A conversation with Luisa Perkins about her short novel Prayers in Bath

cover of Prayers in Bath

Luisa Perkins was kind enough to indulge me in a conversation about her novel Prayers in Bath, which was published earlier this spring by Mormon Artists Group.

But first here’s the back cover blurb to provide some context for our discussion:

After several attempts at in vitro fertilization, Ted and Julia Taylor are out of money and out of hope. In an attempt to shake herself out of her depression, Julia accepts an internship on an archaeological dig in Bath, England. When she finds an ancient scroll while working in the sewer connected to the Roman baths, she sneaks it back to her flat, translates it, and discovers a secret previously lost in the shadows of legend. But her new knowledge poses significant risks, and the repercussions leave her career, her faith, and her marriage hanging in the balance.

And now on to our conversation…

WM: So I really liked Prayers in Bath, Luisa. I want to talk about it, but I also very much don’t want to spoil too much of the plot for other readers so we’re going to talk around it a bit instead of diving into the text itself. On your author website, you reveal the initial germ for the novel. Could you expand on that a bit? What came after the two initial ideas of a Mormon woman as the main character and curse tablets in the hot springs of Bath? Was there a particular image or sentence or scene or additional theme or idea that arrived next? Or to put it another way: what were the next layers of sediment that settled down as you built the bedrock of the stream of the novel? Also, what was your reaction to that first glimmer of ideas?

LP: Well, that is hard to talk about without dropping a lot of spoilers, but the William Blake poem/hymn and its allusions to the Glastonbury legend were the next big pieces of the puzzle.

As I started building Julia as a character, I knew I didn’t want her to be what some might expect a Mormon woman character to be. She’s not from Utah; she’s a convert; she doesn’t have kids. And I wanted her to question some of the things that I question: how do we navigate the tension between personal revelation and institutional revelation? What about the tension between faith and knowledge? What do we do with a character (like Nephi) who feels inspired to break a commandment?

I also think a lot about all the scriptures we don’t have. I teach early morning seminary, and one of the things I try to teach my students is how and why to cherish the scriptures we do have–but there’s so much we don’t know. And I often wonder when we’ll get more scriptures, when we’ll have an outpouring of knowledge of the magnitude of the Kirtland years. My grandfather once quoted someone to me–I don’t know whom–and said we wouldn’t get any more scriptures until we knew and lived the ones we already have. So I guess it’ll be a little while.

My reaction to thinking about all these questions in the context of my new characters was excitement. I did a lot of very diverse research before I settled into the plot the book has now. It’s a short book, but it took a long time to write, to feel like I’d gotten it right.

WM: Short is usually more difficult than long because you have to do the work to reduce the story. You said it took a while to settle into the plot. It’d would have been very easy to take the core elements of the story and blow it out into a much larger and/or more melodramatic plot. I like that you didn’t do that.

Another thing I found interesting is that Julia and Ted, the married couple at the center of the story, are academics. Ted comes from pioneer stock; Julia is a convert. They struggle with fertility. Setting aside their individual personalities and, as we find out later, some plot reasons for these attributes, I think there’s something very interesting about layering those three experiences onto a fictional Mormon couple. What did you find interesting about that particular combination?

LP: I love Ted. He thinks he’s very progressive, but his self-conception gets challenged pretty strongly by the events of the book, and he realizes he’s more a product of his upbringing than he’d like to think. I think most self-aware adults go through that struggle at some point. As for Julia, we need more convert stories. There are so many more converts or children of converts in the church today than there are people with pioneer ancestry. It would be great if our books reflected that. As for fertility, I pictured, Julia joining the church and wanting to buy into the dream of the Ensign cover family–but having a hard time with it for a lot of reasons. She’s an outsider, but then in the story, she becomes a very particular kind of insider. I like that kind of reversal.

WM: I hadn’t thought of Julia in terms of the reversal that happens in relation to Ted, but that’s definitely one of the things I responded to. Getting more specific: I think that infertility is something that could use more attention from Mormon artists (and Mormon culture in general). I really responded to Emily Adams’ essay/poetry collection For Those With Empty Arms and was sad but also strangely happy that it turned out to be one of the elements of Prayers in Bath. What other kinds of works would you like to see that deal with infertility?

LP: I’d love to read more fiction and non-fiction about adoption. As Mormons, we have this huge culture of symbolic adoption in the gospel. The realities of adoption can be very tough. But in any circumstance, families are hard, families are crucibles. Our ancestors had to deal with infant mortality rates and a rate of mothers dying in childbirth that I simply cannot imagine. But maybe they look at us, with the seemingly ever-increasing rates of infertility, and are similarly astonished.

WM: Modern Mormons sometimes pay lip service to the idea that our times are just as challenging for us as their own times were for the Mormon pioneers. But it’s usually cast in terms of “they had to face super difficult physical challenges, and we face super difficult spiritual ones”. But I’m pretty sure they faced spiritual challenges too. And we face physical ones—they’re just not quite the same ones (at least for those of us who live in first world countries).

Switching gears: there’s a “Mormon expats hosted by bemused but game local Mormons Thanksgiving dinner scene” in the novel. I had a couple of moments on my mission in Romania of awkward-but-charming attempts to celebrate American-Mormon holidays. What’s your favorite traditional Thanksgiving dish? What’s your favorite non-traditional Thanksgiving dish? What was the most memorable Thanksgiving dinner abroad experience you have had?

LP: My favorite Thanksgiving dish is stuffing with gravy. But it has to be my mother’s recipe, or I won’t eat it. I’m kind of a fascist about our Thanksgiving menu, but I haven’t heard anyone complaining.

My favorite non-traditional Thanksgiving dish is carrot soup. My second favorite is a course of French cheeses. I’ve never eaten Thanksgiving dinner abroad, but the first time I had Thanksgiving with my husband’s family, it felt like I was in a foreign country. My mother–in-law is Swiss, from the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and my husband’s family grew up having very traditional French dinners–several courses spread over several hours.

So my husband’s family’s Thanksgiving turned out to be this perfect amalgam of French and American cultures. The meal started with this amazing, creamy, rich, pureed carrot soup. Then came the recognizable course–the turkey, gravy, stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes, and cranberry. (I took it as a sign from heaven when my mother-in-law’s stuffing turned out to be nearly identical to my mother’s.) Then came the salad course, and then the cheese plate, and then finally, the pies. Oh, and fresh apple cider from a local farm throughout, served in wine glasses. We were at the table for five hours, and I felt like I was in heaven. Lively conversation, fantastic food. And that’s how I’ve done Thanksgiving–or any holiday meal–ever since.

Um, obviously, I’m very into food.

WM: Same here. All my conversations eventually end up on the subject of food, fashion or narrative art (books, TV, film).

Okay, let’s get to a core AMV topic: Prayers in Bath is almost perfectly calibrated to appeal to me and my half-baked theories about Mormon literature but because of that very fact, it’s hard to categorize generically. I suppose one could simply give it the “contemporary literary fiction” genre label, but that sidesteps the fact that there are elements to it that go beyond mundane realism. For one thing, it treats its supernatural element seriously. That is, Julia is a believing Mormon character, which means she seeks for and receives revelation from the Holy Ghost, which an LDS reader will see as simply realism while non-LDS readers will see it as non-realism. And yet other genre categories/labels commonly used don’t fit either. It’s not magic realism [for readers wondering why not, see my AMV series on Mormon magic realism]. It’s not paranormal fiction in the way that term is used for horror/urban fantasy/weird fiction. I’ve used the term Mormon folk realism to describe creative works that take Mormon doctrine (and especially Mormon folk doctrine) at face value and extrapolate from there. But I’d say that Prayers in Bath doesn’t even quite fit that because whatever is supernatural about it is well within the borders of current Church doctrine and practice, albeit a somewhat unusual/unique manifestation of it. There are, certainly, versions of this novel that could have put you more solidly in any number of genres. What parameters and/or influences and/or inclinations influenced how you calibrated your approach to the genre of the novel? And how did genre labels factor into discussions with Mormon Artists Group on how to position the novel?

LP: When Gideon Burton teaches my novel Dispirited at BYU, he calls it “spiritual realism.” I thought that was pretty genius and have adopted it to explain most of the stuff I write, including Prayers in Bath. It may not be PC to admit it, but Orson Scott Card’s Alvin books had a big influence on me. His folk magic is just one step removed from a lot of stuff that we as Mormons believe and witness. A story I wrote just came out in the latest issue of Sunstone, and I have another one coming out in a Segullah anthology soon. They’re very much in the same spiritual realist vein.

WM: Excellent. I look forward to those stories. Whether we call it Mormon folk realism or spiritual realism or something else entirely, it’s a type of Mormon fiction that I very much enjoy reading and writing because it takes LDS doctrine and experience seriously but does so as a matter of theme and aesthetics rather than sermon or personal essay, and there’s something about that translation to the idiom of fiction that gets at aspects of the Mormon experience that I, personally, don’t find anywhere else.

Okay, next question: what was your initial reaction to seeing the four works Jacqui Larsen created for Prayers in Bath? How awesome is it that she incorporated the words of William Blake?

LP: First of all, I was over the moon when Jacqui agreed to join the project. Her work is amazing. So before she turned in the pieces, I had high hopes. She exceeded them, to say the least. I wish I could have afforded to buy all four originals from her, but I am delighted that the color reproductions in the limited edition turned out so beautifully. The Blake poem/hymn is one of my favorite things, ever. I’m pretty anti-patriotism; I feel like it’s idolatry and does no one any good. But when people sing “Jerusalem,” I choke up every time.

WM: We should all have more Blake in our lives.

So. It’s impolite to ask about sequels, but I’m very curious about this: do you see yourself returning to the characters of Prayers in Bath? Or if not the characters, this style of fiction? Why or why not?

LP: I don’t see myself returning to Ted and Julia, but I won’t rule it out. But this style of fiction is generally what I want to be writing. I’m in an MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts right now, and my professor this semester has strongly encouraged me to write stories that only I can write, to draw on deeply personal experiences. Maybe that’s self-evident for other writers, but it was not for me. I grew up reading a lot of English literature and British fantasy, so in a way, Prayers in Bath is a little bit of a literary homecoming for me.

But another thing I love is how these days, it’s more common to see fantasy and magical realism set in this hemisphere. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “There is the dearest freshness deep down things,” and that can’t be true just for England. There has to be magic everywhere. I live in Southern California now, and I’m trying to find the beauty and magic here and write about it.

WM: You know, in my early days of participating in discussion about Mormon literature, I railed against all the stories set in small Mormon corridor towns. But now I’ve written six or seven stories set in Southern Utah. And the majority of them have some sort of weird or magical element to them. There’s something about place and magic that’s a beguiling combination. I didn’t read a lot of British fantasy, but I remember first reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising as a young boy and feeling like I was reading about home.

Last question: what’s the one thing (and it could be anything) that you’d like to see happen in Mormon fiction over the next year or two?

LP: The same thing I’d like to see in Mormondom in general–more faithful questioning. How will we ever get answers if we don’t ask questions? But also, a greater inclusiveness. The concept of “own voices” is a big deal in the writing world these days. Mormons need to have their own voices, but it hopefully won’t all be the same voice. Are there any Mormon writers in Guatemala or Ghana or Bulgaria? I have no idea, but I’d sure like for us to find them if there are.

WM: Amen to that. Thanks, Luisa!