Recently, I sent Association for Mormon Letters President Margaret Blair Young a list of questions about her current projects with Darius Gray–a revision of their Standing on the Promises novel series and the feature film The Heart of Africa—as well as her own work as a creative writer and AML president. Kindly, Margaret took time away from her busy schedule to answer them for me.
I’ve split the Q&A into two parts. Answers to the questions relating to Standing on the Promises and The Heart of Africa will be featured on Modern Mormon Men sometime soon. Below are her answers to my questions about her earlier work, AML, and future projects.
NOTE: I plan to post the Q&A in its entirety on The Low-Tech World as soon as Modern Mormon Men runs the remainder of it.
Throughout your career as a writer, you’ve seemed to gravitate towards stories about marginalization within Mormon communities. For example, in your novel Salvador, your protagonist is a divorced Mormon woman who visits relatives who operate a fringe Mormon commune in Central America. Heresies of Nature centers around a character who has been severely debilitated by multiple sclerosis. What draws you to these stories? Why do Mormons need them?
What drew me to write Salvador? My life. You’d be surprised at how much of that is autobiographical. Heresies of Nature? My sister-in-law died of M.S. I turned that novel into a play, and my sister passed away on opening night. It was a remarkable experience for all of us. My husband had already written a tribute to his sister on the playbill, so every audience member received that. Cast members attended Nancy’s funeral, and Nancy’s nurses attended the play. But obviously, I believe in dealing with hard issues. If we don’t learn to deal with them, we will almost certainly lack empathy when others are hitting them. We need to train our minds and magnify our faith as our children grow in this internet age. They will come to us with questions to bridge what they learn in Sunday school and what they read online. Our answers will need to reflect our knowledge and the example of who we are in this age and place of Mormonism; what we cling to as our essential and inviolate morality. This is a dynamic religion. We may still stand in holy places, even while acknowledging that many in the past became detached from their “better angels.”
Can you trace the DNA of your work as a fiction writer? Who has informed your work the most intellectually, stylistically?
My first influences were the classics, Moby Dick and The Brothers Karamazov being my first teachers. And they were teachers. I took Melville’s book with me to Guatemala and read it three times without anyone guiding me.The Brothers Karamazov was the first book I fell in love with. It transformed me into a reader. Before reading that, I cheated. I read Cliff Notes. Stylistically? I read a lot of James Joyce, Alice Munro, Faulkner. When I turned to Black history fifteen years ago, I read history books. Seems like hundreds. I find I’m actually more at home with historians now than I am with fiction writers. A really good short story feels like dessert to me.
Among your own works, do you have a favorite?
I tend to be very critical of books I’ve written. So my favorite is the unfinished one on my computer, which beckons me with increasing urgency. Now if my schedule would just cooperate!
For the most part, I think your work beyond Standing on the Promises is categorized as “Faithful Realism,” a term Eugene England (I think) coined to describe Mormon literary fiction that remains essentially faithful to the gospel message and a Mormon world view. Why did you take this road as a writer? Why not write YA novels or science fiction, as so many Mormons writers do, or write for the non-Mormon market?
I’ve simply never been drawn by YA novels or Sci Fi. I plan my next book to be for a mainstream audience, though told from a Mormon perspective. We also hope that Heart of Africa will cross over into the mainstream. Still, I think my fiction has had some importance in Mormon literary history. It has inspired other writers, if nothing more. I blog with some regularity, and have become quite bold in expressing my thoughts. As for my future influence–I believe in my children’s generation. They have information at their fingertips–a dangerous thing we older people didn’t have to worry about. So if they are to be strong, they will need to learn that delicate balancing act where the sacred is not vandalized by the profane, and uncomfortable truths are sifted through grace. We all will learn that we have indeed sometimes been misled by prophetic utterances, and we will accept that as part of the history we yet cherish.
You’ve been president of the Association for Mormon Letters for several years now. What have been your goals as AML president? How do you understand AML’s place in the Mormon studies community—and the Mormon community in general?
Popular fiction gets the Story Makers convention, which is hugely successful. Fantasy/sci fi has the “Life, the Universe and Everything” symposium–again a major event every year. The Association for Mormon Letters will die if we measure ourselves against either of those conferences and if we don’t find a larger vision for ourselves than simply honoring books in various genres. Therefore, my theme has always been to get us onto an international stage. We are starting slowly, but the AML is still alive. I will die happy if we hold a future conference in Oslo or Kinshasa or Sao Paolo.
If you were called upon to give a State of Mormon Literature address, what would you say? In what ways are Mormon writers excelling? Where do they fall short?
We have some wonderful writers, but they are outnumbered by ambitious writers who lack the skill or the discipline to smith their sentences and take time to develop characters and plot. We have many who want to write something fast and get to Costco for a book signing. Literature demands devotion. I remember as I gave birth to my first child, I said to the midwife, “Hurry up!” She calmly answered, “Nothing to hurry. She’s coming.” A book is created sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. Sometimes it’s painfully slow. But there is nothing to hurry. The writer often fails to nourish her muse with the literature others have created, and so might be drawing on old water instead of finding new fountains. (She might even mix metaphors:) ) Let your baby develop fully before she’s born or she won’t take in the breath of life. Then let her sleep a bit before you pick her up again. She will need many naps and lots of detailed care before she’s ready to go outside and have her picture taken.
When Mormon writing becomes incestuous–meaning that the writers are reading other Mormon writers rather than indulging deeply in the best books in the world–we will not rise beyond mediocrity. When writers fail to submit their work for criticism, they will not see what others will see. That’s a recipe for mediocrity as well. Thankfully, we are witnessing new stars who go beyond those wonderful writers Gene England always taught. Maurine Whipple has been eclipsed by Angela Hallstrom, and Vardis Fisher is not nearly as good as Brady Udall. And they keep coming. We will be honoring a good group of fine artists at AML in two weeks.
What should we expect from Margaret Blair Young after Standing on the Promises and The Heart of Africa?
Expect a novel about an old man who is certain he will not go to the Celestial Kingdom because of secrets he has kept, and his compassionate, gay son who arranges for him to confess to a bishop–and then, after the old man’s death, goes about uncovering the secrets.
Expect a film set in Guatemala done in Spanish and Cakchiquel (Mayan dialect) which will honor the life of Pablo Choc, one of my heroes.
Expect Darius and me to continue working together until one of us dies.
Expect miracles. I do.