lot of members in my openness, but I doubt it.

  2. It looks to me that that’s specifically a reference to the temple, which very much comes across as things being discussed behind closed doors. I think that it’s fully understandable why that’s a both intriguing and suspect thing for nonmembers, especially those who haven’t had much previous contact with active members of the Church.

    I haven’t read the memoir and probably won’t, but it is published by Cedar Fort and has been favorably reviewed by other active LDS (which is why I decided to do the interview) so, you know, maybe smooth your hackles down just a notch.

    Let me be absolutely clear: AMV welcomes all kinds of orthodox Mormons, heck, almost all (if not all) of us fall on the more orthodox side of things.

    But just as I’m not pleased when exMos etc. come in and make snide comments about the institutional church or orthodox LDS; I’m also not pleased when active LDS come in and toss around words like offensive. If you’re going to make the point at least be civil and nuanced about it.

    Also: let’s keep the discussion focused on the literary and cultural aspects of the interview and the work in question — yes, it’s a memoir so there might be some room for discussion of how Mormons are perceived, etc. but I’d prefer that such things be couched in the language of criticism rather than identity politics.

  3. I’d heard about the book in passing, but I didn’t realize Dan lived in Maine. I’ve only been here (in the Bangor area) since 2007, so I wouldn’t have known any of the missionaries he knew, but now I’m curious about the book from the Maine angle as well as from the Mormon angle.

  4. Let me start off by saying that I was one of those asked to review Dan’s book. And yes, I’m a life long member of the LDS church, as well as a returned missionary myself.

    Honestly, I found Dan’s book refreshing. I’ve told many people about it–including non-member friends. I wasn’t offended by anything in the book what-so-ever. If anything, it helped me appreciate what others see of my faith.

    Are there thing we keep sacred? Yes. Does that bother some non-members? I’m sure it does. At the same time, if they were told, I’m guessing most would say, “Is that all? What’s the big deal?” simply because they wouldn’t understand it.

    There is a famous saying, “It isn’t secret as much as it is sacred”.

    But alas, I’m getting off topic here. “Who’s at the door” is an excellent read by a gifted writer.

    I find it hard to understand people who judge books they haven’t read, but then again, I should be accustomed to that by how many people judge The Book of Mormon who have never read it. *winks*

  5. Wm Morris, I am sorry for how I said what I did. His statement is a religious pet-peeve of mine and so it stuck out from the interview. I am sure it is a good book for the most part, but that really tainted my enthusiasm. Frankly, I would rather read a book about a convert who discusses how the missionaries brought them to the Gospel. That subject seems a little more “inspiring” and worthwhile to me.

  6. .

    I think that by virtue of being So Mysterious, we will always be perceived as holding back whether we are or not. Which is why a) books like this (books told from a friendly outsider’s pov) and b) “open” books written by Mormons are both so important.

  7. Thanks, Jetttboy. I understand the reaction.

    I think the value in a title like this is in getting a sense of how LDS, especially LDS missionaries, are perceived and what the experience is like for those who are intrigued by our faith and not hostile to it. That is something that I am interested in because if we see the experience of the missionaries as only those who have an inspiring conversion to tell or those who are inimical to their efforts, we’re missing a large part of the story — those who investigate and don’t join and end up with positive or at least mixed feelings towards the Church and its missionaries. Certainly, that population makes up the majority of those I came in contact with on my mission.

    Now this is a little more contrived than that in that Dan admits that he was looking for a story to tell. But my sense is that he was at least sincere in that he was seeking some understanding and had warm feelings towards the missionaries.

  8. It’s interesting how things appear different to those outside the Church than they do to those inside the Church.

    That said, there’s actually a lot of stuff that doesn’t get talked about in public. Finances, for example — as in, who pays how much and who gets how much (e.g., welfare assistance). The ins and outs of Church callings. Worthiness issues. G

    ranted, none of these are “doctrinal” per se, but they do all involve a certain trust of leaders. All of those are items where we trust our leaders to know what they need to know, and don’t feel any need to know it ourselves — partly because we understand that “leaders” is a flexible category that all of us tend to drift into and out of over time, if we don’t run away first. There’s no “them” and “us.” I don’t think many born-and-bred Mormons realize just how alien that is.

    I have no idea if those are the things Dan Harrington was talking about. Maybe I’ll find out if I read Dan’s book someday. (From what he said here, it’s not clear to me whether that’s something he talks about in the book, or just something he said in response to William’s question.) I find it interesting, though, that no one else has mentioned these examples. To my way of thinking, this simply proves the basic point I think he was trying to make: that a lot of Mormon attitudes are surprising to non-Mormons in ways that we may not even realize.

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