Flowers of Grace: a conversation with Teresa Hirst

Flowers of Grace, Mormon writer Teresa Hirst’s first work of fiction, was published last month. Here’s the basic pitch for it: “Set in an upscale St. Louis boutique amid a fragile economic climate when retail customers are trading brick and mortar stores for online shopping, Flowers of Grace is a story of love and loss, friendship and forgiveness.”

There is no specifically Mormon content to it, but it interested me thematically so I figured the best way to approach things was to have an email conversation with Teresa about it.

Teresa lives in Minnesota with her husband and children. She has worked for a newspaper, in public relations, and as a freelance writer and editor. Her nonfiction book Twelve Stones to Remember Him: Building Memorials of Faith from Financial Crisis was published by Walnut Springs Press in January 2014. And for a short while, she and I had LDS Public Affairs callings here in Minnesota at the same time.

My part of the conversation is in bold. You can learn more about the novel and Teresa at her author website.

As you began to outline/write the first draft of Flowers of Grace, what were the themes, images, characters that were most insistently inserting themselves into the process? Do you have any idea why they were on your mind?

Your question took me to a gray three-inch binder which houses the early workings of Flowers of Grace. In this crush of papers (they are not all neatly tucked into the three rings) I discovered several clues to answer your question including one of the first pages from my writing process. On this paper, I have the names of three women characters at three stages of life with a collection of words surrounding them that describe their personality, goals, weaknesses. The pencil marks, different colors of ink and stains on the page show that I collected these over time. The second clue was a handful of cards with names of secondary characters with similar character development. These reveal to me, as they most likely propelled me forward then, that this work would be a character-driven novel with the plot developing out of their relationships. All but one were women. As I began to put them together, I could sense the tangle of divisiveness that often occurs in a setting of women as well as the strength that can also develop. These opposing love/hate relationships among women pressed upon my own story. I also found clues to another theme that was inserting itself into the process. My main character’s name, Grace, was different in these original scribbles. Although my intent was not to introduce a spiritual theme, somewhere along the way, in this collection of dynamic personalities, I had added a copy of words to a song written by Patricia Holland called “A Woman of Grace”. There is a phrase in the song, “A woman of grace knowing God compensates.” Before I knew how this mesh of both internal struggles and external conflict would end for the main character, I knew I would change her name to Grace.

It’s always interesting to me where ideas come from and how they form as a story begins. And it’s not surprising to me that something very crucial changed once you got into the process. And that change brings me to this thought: Mormons have an interesting relationship with the notion of grace. On the one hand, we believe in it and need it and know that only by it we were saved. On the other hand, we distrust some of the mainstream Christian discourse around grace (or rather our understanding of it). How did your view of grace change/deepen as you wrote the story? Or to relate it to the Holland song lyric: how does God compensate and why is knowing that important?

In this novel, Grace receives a flowering hibiscus with an important history from her mentor and friend. She knows nothing about plants and does not have a particularly nurturing nature. She grasps the responsibility but is consumed by the anxiety and fear that she will kill it. This story line was inspired when a legacy plant I had been given did die. I was sure that I had killed it. I watered it, gave it plenty of sun and nourished it the best I could, but it still died.

When I wrote Flowers of Grace, I was coming to grasp the reality of living in a mortal world. The idealism of my twenties and early thirties was waning with the appearance of some very real challenges. When Grace faces her own crises, her response is very real and reactive, falsely fighting against those she assumes are responsible.

At the time, I would go up against obstacles with a Type A fight in me as well–not a literal fight against someone else with words or actions but a fight to give more, do more, be more to overcome whatever that obstacle was. As I saw Grace moving toward defeat, I let her go toward it and followed to see where it led. This endeavor, watching a character fail–especially the protagonist–allowed me to patiently observe the power of God’s grace upon my own efforts, especially those I believed to be failures.

I observed in a new way that what we see as weakness, failure, suffering, and yes, even death, are not only compensated for by Jesus Christ but are ultimately overcome through His grace.

That’s a lovely way to explain it. And I really like how you bring out what writing fiction taught you about grace, about yourself. It reminded me that, for all that I love a ripping good story, ultimately, I write and read fiction to learn. So I’d like to end with your thoughts specifically on Mormons and fiction. In your experience as a writer and reader of fiction who also is a faithful Latter-day Saint, what more do we need from both Mormon fiction writers and readers? Or to put it another way: what more can we do?

This is a topic for a whole post! Well, Mormon authors and books have certainly matured in the last eight to ten years. We now have a wide range of authors across a variety of genres, publishing through not only LDS, small and national publishers but also as successful indie authors. Many of these books show that we are learning to do more than just write to each other but also contribute to the broader community.

As far as readers go, many LDS friends, book groups, and online communities do not frequent these shelves–choosing instead only popular fiction, or if they do, only going as far as the Deseret Book catalog. Mormon readers would do well to take another look. I did and uncovered some great finds among Mormon authors. (I’m not going to name them but welcome comments of those you’ve discovered.)

Still, we are at an interesting place in both media consumption and media creation in the LDS community. And those of us who are Mormon authors can stretch even more to pop the bubbles that we inflate around ourselves.

Have you seen the BYU devotional by Scott Swofford, BYU Broadcasting’s Director of Content?

He suggests we rethink the way we communicate “our connections to heaven,” what we know, and what we feel. Rethink how? Consider context and audience, and most importantly, authenticity, as we share who we are and what is important to us. “Flawed characters are okay. Our state of striving should be part of our reflections,” he said and encouraged putting both feet forward, “the best foot and the real foot.”

His message seems to not only apply to interactions with a stranger on an airplane or social media posts but also Mormon fiction, as evidenced in his own creative accomplishments.

My kids and I are movie talkers. (We’re converting my husband.) We watch a lot of movies and when they were young, we started identifying truth in them. Right as they appeared. Think Tom Sawyer climbing out of the cave toward the light. This carried over into our book discussions as we read together. No matter what you have to say about the Twilight series, the feelings it conjures up, the writing itself or the horrible fan fiction than spun from it, I respect Stephenie Meyer’s courage and ability to take the doctrine of premarital abstinence and present it to an audience who’d probably never considered why it might be important.

Principles fill stories from great authors, some who are Mormon, most who are not, my teens said when I asked about this topic. Truths are just there, they added.

But are they? Did they appear from nowhere?

These authors may or may not recognize the source of that light in their creations, but why should we turn our back on it when we do? Most of us do not write didactic prose, but on the other side, we need not be afraid to “let your faith show” (Russell M. Nelson) as we delve into weakness and sin or the realities and suffering of life and allow consequences to play out and truths to surface.

As a Mormon author, I’m not outlining my plots in Mormon settings, adhering to Mormon culture, or inserting characters to be baptized. But I’m still a Mormon author. What that means is that I cannot separate myself from the light of my faith.

Thanks, Teresa!

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