“I’m Addicted to Story”: An Interview with Playwright Melissa Leilani Larson

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As one of my last posts for A Motley Vision (I’ll go more into that in a different post) I wanted to conduct an interview with one of my favorite Mormon playwrights (one of my favorite playwrights, period), Melissa Leilani Larson. Mel has created a body of work that is impressive and moving, and she is one of Mormonism’s best and brightest dramatists. So without further ado:

1. So, first, tell us a briefly about yourself. Your personal, educational, creative background as a person and as a playwright, your interests, what makes you distinct?

Melissa Leilani Larson, photo taken by Alisia Packard

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I think that love of reading led me to writing stories of my own. I wrote all through school, first grade on up, until I earned my BA in English/Creative Writing from BYU and later my MFA from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop.

As far as what makes me distinct”¦ Fabulous actresses far outnumber the parts they can play. My ultimate goal is to write fascinating, engaging, and challenging roles for women. A lot of them–several strong female roles per play. That’s the distinction to which I aspire.

2. You were chiefly an English major/literary personality before you switched your focus to writing for a theatrical medium. What changed that direction? Continue reading ““I’m Addicted to Story”: An Interview with Playwright Melissa Leilani Larson”

Nothing Can Separate Us From the Love of God: An Interview with Fiona Givens, co-author of _The God Who Weeps_

Fiona A Givens
Fiona Givens

         I have been super impressed with both Fiona and Terryl Givens, authors of the masterful (it’s not hyperbole, it’s that good!) theological work The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. In both their writing, and in the interviews I have heard/read them give, I have been inspired. Terryl Givens has rightfully received a lot of attention in the past for his previous books, but with this round of interviews for The God Who Weeps that I have read and listened to, I have also been super impressed with Fiona’s articulate voice, engaging ideas, and her powerful spirituality and identity. So I approached her about doing an independent interview, to which she graciously conceded. I was thrilled that she put the thought and care to engage in a long and fruitful interview. Lots of amazing stuff! Perhaps my favorite interview I have ever conducted, due to the time, thought, informed intelligence, and spirituality Fiona infused her answers with. So here it is:  

         MS:  First, in a nut shell, tell our readers a little about yourself. About your conversion to Mormonism, your professional and literary background/ interests, your relationship with Terryl, your family, and anything else you would really like our readers to know about the intriguing Fiona Givens.

FG: I converted to the Church in Germany where I was working as an au pair during my gap year between graduating from New Hall School, where I had been head girl, and university.  The preceding summer I had spent in earnest prayer, trying to divine God’s will for me and my future, as to that point, I had taken very little interest in it myself.  The answers were totally unexpected and unanticipated.  Shortly after arriving in Germany, I met a lovely lady with whom I became fast friends.  I was happy that she liked to talk about God, as He was uppermost in my mind.  Eventually she took me to her “church”–a gathering of people in a room on the second floor of a building.  What I felt when I entered that sparsely attended meeting was something I had never felt before–a spiritual warmth that was inviting.  And I was happy for the opportunity to learn more.  That being said,  I had no intention of leaving Catholicism, secure in its position as the longest standing Christian faith tradition.  

However, the spiritual experiences that ensued in my conversations with the missionaries were nothing short of Pentecostal and I was eager to share my transformation with my family, who responded very much like Gregor Samsa’s family in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The two years following my baptism were very painful.  I had left in the detritus of my baptism not only a rich and vibrant faith tradition but my family, whom I had shaken to the core, wrenching their ability not only to comprehend me but to communicate with me.  I had brought a rogue elephant into our family room.  It is still there. The wounds are still palpable.  However, due in large measure to the kindness and love of Priesthood leaders, my wobbly legs were strengthened and, amazingly, I did not use them to flee a still alien religion, an alien culture and alien language.

Through a set of miraculous circumstances I was granted a multiple entry visa to pursue a degree at Brigham Young.  I met Terryl the first day of our Comparative Literature 301 class with Larry Peer.  Terryl was seated on the back row.  I was seated on the front.  He was self-effacing.  I was not.  We were married a year later.  He pursued a PhD in comparative literature and I pursued the raising of our children while taking a class a semester, when possible, to keep the little grey cells functioning amidst the barrage of babyspeak.   Continue reading “Nothing Can Separate Us From the Love of God: An Interview with Fiona Givens, co-author of _The God Who Weeps_”

Theric interviews Courtney part three: the secret of immortality, etc.

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In parts one and two, Courtney Miller Santo—author of The Roots of the Olive Tree—and I have discussed Stephen King and prison and Canadians. This time we get to the important stuff: jellyfish.

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Theric: As I came to the final section of Roots—narrated by Bets—I was concerned. She’d seemed the least dynamic character to that point. Yet the first thing she does when she takes control is change her name to Elizabeth. And she only gets more interesting from there. I know the cover of your book makes secrets the Meaning of your book, but until Elizabeth I didn’t see it. Then, with Elizabeth, the layers of secrets truly begin to reveal themselves. Even when it ends up they’re not secrets. How are secrets important to your conception of the novel?

Courtney: Thank you for saying that about Bets. I argued with so many people about why in each section some of the women would use their full names instead of their nicknames and what you state is exactly what I hoped would happen.

What I’ve learned about secrets from my family is they are usually only secrets to the person who is keeping them. That is that we spend so much time trying to hide our mistakes or our personal natures from each other and don’t realize that in the hiding we reveal ourselves. I also found, especially with my older relatives that just because they didn’t speak of something didn’t mean it was a secret. My own grandmother had an illegitimate sister show up when she was a teenager and instead of being embarrassed or in denial, everyone in her family was like, well of course that’s Alice’s daughter.

I feel that way about secrets in my own life. There are actions and knowledge that I’m keeping from my kids, but when they are adults, I expect the reveal of such information will be much less dramatic than I expect.

Theric: That seems like a decent segue into the closest thing you have to an explicitly “Mormon” part of the novel. One character in the novel was born Mormon. But he was born in 1916 to a polygamous family so I’m not sure how, ah, Salt Lake-approved that family might have been. He also ends up being the novel’s only gay character. Given the difficulties inherent in representing a character who has slipped well into senility, he’s an extraordinarily well drawn character. But enough about art. Let’s ask the unfair leading question you would be thrown on cable news: “Courtney—your only gay character is your only Mormon character is your only character to fall into utter madness. How does your Church cause its gay members to lose their identity in order to belong?”

Courtney: I can’t speak directly to the experience of being gay or being a gay Mormon except to say that with Frank, I’d hoped to draw a character who helped readers understand the complex choices gay men and women have faced historically and continue to face when they are required to deny a portion of their identity. I cannot fathom being asked to abstain from the blessings of family and marriage because of my sexual identity, of which I have no choice in making.

Theric: Something I’ve not investigated but which the novel has left me wondering about is the science of aging. I’ve read a bit about the immortal jellyfish, but I have no idea how much advance has been made on the genetics of aging well. Given the importance on this science to your characters (one is spending his career on the question) and the novel’s structure (you’ve taken the risk of stepping away from the plot to discuss the science and public reaction thereunto)—I don’t feel totally out of line describing Roots as slightly science fiction.

How much did you research this science and how important was it to get the details right? (Also, as a side question, do you worry about it, ironically, aging the novel more rapidly?)

Courtney: At the end of the novel, I absolutely take a step outside our current reality and propel the characters forward into an as yet unwritten future. As I mentioned earlier, this current generation of writers grew up reading science fiction and fantasy and I feel like we are particularly open to mixing genres in a way that writers coming out of the academic tradition haven’t been in the past. Lauren Groff does the same thing in her amazing novel, Arcadia. I hope that it doesn’t age the novel, but immortality is a rare bird in the written word. My decision to add this element was driven by the characters themselves and wanting people to have a sense that this year in their lives changed the women, but it wasn’t the end of their existence.

As for research. . . . I did a ton, but it was mostly from tertiary and secondary sources. I read a ton of Time Magazine and New York Times articles on aging and genetics. Most of what Amrit discusses in his sections is true, if not exactly scientifically accurate. I was struck by the idea when working on this book that so many of our myths and religions are directly connected to immortality and yet science knows so little about aging—which is the process working against immortality. If there is any part of this book that is explicitly addressing being Mormon, it is in those sections about aging (and of course the olive tree).

Theric: After finishing Roots, I read the promotional short story “Under the Olive Tree.” (Which I have since thought about as much as the novel.) One thing it emphasizes is the stories Anna tells in both fictions. And through the short story I went from enjoying and admiring the stories to really loving them. Honestly, I kind of wish you would write a full volume of them for the kids. And, you know, me. Even considered that?

Courtney: Anna continues to tell me her stories, and I tell them to my own children. If there’s ever a book of them, they’ll probably be written by my daughter.

Theric: I can’t imagine a better or more suitable answer to that question.

Well, Courtney. It’s been a pleasure. In the end, I enjoyed your book a great deal. Sure, I had some issues with pacing and this and that, but overall, I won’t be shy about recommending it. Before I let you go, what question should I have asked? Answer that one too.

Courtney: How about if I just give you an answer and you and everyone else can supply any question they want. It’s my 42 if you will.

Olives.

Theric interviews Courtney part two: know when to say when, etc.

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In part one, we discussed the women of Courtney Miller Santo’s new novel, The Roots of the Olive Tree. Today we talk a bit more about writing. One thing we will not talk about is the symbolic weight of the olive tree in her fiction. I’m not sure we should let authorial intention muddy the waters on that one. Instead, just go get the novel and write your own essay on the subject. For now thought, let’s get back to the interview.

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Theric: One thing I find surprising about the less-enamored reviews of your novel is that they seem to be mostly griping that your story is too much like real life in that sometimes the sequence of events is not clear, sometimes events that seem important to an outsider don’t seem important to the characters, sometimes—most times?—threads don’t get tied off by the final page. Did you anticipate these complaints? What sort of discussions did you have with your readers and editors about the reality problem leading up to publication?

Courtney:  The question I get asked most often at book clubs and other events is “What happened in Australia?” Which, for those of you who haven’t read the book, has to do with a trip the women in the book take. I don’t go into that trip. When I was writing, it didn’t feel like a central part of the story. Everytime I tried to write it, it seemed to me like I was writing an episode of The Brady Bunch where they all go to Hawaii.

Theric: When you introduced an upcoming trip to Australia I almost dropped the book. I looked confusedly at the sliver of pages left and asked aloud how the heck you hoped to fit that in there.

Courtney: The women in this book belonged in Kidron and although the book flashes forward in the epilogue, it was truly supposed to be about the one year in these women’s lives that changed their relationships in an unalterable way. For me, the closure came in that every woman in the book got what she most wanted, even if didn’t work out. Now, I wish I had thought more about the unanswered questions because I feel that in many ways those are interesting questions and valid ones. This book went through many readers before it made it to my editor and none of them had a problem with the perceived importance of the events or the unanswered questions, however, I wish that they had brought it up. My editor, who is amazing, did at one point ask whether there should be an Australia chapter, but I convinced her otherwise.

So, the long answer is that I didn’t anticipate those objections and I wished I had. I heard Michael Chabon speak a few years ago and he said that all of his book are about the same topic—that is, they are all about what they failed to become. I agree whole heartedly with this sentiment. Every book is a failure because the process of writing is one of translation and it is imperfect. My hope is to get better at it, and those questions have made me more conscious of plot and loose ends in the second book.

I will say, however, that Roots is supposed to be true to life and I’ll never end a book where everyone gets what they want and everyone is happy. I think most great stories leave at least one character pissed (can I say pissed?) and that’s satisfying to me.

Theric: I teach mostly argumentative writing, but the point remains: unlike, say, an equation which can be solved, writing we just make as better as we can until we’re done with it. Then it’s on to the next project. Moving on is as important as perfecting.

Courtney: I agree. It is an imperfect medium and the best we can do is put the truth as we see it clearly on the page. Of course in teaching writing to my students, many of them think it comes out perfect the first time. I spend much of our classroom time convincing them that revision can be as beautiful as putting that first word on a blank page.

Theric: That drives me bananas about students. I don’t know if I’m comforted or horrified to hear MFA candidates behave the same way.

When Mormon circles were talking about the release of your book, the novel you were most compared to was Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth. Not hard to see why: you’re on record liking her book, she’s on record liking your book, you both write about generations of women. But I want to talk about another similarity.

Angela’s book is a novel-in-stories; yours could easily be described as a novel-in-novellas. Each of the five generations of women gets a turn being p-o-v. This building of story from stories is on my mind as I’ve just finished drafting a novella-in-stories, so I want to get into how you made your decisions—who goes first, for instance. Anna you put first—which I think was necessary as her existence is what makes the family remarkable—but I found her so compelling that Erin (whom I eventually liked quite a bit) was hard to get into at first. How did you work at balancing each character, to give her a compelling voice and story and raison d’être and the ability to compete with the four other women for my affections. I mean—my gosh!—way to make things harder on yourself!

Courtney: I believe deeply that the structure is as important to a novel as the content. In a truly great book, the structure echoes the content and amplifies it for the reader.

This is not to say Roots is a great book, but I did give much consideration to the structure. The first draft of the book had each of the women in order, but my teacher and mentor, Tom Russell, pointed out that I was unnecessarily restricting myself by adhering to genealogical order and chronological order. Once I started to move the sections around, I began to feel the women talking to each other in a way they hadn’t before. Because my goal was to try to reflect my own personal experience of finally connecting with my own mother once I heard my grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s stories about her childhood and adolescence, I always wanted to tell this particular story from each woman’s point of view.

At the time I was reading Jonathan Ferris’s Then We Came To The End, which is written in collective first person and what I tried to do was use the various points of view of each woman to give the sense that they were individuals, but also they were a group.

Can I give a shout out to Angela? I read Bound on Earth my first year in the MFA program at Memphis and I felt like I’d been struck by lightning when I finished it. The book is exactly what I’d always hoped Mormon fiction could produce. It remains one of my favorites.

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Everyone loves Angela. How can we help ourselves! Tomorrow we’ll delve into family secrets and the growing science of immortality.

The link for part three will be live tomorrow.

Theric interviews Courtney part one: powerful women, etc.

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Courtney Miller Santo saw her debut novel The Roots of the Olive Tree published last year by William Morrow. She teaches at the MFA program at the University of Memphis (of which she is an alumna). If you read the Mormon literary outlets, you’ve seen her work in Irreantum and Sunstone. In fact, she has a story in Sunstone‘s latest issue which is, I think, the most heartbreaking thing she’s written to date. But much like the painful moments in her novel, every painful aspect of humanity is balanced with a sense of growing freedom and peace. Based on what I’ve read of her work so far (the novel and at least three short stories), I suspect this balancing may be a hallmark of her work.

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Theric: I want to start with a question I usually save for later. I hope you don’t mind.

Courtney: I always eat dessert first, so it seems appropriate.

Theric: I’ve heard it said that every first novel is autobiographical. The connection between you and the clan from Kidron is easy: five generations of women, all together at once. How similar are Anna and her family to your own heritage of women?

Courtney: Like many Mormon women, I come from a long line of incredibly strong and stubborn matriarchs. In my case, they also happen to live long lives and live them well—that is to say there have been little physical or mental limitations placed on them as they age. Anna is in many ways a version of my own great-grandmother, Winnie White, who died in October at 104. I modeled the town Kidron on Corning, California, where she spent her childhood and her retirement. I’m also fascinated by family stories—and because our family is so large, I’ve been able to collect many of them. While in my direct matriarchal line, I haven’t had anyone shoot their husband, or be the sole survivor of an airplane crash, these moments in the Keller women’s lives come from stories I’ve collected from my own family over the years. However, these are all just story points.

Where the novel is most autobiographical is in its depiction of the relationship between mothers and daughters. I find that sometimes you don’t get the mother you need. As an adult I had conversations with all the women in my family that revealed that hard truth, but I also learned by talking to my grandmother about my mother, to my great grandmother about my grandmother, that we don’t truly know our mothers. What we know is the version they’ve presented to us that allows us them to be a parent.

So this book really traces my complex and evolving relationship with my mother. As an adult I feel that I know her as a person, but only because I’ve been able to listen to her mother, and her grandmother talk about her.

Theric: One of the strength of the book is the respect you give your older women. They’re not identical dowagers puttering around the house without distinction. Each is a real person. I’m not sure old women usually get this respect. I’m curious if other people have reacted similarly.

Courtney: I’ve had the most difficult time when people find these women unbelievable (and not because they are 112 and can still touch their toes). There are reviews where people have said—I don’t think women in their sixties could be attractive, or could fall in love. It makes me want to scream. I’ve watched women in their sixties do exactly that. My grandmother, at seventy, took up kayaking.

The one bit of advice I held onto from my writing program is to write the book you want to read that nobody has written yet. For me, what I wasn’t seeing in the fiction I read was a depiction of older women as anything but old. It seems they are in books to serve the purposes of the younger protagonists.

In this case, I wanted the reader to get a sense that each of these women is vibrant and interesting and not at all perfect. I made it a rule early on that none of the grandmothers were going to bake cookies or knit. I will say that at bookclubs, which are nearly always older women, they are thrilled with the depiction of women in the book. I’ve heard a dozen stories of amazing accomplishments of women who are in their sixties, seventies, and beyond.

The key for me when I wrote this book was a conversation I had with my own great-grandmother when I was in my twenties. She was putting cold cream on her face and talking to my reflection in the mirror. What she said as she pushed around the wrinkles on her face was something to the effect of you know I still think I’m twenty-five. I know I’m old, but every time I look in the mirror, I’m surprised that I’m an old woman. So for me, I wrote these women as if they were the people they became at twenty-five—only with a bit more life experience.

Theric: I’m glad you said that, because my experience is everyone feels that way as they age. We’re who we made ourselves to be when we were young—only seen through a different filter.

Two writers I imagine you haven’t been compared to much but who came to mind as I was reading Roots (do you have a preferred abbreviation?) are Stephen King and Orson Scott Card. I was actually reading The Green Mile simultaneously with your novel and I couldn’t help comparing their depictions of love and vigor in very old age—and of prison too, though that connection might seem a bit more surface. And Orson Scott Card has written that too much of modern fiction is about adolescents—that we need more books about adults.

This doesn’t really add up to a question, but two things I hope you’ll respond to: Which authors would you most like to be compared to? and how diverse do you find current fiction’s protagonists?

Courtney: I find the fact that you bring up Card and King quite flattering—I include The Stand and Ender’s Game in my list of top ten books of all time. I spent most of my teens and early twenties reading science fiction and fantasy and then I discovered the South Americans and eventually Aimee Bender and George Saunders. Having said that, I don’t believe I’m playing at the same game as these writers, but I do count them as influences and in some cases deep influences.

The two writers who I can’t barely mention in the same breath as my writing, but who I am chasing when I write are both Canadian—Carol Shields and Alice Munro. I’ve been reading Munro also since my early twenties and she strikes me as a writer who has managed to write the breadth of a woman’s life. She’s in her eighties and I felt as amazed by Dear Life as I did by Lives of Girls and Women when I read it at twenty-one. Shields wrote my favorite book—and one that I’ve read fifteen times, Unless. It is one of those books that speaks exactly of what it means to be a woman in today’s world and speaks about feminism without getting caught up in blaming men. It also has the best depiction of female friendship, I’ve ever read.

Your second question is so much harder—I work at a job that requires me to read lots of literary fiction. In that case, I find the protagonists dispiritingly similar in age, gender, political affiliation and moral center. The same is true for some of the lighter reading I do. Where I find diverse characters and the sort who I find interesting is often in crime fiction and detective fiction. It’s been said that the genius of these books is that you get to see a character at work. I find that tenet of the genre to be freeing in terms of character development.

I will say that in women’s contemporary fiction, it remains rare to find a novel that isn’t romance driven in some shape or form. My goal with Roots (and I totally abbreviate) was to create a story that had plenty of women, but none of them talking about men, or in actuality, lovers.

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In part two of this series, we’ll discuss difficulties in writing—both for ourselves and for our students—and the important of structure.

This link will be live starting tomorrow.

The link for part three goes live the day after.

Questions for Margaret Blair Young

Salvador-202x300Recently, I sent Association for Mormon Letters President Margaret Blair Young a list of questions about her current projects with Darius Gray–a revision of their Standing on the Promises novel series and the feature film The Heart of Africaas well as her own work as a creative writer and AML president. Kindly, Margaret took time away from her busy schedule to answer them for me. 

I’ve split the Q&A into two parts. Answers to the questions relating to Standing on the Promises and The Heart of Africa will be featured on Modern Mormon Men sometime soon. Below are her answers to my questions about her earlier work, AML, and future projects.

NOTE: I plan to post the Q&A in its entirety on The Low-Tech World as soon as Modern Mormon Men runs the remainder of it.

Throughout your career as a writer, you’ve seemed to gravitate towards stories about marginalization within Mormon communities. For example, in your novel Salvador, your protagonist is a divorced Mormon woman who visits relatives who operate a fringe Mormon commune in Central America. Heresies of Nature centers around a character who has been severely debilitated by multiple sclerosis. What draws you to these stories? Why do Mormons need them?

What drew me to write Salvador?  My life.  You’d be surprised at how much of that is autobiographical.  Heresies of Nature?  My sister-in-law died of M.S.  I turned that novel into a play, and my sister passed away on opening night.  It was a remarkable experience for all of us.  My husband had already written a tribute to his sister on the playbill, so every audience member received that.  Cast members attended Nancy’s funeral, and Nancy’s nurses attended the play.  But obviously, I believe in dealing with hard issues.  If we don’t learn to deal with them, we will almost certainly lack empathy when others are hitting them.  We need to train our minds and magnify our faith as our children grow in this internet age.  They will come to us with questions to bridge what they learn in Sunday school and what they read online.  Our answers will need to reflect our knowledge and the example of who we are in this age and place of Mormonism; what we cling to as our essential and inviolate morality.  This is a dynamic religion.  We may still stand in holy places, even while acknowledging that many in the past became detached from their “better angels.”

Can you trace the DNA of your work as a fiction writer? Who has informed your work the most intellectually, stylistically?

My first influences were the classics, Moby Dick and The Brothers Karamazov being my first teachers.  And they were teachers.  I took Melville’s book with me to Guatemala and read it three times without anyone guiding me.The Brothers Karamazov was the first book I fell in love with.  It transformed me into a reader.  Before reading that, I cheated.  I read Cliff Notes.  Stylistically?  I read a lot of James Joyce, Alice Munro, Faulkner.  When I turned to Black history fifteen years ago, I read history books.  Seems like hundreds.  I find I’m actually more at home with historians now than I am with fiction writers.  A really good short story feels like dessert to me.

Continue reading “Questions for Margaret Blair Young”

Five Questions for Terryl L. Givens

ViperOne of the perks of being review editor for Irreantum is receiving unexpected review copies in the mail. Some weeks ago, I opened the mailbox to find the new edition of Terryl L. Givens The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (Oxford University Press, 2013) waiting for me. If you’ve never had a chance to study this book, I highly recommend that you check it out. No student of Mormon literature should overlook it.

Earlier this week, Dr. Givens graciously agreed to answer five questions I had about the new edition of Viper and other matters related to Mormon studies. Here are his replies: 

What motivated the new edition of Viper on the Hearth? Was it simply the recent “Mormon Moment” or has more happened in the sixteen years since the book’s initial publication that necessitated a new edition?

Two factors led to the update. First, Viper was my first book and had a limited release. It was only available in a print-on-demand format that approached one hundred dollars. Obviously it wasn’t going to get any circulation at that price, so Oxford agreed to do a paperback. Second, it wasn’t just a matter of an additional 16 years of Mormon representations that needed filling in. A shift in the cultural winds had occurred, and Mormonism became interesting–or of interest–in new ways. One way to think about this is in terms of what I refer to as the 1893 devil’s compromise. At the Chicago World’s Fair, the Tabernacle Choir was given the silver medal, even as B. H. Roberts was denied a real forum and equal billing with other religions to present a discourse on Mormonism. The message was, you can sing and dance for us, but don’t ask us to take your theology seriously.  And in many ways, Mormonism signed on to that deal. For over a century, Mormons became to a large extent acceptable and increasingly respected–but not for their beliefs. The public face of Mormonism was more likely to be an Osmond, a Steve Young, or a David Archuleta, than a B. H. Roberts or Neal Maxwell. And Americans and Mormons alike were fine with that. But as Mormonism assumed a more prominent place American political life in the last two election cycles, the compromise frayed. When a Mormon threatened to win the highest political office in the land, bringing his Mormon beliefs with him, the old nineteenth-century canards returned with a vengeance. One sign of the breakdown of coherent discussion about Mormonism was evident in the frequent insistence that, like Kennedy in his Houston Ministerial Association speech, Romney should address his religious beliefs to reassure an anxious public. Sadly, few journalists or pundits seem to have actually read the Kennedy speech. For in it, he said emphatically that he would not address those concerns: He would not “state once again what kind of church I believe in–for that should be important only to me.” His message didn’t penetrate very lastingly.  In the Viper re-issue, I bring the story up to date by including those developments.

Continue reading “Five Questions for Terryl L. Givens”

Theric Jepson Uncut: The Complete Byuck Interview

Byuck

Yesterday Modern Mormon Men ran a shortened version of my interview with AMV’s own Theric Jepson about his new novel Byuck. The interview was too long for what I like to post on MMM, so I’m posting the interview in its entirety here.

Also, if you haven’t already done so, enter Modern Mormon Men’Byuck giveaway. They have five copies up for grabs, so your odds are good. The giveaway ends on January 25.

And now, the interview…  

Scott Hales: I think we ought to get this question out of the way first: How do you pronounce Byuck?

Theric Jepson: As for me, I rhyme it with yuck, but I don’t really feel it’s my job to tell people how to pronounce it. I’m the numbskull who gave my novel a ridiculous name. Now I must live with the consequences.

SH: What is the origin story of Byuck? If I understand correctly, you wrote Byuck a while ago, but shelved it after you were told that is was basically unpublishable? I that right?

TJ: I started Byuck as a play back in 1999. I had some problems developing it and shared what I had with one of my professors at BYU, Donlu Thayer. She liked what I had fine, but gave me some stellar advice. She told me I wasn’t ready to write this story yet, that I needed some distance. So I set it aside.

I picked it up again sometime after I graduated in 2002 (by which time I was also married). By 2004 I had a working rough draft which Fob (of The Fob Bible) helped me polish.

My original plan was to try and sell the book outside the Mormon ghetto, but I did have a weird history with Deseret Book, so I decided to try them first. Which is where the comedy started.

They liked the book but told me women won’t and since women are the only people who buy books they wouldn’t publish Byuck until I did some market research for them. (Really.) So I spent a year talking to women not related to me and who did not owe me money (Deseret’s stipulations) to read it and write responses. Those responses ranged from positive to very positive (except for the U of U alumna who accused me of writing BYU propaganda). I wrote up a massive report, sent it in, and received a form rejection letter. (Really.)

Continue reading “Theric Jepson Uncut: The Complete Byuck Interview”

Eric Samuelsen interviews Matthew Greene about his new play Adam & Steve and the Empty Sea

Playwright, retired BYU professor and literary critic Eric Samuelsen interviews Matthew Greene about his play Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea.

Salt Lake City’s Plan-B Theatre Company is staging the world premier of Matthew Greene’s Adam & Steve and the Empty Sea at the end of this month. The play opens Jan. 31 and runs through Feb. 10.  Tickets and details are available at planbtheatre.org or 801.355.ARTS.

Here is the description of the play from Plan-B:

Adam is LDS. Steve is gay. Set against the backdrop of the passage of Prop. 8, these childhood friends grapple with religion, sexuality,politics and adulthood.”¨ A world premiere by LDS playwright Matthew Greene. Featuring Logan Tarantino as Steve and Topher Rasmussen as Adam, directed by Jason Bowcutt.

AMV readers may recall that I interviewed Greene is about his play #MormoninChief. LDS playwright, retired BYU professor and literary/cultural critic Eric Samuelsen recently interviewed Greene about Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea. Greene attended BYU during the time Eric taught there so that also is discussed. Enjoy!

One Playwright to Another: Eric Samuelsen’s Interview with Matthew Greene

I guess it would have been five years ago now that Matthew Greene showed up in my beginning Playwriting class at BYU. Mild-mannered kid, obviously exceptionally bright, but rather quiet. I assigned the kids to write a ten minute play, due the next class period–jump right in and start writing something, anything. And his play was smart and funny and real. I knew I had someone special in that classroom. He’s had his New York debut, with #MormonInChief. And now Plan-B Theatre in Salt Lake is producing his play Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea. Continue reading “Eric Samuelsen interviews Matthew Greene about his new play Adam & Steve and the Empty Sea”

A Time of Transitions for Segullah

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For most of a decade now,
Q: First, for the sadly uninitiated, what is Segullah?
Segullah’s mission is to encourage literary and artistic talent, provoke thought and promote greater understanding and faith among Latter-day Saint women. We encourage insightful writings which explore life’s richness and complexity while reflecting faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our aim is to highlight a variety of women’s perspectives within a framework of shared beliefs and values. We focus more on narrative and self-expression of the individual experience than on discussions of doctrine or policy. The venues for such writings include an online journal and a blog. In addition, we have a Facebook page and a Twitter account that help direct fans to the literary content and blog.
In Hebrew segullah signifies a cherished personal possession that is set apart and diligently cared for; it is a term the Lord has used with affection to describe His covenant blessings and responsibilites we receive in relationship with Him.
Q: I love the blog. I rarely comment because I don’t want to leave my testosteroney fingerprints everywhere, but I still read a healthy percentage of what you post. What do you know about your online audience—in terms of page views, commenters, geography, loyalty, etc?
With approximately 30,000 views daily, the blog supports a fairly substantial readership from return ISPs rather than from causual passersby. Google analytics has its limitations, but we can see readership by U.S. geography that matches the distribution of LDS with more hits in the Intermountain West but with appearance from urban centers such as Seattle, Dallas and DC. However, we have hits coming from countries such as Canada, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Australia, Ukraine and Germany.  Notably, we see significant hits coming from military addresses, so we are also reaching Americans abroad.  Computer data accessible through blog hits doesn’t reveal gender or age, but comments primarly come from people identifying as women.
Data gleaned through our affiliated Facebook page (617 fans) shows that our average fan there is a woman from Salt Lake City aged 30 to 44 (39.1% of of our fans). The ages of fans younger and older are almost evenly split on either side of this mean. And 6.4% of our Facebook fans are men. (The remaining Facebook fans do not indicate gender.) But we have no way of knowing for sure if the demographic of our Facebook fans is generalizable to our blog readership.
Q: For a few years now you’ve also had a print edition. What led to both the beginning and pending end of this venture?
In 2004, a writers group of LDS women living primarily in Salt Lake and Utah counties started workshopping their writing.  Almost a year later, they decided to formalizing their work by printing the initial Segullah journal.  At that time, print literary journals were more in focus than online journals.  They never considered online publication as an option. For example, Exponent II was still printing issues.  Kathryn Soper, Justine Dorton and the other founding editors wanted to make something tactile and beautiful, something they could hold in their hands. They pooled together their own money, printed maybe 100 issues, and worked their contacts in an effort to sell those issues.  They had a tone that differed in tone in existing publications of LDS literature. As Kylie Turley explains in an editorial for the first issue, “Segullah is a place where believing women bump into real life with all its carpool-migraine-budget issues, its miscarriage-death-divorce disasters, and its true-love, answers-to-prayers, blessed-by-charity moments of sheer joy.”
Now nearly eight years later, readers are more and more drawn to reading texts of a variety of genres online because of the speed, affordability and accessability of online publication.  Many journals, magazines, newspapers in and outside of Mormon culture are moving more content online or publishing exclusively online.  Segullahis moving into the 21st Century and taking its place beside them.
Q: I admit when I received the email about Segullah ceasing print publication I panicked. Not because I’m currently a subscriber (my subscription has lapsed) but because I misread the email and thought you were another Mormon rag to which I am still subscribed. Taking time to analyze my feelings, I am surprised by how betrayed I felt. How do you plan to ease the transition for those who love to see you arrive in the mail?
As a group of people who love to read and write, we recognize the value of holding a print journal.  Like many other literary journals, we are hesitant to place so many resources into the tasks of printing and mailing when we could direct more resources to soliciting contributions, workshopping pieces, editing and publishing directly to the internet.  It’s challenging to get several dozen schedules to line up for a semi-annual print journal. By posting new content every month, the prose and poetry editors can focus on supporting and encouraging a smaller set of writers at a time. The blog readership is much larger than the circulation numbers, so we expect that writers will receive increased exposure by dovetailing the blog and journal in January of 2013.  With the coming of the new year, these two halves of Segullah will share the same main url (segullah.org) that will display introductory paragraphs or lines of poetry that then invite readers to jump to supporting pages.
Q: Another thing Segullah does that sets it apart from much of the Bloggernacle is publish books. Anything new coming down bookwise?
At this moment, the Segullah editors do not have a manuscript in the pipeline for printing. However, we have talked about selecting poems, stories, and essays from the forthcoming online journal for publication in an anthology. We would also include some of the blog posts as well.  At this time, we don’t have a concrete timeline for such a publication.
Q: Thanks for taking the time to chat about this time of transition. AMV, of course, is an arts-and-culture blog. So before you go, make a pitch to our readers: What do you offer that they cannot pass up?
Before becoming a staff member of Segullah, I was invigorated as a reader to find a space that allowed exploration of faith through the genre of personal essay–as it exists in this relatively new genre of the blog post.  Yes, Segullah does a lot to articulate the domestic sphere and to validate the important intellectual and emotional labor performed there.  It makes visible a type of labor that was often ignored or discounted or too often hidden within the pages of private journals or in narrowly shared personal correspondence.  By examining the details of their daily lives, Segullah writers and commentors are exploring issues of theology, psychology, sociology, and so forth.  Segullah isn’t a space where people regularly hammer out statements of belief in the abstract. There are other places for that. Their narratives ground these abstractions through practice and action that I find incredibly powerful and validating for both writers and readers.
When I read my first issue, I lept and danced about the house, jumping on furniture as I exclaimed my husband, “I found a community that I’ve always hoped could exist. I found a place to use precise and beautiful language to explore while still holding onto my sometimes undescribable or even unsupportable faith.”  By focusing on the particular, we have a community of women who hold fairly diverse views.  Even if one contributor’s post contains an implied “moral to the story,” it might conflict sharply with the “moral of the story” implied in the post from the day before. The journals show the same complexity through poetry, fiction and prose.  Writers’ truths can differ and still both be valid.  Segullah provides a place where women can place their stories side by side.

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For most of a decade now, Segullah has been providing readers with consistently good art and writing. Recently it has been undergoing some transitions, and so I invited them to discuss these changes with us. I caught Karen Austin just as she was making the transition to managing editor.

Ready?

Let’s hear what she has to say.

segullah

Q: First, for the sadly uninitiated, what is Segullah? Continue reading “A Time of Transitions for Segullah”