Yesterday Modern Mormon Men ran a shortened version of my interview with AMV’s own Theric Jepson about his new novel Byuck. The interview was too long for what I like to post on MMM, so I’m posting the interview in its entirety here.
And now, the interview…
Scott Hales: I think we ought to get this question out of the way first: How do you pronounce Byuck?
Theric Jepson: As for me, I rhyme it with yuck, but I don’t really feel it’s my job to tell people how to pronounce it. I’m the numbskull who gave my novel a ridiculous name. Now I must live with the consequences.
SH: What is the origin story of Byuck? If I understand correctly, you wrote Byuck a while ago, but shelved it after you were told that is was basically unpublishable? I that right?
TJ: I started Byuck as a play back in 1999. I had some problems developing it and shared what I had with one of my professors at BYU, Donlu Thayer. She liked what I had fine, but gave me some stellar advice. She told me I wasn’t ready to write this story yet, that I needed some distance. So I set it aside.
I picked it up again sometime after I graduated in 2002 (by which time I was also married). By 2004 I had a working rough draft which Fob (of The Fob Bible) helped me polish.
My original plan was to try and sell the book outside the Mormon ghetto, but I did have a weird history with Deseret Book, so I decided to try them first. Which is where the comedy started.
They liked the book but told me women won’t and since women are the only people who buy books they wouldn’t publish Byuck until I did some market research for them. (Really.) So I spent a year talking to women not related to me and who did not owe me money (Deseret’s stipulations) to read it and write responses. Those responses ranged from positive to very positive (except for the U of U alumna who accused me of writing BYU propaganda). I wrote up a massive report, sent it in, and received a form rejection letter. (Really.)
Which upset me, so I went to Covenant. And so it went for the next several years. The book was accepted by one company’s editorial department only to be rejected by their marketing department. Accepted and edited for a year, then dropped just before publication. That sort of thing.
Byuck was my albatross. I knew I had a great book, but I didn’t believe I could sell it and I didn’t feel I could write other long fiction while it hung around my neck.
SH: What brought you to Strange Violin Editions, the publisher of Byuck?
TJ: Therese Doucet, who runs Strange Violin, sought me out. Although Byuck‘s never been published, many people in MoLit have heard of its tortured tale. (In fact, both of the blurbs on the back cover are from people I didn’t know well when they suddenly emailed and asked to read my manuscript.)
At first, I was nervous about Therese taking the book since she publishes from a distinctly post-Mormon standpoint, but then she published Steven Peck’s A Short Stay in Hell. I’m always happy to share space with Steve and hey—Byuck has pissed off plenty of people (I’ve only mentioned the people who like it but some people think jokes = attack), so we both moved outside our comfort zone and met in the middle. She’s been great to work with, though. Even if she, ahem, worships at the altar of Chicago Style even when my punctuation is clearly funnier.
SH: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Byuck may be the definitive novel about the BYU experience. What makes BYU such an excellent setting for fiction, particularly comedic fiction?
TJ: It’s funny you ask this because I was just thinking yesterday about one of my all-time favorite comic novels—and favorite Mormon comic novel—The Invisible Saint by Curtis Taylor. It only has a couple BYU scenes, but they’re hilarious. And they’re significant to the main character’s development.
I think BYU is inherently useful to the writer of fiction because it brings with it so much symbolic weight. It’s like naming your protagonist Hamlet. All of a sudden the reader has something to go on. Even if you’re not LDS, you have certain assumptions. Even if you’re a Ute, at least you know you start the book hating it.
And having that set of opinions and emotions to play against is great. Sometimes I play to stereotypes, sometimes I play against them. Sometimes I ignore them.
But even more importantly, BYU is one of the few places in the world where, for instance, I can have an entire population whose default is Mormon sexual mores. BYU allowed me to dig deeper without denying breadth.
Also, BYU is just hilarious.
SH: One thing I noticed about Byuck is the way your characters use art as a way to cope. The work Byuck, for example, refers to the rock opera the novel’s main characters are writing about the BYU singles scene. Dave, the main character, frequently processes his emotions and experiences by writing short stories, which are included in the novel as a kind of parallel text to the main action. Does Byuck have something to teach Mormon readers about the role of art in our everyday lives?
TJ: Gosh! That’s quite the question!
I don’t know if I’m cocky enough to make that claim, but I certainly am willing to argue against the negative. That is, Byuck does not argue that art shouldn’t play a greater role in our lives.
As for me, I can’t process the world without consuming and producing art.
And I think, as Mormons, we should be invested in acts of creation as a theological concern.
SH: Speaking of rock opera, do you have a favorite? And why rock opera of all things?
TJ: No. In fact, I don’t really care for rock operas in general. I’m always trying to like musicals. I am! But after wasting money on taking me to Wicked, my wife says I’m not allowed to try anymore. Apparently, if one thinks Wicked has derivative music, no character development, and lousy jokes, there is no hope for one.
As for why rock opera, why not? It brings together high and low art, all in a two-word phrase. So any contradiction I want to shove into it will find a place. Which is both freeing and a pretty good description of my aesthetic.
SH: One of your characters, Peter, exudes a sleazy Mormon machismo that I remember encountering now and then at BYU-I and BYU. (We called them “Goons.”) Why did you choose to bring Peter into the novel? What does he bring to your story?
TJ: In large measure, he’s a foil to the protagonist, Dave, who is so not sleazy as to be at times unhealthily asexual.
I’ve written a lot about Mormons and sex and art, but I think Dave and Peter are two realities we have to deal with. We don’t always succeed in teaching our children healthy attitudes, and I think that Peter’s cold logic and Dave’s cultivated naivety are both problems we’re dealing with as a culture.
But even Peter has a character arc and—I hope—is more than just a placeholder for Don’t Do It This Way, Boys, because, frankly, I’m not a huge fan of allegory. I want Peter to breathe, not just be idea tupperware.
SH: I’m having a hard time classifying Byuck. It’s too postmodern to be Faithful Realism, but it’s too sincere to be postmodern. The term I keep using in my head is Mormon Screwball Realism, but I’m not sure I’m sold on that term yet. Even so, I think it’s safe to say that there is something different about Byuck. It’s quirky like Napoleon Dynamite and Unicorn City, other examples of Mormon Screwball Realism, but it’s overtly Mormon, which sets it apart. Literarily speaking, I think the closest thing we have to it is the fiction of Steven Peck, but it’s not as dark as Peck’s work. Maybe David Clark’s The Death of a Disco Dancer comes closer, but Disco Dancer is not screwy enough. How do you see your novel fitting in?
TJ: I like the word screwball—in fact, I used it when I was marketing the book nationally:
Byuck, though modern in setting, is in many ways reminiscent of old screwball comedies—half Frank Capra, half Marx Brothers—a story whose three leads could be played by Jimmie Stewart, Katherine Hepburn and Groucho Marx.
Which may or may not be an accurate description—although if I were an agent I would request that manuscript.
But I think you’re right—Byuck doesn’t have a clear precedent (aside from Curtis Taylor’s book, perhaps), which is why it remains utterly unmarketable.
Before Napoleon Dynamite came out, my wife and I used to show Peluca (the original short) to people in order to judge the likelihood of their becoming bosom friends. Which makes me a terribly person and terribly happy to be in any category—no matter now nebulous—that throws us together.
And I’m happy to be unrecognizable, even if it terrible for making money. I get sick of people saying Mormon literature is staid.
SH: On a related note, why do you think Mormons like/make screwball comedy so much?
TJ: Much of the most widely promoted comedy today gets its laughs from escalating grossness—but that’s just a tiny piece of the comedy landscape leaving all this abandoned land just waiting to be cultivated.
Also, American Mormon culture has so many in-jokes—and screwball depends on cultivating in-jokes—that screwball isn’t a hard language for us to learn. I wager if you took a random sampling of American teenagers that the Mormon teens would, as a group, find Duck Soup or The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer more funny than those who weren’t Mormon.
Someone should sic Pew on this question.
SH: Who is your ideal reader for Byuck?
TJ: I have two.
The first will enjoy at least 60% of the jokes (and believe that someone else is getting the other 40% and not stress about it) and believe in the characters as human beings. I don’t care if this person is young or old or Mormon or not—we just need to share a sense of humor and the belief that character is paramount. I know that’s a worthless answer. Sorry.
SH: Shifting gears, I think you are generally considered one of the great Mormon literature advocates of our day. What initially drew you to Mormon literature? What keeps you invested in the field?
TJ: Shortly after I was converted to the cause, I was working with a film junkie. He was Mormon, a BYU student—all that stuff. And I was trying to convince him to watch Brigham City. He couldn’t believe it would be worth his time. But then! on the back of the box! a blurb from a reviewer comparing it favorably to the Coen’s Blood Simple! Which blew his mind. Because Blood Simple is a good movie and Brigham City is . . . is . . . is. . . a Mormon movie.
But he still wouldn’t take it home. His wife would never agree to watching “that kind” of movie.
I think it was this attitude that not only first turned me to Mormon lit, but keeps me focused on it. I get so angry when Mormons dismiss Mormon-made art. What makes you better than other Mormons? What makes you think we can’t make our own art? What about being Mormon makes us crappy artists? Shouldn’t we, in fact, have great art? Where’s your argument? What? You don’t have one? You’re just a prick with a poorly thought through bias?
I used to be such a one. Until I started looking around. Good stuff is happening. And has been happening for a long, long time. You mentioned Disco Dancer. I defy anyone to read that book and dismiss it as tripe. You may not like is as much as I did, but you can’t merely dismiss it as mere Nonart Made By Mormon.
Sorry. That came off really irritated. I need to work on my charity.
I’m mostly motivated by how exciting the field is, not the ignorant people who irritate me. I’m rarely aware of them these days.
Sorry, ignorant people! Didn’t mean to dismiss your opinions so cruelly!
SH: How do you see the current state of Mormon letters? What directions do you see Mormon literature taking in the next decade?
TJ: I get nervous whenever I start to prognosticate, because although I’m certain we’ll see more and more active Mormons being openly Mormon and actively artists, I think the direction we take generally may well be defined on whichever book—or books—become touchstones.
Lately the Mormon moment has been defined by politicians and lapsed actors and Twilight and Comedy Central and clown questions—and I’m up with all those things (I mean—did you see Bryce Harper steal home?). But I don’t think Mormon Art As Mormon Art has yet weighed in, with all its potential strength, on our questions of identity and our role in society. Not yet.
But a book will arise as one crying in the wilderness and we’ll all have to pay attention.
So I guess I’m proposing a prophet theory of Future Mormon Lit.
In the meantime, the broadening availability of publishing will mean we’ll grow in breadth and depth. Which is the only way a fish as big as the one I’m imagining will be able to grow so very very big.
SH: Last question: What makes Billy Joel such an excellent punchline?
TJ: Ha! Well.
Actually, that chapter makes me a little sad. The “official” version of that chapter still hasn’t been approved by lawyers so the version people will read is lacking its full lyrical glory.
And special shout-out to grocery stores! If it weren’t for them playing that song every few months ten years ago I may never have successfully brought Byuck to its crashing conclusion.
In other news, I’m thinking of petitioning the White House to get Billy to bring “We Didn’t Start the Fire” into the present decade. We’re probably too late for Inauguration, but maybe he could open next year’s State of the Union?
Who’s with me?