An conversation with Melissa Leilani Larson about Third Wheel and the writer’s life

William Morris and Melissa Leilani Larson discuss her two peculiar plays of women in love, food, ink, football, Jane Austen and being single and Mormon.

Earlier this year BCC Press published Third Wheel: Plays by Melissa Leilani Larson. Subtitled “Peculiar Stories of Women in Love”, the book collects two of Larson’s most Mormon, most interesting and provocative plays Little Happy Secrets and Pilot Program. Not only is it worth picking up (in electronic or print form–or both!), it also makes for a great excuse for me to pick Mel’s brain. This is our conversation:

There are so many places I feel like I could start, but let’s start here: did you learn something by putting these two plays together in this particular context–a book published by a Mormon publisher meant for reading as a book? Or were those things already there when you went to write Pilot Program because of what you learned writing Little Happy Secrets? I’m thinking about theme and plot and characters here, but also things like form (the monologues, the silences) and voice and conceit (third wheel!).

It’s a good question. I did intend for the plays to go together stylistically. When I started writing Little Happy Secrets, it was very much an experiment. I was trying to be as honest as possible in telling Claire’s story, and the character became very real to me. Somewhere in that first weekend I realized she had to give permission for the story to be told, which is how she ended up actually doing the telling. I usually avoid narrators, but Claire had to tell this story—because she had reached that place in the world of the play, and because it would help us as an audience to accept it.

When I first began drafting Pilot Program, there was a correlation, but it started in a different place. As a single woman, I was thinking about Heather’s role in the marriage. But as I started writing, I realized it was Abigail’s play. It’s a play about being married and then single, not the other way round. Abigail, like Claire, had to sign off on things. She had to talk to me. Breaking the fourth wall would allow Abigail to say things to us she might not otherwise. Almost like a confessional, but without touching on sin. Abigail, like Claire, is at a place where she can tell us what her life has been like.

So there are similarities in tone, in format, and in theme. I think of the plays as a duet; they complement each other. The “third wheel” conceit came naturally into the conversation, as both women identify with the idea and comment on it. Eventually I would like there to be a third and final play in the trilogy, aptly named Third Wheel. It’s about being a single woman in a culture of marriage, and will be told in the same style as the other two—a mix of monologue and scene. It’s the bridge between the other two and, also like the other two, it’s a story we don’t always acknowledge within Mormon culture.

That makes sense. One of the things I discovered when collecting my short stories together is that it was quite clear they were by the same author even though there was some variation of situation and structure. Of course, my stories stay on a page. I’m both fascinated by and a little scared of the whole process of staging a play. Would you be willing to share a moment or two from the rehearsal and staging of one or both of the plays in Third Wheel that spoke to you in some way?

I love being in rehearsal. It’s where I know that the words on the page are in the right order because I get to hear actors bring them to life. I’ve always been rather amazed at how naturally actors take the words from the page and made them their own. For example, the actors cast in Pilot Program at Plan-B Theatre Company were all so comfortable with each other, and with Jerry (the director) and with the script. They inhabited the story and let it unfold organically (it’s a word that gets overused in the theatre world, but really it’s the best choice). I remember feeling a little guilty because there was a scene I added after we settled on the cast. As Heather, Susanna Florence was playing her first role at Plan-B while April and Mark Fossen, playing Abigail and Jacob, have been staples at Plan-B for years. April and Mark are married in real life and were playing a married couple—married to each other, anyway—f or the first time. So there were a lot of ways in which Susanna was the outsider, just like Heather is. And I wrote this scene that is basically Abigail walking in on her husband making out with his second wife. I felt bad, like I was piling stuff on April (I guess I didn’t feel bad enough, because I left the scene in). Naturally April is a professional and took what I gave her in stride. But they were all so good at filling those roles that I sometimes had to remind myself they were acting. Hence the guilt.

Ah. That’s interesting. Taking that back into the work itself–what is it about the experience of the modern Mormon woman (especially single woman) that feels so urgent and rich and dangerous and interesting as a subject for narrative art? I’ve tried writing characters that fit that profile myself and done so with mixed feelings because I’m outside or adjacent to that experience but at the same time want more of those stories. Perhaps it’s as simple (and somewhat condescending, to be honest) as feeling sympathetic towards single Mormon women, but I’m sure there’s also a bit of that artistic selfishness of just: hey, this is an interesting position to be in that if explored could say something unique about the Mormon experience.

I think it’s a point-of-view that seems simple and easily understood from the outset. “Hey, in this faith it’s important to be married, but here is a person who is single.” And it is that. But at the same time, it’s not.

Recently I was working on a project and getting feedback from others on the team. I had written a scene in which the main character, who is single, sees a couple steal a romantic moment. In that moment she realizes that they have something she doesn’t, and that she may never have, and that is heartbreaking to her. The moment happens very quickly; we don’t dwell on it, we just go on. But it affects who she is as a person.

That day, in the feedback session, the responses were like, “This moment is unnecessary. Why do we have it? It’s kind of creepy that she’s watching them. Nothing is happening. This character is weird and voyeuristic. Who cares?” I realized, looking around the room, that I was the only single person there. Everyone was married, and none of them got the point of the scene because none of them felt the same sense of loss. I think they would if they saw it, but they didn’t get it on the page. The point of the moment was like what happened to me in that room: the character realized she was expected to be paired with someone but she wasn’t. In our culture, everyone talks about how great marriage is and how important it is. How you need it to get to the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom. But there are good people who just aren’t married. They aren’t weird or voyeuristic or creepy. They are—we are—unattached, and that’s just the way things are.

Another quick experience. A few months back the podcast The Cultural Hall had an episode about mid-singles. I was so excited to listen. What were they going to discuss? But the whole episode was about dating. Because that’s all singles and mid-singles are supposed to be doing? Ugh. What about what the Church and its married members are supposed to be doing in regard to single members? No, it all comes back to marriage. Thing is, I don’t need other people to tell me I should be married. I am well aware.

We all have moments in our lives when we think about what’s missing—what we’re doing wrong in this life that will keep us from ultimately getting where we want to be.

We definitely do. That actually relates well to something else I wanted to ask: in his introduction to Third Wheel, Eric Samuelsen coins a phrase that I found very interesting. Speaking about your stage managing, in particular, he says that you possess a “formidable omnicompetence”. Do you have any sense of where that came from? Do you experience that as a gift or a curse? I’m asking this strictly out of self-interest, by the way, because while I’m not sure about the formidable, I’ve found in my work and church career that being competent at a lot of things often just means that you are expected to do more things and be competent at all things and that’s both gratifying and frustrating. And this is especially true when you’re trying to figure out how and when to also make art.

To be honest, I don’t think that term applies to me in any context but a theatrical one. Stage management is an all-encompassing job, which is part of the reason I had to give it up; I love it, but I didn’t have enough time to write. If I ever had the “omnicompetence” Eric mentions, I don’t think I have it anymore. Culturally, as Mormons, I think it could be equated with the things you mention—expectations, and how they tend to stack up before we can really catch up. As a people, we’re obsessed with perfection even though we know it’s not possible—at least not at this point in our existence. I try not to think too much about expectations; I disappoint myself before anyone else gets the chance.

I can relate to that. The weird thing about expectations–especially in relation to Mormon culture and the arts–is that there are none in terms of being an artist. But the if you do tackle the challenge of being an artist in Zion, there are a ton of (often competing) expectations. We could chat in depth about that, I’m sure, but I’m thinking now about expectations people might have about you and your work, and, not to be Captain Obvious, but I’m going to bring up Jane Austen. Everybody knows you’re the go-to for adaptation of her work (and if they don’t know, they should know). I want to ask about you as a reader of Austen: what do you go to certain Austen novels for and how has that changed over the years? For example, in my early twenties I went to Emma because of Mr. Knightley. Because, I suppose, I wanted to learn to be the mature romantic hero who attracts the bright young thing. Now, I’m more interested in Emma and who she is and what she wants and why.

Sense and Sensibility was my gateway drug to Austen. I remember reading Pride and Prejudice the first time because someone recommended it, but I set myself up to not like it because that friend was so insistent. I read it, and it was fine. I don’t think I even found it very funny. In undergrad, I read Sense and Sensibility and I got it. I related to Elinor in a way I hadn’t related to a character in a long time. She was trying so hard to do the right thing, to do what was expected and to figure things out—she thought she had to sacrifice her relationship with Edward because it’s the proper thing to do where honor is involved. And then I saw the 1995 film adaptation, and it blew my mind. 1995 was a big year for Austen: Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, Clueless, the Amanda Root Persuasion, and of course the BBC Pride and Prejudice (which I didn’t see then, because we didn’t have cable).

I watch Sense and Sensibility at least once a year because the story is so great and the film is just brilliant. Eventually I figured out that Pride and Prejudice is funny and that Persuasion is heartbreaking. Sense and Sensibility falls somewhere in between. I love them all for different reasons, I think. I re-read Persuasion frequently because the prose is quietly beautiful. Plot-wise, I love both Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility because you don’t really know where they’re going to end up; they both have moments where you think everything is going the way of tragedy. That’s a sign of greatness—when a writer can make you wonder what’s going to happen, honestly make you wonder, with just the right level of frustration.

I used to go back to Sense for the romance, but lately I’ve been going back for the family relationships. People accuse Austen of sameness, but I find that ridiculous. I look at all of the families she portrays across her novels, and they are all different and complex and human. Really there are so many different family groups in Sense, and those families affect who the characters are and the choices that they make. The last several times I’ve gone back to Pride (including to adapt it) have been to study Darcy, actually. I wanted to figure out why so many people are so obsessed with him as a character. As much as I love the book, I think a lot of the obsession comes down to Colin Firth. It’s interesting that we can’t seem to separate novels from their adaptations. Of course, that’s a discussion for another day. Though there is a lot about him to like, I don’t personally see Darcy as the perfect romantic hero. Now, Colonel Brandon or Captain Wentworth… Ah, choices.

Speaking of choices (and good ones at that): you know we have to talk about food at some point here. What are some of your go-to food rewards after you finish a first draft or on opening night, etc.?

It’s so true. I love food so much I wrote a play about it. If we’re celebrating and being fancy, I could do with filet mignon, medium rare, with mashed potatoes and garlic butter. On an opening night, I’m usually too nervous to do dinner before the show but I’m ravenous afterward. That’s usually a cheeseburger and milkshake situation. Sushi is great. Fish and chips! Biscuits and gravy. Schnitzel! Chicken tamales. Num. Look, writing is hard and deserves a reward. I should get all the foods. Plus an ice-cold Coke.

You’ll get no argument from me on food-based rewards for writing. There’s something about the emptying out of the mind and soul that is the writing process, and the subsequent buzz after you’ve put in that mental and emotional work that demands reconnecting with the body through food. I mean, I never need an excuse for all the foods, but I am often famished after a writing session.

Based on your tweeting at certain times of the year, you have a fondness for college football. Competitive sports are great, right? I mention this because sometimes people are surprised to discover how much into sports I am. But writers can (and do) like sports that aren’t baseball! So what do you like about sports and do you see any intersections between that fandom/experience and your interest and participation in narrative art, especially theater?

College football is a pageant of sorts. The players are out there to put on a show. What matters is what the ref sees. A receiver will move his body in such a way that pass interference gets called on the defender, even though nothing happened. An offensive lineman will trash-talk the defense, trying to goad them into jumping the line. It’s all a show.

It’s fascinating how football can sometimes take you completely by surprise. Two teams will meet, and everyone seems so certain that one team will win, which makes the upset that much sweeter. So much can hang on a single play—sometimes that play is executed perfectly, and sometimes it isn’t. An intense game can make my breath catch in my throat, just like well-acted Chekhov. How will it end? That’s the question—in sports and in drama. I love the Olympics for similar reasons. Human effort. Human drama. It comes down to inches and seconds. Being in the right place at the right time, or the opposite. NBC tends to lay it on a little thick, both with the human interest and the spoilers, but I can’t turn it off. There is something epic and beautiful about sports that aligns rather perfectly with the stories we enact on stage.

Agreed! The NBA has been my favorite soap opera for three or four seasons now. And it just keeps getting better (and weirder!). I’ve pretty much stuck to fiction in my writing; whereas, you’ve worked across several different narrative arts. What art form/mediums and/or subjects would you like the opportunity to tackle that you haven’t yet?

I would love, love, love to write for television. Television drama right now is very cinematic as far as design, direction, and cinematography go. At the same time, TV writing is actually very close to playwriting; it depends on dialogue, and a lot of it—much more so than your typical film. You have fewer scenes in TV than you do in film, and yet you have more time to explore characters. You get to know a character over several scenes, perhaps even over a number of episodes, which is closer to what happens in plays than in film. The possibility to tell a story serially over a series of episodes is just so cool. There is so much you can do in TV that you can’t really do with any other form of storytelling. I have a couple of ideas for pilots and series. Who’s got several million dollars they can loan me?

I would also like to write a novel. I have a couple of YA novels that I started way back when that was the thing I was going to do with my life.

As far as genre goes, I’m presently writing a Western, which was a bit unexpected. I would love to do something creepy on stage. A ghost story. Ooh. I think I just gave myself a chill.

Sadly, I don’t have a million dollars to loan you, but if you get it, I’d be happy to write a spec script and apply to be in the writer’s room. Oh, something else I’m curious about: are you a listen to music while you write person or not? If so, what parameters do you require? If not, why not?

Typically I don’t listen to music while I’m working because I’m easily distracted. Music is an emotional experience for me. I want to pay attention to it. I can’t seem to listen to music without getting caught up in it, and then no writing happens, because the writing is where my focus is supposed to be. That said, it can depend on where I am in the process. When I’m trying to figure out a character, I often will make her a playlist—not necessarily songs she would listen to, but songs that fit her and help explain her. If I do listen to music while I’m writing, it’s instrumental. Usually classical.

Give me three inks that fountain pen or calligraphy neophytes should try. Also: what are the colors you’re currently obsessed with and/or have an eye on?

For the neophytes, I would recommend:

  • Waterman Inspired Blue, a beautiful turquoise with some surprising pink shading. Waterman is a classic brand, and you can use it in just about any pen without problems. I love turquoise ink; it’s probably my favorite color family as far as ink goes. I have a range of them, some leaning more green and others more blue.
  • Robert Oster Dark Chocolate, a perfectly named ink. Somewhere between burgundy and brown. Just pretty. And dressy enough that you could away with using it at work. Robert Oster is a new ink maker from Australia who comes out with new colors all the time. Great stuff.
  • Diamine Oxford Blue, classic and classy, a dark and intense blue.

As for the ones I’ve been playing with myself, Diamine Blood Orange is an intense red/orange I just discovered and like a lot. I have been playing with Japanese inks lately and enjoying them immensely. Examples: Sailor Jentle Yama-Dori (“copper pheasant teal”) and Pilot Iroshizuku Yama-budo (“crimson glory vine”). Even the names are great. I’m not a fan of black inks; I know they are practical, but they are also boring. I do, however, enjoy grey inks; they have a lot more going on. My favorite grey at the moment is Papier Plume Oyster Grey, handmade in the shop that sells it—a stationary shop in New Orleans.

Going back to your question about getting myself a reward for finishing something—I get myself a fountain pen as a present when I have a show or a film open. It’s really something to look at a pen later and remember the stories that go with it.

That sounds very cool–and dangerous. I think I’ll stick to food for now, although I find the fountain pen life very tempting. Okay, final question: what creative works–theater or not, Mormon or not–are you finding particularly interesting, powerful, etc. right now?

The recent film Jackie is pretty fantastic. It’s a very thoughtful portrait of Jackie Kennedy; it’s also an incredible and compassionate portrayal of a woman in mourning. The shots are beautiful, and Natalie Portman’s performance is stellar. It kind of blew my mind. I had never thought of the parallels between Jackie Kennedy and Emma Hale Smith, but they hit me hard watching that film. I’m working on a piece right now in which Emma deals with the trauma of her husband’s death, and seeing Jackie was a timely and beautiful experience.

I’m a subscriber to NT Live, which is a really great service that screens performances from London’s National Theatre to movie theaters around the world. I go about once a month and the productions are almost always fantastic. The Bristol Vic did a wonderfully theatrical retelling of Jane Eyre that has just stayed with me. It was a simple show, with a few actors who each played multiple roles and a set that was basically a ramp with a few choice pieces of furniture. There was a live band, and the accompaniment really added a lot to the performance. The dialogue was lean and to the point, and yet the story was perfectly clear to those who had no experience with the novel. The emotion between the characters was palpable even though I was watching it several thousand miles away. Wow. It’s the kind of stuff I want to be making. Just beautiful.

Thanks, Mel!

Artists and Doctrine & Covenants section 58

What D&C 58 means in relation to Mormon artists when it chastises Martin Harris and W.W. Phelps.

I listened to section 58 of the Doctrine & Covenants this morning on my walk to the bus stop. Verses 26-28  are the ones that tend to get quoted in classes and talks—that’s where we’re told to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause”, etc.

But as I listened to the rest of the section, I was struck by a few verses down from those oft-quoted ones. Specifically:

38 And other directions concerning my servant Martin Harris shall be given him of the Spirit, that he may receive his inheritance as seemeth him good;

39 And let him repent of his sins, for he seeketh the praise of the world.

40 And also let my servant William W. Phelps stand in the office to which I have appointed him, and receive his inheritance in the land;

41 And also he hath need to repent, for I, the Lord, am not well pleased with him, for he seeketh to excel, and he is not sufficiently meek before me.

I can’t really relate to Joseph Smith. He’s too much of a true prophet, a revelator who used his many gifts to try to get people to see (and live) a grander vision of life. Nor do I quite track with Brigham Young who has this pragmatic, unwavering, sometimes ruthless streak to him that kept the body of Saints together and going. 

But Martin Harris and W.W. Phelps? Yeah, I can very much relate to the desire to seek the praise of the world and to excel. Because (which I keep finding myself surprised to discover) I’m an artist, and the formula for an artist to succeed is to excel and gain praise (e.g. a certain measure of fame) so that fortune and influence will follow which will then (hopefully) facilitate the creation of further excellence.

Fame, fortune and influence—they each influence the other in such a way that all three increase. There’s a very high level of fame that messes up the equation, but for the most part the three are a powerful engine, and one that can be very important for an artist because without a working engine of that sort it’s very difficult to find the time (and other resources) to create powerful art and then get it in front of an audience. Fortune (money) is the best way to free up that time. Fame not only help with fortune, but also grows audience further. And without influence, your position becomes more precarious and your ability to effectuate your artistic vision lessens.

The problem with this engine and its’ three parts is that it’s very easy to be seduced by it to the point where you feel like you deserve the fame, fortune and influence and for those to continually increase. I was going to say that’s especially true for artistic types who tend to have at least to a small degree a measure of narcissism of “look at me! Validate me! I exist!” but then I think it’s probably actually most of us. 

And yet: I still believe in the importance of art. And artists have to have enough encouragement (praise) and time/space/means to create good art (excel).

Which means, if my reading of D&C 58 is actually applicable to the situation, that artists who are also interested in building up Zion need to be sufficiently meek.

Remembering Jonathan Langford the critic

It’s been almost three months since Jonathan died. I miss him very much. This is not a proper obit. For that, read Andrew’s In Memoriam over at the AML blog. Rather, it’s a tribute about just one particular facet of his life and personality. This originally appeared in a book of memories put together by the Langford family.  

There are so many things I could write about Jonathan, but I think that for this particular tribute I want to focus on him as a critic because it captures one of the wonderful things about him. That is: Jonathan was an amazing critic because he had well-informed tastes that were particular to him, and he was always very honest about what worked for him and what didn’t and why.

I thought about using some examples from literature or Mormon culture, practice or doctrine, but instead I’ll go with food.

After I moved to Minnesota about ten years ago. Jonathan and I decided to get together every couple of months for lunch. Because I work in Minneapolis (and Jonathan was gracious enough to drive into the city), we had a lot of lunch places to choose from, and we could sometimes choose restaurants that we’d never be able to afford during the evening hours.

Oftentimes when you go out to eat, people will say the food is good, and that’s the extent of the conversation on that subject. But I liked to talk about the food and so was delighted to discover that, if anything, Jonathan was even more interested in and candid about food than I was.

However, he wasn’t pretentious about it. It didn’t matter what the restaurant signaled about itself, all Jonathan cared about was the food. One time we went to a kinda fancy, sorta spendy restaurant. Jonathan ordered a vegetable tart. When it arrived, it was about the size of a DVD. His verdict was that it was tasty enough–but it was not a large enough portion for the price. I had to agree. Another time, he tried a tomato soup. His verdict was that it was fine but no better than what he could make at home.

But there were also other times, where a dish would arrive, and he’d find it excellent or interesting or different or new. And then he’d try to figure out why he was responding to it so favorably or he’d compare it to other dishes he’d had. He’d take a bite then sit up straight and tilt his head back just a bit and conjure up a flavor or cooking technique or a memory or an idea for how he’d implement this new sensory experience into his own cooking. And if it was truly amazing, he’d always insist that I try it. Because when he liked something, he wanted everyone to experience it.

So that was Jonathan: always a critic. But not a snobbish, jaded, or sarcastic one. Jonathan was always generous in praise, thoughtful in critique, and quick to admit that others may have different opinions. I had the pleasure of having numerous (verbal or written) conversations with him over the years that let him showcase his wonderful skills as a critic.

States of Deseret is now available

Cover of States of Deseret featuring a Casey Jex Smith pen and ink illustration of a Mormon temple with the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate bridge in the backgroundPeculiar Pages in collaboration with A Motley Vision is pleased to announce the release of States of Deseret. With a foreword by Theric Jepson, cover illustration by Casey Jex Smith and 8 pieces of short and short short fiction, States of Deseret is, as far as I can tell, the first anthology devoted solely to Mormon alternate history.

It was a ton of fun to edit. My thanks to the eight contributors who authored such interesting and varied stories and who put up with my editing notes. This is a short anthology–it’s about 26,000 total words of fiction. It’s lean and mean and packs a punch. But that means that we’ve by no means exhausted this particular patch of the garden. I hope that it’ll inspire other Mormon authors to tackle the genre of alternate history.

Here’s the blurb:

What if the territory of Deseret had never joined the Union and instead became its own nation? What if Leo Tolstoy or Nikola Tesla had converted to the LDS Church? What if Brigham Young had gone all the way to California instead of stopping in Utah? The genre of alternate history invites us to imagine how the past (and thus our present and future) would be different if different choices had been made. These eight stories provide glimpses at alternate historical trajectories for Mormons and Mormonism—of other states of Deseret.

States of Deseret is available in several different ebook formats worldwide for $2.99* from: Amazon/Kindle | B&N/Nook | Kobo | iBooks

We don’t plan on offering a print version at this time, but if things change, I’ll be sure to let you know.

*or local currency equivalent

Mormon Arts Sunday for 2017 is June 11

Mormon Arts Sunday is the second Sunday in June, which means it’s June 11 this year. This is an occasion to celebrate the creativity of our fellow Saints (and others) as well as the important role the arts can have in bringing goodness, joy and wisdom into our lives.

We invite you to celebrate it as individuals, families, friends and wards. There are many ways to do this, here are some:

  1. Wear dark red/maroon to church on June 11 to show support for Mormon art and artists.
  2. If you will be giving a talk, teaching or selecting music for meetings on June 11, consider using work from/referencing Mormon poets, composers, fiction authors, playwrights, visual artists, etc.
  3. If appropriate, talk about creativity and art as part of a lesson, talk, family home evening (perhaps the Monday before) or conversation.
  4. Recommend works of art (especially those by Mormon artists) to friends and family members.

Read these previous AMV posts for mores ideas for celebrating and the history of the day.

A conversation with Luisa Perkins about her short novel Prayers in Bath

cover of Prayers in Bath

Luisa Perkins was kind enough to indulge me in a conversation about her novel Prayers in Bath, which was published earlier this spring by Mormon Artists Group.

But first here’s the back cover blurb to provide some context for our discussion:

After several attempts at in vitro fertilization, Ted and Julia Taylor are out of money and out of hope. In an attempt to shake herself out of her depression, Julia accepts an internship on an archaeological dig in Bath, England. When she finds an ancient scroll while working in the sewer connected to the Roman baths, she sneaks it back to her flat, translates it, and discovers a secret previously lost in the shadows of legend. But her new knowledge poses significant risks, and the repercussions leave her career, her faith, and her marriage hanging in the balance.

And now on to our conversation…

WM: So I really liked Prayers in Bath, Luisa. I want to talk about it, but I also very much don’t want to spoil too much of the plot for other readers so we’re going to talk around it a bit instead of diving into the text itself. On your author website, you reveal the initial germ for the novel. Could you expand on that a bit? What came after the two initial ideas of a Mormon woman as the main character and curse tablets in the hot springs of Bath? Was there a particular image or sentence or scene or additional theme or idea that arrived next? Or to put it another way: what were the next layers of sediment that settled down as you built the bedrock of the stream of the novel? Also, what was your reaction to that first glimmer of ideas?

LP: Well, that is hard to talk about without dropping a lot of spoilers, but the William Blake poem/hymn and its allusions to the Glastonbury legend were the next big pieces of the puzzle.

As I started building Julia as a character, I knew I didn’t want her to be what some might expect a Mormon woman character to be. She’s not from Utah; she’s a convert; she doesn’t have kids. And I wanted her to question some of the things that I question: how do we navigate the tension between personal revelation and institutional revelation? What about the tension between faith and knowledge? What do we do with a character (like Nephi) who feels inspired to break a commandment?

I also think a lot about all the scriptures we don’t have. I teach early morning seminary, and one of the things I try to teach my students is how and why to cherish the scriptures we do have–but there’s so much we don’t know. And I often wonder when we’ll get more scriptures, when we’ll have an outpouring of knowledge of the magnitude of the Kirtland years. My grandfather once quoted someone to me–I don’t know whom–and said we wouldn’t get any more scriptures until we knew and lived the ones we already have. So I guess it’ll be a little while.

My reaction to thinking about all these questions in the context of my new characters was excitement. I did a lot of very diverse research before I settled into the plot the book has now. It’s a short book, but it took a long time to write, to feel like I’d gotten it right.

WM: Short is usually more difficult than long because you have to do the work to reduce the story. You said it took a while to settle into the plot. It’d would have been very easy to take the core elements of the story and blow it out into a much larger and/or more melodramatic plot. I like that you didn’t do that.

Another thing I found interesting is that Julia and Ted, the married couple at the center of the story, are academics. Ted comes from pioneer stock; Julia is a convert. They struggle with fertility. Setting aside their individual personalities and, as we find out later, some plot reasons for these attributes, I think there’s something very interesting about layering those three experiences onto a fictional Mormon couple. What did you find interesting about that particular combination?

LP: I love Ted. He thinks he’s very progressive, but his self-conception gets challenged pretty strongly by the events of the book, and he realizes he’s more a product of his upbringing than he’d like to think. I think most self-aware adults go through that struggle at some point. As for Julia, we need more convert stories. There are so many more converts or children of converts in the church today than there are people with pioneer ancestry. It would be great if our books reflected that. As for fertility, I pictured, Julia joining the church and wanting to buy into the dream of the Ensign cover family–but having a hard time with it for a lot of reasons. She’s an outsider, but then in the story, she becomes a very particular kind of insider. I like that kind of reversal.

WM: I hadn’t thought of Julia in terms of the reversal that happens in relation to Ted, but that’s definitely one of the things I responded to. Getting more specific: I think that infertility is something that could use more attention from Mormon artists (and Mormon culture in general). I really responded to Emily Adams’ essay/poetry collection For Those With Empty Arms and was sad but also strangely happy that it turned out to be one of the elements of Prayers in Bath. What other kinds of works would you like to see that deal with infertility?

LP: I’d love to read more fiction and non-fiction about adoption. As Mormons, we have this huge culture of symbolic adoption in the gospel. The realities of adoption can be very tough. But in any circumstance, families are hard, families are crucibles. Our ancestors had to deal with infant mortality rates and a rate of mothers dying in childbirth that I simply cannot imagine. But maybe they look at us, with the seemingly ever-increasing rates of infertility, and are similarly astonished.

WM: Modern Mormons sometimes pay lip service to the idea that our times are just as challenging for us as their own times were for the Mormon pioneers. But it’s usually cast in terms of “they had to face super difficult physical challenges, and we face super difficult spiritual ones”. But I’m pretty sure they faced spiritual challenges too. And we face physical ones—they’re just not quite the same ones (at least for those of us who live in first world countries).

Switching gears: there’s a “Mormon expats hosted by bemused but game local Mormons Thanksgiving dinner scene” in the novel. I had a couple of moments on my mission in Romania of awkward-but-charming attempts to celebrate American-Mormon holidays. What’s your favorite traditional Thanksgiving dish? What’s your favorite non-traditional Thanksgiving dish? What was the most memorable Thanksgiving dinner abroad experience you have had?

LP: My favorite Thanksgiving dish is stuffing with gravy. But it has to be my mother’s recipe, or I won’t eat it. I’m kind of a fascist about our Thanksgiving menu, but I haven’t heard anyone complaining.

My favorite non-traditional Thanksgiving dish is carrot soup. My second favorite is a course of French cheeses. I’ve never eaten Thanksgiving dinner abroad, but the first time I had Thanksgiving with my husband’s family, it felt like I was in a foreign country. My mother–in-law is Swiss, from the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and my husband’s family grew up having very traditional French dinners–several courses spread over several hours.

So my husband’s family’s Thanksgiving turned out to be this perfect amalgam of French and American cultures. The meal started with this amazing, creamy, rich, pureed carrot soup. Then came the recognizable course–the turkey, gravy, stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes, and cranberry. (I took it as a sign from heaven when my mother-in-law’s stuffing turned out to be nearly identical to my mother’s.) Then came the salad course, and then the cheese plate, and then finally, the pies. Oh, and fresh apple cider from a local farm throughout, served in wine glasses. We were at the table for five hours, and I felt like I was in heaven. Lively conversation, fantastic food. And that’s how I’ve done Thanksgiving–or any holiday meal–ever since.

Um, obviously, I’m very into food.

WM: Same here. All my conversations eventually end up on the subject of food, fashion or narrative art (books, TV, film).

Okay, let’s get to a core AMV topic: Prayers in Bath is almost perfectly calibrated to appeal to me and my half-baked theories about Mormon literature but because of that very fact, it’s hard to categorize generically. I suppose one could simply give it the “contemporary literary fiction” genre label, but that sidesteps the fact that there are elements to it that go beyond mundane realism. For one thing, it treats its supernatural element seriously. That is, Julia is a believing Mormon character, which means she seeks for and receives revelation from the Holy Ghost, which an LDS reader will see as simply realism while non-LDS readers will see it as non-realism. And yet other genre categories/labels commonly used don’t fit either. It’s not magic realism [for readers wondering why not, see my AMV series on Mormon magic realism]. It’s not paranormal fiction in the way that term is used for horror/urban fantasy/weird fiction. I’ve used the term Mormon folk realism to describe creative works that take Mormon doctrine (and especially Mormon folk doctrine) at face value and extrapolate from there. But I’d say that Prayers in Bath doesn’t even quite fit that because whatever is supernatural about it is well within the borders of current Church doctrine and practice, albeit a somewhat unusual/unique manifestation of it. There are, certainly, versions of this novel that could have put you more solidly in any number of genres. What parameters and/or influences and/or inclinations influenced how you calibrated your approach to the genre of the novel? And how did genre labels factor into discussions with Mormon Artists Group on how to position the novel?

LP: When Gideon Burton teaches my novel Dispirited at BYU, he calls it “spiritual realism.” I thought that was pretty genius and have adopted it to explain most of the stuff I write, including Prayers in Bath. It may not be PC to admit it, but Orson Scott Card’s Alvin books had a big influence on me. His folk magic is just one step removed from a lot of stuff that we as Mormons believe and witness. A story I wrote just came out in the latest issue of Sunstone, and I have another one coming out in a Segullah anthology soon. They’re very much in the same spiritual realist vein.

WM: Excellent. I look forward to those stories. Whether we call it Mormon folk realism or spiritual realism or something else entirely, it’s a type of Mormon fiction that I very much enjoy reading and writing because it takes LDS doctrine and experience seriously but does so as a matter of theme and aesthetics rather than sermon or personal essay, and there’s something about that translation to the idiom of fiction that gets at aspects of the Mormon experience that I, personally, don’t find anywhere else.

Okay, next question: what was your initial reaction to seeing the four works Jacqui Larsen created for Prayers in Bath? How awesome is it that she incorporated the words of William Blake?

LP: First of all, I was over the moon when Jacqui agreed to join the project. Her work is amazing. So before she turned in the pieces, I had high hopes. She exceeded them, to say the least. I wish I could have afforded to buy all four originals from her, but I am delighted that the color reproductions in the limited edition turned out so beautifully. The Blake poem/hymn is one of my favorite things, ever. I’m pretty anti-patriotism; I feel like it’s idolatry and does no one any good. But when people sing “Jerusalem,” I choke up every time.

WM: We should all have more Blake in our lives.

So. It’s impolite to ask about sequels, but I’m very curious about this: do you see yourself returning to the characters of Prayers in Bath? Or if not the characters, this style of fiction? Why or why not?

LP: I don’t see myself returning to Ted and Julia, but I won’t rule it out. But this style of fiction is generally what I want to be writing. I’m in an MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts right now, and my professor this semester has strongly encouraged me to write stories that only I can write, to draw on deeply personal experiences. Maybe that’s self-evident for other writers, but it was not for me. I grew up reading a lot of English literature and British fantasy, so in a way, Prayers in Bath is a little bit of a literary homecoming for me.

But another thing I love is how these days, it’s more common to see fantasy and magical realism set in this hemisphere. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “There is the dearest freshness deep down things,” and that can’t be true just for England. There has to be magic everywhere. I live in Southern California now, and I’m trying to find the beauty and magic here and write about it.

WM: You know, in my early days of participating in discussion about Mormon literature, I railed against all the stories set in small Mormon corridor towns. But now I’ve written six or seven stories set in Southern Utah. And the majority of them have some sort of weird or magical element to them. There’s something about place and magic that’s a beguiling combination. I didn’t read a lot of British fantasy, but I remember first reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising as a young boy and feeling like I was reading about home.

Last question: what’s the one thing (and it could be anything) that you’d like to see happen in Mormon fiction over the next year or two?

LP: The same thing I’d like to see in Mormondom in general–more faithful questioning. How will we ever get answers if we don’t ask questions? But also, a greater inclusiveness. The concept of “own voices” is a big deal in the writing world these days. Mormons need to have their own voices, but it hopefully won’t all be the same voice. Are there any Mormon writers in Guatemala or Ghana or Bulgaria? I have no idea, but I’d sure like for us to find them if there are.

WM: Amen to that. Thanks, Luisa!

My 2016 Whitney Awards ballot and observations

cover of Ally Condie's Summerlost showing two young people riding their bicycles at sunsetCongratulations to the winners of the 2016 Whitney Awards, which were presented last weekend. This year my participation was limited to being a part of the voting academy for two categories: Middle Grade and Historical Romance. I chose the Middle Grade category because I had already read Summerlost and loved it and wanted to see how the competition stacked up against it. I decided  because I judged (meaning I was part of the panel that selects the finalists) the Historical category a few years ago and had enjoyed some of those novels that had. Plus I’ve read some historical romance and some historical fantasy with strong romance elements over the past few years and was interested in what the landscape looked like for Mormon authors.

Here is my ballot with the finalists ranked 1-5. Summerlost was my number one for Middle Grade and also won novel of the year for youth fiction so the rest of the academy, and I were in complete agreement on that one:

Middle Grade

Summerlost, by Ally Condie (actual winner; Novel of the Year: Youth)
The Wrong Side of Magic, by Janette Rallison
Ghostsitter, by Shelly Brown
Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood, by Liesl Shurtliff
Mysteries of Cove: Gears of Revolution, by J. Scott Savage

For Historical Romance, I thought Sarah Eden’s novel was the best of the bunch, although my second place choice My Fair Gentlemen was the winner. This is probably the most in tune I’ve been with the rest of the voting academy in any of the years I’ve participated:

Historical Romance

The Sheriff of Savage Wells, by Sarah M. Eden
My Fair Gentleman, by Nancy Campbell Allen (actual winner)
Willowkeep, by Julie Daines
Lady Helen Finds Her Song, by Jennifer Moore
The Fall of Lord Drayson, by Rachael Anderson

Some Observations
  1. This year the Whitney Awards had academy voters both rank titles and give them a numerical ratings (1 through 7 with a score of 4 meaning “Average—meeting expectations for an award-winning novel.”). The rankings determined the category winners. The number ratings were used to calculate the overall winner for best debut, best adult novel and best youth novel. I think this is a fantastic way to go about, and I’ve been impressed at how the Whitney Awards (for all that I often disagree with the voting [but not this year!]) continues to improve its processes.
  2. Summerlost was far and away the best novel I read of both groups (and even better than the other finalists in categories that I didn’t vote in such as Speculative: Adult). This shouldn’t come as a surprise because I’ve written fondly about Ally Condie’s work before so I suppose I’m biased toward liking her work. But there’s a reason for that bias: she’s very good to excellent on all levels (plot, characterization, prose, worldbuilding).
  3. Each of the other middle grade novels had something very interesting about them and something that wasn’t quite there. I recognize that I’m not part of the target audience, but I don’t think that what I found deficient in them was a matter of taste. And, look, I don’t work in publishing and don’t understand the constraints and decisions made in producing viably commercial work. But I’ll say this: I believe that with better editing those authors could have produced books that went from just okay to very good or even excellent. Sure, one might say that could apply to any book, but I think in the case of these four books what needed to be fixed was possible and would have made them better even for their intended (much younger) audience.
  4. I was disappointed by the Historical Romance category. Again, this isn’t a primary genre that I read in. But I have read quite a bit of work that’s relevant to this category in my life (especially in the regency [and immediately adjacent] periods), including both historical romance and historical fantasy as well as novels written during those time periods (including all of Jane Austen’s novels) plus quite a bit of nonfiction, and I was quite looking forward to these novels. Some of the advice I gave to historical fiction writers back in 2015 also applies here. But I’d also add that when it comes to a romance plot, what keeps the heroine and the love interest apart and then how those obstacles are overcome needs to be solidly grounded and that there’s a real opportunity to create a tension between the two characters and between them and their social (and economic and cultural) environment that illuminates both their character and their historical circumstances, and when you do that, it’s can be quite the wonderful reading experience. Look, romance plots are really hard. Historical romance is even more difficult because you have to be good at both romance plots and characters and at the worldbuilding and plotting that historical fiction requires. I’m not saying I could do any better. But I have read much better examples, and it frustrates me that this year’s crop weren’t better.
  5. That being said, all of those novels had something going for them (especially the top three and especially Sarah Eden’s [which is a western rather than a regency]) so I have hopes that these authors will continue to push themselves. I really would like to see this category become a strength for the Whitney Awards because I think there’s value to Mormon readers in exploring romance in a way that doesn’t have some of the baggage that contemporary romance brings with it.
  6. This is my standard yet strongly-believed plea to include more Mormon characters and/or settings and/or thematics in the work you write whether it’s for the Mormon market or the national market. Even Summerlost is a bit of a missed opportunity in that way. It’s clearly set in a version of Cedar City’s Shakespeare Festival. I know that commercial fears come into play here. I also think that often those fears are overblown–even on a national level–and that the specificity that can be brought in when Mormon material is deployed can be a real strength. It is for other minority cultures. Why not ours?