Interview: Author and former Irreantum editor Christopher Bigelow

Last spring Christopher Bigelow stepped down after five years as managing editor of Irreantum, the Association for Mormon Letters’ literary magazine. Bigelow and Benson Parkinson co-founded Irreantum in 1999, taking what was the AML’s newsletter and turning it into a full-fledged literary mag. Parkinson moved on to other projects after the first year of publication, and Bigelow was left as sole managing editor. He farmed out the major departments — poetry, fiction, essays, reviews — to others, and then did much of the grunt work, overseeing the production and distribution of the magazine and handling the interviews and publishing news. The first few issues were rather thin on content and roughly designed, but with the winter 2000-01 issue, Bigelow and his team had generated enough submissions to fill 100+ pages. He also came up with a minimalist, but pleasant and professional design. During the next four years, the magazine published quality fiction and poetry, landed interviews with many of the major Mormon writers and filmmakers, and became the most complete source of reviews and news of Mormon fiction, film and drama. Throughout this time Bigelow and his department editors held to the vision that he and Parkinson began with — to put out a publication that appealed to a broad spectrum of Mormon readers.

Bigelow holds a B.F.A. in writing from Emerson College and an M.A. in creative writing from Brigham Young University. He did a six year stint at the Ensign, co-founded the Mormon satirical publication The Sugar Beet, and has edited fiction and non-fiction titles for the major Utah publishers. The AML presented Bigelow with an award for editing at its March 2003 annual meeting.

A Motley Vision decided to catch up with Chris and ask about his post-Irreantum plans:

Although I enjoy all of Irreantum‘s content, what I value most are the short stories. What are your favorite stories that Irreantum published during your tenure?

One of my favorite writers we published was Darin Cozzens, whose story “The Darlington Girls” appeared in the summer 2001 issue and “Vigil” in summer 2002. In addition, I really enjoyed his memoir titled “Porch Haircut” in the winter 2003/spring 2004 issue. Cozzens’s writing strikes a chord of authenticity and brings scenes and characters to life so well it makes my eyes water.

During my five years, we published a fair bit of speculative fiction (a.k.a. science fiction and fantasy). While I didn’t personally enjoy all this fiction, two stories in particular engaged my imagination and made a lasting impression: Lee Allred’s “For the Strength of the Hills,” a long piece that we split between the winter 2000-2001 and spring 2001 issues, and Susan J. Kroupa’s “Harden Times,” which appeared in spring 2002.

I enjoyed and appreciated two emerging authors who, while writing pretty close to the mainstream, brought clear-eyed realism and a subtly sophisticated style to their work. Darlene Young’s “Companions” appeared in winter 2001-2002 and “Rissa Orders Cheescake” in autumn 2002. Angela Hallstrom’s “Trying” appeared in autumn 2003. I’d like to see some novels from these writers in a similar voice and form.

Of the more established literary writers whose work we published, I found the following two stories most beguiling and memorable: “Long after Dark,” by Todd Robert Petersen, appearing in the summer 2000 issue, and “The Care of the State,” Brian Evenson, winter 03/spring 04.

You did most of the interviews. Assuming they would have agreed to do it, who else would you have liked to interview?

I would have liked to do a special issue on Mormon drama, with Eric Samuelsen as one of our main interviewees. I never could find a guest editor to head up a drama-themed issue, however, so the plan never came to fruition. I probably should have just gone ahead and interviewed Samuelsen anyway. Also, at the time I stepped aside, I was planning to interview two Mormons who are working in New York publishing: literary agent Amy Jameson and editor Anne Soward. Perhaps, after I take a year or two off from Irreantum, I may still eventually do these interviews, if the new editors want them and someone else hasn’t already done them by then.

In your opinion, what is the coolest thing (individual work, publication, phenomenon, trend…) in the world of Mormon letters right now?

In the area of Mormon novels, the two I’m most excited about remain unpublished: rich, provocative works by D. Michael Martindale and Todd Robert Petersen. I believe both speak more to the Mormon audience than to a national audience, but it’s hard to imagine a mainstream Mormon publisher picking either one up, so I don’t know who would or could publish them effectively, beyond Signature perhaps doing a 500-copy edition.

I love the plays of Eric Samuelsen, which are what first drew me into the world of Mormon literature starting back in 1992 or 1993, when I saw “Accommodations” produced at BYU. I hope he does another one soon.

I think Mormon satire is a cool movement, which I’m involved with through The Sugar Beet, although I think too much of it crosses the line into anti-Mormonism (never The Sugar Beet, of course). I’d like to see some of this get into print rather than just remain an online phenomenon, but perhaps most Mormons see it as too scurrilous.

I have some interesting Mormon-related memoirs on my shelf that I’ll probably read before any more Mormon novels, such as one by a woman who was raised in polygamy and several by people who have left the faith or encountered the faith from outside.

I don’t feel very excited about Mormon film right now, because there’s been too much mediocre Halestorm-style stuff for my taste. I’ve seen only about half of the available films in this movement, and the only one I’ve liked since “Brigham City” has been “The Best Two Years,” and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Mormon film that I absolutely loved. I’m hoping Richard Dutcher brings up my interest level again with his next project.

What about on the national scene?

I don’t pretend to be particularly up to date on the national literary scene. I still think the memoir trend is cool, but that’s been going for several years now. I’m worried by recent reports confirming that people are buying and reading ever fewer books. As for me, when it comes to fiction I tend to read mostly mainstream literary novels, not anything too esoteric. My favorites that I’ve read over the last year or so have included The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Seek My Face by John Updike, and Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood.

What’s next for you as an editor/writer?

Right now my main project is co-authoring Mormonism for Dummies with Jana Riess, which is scheduled for publication in February 2005. There’s a lot of fun, substantial writing going into this, and the collaboration is working out very well. It’s gratifying to have a real book contract, receive real advance checks, and look forward to seeing a real book on the shelves, even if it’s not the kind of book project I originally set out to do.

By the end of this year, I will have finished up three years of writing and editorial work on The Sugar Beet, a Mormon satirical newsletter. During 2002 and 2003, our online edition attracted 10,000 — 20,000 monthly readers and was featured by several newspapers and radio stations, including an article on the front page of the Salt Lake Tribune. During 2004 we’ve been experimenting with doing a print edition, but with only 250 subscribers we’ve decided it’s not worth doing beyond this first year. It’s possible that we’ll continue to e-mail around some reportage in dribs and drabs after our organized publication efforts conclude at the end of this year, but it’s also possible that The Sugar Beet will have completely run its course by then. Another possibility is that a new web master will arise and rejuvenate the online enterprise. I’d love to see a Best of the Sugar Beet book sometime.

I have two potential projects for 2005, a memoir and a novel. I’ve already done several proposal versions for the memoir, focusing on different aspects of growing up Mormon and serving a mission. My agent has gotten three or four editors very interested, and some of them still seem open to the possibility down the road. At one point we even penetrated into the top decision-making committee at HarperSanFrancisco. However, a contract hasn’t yet materialized, and this project isn’t currently on anybody’s front burner, although it may heat up again after the Dummies project is completed. My novel is about a Mormon woman in Boston who inadvertently marries into a nonreligious polygamous situation. A few years ago I wrote a first draft that I’ve never gone back and read straight through, but I’m getting excited to revisit this project with some real time and effort.

And finally: what type of situation would be so attractive that you would consider acting as a managing editor again? Would you be interested in editing a mainstream literary journal, another Mormon studies journal, a book series?

If I felt that I had some new way to attract lots more readers and generate more buzz, I could see myself taking the helm of Irreantum again someday. However, I wouldn’t want to go back to the same plateau on which I left the magazine, with circulation static at 500 and little or no reader response, media acknowledgement, etc.

I would not be interested in editing a mainstream literary journal unless it made sense in the context of a larger career move, such as trying to get involved with a university. As far as other Mormon journals, I’ve given serious thought to applying for the editorships of Sunstone and Dialogue when they’ve come open in recent years — in fact, I even interviewed with the Sunstone people — but I’m not sure I’m as academic or intellectually omnivorous as would be optimal.

Theoretically, I would love to be involved with Mormon book publishing, because I’ve encountered several authors and manuscripts that I’d like to see published well. However, I’m skeptical about reaching the audience I’m interested in serving any better than Signature is already doing. I guess the bottom line is that I don’t feel enough trust, faith, or respect for the Mormon reading audience to get real excited about getting into book publishing, either for an established publisher or with a new enterprise. I’m more intrigued by the potential in taking Mormon stories to an outside audience.

Frankly, I continually feel a fair bit of angst and ennui related to career. I have a good corporate job, but I still haven’t found a way to earn a living doing what I really love, which is working on my own creative writing and editing projects.

Thanks, Chris!

Interview: Alan Rex Mitchell

Alan Rex Mitchell is the author of Angel of the Danube: Barry Monroe’s Missionary Journal, the winner of the Association of Mormon Letters 1998 Marilyn Brown Novel Award. Trained as an environmental soil physicist, Mitchell has taught courses in technical writing, chemistry, biology and soil science and conducted agricultural research with the USDA and Oregon State University. He, his wife Elizabeth (Bennion) and their children currently live on and work the historic Bennion Ranch in Vernon, Utah.

Last year you posted a message to the AML-List that claimed that literature — particularly fiction — was a superior form to film. The post generated a lot of discussion and you went on to write an essay on the subject that appeared in the last issue of Irreantum. For those readers who weren’t in on the debate, could you briefly restate your argument?

It was during a time on the list when we were inundated by dozens of posts about a couple of LDS feature films that were flops. I thought there was too much attention given to lousy movies, so I proposed a moratorium on discussion of film, reasoning that they are really just Reader’s Digest Condensed Versions of Moby Dick in 16 pages. Some listers realized it was tongue in cheek and others thought I was a film Nazi. The list editor even admitted he let down his guard and let the attacks get personal.

Films are less logical, and most of them are based on a lie that you could never get away with writing fiction. For example, The Godfather told us that bad guys are really good guys. Stars Wars violates all the laws of physics. The Graduate has us cheering when Elaine runs off with her mother’s ex-lover. Titanic suggested that true love happens between two people from different social classes within 24 hours on a fated ship (Ditto An Affair to Remember). And don’t get me started on how bullets miss good guys, that good-looking people are moral, and how injuries can be healed in mere seconds. But we are too muddleheaded to even realize the lies, or else we don’t take movies seriously. If there was ever a movie that emphasized war was necessary for survival, it was Lord of the Rings, but nobody even considers that as applicable in real life.

Don’t get me wrong — I watch movies. They have their place for telling simple stories quickly and cutely. I also understand that rarely is a movie worth discussing for insights into the human character. At least no more so than the Sunday comics. (Look out — here comes the hate mail.)

I know you are well aware of the irony that after stating that opinion, you then went on to tie for third place in the LDS Film Festival’s 2004 — beating out the likes of Orson Scott Card and John Moyer. What made you decide to try your hand at writing a screenplay?

For a couple of years, I had been thinking about a movie I would like to see. When I went to the AML fall meeting, I attended a seminar by Jon Enos that he called something like, “Everything you need to know about screenwriting in 50 minutes.” He convinced me I could write the screenplay in a week. It actually took longer than that, two weeks (working halftime) and two weeks of editing before I submitted it to the LDS Film Festival.

My writing a screenplay was not as inconsistent as one might think — it was quick and fun like the movies. And, of course, the icing on the cake was beating out Scott Card — that was my hope when I heard we had both made the final cut. I’ll have to kid him about it the next time I see him, which will probably be like the time I accompanied my teenage son to a book signing. I imagine the conversation would go something like:

“My screenplay beat yours in the contest.”

“So what? I’ve sold a billion books.”

What is the screenplay about?

That’s Got His Own. Budding NBA man-child BB MARTIN is once again in trouble with the law. Back home, his mother, ANITA, is impressed with brawny Mormon missionary DAVID STUCKY, who is about to return home to his Idaho farm boy roots. ANITA recruits STUCKY to baby sit BB for the season for $50,000.

I would describe it as a sports, buddy, clash-of-culture movie with the feeling of Jerry McGuire and 48 Hours. A PG-13 movie that talks about NBA vs. missionary life, whites that love black culture, blacks who are culturally White, and the barriers of race, religion, and success.

Interestingly, William, the film takes place in Oakland, where you live. Do you think the cast and crew could stay in your spare bedroom during the shoot? Seriously, perhaps you could review it for technical accuracy.

You’ve written a fair amount of fiction and quite a lot of non-fiction. What about the screenplay form do you find easier/more challenging than the other writing you’ve done?

The easier part is that screenplays are short, by necessity. Remember they are 100 minutes long, and the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of Moby Dick. And they are mostly dialogue. That limits everything, but my art teacher always maintained that limitations are what free the artist and give him direction.

The challenging part of screenplay writing is getting the movie produced. The odds are slim, and I have no experience in directing or producing (yet), nor reworking the script for lighting, camera angles, etc.

I think Angel of the Danube is a true Mormon classic. Have you ever considered writing another novel about Barry?

Thank you. At first, I thought Barry would be good for only one novel, according to the axiom that “sequels suck.”

However, Gideon Burton of BYU suggested I write a novel about Barry and Maggie dealing with the problem of cross-cultural marriages in the church. I’m still thinking about that — unfortunately, I have no first hand experience and I don’t suppose my wife will consent to me getting any. By the way, my wife is not Austrian, to the chagrin of those who think the book was autobiographical.

I’m curious to know what the response has been to the ending of Angel of the Danube. At first I didn’t like it. It seemed too easy, too O. Henry-esque. But the more I thought about it, the more it grew on me, and I now feel like the novel couldn’t end any other way — that the ending fit the narrative and the main character and worked in terms of form and plot (i.e. is more than just a good thing for Barry). How have others responded to the ending?

When I started the book, I had no idea where the ending was going (WARNING, don’t try this at home), but as it progressed, I felt Barry would either experience joy or else throw himself off of a high building.

In my reading, I’ve found that most, if not all missionary fiction ends with marriage. The transition of coming home doesn’t end until the missionary acts out the principles that he has been teaching. That is especially true for Angel, because it was a book about the transition.

Another way of looking at it is that Barry eventually got what he wanted. I guess I’m enough of a dreamer (cynic?) to think that all people eventually get what they desire. Take the Clintons: Hillary gets to be a senator who everybody is afraid of, and Bill gets to entertain admirers in his penthouse in NYC.

I haven’t gotten much feedback on the ending other than I should have omitted the word “netlike,” which is a valid point. Interestingly, a non-Mormon reviewer, Ruth Starkman, really enjoyed the ending with the temple and all, but didn’t like what she perceived as conformity when Barry overcomes his anti-institutional bias. Who’d a thunk it? What worked for Mormons confused the outsiders.

What have you recently read that totally knocked your socks off (Mormon literature or otherwise)?

Perhaps this is too revealing of me, but if I were to read some Mormon fiction that totally knocked my socks off — I would probably not feel motivated to tell the story as I see it. I love reading P.J. O’Rourke, although he is not a novelist, because he tells stories with humor and cuts through the erudite BS.

What creative projects are you currently working on?

I’m just finishing my second novel, The American Goddess, and trying to find an agent to take it national. I believe a Mormon novel will someday make it nationally, and I’m silly enough to hope it will be mine.

I’m currently working on a second missionary novel set in Vienna that would be more adaptable to cinema. And there are a couple of projects on the back burner including a Shakespearean-style play about the Martyrdom.

Finally, as the descendent of ranchers who worked the Colorado Arizona Strip, I have to ask — do you run sheep or cattle? And — what’s your brand?

Last first; the brand of the Bennion Ranch is a Greek letter omega on its side. [Ed. — I believe that would be “lazy O” in cowboy parlance.]

We raise cattle because they are less harmful to our range here. The Bennions tell a story about their grandfather who, after he had shot a coyote who had ventured to close to the campfire, gathered his four sons around and confessed that he had committed a grave sin: “Think of how many sheep that critter would have eaten in his lifetime.”

Thanks, Alan!

Interview: KZION’s John Hesch

John Hesch’s LDS Internet radio station KZION intrigues me — not so much because I’m into LDS music (I’m not — in fact I don’t listen to much music of any sort), but because it is an example of something that we should see more of in Mormon arts — a cooperative effort of artists and consumers (with John as the keystone). Granted, it takes a lot of effort and resources on John’s part. But KZION wouldn’t exist in the form it does without artists and record labels who are willing to let him play their music. In addition, KZION’s listeners contribute to the functioning and content of the site.

John was kind enough to answer several questions about KZION — which, as he mentions below, debuts a newly-redesigned Web site on Aug. 1.

I’m intrigued by the KZION Internet radio station model which features active participation on the part of your subscribers as well as LDS artists and record labels. What has been the most surprising aspect of the growth of KZION?

The growth of the listener base has been a slow steady climb over the past four years. For the first year I rarely had over 20 simultaneous listeners and today I rarely find under 180 simultaneous listeners during the workweek and many times over 220. The problem with growth is it’s expensive. For every slot I have available for a listener it costs me $2/month. I currently have 225 slots available which comes to $450 per month for listener bandwidth only. Of course there are other expenses associated with running an Internet radio station.

I’m a little disappointed in the overall growth of the KZION listener base but at the same time grateful for the slow sustained growth that allows me to keep expenses manageable.

Probably the biggest surprise to me is the extent of the web site. Over the years the web site has grown into, as you mentioned, a place for listener interaction and participation. On Aug. 1 I will be releasing an all-new, ground level redesign of the web site. This will be one of the most highly developed, interactive Internet radio web sites on the net. It’s not going to rival some of the best web sites on the Internet but for an Internet radio station it will be among the best developed.

As someone who prefer songs with lyrics, I really like that if one of your listeners takes the time to type them up, you list the lyrics of the song that’s in current play. What prompted you to add that feature?

My limited time available and the dedication of many of the KZION listeners that I have witnessed over the years. Most KZION listeners are passionate about LDS music. I knew that I would get some participation if I made the process easy. I have been surprised at the level of participation. I have received some 200 lyrics from listeners.

Setting aside the subscriber requests you take, how do you decide the rotations of songs to play? Do you place newer songs in heavy rotation?

Rotation is decided by a very complicated set of rules and code that decides which song will play next. Many listeners think that I create a daily or weekly play list by deciding which songs will play and in what order. You can imagine the amount of time that would take and besides I’m not always a good judge of what people want to hear.

Basically the process works like this. Every song is assigned a weight. When a CD is first added it is given a fairly high weight unless I feel that it would not be of interest to the majority of listeners. Once I add the tracks and assign the initial weight the rest is left to the listeners.

When a song is played it is reduced in weight and when it is requested it is increased in weight. If a song is given a low ranking by voting members it loses weight, when it is given a high rating it is increased in weight. A request will increase the weight more than a rating of 4 but not as much as a rating of 5. It’s quite a complicated process and there are some variables that I don’t share so as not to invite those that wish to manipulate the process.

In essence, songs that are rated high and requested frequently are played more often than songs that are rated poorly and never requested. Over time a song will eventually land in the No Play category due to low ratings and no requests. However, the process also includes songs with lower weights to see if they will be revived by higher ratings and requests.

What feedback have you received from artists and record labels? Have any of them credited your play with increasing CD sales?

I have received quite a bit of feedback from artists that KZION sells albums. I don’t have much feedback from the labels but they don’t have any form of tracking in place to really tell.

My thoughts are that it’s really not rocket science to figure out that KZION sells albums. You’re probably like me, you walk into a Deseret Book, other LDS retailer, or an online store and you have no idea which CD to buy. You want to bring home some good quality music that shares your lifestyle and values but there are hundreds to choose from. You have never heard any of the CD’s because they’re not played on the radio.

With KZION streaming LDS music and the interactive web site a listener can hear a song they enjoy, request some of the other tracks to be sure they really like the music, click on the ‘buy CD’ link and purchase the CD over the Internet. Or they can click on the artist’s home page and become better acquainted with the artist and their music.

KZION listeners hear most of the latest releases thanks to the major labels and they hear many independents that are quite frankly, very good.

Have you had any complaints from artists (or artists’ fans) about the song rating feature?

I haven’t. The new web site to be released Aug. 1 will allow only one vote per person but that person may change their vote as often as they like but cannot add votes. It’s really a much more controlled environment then the old system.

The comments system has been a little bit of trouble. I have had trouble makers land on KZION and leave inappropriate comments. Even well meaning LDS can be pretty blunt in their comments. The new web site will hold everyone accountable for their comments. To make comments a listener must be logged in first and will have to use their username in their comments.

KZION has been very up front with its listeners about its costs. You carried the burden of those costs for awhile and then set up a membership package so that listeners could help out. Would you ever consider taking the next step and add advertising?

Yes, that is coming. I do run some advertising now for free to artists who are willing to create a professional sounding spot for new releases. I don’t feel good about selling advertising with just 200 listeners. But I’m hoping that the new web site will attract additional growth and at some future time I can sell advertising.

There is a concern with advertising and that is most people are used to advertising free Internet radio. But the bills have to be paid somehow and I believe that most people are understanding of that.

In your opinion, what genres/types of music are underrepresented in the LDS market? Or to put it another way, what advice would you give to an up and coming LDS musician who was looking to distinguish him or herself from the rest of the field?

Rock music is underrepresented. KZION has a show called the
Friday Night Edge where we play 2 hours of LDS rock and/or edgier type music. The show has been on hiatus lately because I can’t get my hands on enough LDS rock music.

Good contemporary music is hard to find. Dance music is hard to find. We should be giving stakes around the world an alternative to dance music that is not value based but there is none. Good LDS jazz music is hard to find.

The genre that is completely saturated is inspirational music. Obviously inspirational and sacred music is the foundation of LDS music. But so much of it sounds the same.

There are a few artists lately that have maintained the inspirational feel but have created a unique sound. Artists like Alex Boye, Jenny Phillips, Hayley Anderson, and Dustin Gledhill.

So often I receive albums from very anxious and talented LDS musicians who did absolutely no homework and created a CD filled with versions of “His Hands” or “Window to His Love.” I have 5 versions of “Window to His Love” on KZION. Great song but how many times do we need to record it with no substantial difference in arrangement?

I can’t think of a better way to do your homework than to listen to KZION, search through the song list and create something unique and different but keeping the spirit of LDS music.

Assuming the time, resources andtechnologies were available, what features or functionality would you liketo be able to add to KZION?

The biggest one would be to synchronize the radio station with the web site so that the web site refreshes when the listener hears a song change. Unfortunately that technology is not available to me so it’s hit and miss right now.

I would also love to get KZION on XM satellite radio so people could listen to KZION in their cars and in their homes without the aid of the Internet.

Thanks, John!