I feel, as a new LDS fiction writer, like I am on shifting, volatile ground right now. I see LDS publishing companies that are smaller and more independent either shutting down business or struggling to stay afloat, while the bigger publishers slowly consume each other until they become one Frankenstien-like conglomeration; you submit to one, and get rejected by all. I read submission suggestions on the websites of LDS publishers and see that just about everyone is asking for literature that appeals to a wider audience than just LDS people. And this recent interview with Lyle Mortimer, who is in fact the CEO of CFI, my own publishing company, leaves me in a bit of a cold sweat. I guess comparatively, it’s not such a bad thing that my first book has only sold around 1400 copies so far. But it also points to a much more worrisome thing… something that maybe isn’t going to go away at all. more
As one of my last posts for A Motley Vision (I’ll go more into that in a different post) I wanted to conduct an interview with one of my favorite Mormon playwrights (one of my favorite playwrights, period), Melissa Leilani Larson. Mel has created a body of work that is impressive and moving, and she is one of Mormonism’s best and brightest dramatists. So without further ado:
1. So, first, tell us a briefly about yourself. Your personal, educational, creative background as a person and as a playwright, your interests, what makes you distinct?
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I think that love of reading led me to writing stories of my own. I wrote all through school, first grade on up, until I earned my BA in English/Creative Writing from BYU and later my MFA from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop.
As far as what makes me distinct… Fabulous actresses far outnumber the parts they can play. My ultimate goal is to write fascinating, engaging, and challenging roles for women. A lot of them—several strong female roles per play. That’s the distinction to which I aspire.
2. You were chiefly an English major/literary personality before you switched your focus to writing for a theatrical medium. What changed that direction? more
At the beginning of 2012 when I decided to both increase my writing rate and focus on science fiction and fantasy, I wondered if I would continue to write Mormon fiction. I ended up writing quite a bit more than I thought I would — mainly because of the two Everyday Mormon Writer contests. But even so, the porportion of non-overt Mormon fiction to overt Mormon fiction that I produced last year was the most un-balanced ever (while at the same time my total word count was the highest ever). When 2013 arrived, I figured that I would cut back on the Mo-lit even more. But then a) I got an excellent idea for a story and b) I decided that I would tithe my creative energies and go ahead and write it.
We’ve discussed this idea in bits and pieces here and there over the years. I’d like to raise it again. I’m particularly interested in hearing from anyone who feels compelled to devote a certain amount of time to projects that speak directly to a Mormon audience.
I realize all the arguments against it: those in other professions aren’t required to tithe their labor, why should we? It’s hard enough to scrape by as an artist and Mormon work doesn’t sell. What if you just aren’t interested in Mormon-themed art?
I also don’t think it needs to be a 10% thing. For artists, especially writers, who make their living from their art, devoting 10% of what they produce in a year to Mormon-themed works that likely wouldn’t sell (or sell for much) seems crazy. Maybe it’s 1 in every 20 works or 100. Or 1 or 2% of a yearly word count. Or whatever.
Nor, in my opinion, does it need to be a tithe in the sense that we give it to the Church for free. If you can make money off it, awesome.
What if you already write Mormon fiction (or nonfiction) or create Mormon visual art? Then maybe your “tithe” should be for a different Mormon audience than you currently write for. Or in a different genre. Or in a more experimental mode. Or in a more devotional mode.
The bottom line for me is that I ‘d like to see more LDS who have artistic talent intentionally addressing Mormon themes/creating overtly Mormon work and see this as possibly a framework to encourage that engagement.
I was happy when Wm approached me become a blogger on A Motley Vision. I have lurked on the blog for several years and, for the last few, actually commented. My poetry has been featured on Wilderness Interface Zone and in several of the LDS periodicals. My first novel, Lightning Tree, was published last April (2011) by Cedar Fort. I just signed a contract with them for a second novel, which will likely be released before the end of this year.
This is my life:
(btw—one missing from that picture).
What Mormon art projects are drawing attention? Does the Mormon community donate to worthy projects? What Mormon projects attract Mormons?
Off and on I’ve been looking at Kickstarter, the crowd-funding website for artists of all kinds who are looking for seed money to get their projects completed. I’ve even funded a project and I’m looking forward to the results of my small contribution. When Kickstarter launched a few years ago it drew a lot of press because it promised to make raising money for small projects easier. A number of similar sites that have launched, and it looks like some good projects are getting funded.
One of my favorite Mormon albums of the past few decades from a little-known LDS musician who lived in New York City for a while, Charlotte Smurthwaite. Her mid-90s album, “Lift me,” featured LDS hymns sung in jazz arrangements and her treatments of “Come, Come Ye Saints” and “If You Could Hie to Kolob” are fantastic and are still played regularly in our family. Since then, it seems like new arrangements of LDS hymns in different styles have become an important part of current Mormon music. I hear the Sabre Rattlers’ version of “Come, Come Ye Saints” introducing each Mormon Stories podcast. I believe I’ve even seen such versions on the latest music CDs even from Deseret Book.
I’ve been very pleased to see the rise of such music. And I hope to hear more. As I understand it, when similar versions of hymns first started appearing many Mormons objected, saying that such versions were sacrilegious. Fortunately, I think most of those objections have dissipated, or at least I’m tone deaf to them. But in thinking about these songs, a couple of questions occur to me. First, I wonder why so little of this kind of experimentation has appeared in Mormon literature. And second, I wonder what other kinds of experimentation are possible that we have simply not yet heard or read.
Liner notes for The Elder Who Wouldn’t Stop…, published Feb. 2012 on Mormon Artist as part of the Mormon Lit Blitz contest.
This story was born out of frustration and anger. It was early June 2009. I was upset with myself because I hadn’t managed to pull anything together in time to enter the Irreantum fiction contest. In fact, I was depressed about my fiction writing in general. But after wallowing a bit I decided to buck up and see what else I could do and ran across Sunstone’s short short fiction contest. The deadline was fast approaching, but I figured if I could come up with an idea for a story, I could finish it in time. But what?
I was on the commuter bus one morning. My thoughts were on my frustrations. I had recently acquired Metric’s album Fantasies because it had been on sale on Amazon for $5. I put my headphones in and fired it up. I needed some music to get me out of my head. The first song “Help I’m Alive” came on. It has a strong drumbeat, which I love. I started drumming with my fingers. And then Emily Haines sang “Can you hear my heart beating like a hammer? / Beating like a hammer? / Help, I’m alive, my heart keeps beating like a hammer.” I pulled out my mini yellow legal pad and wrote “Elder Russell’s greenie wouldn’t stop drumming.” I jotted down a few more notes. more
“Speculations: Wine” and “Speculations: Oil” appear in the Spring 2012 issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. They are companion pieces to “Speculations: Trees,” which was published in Irreantum. Several of the pieces in “Speculations: Oil” come from the same flurry of writing that led to “Speculations: Trees.” When I finished Oil, I decided to submit it to Dialogue. It was accepted. And then it fell through the cracks. Kristine Haglund, the editor, was very apologetic about that when I finally decided to ask about it. But to be honest, I was kind of glad that it had because in the meantime I had come up with some ideas for “Speculations: Wine” and asked if I could finish that and then resubmit the two works together. Kristine agreed. This was in the spring of 2011. Because of Monsters & Mormons, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to work on Wine, but then in the fall of 2011, I felt the urge to procrastinate other tasks, and went ahead and wrote most of it. I’m glad I did because just a couple of weeks later, Kristine emailed and asked if I could have things ready for the next issue. I’m lucky she was proactive about it because who knows how long I would have waited around before finishing it and resubmitting. Here’s a tip for my fellow writers: if an editor expresses interest in an unfinished piece, don’t let too much time go by before you finish it.
I really enjoy writing the Speculations series, but I also find it to be the most difficult writing I do because I’m trying balance several different tones (they’re all supposed to be funny and serious and sincere in varying degrees) in each section and across the entire piece. And then I’m also trying to balance each section against the others in the piece. And I’m trying to do that without repeating myself. It was certainly tempting for “Speculations: Wine” to just use some of the same forms/concepts that I used for Trees or Oil. I tried to resist that. Hopefully I succeeded. more