Although Darlene Young lived in the same ward as I did for two or three years in the late ’90s and I knew her opinions on a variety of subjects from her contributions to the AML List, I didn’t actually become aware of her as an up-and-coming voice in the world of Mormon letters until her short stories placed in the first two Irreantum short fiction contests.
I specifically wanted to interview her because I know that she struggles with two of the main challenges that face active LDS writers of literary Mormon fiction — how to find time to write and where to publish. And she was gracious enough to not only accept my request, but to also give very candid answers to my questions.
Young lives in Pocatello, Idaho with her husband and four sons. Before embarking on her current adventurous career of homemaking, she worked for a few years as a technical writer. Her degree from BYU is in Humanities and English teaching, and she considers herself a teacher more than a writer at heart. In addition to Irreantum, she has published in Orson Scott Card’s Vigor, Exponent II, The Ensign, The New Era and her local newspaper. She spent a year as secretary for AML and wishes she still lived in Utah so she could continue serving there. When she was a child her dream was to appear on the children’s TV show Zoom — or grow up to marry Donny Osmond. Her favorite calling is Relief Society teacher but she is currently a den leader (unavoidable when you have four sons).
When and why did you start writing “for real”?
I wrote a lot as a child and a teenager (I have a whole stack of really awful love poetry) but I quit writing in late high school when I discovered real literature and was completely humbled. I didn’t try again for years. One day I was thinking about my mother’s near death experience and my own first experience in the temple, and the feelings were so strong that I thought I’d try to get them down in poetry. That was “Approaching the Veil.” Since my mother was on my mind, I also wrote an essay about her at the same time. I published both in Orson Scott Card’s “Vigor” and “Exponent II.” I didn’t write anything else for several years, mostly because I didn’t feel I had an audience or a place to publish. I really got serious about writing after I joined AML, and the first short story I ever wrote, “Companions,” came about as a direct result of a conversation on AML List. I can’t stress enough the effect that a supportive community such as AML can have on a writer.
How do you find time to write? [and how much do you need to write in a week to feel like it has been a ‘good’ writing week?]
When I have a writing goal (such as the Irreantum short fiction contest), I write just a little here and there until the point comes that I kind of catch on fire with the story. Then it’s like I’m obsessed and I sneak every extra second to write, and I can’t really be at peace until it’s done. (It’s a lot like giving birth, actually: “Get this thing out of me!”) Naptime around here is good writing time, if I can discipline myself not to check e-mail instead. That’s about it — I need a lot of sleep, so I don’t do the late-night thing (unless, as I said, I’m on fire). For now I don’t really have a weekly goal. I’m trying to sort of keep my writing at a minimum until the kids are in school. I’ll write for specific things but I don’t have a lot of ongoing work.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve found that I don’t work on anything unless I have an audience in mind and a place or reason to share what I’ve written. I am exploring ways of getting myself motivated — looking for new places to publish or a writer’s group, for example — so that I will write more. With the goal of getting an audience and a deadline, I recently began a creative writing class by independent study through BYU. I am producing a lot for that class — short stories and essays. I have a vague idea of a novel that I’ll get to someday, but I can’t let myself start that one for a few years yet for fear I’ll get on fire and neglect my family.
After living in Berkeley, Calif., for a few years, you and your family moved to Idaho. Has the change in scene influenced your writing at all? In what way?
As I said, the biggest influence on my writing has been my association with AML, which is an on-line community and isn’t affected by where I live. I must say, though, that my years in Berkeley had a great maturing affect on me as a person and on my opinions about community and what it means to be a Mormon. Also, in Berkeley I had a very well-educated, thoughtful and also orthodox Mormon peer group, the likes of which I haven’t found anywhere else. I suspect that I might be writing more, or more interestingly, if I were still around those people all the time. I miss them.
To date most of your work has appeared in Irreantum. I know that in the past you’ve expressed frustration with the lack of venues for Mormon poetry and literary fiction — the church magazines have stopped publishing it, you’re a bit wary of Sunstone, etc. — is this still a major issue for you? What would help? Are you looking to publish in markets outside of Mormondom?
Yeah, it’s still an issue for me. My problem is this: there are people who I believe would appreciate what I write who have this prejudice against Dialogue and Sunstone. Whether or not they are justified doesn’t matter. The point is that it is possible to be labeled “a Sunstone Mormon,” and to have my audience limited thereby. It’s a catch-22 because the majority of people who would appreciate my writing do read these magazines, and by not publishing there I am missing out on a good audience. I have not reached a decision about this. I predict that I will eventually publish in Dialogue.
My writing is very Mormon. It is about Mormons. It is for a Mormon audience. I have no desire to publish in national markets. I write for my own community. I am envious of others who can stand back from their Mormon-ness in their writing but I just can’t. The issues that interest me have very much to do with life in a ward, or an individual’s efforts to live the gospel. So, yes, the limited arena for publishing does concern me greatly, especially considering my handicap of needing an arena before I will write. Currently I am writing for my AML friends. They are the audience I keep in mind. So Irreantum has been perfect for me.
What would help? Well, I like where Irreantum is going. They’re doing great with it and I’m so grateful for it. I hate the idea of being so limited, though. I’d like to expand, and Irreantum may not want to keep publishing me. I like what you’re doing with “Motley Vision” — the more criticism and publicity Mormon writers can get, the better. (It’s very encouraging even just to have someone say “I noticed that you’ve been writing.”) I’d like to see Deseret Book take more risks in what they publish. I spoke to Corey Maxwell from D. B. about this and he seemed to think that many of us writers have the wrong impression of them — that they would be willing to look at a lot more “difficult” or thoughtful work than we have been sending them. It’s possible that they have just not been getting the more literary stuff because everyone sends it to Signature. I don’t know. Signature doesn’t have the resources to do as much as they would like (and as much as I wish they’d do), and when they do bring something fantastic out (I’m thinking of Bennion’s Falling Towards Heaven, for example), they don’t do much in the way of advertising and publicity. Thoughtful readers don’t often know that such books even exist.
I think there’s a large audience out there of Mormons who are thoughtful readers and want a little more meat to their literature than what they’ve come to expect from LDS writers. We need to find a way to get the word out that really interesting things are being done in Mormon literature. Once publishers, even Deseret Book, see that there is a population out there worth marketing to, they’ll be more interested in literary books. (I am admittedly using the term “literary” loosely to mean “books that require the reader to be somewhat of an experienced reader, skilled enough to see beneath potentially troubling elements to the greater truth of the book.”) This is where I see AML as being in a position to be useful. We can spread the word, have readings and conferences, start discussions among ourselves and other educated Mormons. I think we can be doing more, in fact. We’re in such a good position, independent of any university or political persuasion. I’m committed to doing all I can for AML because of this.
Finally, I think there is a great role for criticism in the progress of Mormon literature. We have in the past tended too much towards congratulating each other on producing things that have “a good message.” We can’t settle for that anymore. I think we need a few more brave souls who are willing to point out ways that their brothers and sisters can improve in their writing. It’s hard because we see the benefits of sticking together, we writers, and encouraging each other. We want to remain friends. But when we don’t criticize, the standards remain low. I think we need more real criticism going on, the kind that is insightful and encouraging to the author because it takes as a given that the author is capable of producing something great. (Of course, I say all this easily but when it comes to my own stuff I want critics to rave about it always, at least if the work is in its final form!)
What other genres do you write in besides fiction?
Well, there’s poetry. Most of my poetry is still awfully affected and immature, but I have some good ideas and once in a while I get something right, so I haven’t given up yet. I’m trying to let myself grow. I write essays and am really interested in pursuing that more, but I struggle with preachiness. The LDS testimony/RS lesson/sacrament meeting talk is too engrained in me. I like to read Tessa Meyer Santiago and Eugene England to help me with essays. As a teenager I wrote some humorous stuff but I seemed to have lost the knack (of humor) as an adult. I’d like to rediscover that. I would also like to explore writing for teenagers sometime. I love Louise Plummer’s stuff. I’m not really interested in writing speculative fiction (though I enjoy reading it) because it’s too much work. I’m too lazy to invent a new world and there are enough interesting things to explore in this one anyway. Same goes for historical fiction — I’m too lazy to research; I’d rather spend the time writing.
What’s your biggest obstacle in writing?
Honestly, it’s my sheltered life. I grew up in a good family and I am married to the kindest person I have ever known. I just haven’t experienced much ugliness or pain in my life. I struggle with depicting characters, especially male, who are mean or nasty because I have so many great men in my life. (Not a bad problem to have, eh?).
Finally, what have you read lately that has fired you up — motivated you to work on your own stuff?
Again, conversation on AML list often gets me going. Here are some authors that always make me want to write: Wallace Stegner is my idol. His writing is what I call heavily “internal,” as mine tends to be (not so heavy on plot). I also like Virginia Sorenson for the same reason. For character I like Anne Tyler and her quirky details, E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, and Louise Plummer. For point of view I am motivated by Orson Scott Card. (I also really enjoy his essays.) When I haven’t been writing for a while, reading diaries always gets me itching to write. I’ve enjoyed the journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery and Anne Morrow Lindbergh (although I can’t stand Gifts From the Sea). Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies and the essays of Barbara Kingsolver have also influenced me, as have the essays of Tessa Meyer Santiago, one of our best current LDS essayists. Finally, I think Neil Chandler’s Benediction should be required reading for all Mormons who want to write about Mormon communities. I return to that book again and again for inspiration. (It’s out of print now but I bought up several copies and every once in a while I present them to friends who prove themselves worthy.)