So if I am understanding things correctly, the fall issue of Dialogue has been printed and will be previewed at the Sunstone Symposium this week, and it contains my Dialogue debut — the series of five shortish short stories “Gentle Persuasions.” So not to torture those of you who won’t be receiving your copy in the mail for several weeks, but I promise liner notes in my author’s note, and I am a man of my word.
Okay, so part of why I do this is simple self-indulgence. But it’s also part of my project to demystify and interrogate the production, distribution and consumption of fiction and to document my own thinking as a writer and a critic. There are spoilers ahead if you care about such things. Not major spoilers, but spoilers. The good news is that if you purchase an electronic subscription to Dialogue, you can read the story (and all the other good content) as soon as it is posted. I’m pretty sure the idea for this series came about around 5-6 years ago while I was walking in Oakland as part of my commute. In fact, if I’m remembering correctly (and as you’ll see there’s no guarantee of that) I think I was thinking about the story that became the first story in the set right as I was walking by the funky Italian American some sort of society club on Claremont across from the DMV, and I thought it would be interesting to write a series of stories that all feature some kind of visit by a priesthood holder to a home. I won’t go through the whole process of creation — that’s tedium, not demystification. But I would note that this is the first bit of fiction I’ve written that contains significant autobiographical details. This made it both easier and more difficult to write. It made it easier because the autobiography meant that the shape of the stories that arose out of my life came rather quickly and so did those that don’t have any autobiographical component because it became rather clear what I needed to round out the set. More difficult because when dealing with autobiographical components, it’s difficult to know how much to change and if you’re changing things just because you feel the need to or because it’s better for the story.
Two more things: 1. The first and last story are written in first person, the other are in third person. I’m sure that might drive some people crazy, but I decided to choose POV based on the story, and that’s how things turned out. 2. I was never tempted to try and link all five stories together. They are presented in roughly chronological order (from the early ’80s to the summer of 2007 or maybe it’s 2008) and all take place in either Utah or California, but the main character in each story is not the same person or a relative or anything like that. That may be absolutely clear, but one can never be too careful in this day and age where everything has to be linked and looped around and all convoluted and referential.
This story is autobiographical. It takes place in the early ’80s. Many things are intensified and exaggerated. I chose to use first person because I wanted the point of view character to be a bit pathetic and lame in order to interject some dark humor and ironic distance. And I admit, I also wanted to play with the notion that an adult writer can really capture the voice of a child. Now, I say this story is biographical. I do remember visiting a family with my father who was a lawyer in a small southern Utah town. I also remember that the visit seemed to be my dad trying to convince the father of a family (who did have a daughter my age) to pay his taxes. Naturally, I intensified things and added details, and I added this faux-cosmopolitan veneer to the adult pov character who is narrating the story. I guess you could say he is a version of me that would have existed if my family had moved from Kanab to Provo, but then hadn’t moved to California.
So anyway, I talked to my dad about the story. He doesn’t remember it at all.
This story is also autobiographical. When I lived in Provo (ages 13-15), I did home teach a family with a daughter my age. She did run away. They did live in a duplex decorated in browns and yellows and oranges. I exaggerate things somewhat (including that whole bit about the mother) and feel kind of bad about that, in fact. I also did indeed have a different view of her after she was found and came back, a moment where the concept of stewardship became a bit clearer. The whole moment at the end of the story never happened, though. I like this story a lot. So does my sister Katherine. It takes place in the mid ’80s because that’s when it took place autobiographically. My parents vaguely remember it.
This one is totally made up. The gently humming core part near the end was one of the first non-autobiographical parts of this series that I wrote. These stories don’t have a lot of plot to them (me and plot have this whole thing — it’d be nice if that was something unique, but it’s not at all), but each of them attempts to do something that I really love to see in Mormon fiction: capture a moment, a thought, an attitude, a piece of dialog that’s very, very Mormon (and here it’s all very, very LDS even). With this story I have to give a shout out to the Elders and Sisters of the Bucharest, Romania mission 1993-1994, who narrated to me the odd dating and courtship rituals of Ricks and BYU. The last four paragraphs of this story is one of the areas where the Dialogue editors pushed me the most and that resulted, imo, in positive changes. In fact, in general, I was happy with how the whole editing process went. Oh, and this story takes place in the early 1990s.
Writing about SSA in Mormon fiction post-Proposition 8 doesn’t not sound like a fun thing to me (even though Jonathan Langford has written a marvelous novel, much [or maybe even all] of it in the post-Prop-8 era). Luckily, I started this story several years ago and completed it before the Prop 8 hoopla and somehow managed to block all that out during rewriting. This story actually has its roots in biography. Specifically, my grandfather did meet a nurse in a hospital who was gay and estranged from his Mormon father. I don’t remember any details beyond that. But as I was thinking about other stories that fit into this series and that fact came to mind and the story followed rather quickly. One concrete detail: David in the story first became a pilot because as I was thinking about my grandfather and then about this story, for some reason my memory flashed to the coat closet of my grandparent’s home and his leather bomber jacket with the service patches on it and his officer’s cap (he was not a pilot, but did serve in the military in WWII). That his being pilot also led to an easy set up for the story — for the ability to make the visit — was a bonus. Obviously, I could have solved that in several different ways. But it’s interesting to me that it happened because of a detail drawn from life, from a memory and not the needs of the plot. Also: this story takes place somewhere in 2004-2006.
This story takes place in 2007 or 2008. Let’s see. There’s mention of LinkedIn and Facebook, but not Twitter, so I’m going to have to go with summer 2007. This story has semi-autobiographical roots. I went out one summer evening (it wasn’t that hot, though) in Oakland with another member of the Oakland First Ward Elder’s Quorum (but neither of us was in the presidency) to try and track down some of the more than 200 inactive elders and prospective elders living within our ward boundaries. And the guy I went out with was pretty gung ho. However, we didn’t get in any doors, and I don’t think I annoyed him. We actually had a lot of fun. But what I wanted to do with this story (other than play around with voice — the NorCal version, perhaps, of Alan Rex Mitchell’s SoCal dude Barry Monroe) was capture that whole thing of where you can feel the Holy Spirit, but also be somewhat removed from it. I’m not sure how to explain it — you’ll have to read the story. Also: the inactive that finally answers the door happened to me twice on my mission (it was actually the inactive who finally comes back to church) with two of the most interesting, dynamic people I ever taught. in fact, it was the first two people I taught who were baptized (both single individuals in their late twenties). Their faces haunt me still.
All right. That’s all I got for now. I have made a conscious decision since then to not work on stuff that’s quite so autobiographical. That’s not a decision that’s going to stick — I have too much good material. And that’s not to say that bits of pieces and me and those I know and love (or sorta know and kinda dislike) don’t find their way in to things I’m working on. But I’m done for awhile with the happened-to-me-told-with-a-slant stories.
Also see: My liner notes for Speculations: Trees.