A question for LDS who have read The Hollow City

I can’t really talk about this without getting into major spoilers so I just want to ask this question of any active LDS who has read Dan Wells latest novel The Hollow City: were you getting any Mormon thematic vibes from the ending?

I don’t think that there’s anything in there that requires a Mormon reading, but I can kind of see how Mormon theology/worldview may have served as starting point for some of the ideas there even though they become heavily transmuted in the process. But it’s subtle enough that if you weren’t Mormon or even if you were Mormon and didn’t know Dan was Mormon, you wouldn’t even notice it. And you may not notice it anyway. But did anyone else pick up that vibe?

Interview with D.J. Butler on The City of the Saints

William interviews D.J. Butler on his self-published serialized novel The City of the Saints, an alt-history, Mormon steampunk story featuring Sam Clemens, Poe, etc.

Several weeks ago friend of AMV Nathan Shumate posted an ebook cover he had made. When I saw it, I knew that I needed to interview the author. The cover was for Liahona, the first volume in D.J. Butler’s The City of the Saints series. The second volume — Deseret — was just released last week.

D.J. Butler (Dave) is a novelist living in the Rocky Mountain northwest. His training is in law, and he worked as a securities lawyer at a major international firm and inhouse at two multinational semiconductor manufacturers before taking up writing fiction. He is a lover of language and languages, a guitarist and self-recorder, and a serious reader. He is married to a powerful and clever woman and together they have three devious children.

For more on the series like the City of the Saints Facebook page; read more about D.J. Butler’s writing at his author website: davidjohnbutler.com

What was the genesis of The City of the Saints series/long novel (both in terms of the idea and the writing process)?

The genesis lies in the real world. In the real world, in 1860, Captain Richard Burton, famous explorer, linguist, and soldier, arguably discoverer of the source of the Nile, and anthropologist who had successfully completed the pilgrimage to Mecca in disguise, came to Salt Lake City. He wrote a book about his experiences, called The City of the Saints, in which he gives us a thumbnail portrait of Brigham Young, talks about going shot for shot with Porter Rockwell while talking about the dangers of the road to Carson City, and otherwise reports a lot of wonderful detail with a clear and experienced eye. It’s a great book, and you should read it. I stole Burton’s title (dropped the article), and his experience: City of the Saints is a gonzo action over the top steampunk version of his real journey. Continue reading “Interview with D.J. Butler on The City of the Saints”

Wm and James talk the Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contest

By now, most AMV readers are likely (and hopefully) familiar with the contest. And many have probably also read the James Goldberg self-interview at or  his guest post at Modern Mormon Men or his reasons behind running the contest Dawning of a Brighter Day. All good stuff. But seeing as there were still important gaps to be filled — in particular for those who intend to submit — James and I concocted the following conversation. Enjoy!

So James, exactly how good is your paneer masala? And will it be served with rice or naan?

Our paneer masala produces a feeling of elevated well-being and sensory satisfaction that could drive drug cartels out of business. It will be served with both roti and basmati rice, after two courses of appetizers, along with two other dishes and a cool drink of mango lassi, and before a gulab jamun dessert. When it comes to cooking, we don’t mess around.

We don’t mess around with guests of honor, either. If Eric James Stone is not coming up with an alternate system of evolution from another world, he’ll be imagining myths that men might carry (or that might carry men) across the stars. Meanwhile, Mel Larsen will be immersing herself in another culture, showing you how the things people take for granted show where they come from and who they are.

Obviously, we’d love more dinner ticket money in the prize purse. But the dinners are also opportunities to bring together people with healthy appetites and voracious imaginations. We hope an AMV reader or two can join us for what I’m confident will be two incredible evenings. Continue reading “Wm and James talk the Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contest”

My take on S.P. Bailey’s Millstone City

William shares his full blurb for S.P. Bailey’s debut novel Milllstone City and discusses the novel’s dialogue with Mormon faithful realism.

AMVer S.P. Bailey’s Millstone City has already been reviewed here by Th. Jepson. The novel . The Kindle version is only $2.99 (other ebook formats to come) and the trade paperback is $15.95.

I provided a blurb for it. Partly because Shawn and I have been alpha/beta readers of each other’s work for several years now, but mostly because I really like what he did with Millstone City and how it fits into the field of Mormon literature.

Here is my full blurb for the novel:

In Millstone City, the LDS mission novel and the thriller collide to create something new: an intense, gritty story that is nevertheless shot through with resilience, honesty, optimism and, yes, that certain willful naïveté that missionaries possess. Call it Mormon neo-noir. Or full-throttle faithful realism. Whatever you dub this hybrid, clearly, S.P. Bailey is well versed in both of the literary streams he’s working with, and I’m very pleased to see him cross them to such good effect.

And here is another thought:

Part of why I think this counts as missionary fiction rather than just being a thriller is that it all starts with a minor infraction of mission rules. In other LDS mission novels, such a minor infraction may be played as comedy, or lead to some tension between characters, or simply try to capture the up-and-downs of a mission. Here it has major repercussions.

In addition, the resources the Elders call upon to help them with their situation — members, relatives of members, the mission president — are true to life. Also true to life is the fact that their efforts aren’t always 100% effective. This is not to say that this wholly a work of realism. But rather that because it draws enough on the tropes and traditions of  Mormon faithful realism, it has a bit more heft and dimension to it than I had expected, especially considering that it’s, essentially, a thriller/suspense novel.

Bizarre and Beautiful Stories: a review of Mahonri Stewart’s new book of plays

Like so many works of literature, Mahonri Stewart’s play The Fading Flower began as a “bizarre and beautiful” dream. It descended on him during his mission showing him, “an old photograph or portrait of Joseph Smith and his family. Joseph Smith was a ghost in the portrait, while Emma and the children were alive. They were all in black and white, except Julia who was in bright color . . . When I awoke I had this powerful, beautiful feeling and all of these impressions were running through my head about writing a play about Emma” (source). It was from there that Stewart began cogitating on the stories of The Prophet’s wife and children and where they must have ended up.

The result of that dream is a sort of Mormon morality play–but not in a bad way. The stage is set with two pulpits on either side and various characters take turns espousing their versions of the truth. Of course, when Brighamites (the term that RLDS members used to refer to Mormons out in Utah) speak from their pulpit they are content to blame Emma and condemn her children. When the sons of Joseph Smith Jr. take to their pulpit they lay right into the Utah Mormons. Both sides are convinced of their own righteousness and the others’ devilish nature. Almost all the characters represent a firm worldview and tend to speak in frank, agenda-driven dialogue thereby becoming the proverbial devils and angels baring down on the shoulders of the youngest Smith son, David. The only problem is David (and the audience) can’t be sure which is the angel and which is the devil.

David was born after Joseph Smith Jr.’s death and carried the fateful burden of being the subject of one of his last prophecies (see this somewhat dubious Wikipedia list for more info). Perhaps because of this prophecy, it is David’s character that struggles the most and follows the only discernible character arc in the play.

Emma, of course, has a sort of character arc too although most of takes place before the play starts. As the title implies, she is fading. Her character is driven not by the men yelling behind pulpits but, just as it was in life, by her husband. Joseph haunts Emma, making the audience wonder if, like Emma at the end of her life, anyone around The Prophet ever truly saw him.

Although the debate in the play hinges on the practice of polygamy (and it’s readability suffers a bit by the didactic nature of that debate), what’s really at stake for the characters (and for modern Mormons as well) are the questions of ultimate truth and infallibility. Can two people holding opposite viewpoints both be right? Can they both be wrong? What if they are a mix of the two? If a leader, whether of a family or a religion, is imperfect does that make her or him wrong in all aspects? What do you do when the story you’ve been told all your life turns out to be much more bizarre–and beautiful–than anything you ever could have imagined? Emma’s slow death and David’s search for truth and subsequent descent into madness are a cautionary tale. As Julia Smith tells her brother, Joseph III, “David did not lose his sanity because he was told the truth in the end, David lost his sanity because he was not told the truth from the beginning. If he hadn’t had a false world constructed around him, he would have been able to endure the real one. . . That’s why when it was our turn to be strong we utterly failed [Mother]. We never let her be fallible” (Kindle location 1636-1638). It is the posing of those questions that make this script work as both a story and a drama.

Swallow the Sun, interestingly, follows an almost opposite story arc. It is the story of C.S. “Jack” Lewis’ early adult years when he was an avowed atheist feeling the pulls of Christianity. Lewis is, of course, a tantalizing individual for Mormons. Besides being an excellent writer of fiction, his skills as an apologist have granted him favored status in the LDS cultural cannon. Stewart’s play pays homage to that by dropping many hints at later Christian-themed writing endeavors. For instance, early on in the play Jack (Lewis’ preferred name in life and Stewart’s choice of character name)–who is seeking to antagonize an avowed Christian–says, “You know, Arthur, what you Christians really need is an advocate. A real, hearty, intellectual strength of an advocate, somebody who can stand up to the bullies likes me” (Kindle location 2208). The line is enjoyable in the banter of the script, but is also funny because the reader knows that this is precisely what Lewis later becomes. Then near the end of the play, as Jack draws up to acceptance of Christianity, he says, “I went on a bus ride the other day. On it, I had this. . . this voice, this feeling come upon me,” which is an obvious allusion to the pivotal bus ride in Lewis’ The Great Divorce (Kindle location 2208).

Because the reader knows the end from the beginning, Swallow the Sun has a much lighter feel to it. The characters function as ideologues egging each other on. Which is one reason that, for me, this play was not as strong as The Fading Flower. Perhaps because it wasn’t as weighty but also because I think it could have benefited from scenes that didn’t center directly on Lewis questions of faith. Or perhaps it’s because in reading this instead of seeing it performed, I missed a lot of context and the resultant characters were flatter. But either way Lewis comes off not so much as a person but as more of a means to an end. I couldn’t help but compare it to Shadowlands and find it wanting, just a bit. The book version of this play (both plays actually) would have benefited from some notes citing historical sources and a few pictures of the productions, just to aid the reader in the imaginative journey. However, I am excited that this play is being made into a movie because I think it will work well in a cinematic style.

Stewart is rightly one of the leading voices in Mormon theater right now. He has a vast body of work and is doing exciting things with his theater company, Zion Theatre Company. Reading his plays maybe never be as good as seeing them performed, but is still worth the effort.

Mahonri Stewart will be at the Springville city Library in Springville, Utah on Thursday June 21st from 7:00-8:00 pm to discuss the life and work of C.S. Lewis as part of the “So You Want to Read!” series. For more from Mahonri be sure to check out his blog, And My Soul Hungered, and his posts over at the AML blog Dawning of a Brighter Day. For more on his theater company go to www.ziontheatrecompany.com

p.s. Dear FCC, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, Zarahemla Books. And, also, Mahonri is a contributor here at AMV. Take all that to mean whatever you think it should.

Interview with Adam Sidwell on his culinary adventure novel

Evertaster CoverAdam Glendon Sidwell is a Los Angeles-based animator/illustrator/character desginer, BYU grad and the author of Evertaster, a culinary-themed middle grade adventure novel. He and I talk about fiction and food below.

You can learn more about Adam’s book at the Evertaster web site. And today is its’ launch day on Amazon should you be interested in purchasing it — it’s available in both ebook and trade paperback form.

Let me start by saying that I was pleased to hear about your book. Gastronomic literature is something that I’m very fond of and plays a part in my own writing and reading. What made you decide to write a culinary adventure story for kids?

I’m glad we share that interest! For me it all started when I looked at a cookbook and thought about all the recipes ever made, all the cooking shows ever watched, and all the chefs who have ever tried to perfect a dish. I wondered, what are they all searching for? Is there an ultimate goal? In science, sometimes people talk about a Grand Unified Theory of Everything. The answer that would be so complete, it would change science forever. So I wondered, is there one taste that would cause all of those chefs to drop their wooden spoons in awe and give up cooking and experimenting, because the One True Taste has been found? The story for Evertaster is my best answer to that question. I naturally think of things in a young adult or middle grade setting, since it allows such freedom of imagination, so I started plotting and writing in that genre. Continue reading “Interview with Adam Sidwell on his culinary adventure novel”

Interview with Joy Buhler on Mormon literature

William talks the great Mormon novel with Joy Buhler and finds about her AML Conference paper on the subject.

When I heard that Joy Buhler was going to present on the great LDS novel at the AML annual meeting this year, I made a note to hit her up for an AMV interview. Mainly because I knew that I wouldn’t be there and so wouldn’t get to hear what she had to say. So I tracked down her email and requested an interview.

Originally from Vernal, Utah, Joy graduated from Utah State University with a B.A. in Political Science (and a minor in Spanish). She holds an MPA from George Mason University and has lived in Washington D.C. for ten years, where she currently works in HR Policy at the Department of the Interior. She blogs at Sherpa’s Wonderin’s.

What made you decide to tackle the topic of the “Great LDS Novel” for the AML Conference?

I wrote about Jerry Johnston’s column when it came out in 2009. When I read that AML was looking for papers for their annual conference, a paper on Mr. Johnston’s column seemed like a natural fit.  The paper is my introduction to LDS literature and the core concept of the paper, doubt, is fascinating to me from the LDS perspective. Continue reading “Interview with Joy Buhler on Mormon literature”

Mormon storytelling and enduring to the end

William explores the term “enduring to the end” in the context of Mormon life and discusses why there’s a lot in there that has yet to be expressed in narrative art.

The classic ending for a comedy is marriage, for a tragedy is death. Another standard story set up is leaving home on a quest and coming home changed (or finding a new home).

In Mormon fiction, we have some additional milestones (and these aren’t unique, of course, to Mormonism in how they function). We have mission stories (which are also quest stories). We have rite of passage stories: baptism/confirmation, ordination, engagement, marriage, becoming parents. All worth telling.

We also have conversion stories (or deconversion stories) — and I’m speaking of conversions on a major scale here: gaining a testimony or joining the LDS Church (and vice versa).

All of those are fine. But often those stories are the province of childhood through one’s twenties. In some ways, the overall culture of Mormonism has that problem: you get baptized at eight, ordained at 12 (if you are male), go on a mission at 19, take out your endowment (either pre-mission or sometime in your late teens through mid-twenties), marry in the temple sometime between 19 and 26, and have your first child (usually before age 30). So what next? Enduring to the end. Yawn.

What a wretched phrase. First of all, it makes the bulk of life sound pretty lame and boring. Second, it means that once you’ve hit all those other milestones, you’re pretty much done . And third, I’m not sure what it really means — or rather that it means what we hope to mean. I mean, if all we’re doing is enduring, just gritting and hanging on, then I don’t know that we’re really living up to the measure of our creation or magnifying our callings and talents, etc.

I’m thinking a better term would be: progress to the end.

But whether we call it endure or progress (and, of course, it’s both), I think that dealing with how this plays out in the lives of active Latter-day Saints is ripe ground for Mormon narrative art. It’s more difficult to tell these stories — you don’t have the easy hooks of mission or marriage or death. But I think that it’s worthwhile, and it’s an area where we can really help each other understand bits and pieces of the modern Mormon experience.

And, of course, there are Mormon writers who have tackled this part of the journey. But not as many as I would like. Looking at my bookshelf, there are a lot of comedies and tragedies and missions and courtships and deaths and conversions there.

Am I crazy here? What’s your favorite piece of Mormon narrative art that deals with “enduring to the end”? What issues or moments or situations have you been hoping someone would write about?

Scott Hales on teaching Mormon literature

Wm interviews Scott Hales to find out what Scott’s experience teaching a unit of Mormon literature to non-LDS college students was like.

Scott Hales is a literary critic, Ph.D. student, writer and all-around Mormon culture raconteur. He was one of the brains (and brawn) behind the Mormon Lit Blitz, he blogs about Mormon literature and other stuff at The Low-Tech World, and also writes for Modern Mormon Men. He just finished teaching Mormon literature to non-LDS college students and graciously agreed to an interview about the experience.

For our readers who weren’t aware of this project, tell us briefly about how you came to be teaching a unit on Mormon literature and how it fits into the overall context of the class.

About a year ago I submitted a proposal to the English department for me to teach a 200-level Topics in Literature class called “American Religious Landscapes.” The basic idea behind the class was to look at fiction that explores the ways religion attaches itself to landscapes both concrete and abstract. I had just finished an independent study on Mormon fiction for credit toward my degree, so I was looking for an excuse to try out some of my ideas about Mormon literature on a captive audience.

At the time, a lot of my ideas focused on how Mormon fiction often suggests ways to reimagine the boundaries Mormons set around themselves. So, I found myself thinking a lot about Mormonism and its literature as a landscape or network of landscapes, which seemed appropriate considering how Mormons from the very beginning have tried to establish a strong physical presence with planned cities and temples. I also found myself looking at the way other religious groups do much the same thing. I figured that while Mormons are a peculiar people, they’re not that peculiar in their desire to stake their claim on the land. Continue reading “Scott Hales on teaching Mormon literature”

Commemorating Mormonism and/through Poetry

One-hundred eighty-two years ago today, Joseph Smith officially organized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Since then, as most of you know, it has grown exponentially. A flourishing culture of arts and letters has accompanied this growth.

As you may also know, April is National Poetry Month. Inaugurated in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets, this month is intended—among other things—to raise the profile of poetry in American culture.

My intention with this post is to commemorate both of these events by announcing a new website—my newest online venture—that explores the intersection between Mormonism and poetry. The website: Fire in the Pasture: Mormon Poets / Poetries / Poetics. Here’s a little bit about the site (from the About page): Continue reading “Commemorating Mormonism and/through Poetry”