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.

Questions of the Heart: Gay Mormons and the Search for Identity

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benabbotshow

When we left off yesterday, we were segueing from the couple-creators portion of this interview to talking with Ben Abbott about the new one-man show he has written and is starring in this weekend (with, of course, some additional insights from his wife Barbara). If you will be in the Bay Area, click on the poster to buy tickets. Hurry — the show is expected to sell out.

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Th: The reason I’m finally getting around to making this interview happen now is Ben’s show this weekend. Tell us about it.

Ben: This is my senior thesis at UC Berkeley. It’s a one-man show about gay members of the church. When Proposition 8 happened I was the only active Mormon studying at PCPA (which is in California), where the majority of my friends were gay. I felt strangely caught between two worlds, with my family and faith on one side, and my friends and work on the other. I thought, you know, do I have to reject one or the other of these to some degree to truly embrace the other? Out of those ponderings came the question, well what about gay members of the church themselves? Talk about conflict. How do they reconcile the contradiction? Or do they? I spent a few months interviewing people, and from those transcripts I pulled segments and pieced them together into a one-man show. I think it offers a wider look at the issue than most of what I’ve seen that’s out there right now. This is not a monolithic group, and there is a huge variety of reactions to finding oneself at the crossroads of gay and Mormon, and I try to present enough of them to challenge just about anyone’s assumptions, no matter which “side” they’re on.

Th: Was this project an easy sell to Cal’s theater department? Continue reading “Questions of the Heart: Gay Mormons and the Search for Identity”

Ben C. reviews the short story collection The Abominable Gayman

Wm says: Ben Christensen was kind enough to submit this review, which takes a look at another entry in the interesting sub-genre of “Mormon literature that is also gay literature.” And what’s really interesting is that he does so by comparing it to John Bennion’s novel Falling Toward Heaven, which is about sexuality, but that of the hetero- variety.

Ben Christensen used to blog at the Fobcave. Now he lurks on other people’s blogs. And submits the occasional guest post, apparently.

Title: The Abominable Gayman
Author: Johnny Townsend

Reviewed by Ben Christensen

Note: Ben received a free review copy of this book from the author.

“I used to think,” says Elder Anderson, the narrator and protagonist of The Abominable Gayman, “that the goal of perfection meant we all had to become the same, but here in Italy, I’d seen new flowers, tasted different foods, spoken a different language, and I realized that the best, most perfect rose could never inspire the exact same feelings as a perfect hedge of five-pointed star jasmine.” Elder Anderson, you see, is a gay Mormon serving a mission in Rome, and is only starting to consider the possibility that perhaps becoming straight is not a necessary step on his path to perfection. In the process of figuring out where this collection of short stories fits in gay Mormon literature–whether nearer Jonathan Langford’s No Going Back or Tony Kushner’s Angels in America–I realized it doesn’t necessarily fit among other gay Mormon-themed literature. But it is definitely Mormon literature. The most appropriate comparison, I believe, is to John Bennion’s Falling Toward Heaven. Both Falling and Gayman tell the story of a young man who, by normal Mormon standards, is doing everything wrong, yet somehow finds himself stumbling into a better understanding of himself and a closer relationship with God. Continue reading “Ben C. reviews the short story collection The Abominable Gayman”

Writing Mormon Literature for a non-Mormon Audience

Note: This started as an entry for my personal/book blog, which focuses primarily (so far) on No Going Back and its reception. However, I quickly realized that what I was writing was taking a far more theoretical/literary direction. So I decided to cross-post it here, with apologies if needed, on the theory that I’d love to get some response to the question I’m trying to ask about how to write Mormon literature for non-Mormon audiences. So have at it!

It’s always interesting seeing what non-Mormon readers of No Going Back have to say about the book. For one thing, it includes an awful lot of Mormon detail. Since I never imagined that it might have a large non-Mormon audience, I didn’t go to any trouble to explain that detail. No real accommodations for any readers who don’t happen to be Mormon.

Continue reading “Writing Mormon Literature for a non-Mormon Audience”

The Writing Rookie #11: Overcoming Fear

For the complete list of columns in this series, .

Fear is, I’ve come to realize, one of my great personal enemies as a creative writer (along with laziness). Part of this is probably just because of the kind of person I am. I suspect, though, that part of it may be endemic to the writing process.

Continue reading “The Writing Rookie #11: Overcoming Fear”

On Writing a Realistic Novel

I’m cross-posting this from my blog partly because I think it’s relevant to our site focus — and relevant to some other recent posts — and because I don’t think very many people even know yet that my blog exists. Thanks for your indulgence.

It’s interesting being the author of a novel about a topic that matters so much to a lot of readers. Sex and religion are topics that people care about passionately (if you’ll pardon the double pun), and when they intersect, there’s little that’s more potentially volatile.

That’s all to the good when people like my book. I’ve gotten some amazing comments from people, not just about how the book affected them as a story but about the positive good they think it can do in the world. I’d like to believe those comments are all true. But it can be especially unpleasant when people don’t like my book — especially those who share my religious beliefs.

Continue reading “On Writing a Realistic Novel”

Now Available for Purchase: Langford, No Going Back

Print copies of my book No Going Back are now available from Zarahemla Books and Amazon.com. (And at a pretty  hefty discount off the cover price, too.)

No Going Back is a coming-of-age novel about a gay Mormon teenager who is torn between his feelings and his desire to stay in the Church. The cover blurb reads:

“A gay teenage Mormon growing up in western Oregon in 2003. His straight best friend. Their parents. A typical LDS ward, a high-school club about tolerance for gays, and a proposed anti-gay-marriage amendment to the state constitution. In No Going Back, these elements combine in a coming-of-age story about faithfulness and friendship, temptation and redemption, tough choices and conflicting loyalties.”

(A side-note: Does anyone know the logic that Amazon.com uses in deciding on the size of the discount it offers? My book is now selling for $11.53. Rift, by Todd Robert Petersen, released just a few weeks ago by Zarahemla Books, is selling for $13.22. Both have a cover price of $16.95. Chris Bigelow says he doesn’t know the logic, either.)