Interview with Courtney Miller Santo, author of The Roots of the Olive Tree

Courtney Miller Santo is a writer of mainstream/literary fiction who has been published in the Mormon literary journals as well as nationally. Her debut novel was just published last month. You can find out more about Santo at her author blog.

I’ll be honest — I had never heard of you until you were published in Irreantum. Tell us a bit about your background as a writer (you worked as journalist, right?), including when you started writing fiction with Mormon characters/themes.

There’s no reason you should have heard of me unless you read the Charlottesville Daily Progress, where I worked as a reporter for a bit. I didn’t get serious about my writing until I went back to school to get my MFA. Although I’d always been a voracious reader, I hadn’t considered the parallels (or I should say potential for parallels) between certain communities of writers and Mormons. I read Ozick, Malamud, Singer, Roth and even Jennifer Weiner and I kept wondering what Mormons could learn from them about writing about the culture surrounding religion, if not the faith itself. This is not to draw comparisons between the religions, and the traditions, just to say their approach to being Jewish struck a chord in me. I’ve primarily integrated Mormonism into my short fiction. It’s present in the novel, but not in any overt way and none of the protagonists are Mormon. But anyone who has a passing familiarity with the Book of Mormon will recognize the importance of the olive tree and the large families.

I really loved your short story “Flight”. What was its genesis?

Thank you. That story grew out of an afternoon I spent wandering around Balboa Park in San Diego. I’d bought the tickets intending to attend a wedding, but the wedding got called off and so I spent the afternoon thinking about why relationships fail and ended up taking the wrong path. Instead of going to the botanical house, I ended up on the backside of one of the park buildings is a tree filled with dozens of hummingbird feeders. The day I stumbled upon it there were also dozens of birds feeding and I sat on the curb watching them and outlining the story that would become “Flight”. Continue reading “Interview with Courtney Miller Santo, author of The Roots of the Olive Tree”

A Mormon reference in Karen Joy Fowler’s short story collection

I’ve been reading What I Didn’t See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler. I’m enjoying it very much — Fowler infuses the literary with the weird in a way that speaks to my particular tastes and obsessions. I plan on writing about it more on my author blog, but I also found a Mormon reference to document here at AMV. It’s found in the story “Familiar Birds”:

“The Mormons used to make tea from this,” Daisy said. She was pointing to a particularly leggy, stickery plant. “They picked the leaves and dried them and then put them in boiling water. They thought this tea stopped pregnancies. Any woman found with the dried leaves was excommunicated. Or thrown into prison.” (94)

Now Daisy is likely unreliable when she talks about nature. The story is about Clara, a young woman who makes an extended visit with Daisy and her parents every summer (so her parents don’t have to pay for child care). Daisy likes to menace Clara with rural knowledge. So all the details could be completely made up. I wonder, though, how Fowler came up with the anecdote, especially since it correctly uses the word “excommunication” which suggests some familiarity with Mormonism.

As far as I know Mormon tea is the same thing as what people in Kanab (the town in southern Utah where I spent my childhood) called Brigham tea. As I recall, Brigham tea was made with stems — not leaves. In fact, Ephedra (which is what Brigham tea is made from) doesn’t have leaves. It is leggy, though. I don’t know about stickery, though. It’s pointy at the top, but I don’t really associate that with stickery.

I’ve tasted Mormon tea once when I was a kid. It’s not very good.

A poll for those entering Everyday Mormon Writer’s upcoming contest

With just over 10 days left to enter Everyday Mormon Writer’s , I thought I’d see if we can get a sense of which centuries AMVers are focusing on. If you have entered or are planning on entering the contest, please answer the following question.

If you have no idea what I’m taking about, read my interview with James Goldberg on the contest. Or click the link in the first sentence of this post.

Full disclosure: I have entered the 20th, 21st and 22nd century contests.

[poll id=”8″]

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.