AMV readers may mainly know Lisa Torcasso Downing from Mo-lit circles, including the comments section here and at the AML blog, and her work as fiction editor for Sunstone. But Lisa also writes fiction and has recently had two works of middle grade/YA fiction published by Leicester Bay Books (as L.T. Downing): Island of the Stone Boy and Get that Gold! (the latter is part of her Adventures of the Restoration series). Lisa agreed to talk about those two books with me as well as some other Mo-lit topics.
You have two books that recently came out. Let’s tackle the one first that doesn’t have an overt Mormon connection: Island of the Stone Boy. You call it Mormon-friendly. And yet it is a “kid horror” novel. How do you make those [two terms work together?]
There’s no conflict between the terms, though I suppose the word “supernatural” might appeal to LDS parents a little more than “horror.” Maybe not. The reality is Island of the Stone Boy is a suspense novel. Yes, it’s a ghost story, which makes it paranormal, a subset of horror, but the suspense is what keeps my readers flipping pages. I recently got a note from an LDS mom who handed her 10 year old Island of the Stone Boy on a day off from school. He read it cover to cover in one day even though his brothers bugged him to join in a movie marathon. That didn’t happen because the book has ghosts, but because I remember what used to compel me to keep reading as a child, to click that flashlight on under the covers once my mother had closed my bedroom door. So that’s what I offered up in Island of the Stone Boy: good, old-fashioned suspense.
When I’m speaking to LDS families, I use the term “Mormon-friendly” because I recognize some may hesitate to hand their child anything that is classified as horror, paranormal or supernatural. I think, for many, the genre has been tainted by stories that dabble in the Satanic and psychopathic, so parents—especially those who may not have the time to read all the novels their children consume—might steer clear of the genre all together, just to be safe. But I go so far as to add that Island of the Stone Boy is also inspirational because foundation rests on the strength of loving familial bonds. One mom even confessed to me that she was moved to tears at the end. That’s a big bonus.
Tell us about your Adventures of the Restoration series. What has been published so far and what plans do you have for the rest of the series?
Interestingly, both Island of the Stone Boy and Get that Gold!, book one in the Adventures of the Restoration series, were written in the 1990’s. I wrote Island of the Stone Boy and was sending it to publishers about the time the Goosebumps series was losing its financial foothold in the publishing world. Interest was waning in kid horror and, to be honest, I had very few writing credentials. So I made a calculated decision to dip my toe in the LDS market, in hopes of gaining those credits that might open doors somewhere else. I had certain prejudices, I admit, about publishing in the LDS market. I really struggled trying to discover a niche in the Mormon market that would suit me.
History was a hobby of mine, so I decided on a historical series and, because I had young children, I figured they’d be more likely to cooperate with me if I were writing stories they enjoyed. Being a convert, I hadn’t been saturated growing up with pioneer stories so I was reading fairly deeply in early Mormon history. And not so much the Deseret Book sponsored histories and biographies, but Leonard Arrington and D. Michael Quinn, among others. The Wallace Stegner books on Mormonism are so beautifully written. Anyway, I wasn’t interested in creating a kid-version of the Work and the Glory series, which was popular at the time. I didn’t want invented people who were injected into the history. History’s real cast of characters and actual adventures were so juicy, why tell any other story?
I started with Get that Gold!, which chronicles Joseph fending off attackers as he brought the gold plates home in the middle of the night shortly after receiving them from the Angel Moroni. I don’t write Joseph as some infallible, perfectly obedient guy doing God’s errand. The back cover of Get that Gold! includes an excerpt Lucy Mack Smith wrote detailing a warning giving to Joseph by the angel. Basically, the angel told Joseph that, if he wasn’t diligent, evil men would get the plates. Well, they almost did, which suggests to me some fault in Joseph’s care of the plates; after all, he left them unattended in the woods and had no secure place to hide them at his home. My Joseph Smith is a genuine human being with weaknesses. I believe it’s important to cast him that way. If parents hand their children Get that Gold! (or read it to them), they will not only be handing them historical fiction, but a tool to help them understand that God will use us as his instrument in spite of our imperfection. Too often we, as a culture, have expected to inspire our children with stories of flawless forefathers. But I think these stories leave them ill-equipped to deal, later on, with the fact that our forefathers were flawed. Not only that, those types of stories do nothing to model the inner strength our children will someday need to summon when they fail, or are imperfect in their obedience and service to God, or in life in general.
Book two is The Pilfered Papers, which is based on the loss of the 116 pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript. I expect it to be released in February of 2014. After that, I’ll wander on through some other remarkable, high adventure stories from the Restoration.
Both of these books have been published by Michael Perry and his Leicester Bay Books, which also published Stephen Carter’s The Hand of Glory. What was your experience like working with LBB? What should Mormon readers and authors know about the company that they might not be aware of?
Stephen is actually the person who brought me to Michael Perry and Leicester Bay Books. In fact, he had to urge me several time to submit Island of the Stone Boy, but I balked. I just wasn’t actively seeking publication for my children’s or YA books. I’d moved on. Eventually, Stephen asked me to send a manuscript directly to him, and since I can’t refuse Stephen, he submitted it for me and Perry offered a contract. When I learned Perry was publishing LDS fiction under the Zion BookWorks imprint, I mentioned my series idea (I had written books one and two way back when) and he jumped at the chance to publish them, which was flattering. Michael has been a pleasure to work with. His business plan seems ambitious: he will work on gaining publicity for his writers, but he is small press so a writer should expect to do a lot of leg work. He’s just starting up and has a fair amount of titles to represent.
I will warn submitting writers that, in my opinion, editing is not his strong suit. (Forgive me, Michael.) Remember, I say this as an experienced fiction editor. So don’t submit expecting that you can send in an unpolished manuscript and he’s going to take care of it. Workshop your work, get it edited, make it shine. I do know that he is actively looking for fiction titles that might appeal to LDS Young Women, or LDS women in particular. He’s got some other really exciting titles in the pipe, but Michael should probably talk about those things. I’d love to see a Motley Vision interview with him.
Your recently published work has been middle grade-focused. Why focus on this particular group of readers, esp. when it comes to the Mormon market?
Actually, the books are middle grade and Young Adult. The genre age categorization for MG and YA are fuzzy. Certainly I see Get that Gold! and the other Adventures of the Restoration series as books that families can share together, with teens and younger children enjoying them, but their focus is 4th and 5th grade. Island of the Stone Boy was written specifically with the 5th through 7th grade group in mind, which makes it Young Adult. Of course, I just mentioned a 10 year old who couldn’t put it down. Parents can look at the books and make a decision about when their child is ready for them. I’d like to see the industry move solidly toward creating a category for the older middle grade readers and younger young adult readers.
In my previous answer, I addressed some reasons why I chose this age group and why the Adventures of the Restoration. I admit I wondered if I wanted to return to writing for children, something I haven’t done for a long time. My biggest worry was that I’d like it too much and might be tempted away from writing literary fiction. And that may happen. Writing for kids is just so much fun. Literary fiction tends to be consumed by people who are trained to analyze and critique. It can be nerve-wracking and, trust me, I keep this in mind when I wear my editing hat. But writing for children is fun from beginning to end. Kids don’t offer up critical analysis. They just get absorbed in the story. Reading as entertainment … Sometimes formal education in literature deprives us of our ability to chill out with a fun read. It did me. Writing for kids is part of my recovery process. Plus, I love slapping down words that I know will mess with a kid’s head. I’m twisted.
You are the fiction editor for Sunstone. When it comes to submissions: what do you see too much of? What do you not see enough of?
Fiction is going strong at Sunstone and I’m thrilled to be a part of the organization. For many years, Sunstone published the fiction winners that came through the D.K. and Brookie Brown Fiction Contest. If you wanted your story in the magazine, you entered the contest. But right now, Sunstone is experimenting with a new approach. I’ve been actively seeking submissions from some of Mormonism’s best established and emerging authors. Recently, we’ve published short fiction from Richard Dutcher and Eric Freeze (Dominant Traits), who up until now, hadn’t published in LDS venues. Ryan McIlvain (Elders) is in December’s issue and, after that, you will see an intriguing apocalyptic story by Steven Peck (Scholar of Moab). Lately, that’s been my job, to unearth new stories from rising authors. Right now, I’m actively looking for strong short fiction written by women, not that that precludes accepting fiction written by men of course.
In addition to more Adventures of the Restoration stories, are there other projects you are working/planning on that you can share?
I have a lit fic novel in progress, but it’s been taken completely off the burner for the time being. I’m consumed with family right now. Those demands should lighten in the next several months and I’ll get back to it. I can’t wait for that.
In the meantime, I’ve gotten a blog up and running. Life Outside The Book of Mormon Belt will focus on the experience of being a believing Latter-day Saint, living on the cultural edge of Mormonism. The tone crosses the spectrum from tickled to (politely) ticked off, but radiates my deep affection for the LDS people and way of life. The focus is cultural, not doctrinal.