An conversation with Melissa Leilani Larson about Third Wheel and the writer’s life

William Morris and Melissa Leilani Larson discuss her two peculiar plays of women in love, food, ink, football, Jane Austen and being single and Mormon.

Earlier this year BCC Press published Third Wheel: Plays by Melissa Leilani Larson. Subtitled “Peculiar Stories of Women in Love”, the book collects two of Larson’s most Mormon, most interesting and provocative plays Little Happy Secrets and Pilot Program. Not only is it worth picking up (in electronic or print form–or both!), it also makes for a great excuse for me to pick Mel’s brain. This is our conversation:

There are so many places I feel like I could start, but let’s start here: did you learn something by putting these two plays together in this particular context–a book published by a Mormon publisher meant for reading as a book? Or were those things already there when you went to write Pilot Program because of what you learned writing Little Happy Secrets? I’m thinking about theme and plot and characters here, but also things like form (the monologues, the silences) and voice and conceit (third wheel!).

It’s a good question. I did intend for the plays to go together stylistically. When I started writing Little Happy Secrets, it was very much an experiment. I was trying to be as honest as possible in telling Claire’s story, and the character became very real to me. Somewhere in that first weekend I realized she had to give permission for the story to be told, which is how she ended up actually doing the telling. I usually avoid narrators, but Claire had to tell this story—because she had reached that place in the world of the play, and because it would help us as an audience to accept it.

When I first began drafting Pilot Program, there was a correlation, but it started in a different place. As a single woman, I was thinking about Heather’s role in the marriage. But as I started writing, I realized it was Abigail’s play. It’s a play about being married and then single, not the other way round. Abigail, like Claire, had to sign off on things. She had to talk to me. Breaking the fourth wall would allow Abigail to say things to us she might not otherwise. Almost like a confessional, but without touching on sin. Abigail, like Claire, is at a place where she can tell us what her life has been like.

So there are similarities in tone, in format, and in theme. I think of the plays as a duet; they complement each other. The “third wheel” conceit came naturally into the conversation, as both women identify with the idea and comment on it. Eventually I would like there to be a third and final play in the trilogy, aptly named Third Wheel. It’s about being a single woman in a culture of marriage, and will be told in the same style as the other two—a mix of monologue and scene. It’s the bridge between the other two and, also like the other two, it’s a story we don’t always acknowledge within Mormon culture.

That makes sense. One of the things I discovered when collecting my short stories together is that it was quite clear they were by the same author even though there was some variation of situation and structure. Of course, my stories stay on a page. I’m both fascinated by and a little scared of the whole process of staging a play. Would you be willing to share a moment or two from the rehearsal and staging of one or both of the plays in Third Wheel that spoke to you in some way?

I love being in rehearsal. It’s where I know that the words on the page are in the right order because I get to hear actors bring them to life. I’ve always been rather amazed at how naturally actors take the words from the page and made them their own. For example, the actors cast in Pilot Program at Plan-B Theatre Company were all so comfortable with each other, and with Jerry (the director) and with the script. They inhabited the story and let it unfold organically (it’s a word that gets overused in the theatre world, but really it’s the best choice). I remember feeling a little guilty because there was a scene I added after we settled on the cast. As Heather, Susanna Florence was playing her first role at Plan-B while April and Mark Fossen, playing Abigail and Jacob, have been staples at Plan-B for years. April and Mark are married in real life and were playing a married couple—married to each other, anyway—f or the first time. So there were a lot of ways in which Susanna was the outsider, just like Heather is. And I wrote this scene that is basically Abigail walking in on her husband making out with his second wife. I felt bad, like I was piling stuff on April (I guess I didn’t feel bad enough, because I left the scene in). Naturally April is a professional and took what I gave her in stride. But they were all so good at filling those roles that I sometimes had to remind myself they were acting. Hence the guilt.

Ah. That’s interesting. Taking that back into the work itself–what is it about the experience of the modern Mormon woman (especially single woman) that feels so urgent and rich and dangerous and interesting as a subject for narrative art? I’ve tried writing characters that fit that profile myself and done so with mixed feelings because I’m outside or adjacent to that experience but at the same time want more of those stories. Perhaps it’s as simple (and somewhat condescending, to be honest) as feeling sympathetic towards single Mormon women, but I’m sure there’s also a bit of that artistic selfishness of just: hey, this is an interesting position to be in that if explored could say something unique about the Mormon experience.

I think it’s a point-of-view that seems simple and easily understood from the outset. “Hey, in this faith it’s important to be married, but here is a person who is single.” And it is that. But at the same time, it’s not.

Recently I was working on a project and getting feedback from others on the team. I had written a scene in which the main character, who is single, sees a couple steal a romantic moment. In that moment she realizes that they have something she doesn’t, and that she may never have, and that is heartbreaking to her. The moment happens very quickly; we don’t dwell on it, we just go on. But it affects who she is as a person.

That day, in the feedback session, the responses were like, “This moment is unnecessary. Why do we have it? It’s kind of creepy that she’s watching them. Nothing is happening. This character is weird and voyeuristic. Who cares?” I realized, looking around the room, that I was the only single person there. Everyone was married, and none of them got the point of the scene because none of them felt the same sense of loss. I think they would if they saw it, but they didn’t get it on the page. The point of the moment was like what happened to me in that room: the character realized she was expected to be paired with someone but she wasn’t. In our culture, everyone talks about how great marriage is and how important it is. How you need it to get to the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom. But there are good people who just aren’t married. They aren’t weird or voyeuristic or creepy. They are—we are—unattached, and that’s just the way things are.

Another quick experience. A few months back the podcast The Cultural Hall had an episode about mid-singles. I was so excited to listen. What were they going to discuss? But the whole episode was about dating. Because that’s all singles and mid-singles are supposed to be doing? Ugh. What about what the Church and its married members are supposed to be doing in regard to single members? No, it all comes back to marriage. Thing is, I don’t need other people to tell me I should be married. I am well aware.

We all have moments in our lives when we think about what’s missing—what we’re doing wrong in this life that will keep us from ultimately getting where we want to be.

We definitely do. That actually relates well to something else I wanted to ask: in his introduction to Third Wheel, Eric Samuelsen coins a phrase that I found very interesting. Speaking about your stage managing, in particular, he says that you possess a “formidable omnicompetence”. Do you have any sense of where that came from? Do you experience that as a gift or a curse? I’m asking this strictly out of self-interest, by the way, because while I’m not sure about the formidable, I’ve found in my work and church career that being competent at a lot of things often just means that you are expected to do more things and be competent at all things and that’s both gratifying and frustrating. And this is especially true when you’re trying to figure out how and when to also make art.

To be honest, I don’t think that term applies to me in any context but a theatrical one. Stage management is an all-encompassing job, which is part of the reason I had to give it up; I love it, but I didn’t have enough time to write. If I ever had the “omnicompetence” Eric mentions, I don’t think I have it anymore. Culturally, as Mormons, I think it could be equated with the things you mention—expectations, and how they tend to stack up before we can really catch up. As a people, we’re obsessed with perfection even though we know it’s not possible—at least not at this point in our existence. I try not to think too much about expectations; I disappoint myself before anyone else gets the chance.

I can relate to that. The weird thing about expectations–especially in relation to Mormon culture and the arts–is that there are none in terms of being an artist. But the if you do tackle the challenge of being an artist in Zion, there are a ton of (often competing) expectations. We could chat in depth about that, I’m sure, but I’m thinking now about expectations people might have about you and your work, and, not to be Captain Obvious, but I’m going to bring up Jane Austen. Everybody knows you’re the go-to for adaptation of her work (and if they don’t know, they should know). I want to ask about you as a reader of Austen: what do you go to certain Austen novels for and how has that changed over the years? For example, in my early twenties I went to Emma because of Mr. Knightley. Because, I suppose, I wanted to learn to be the mature romantic hero who attracts the bright young thing. Now, I’m more interested in Emma and who she is and what she wants and why.

Sense and Sensibility was my gateway drug to Austen. I remember reading Pride and Prejudice the first time because someone recommended it, but I set myself up to not like it because that friend was so insistent. I read it, and it was fine. I don’t think I even found it very funny. In undergrad, I read Sense and Sensibility and I got it. I related to Elinor in a way I hadn’t related to a character in a long time. She was trying so hard to do the right thing, to do what was expected and to figure things out—she thought she had to sacrifice her relationship with Edward because it’s the proper thing to do where honor is involved. And then I saw the 1995 film adaptation, and it blew my mind. 1995 was a big year for Austen: Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, Clueless, the Amanda Root Persuasion, and of course the BBC Pride and Prejudice (which I didn’t see then, because we didn’t have cable).

I watch Sense and Sensibility at least once a year because the story is so great and the film is just brilliant. Eventually I figured out that Pride and Prejudice is funny and that Persuasion is heartbreaking. Sense and Sensibility falls somewhere in between. I love them all for different reasons, I think. I re-read Persuasion frequently because the prose is quietly beautiful. Plot-wise, I love both Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility because you don’t really know where they’re going to end up; they both have moments where you think everything is going the way of tragedy. That’s a sign of greatness—when a writer can make you wonder what’s going to happen, honestly make you wonder, with just the right level of frustration.

I used to go back to Sense for the romance, but lately I’ve been going back for the family relationships. People accuse Austen of sameness, but I find that ridiculous. I look at all of the families she portrays across her novels, and they are all different and complex and human. Really there are so many different family groups in Sense, and those families affect who the characters are and the choices that they make. The last several times I’ve gone back to Pride (including to adapt it) have been to study Darcy, actually. I wanted to figure out why so many people are so obsessed with him as a character. As much as I love the book, I think a lot of the obsession comes down to Colin Firth. It’s interesting that we can’t seem to separate novels from their adaptations. Of course, that’s a discussion for another day. Though there is a lot about him to like, I don’t personally see Darcy as the perfect romantic hero. Now, Colonel Brandon or Captain Wentworth… Ah, choices.

Speaking of choices (and good ones at that): you know we have to talk about food at some point here. What are some of your go-to food rewards after you finish a first draft or on opening night, etc.?

It’s so true. I love food so much I wrote a play about it. If we’re celebrating and being fancy, I could do with filet mignon, medium rare, with mashed potatoes and garlic butter. On an opening night, I’m usually too nervous to do dinner before the show but I’m ravenous afterward. That’s usually a cheeseburger and milkshake situation. Sushi is great. Fish and chips! Biscuits and gravy. Schnitzel! Chicken tamales. Num. Look, writing is hard and deserves a reward. I should get all the foods. Plus an ice-cold Coke.

You’ll get no argument from me on food-based rewards for writing. There’s something about the emptying out of the mind and soul that is the writing process, and the subsequent buzz after you’ve put in that mental and emotional work that demands reconnecting with the body through food. I mean, I never need an excuse for all the foods, but I am often famished after a writing session.

Based on your tweeting at certain times of the year, you have a fondness for college football. Competitive sports are great, right? I mention this because sometimes people are surprised to discover how much into sports I am. But writers can (and do) like sports that aren’t baseball! So what do you like about sports and do you see any intersections between that fandom/experience and your interest and participation in narrative art, especially theater?

College football is a pageant of sorts. The players are out there to put on a show. What matters is what the ref sees. A receiver will move his body in such a way that pass interference gets called on the defender, even though nothing happened. An offensive lineman will trash-talk the defense, trying to goad them into jumping the line. It’s all a show.

It’s fascinating how football can sometimes take you completely by surprise. Two teams will meet, and everyone seems so certain that one team will win, which makes the upset that much sweeter. So much can hang on a single play—sometimes that play is executed perfectly, and sometimes it isn’t. An intense game can make my breath catch in my throat, just like well-acted Chekhov. How will it end? That’s the question—in sports and in drama. I love the Olympics for similar reasons. Human effort. Human drama. It comes down to inches and seconds. Being in the right place at the right time, or the opposite. NBC tends to lay it on a little thick, both with the human interest and the spoilers, but I can’t turn it off. There is something epic and beautiful about sports that aligns rather perfectly with the stories we enact on stage.

Agreed! The NBA has been my favorite soap opera for three or four seasons now. And it just keeps getting better (and weirder!). I’ve pretty much stuck to fiction in my writing; whereas, you’ve worked across several different narrative arts. What art form/mediums and/or subjects would you like the opportunity to tackle that you haven’t yet?

I would love, love, love to write for television. Television drama right now is very cinematic as far as design, direction, and cinematography go. At the same time, TV writing is actually very close to playwriting; it depends on dialogue, and a lot of it—much more so than your typical film. You have fewer scenes in TV than you do in film, and yet you have more time to explore characters. You get to know a character over several scenes, perhaps even over a number of episodes, which is closer to what happens in plays than in film. The possibility to tell a story serially over a series of episodes is just so cool. There is so much you can do in TV that you can’t really do with any other form of storytelling. I have a couple of ideas for pilots and series. Who’s got several million dollars they can loan me?

I would also like to write a novel. I have a couple of YA novels that I started way back when that was the thing I was going to do with my life.

As far as genre goes, I’m presently writing a Western, which was a bit unexpected. I would love to do something creepy on stage. A ghost story. Ooh. I think I just gave myself a chill.

Sadly, I don’t have a million dollars to loan you, but if you get it, I’d be happy to write a spec script and apply to be in the writer’s room. Oh, something else I’m curious about: are you a listen to music while you write person or not? If so, what parameters do you require? If not, why not?

Typically I don’t listen to music while I’m working because I’m easily distracted. Music is an emotional experience for me. I want to pay attention to it. I can’t seem to listen to music without getting caught up in it, and then no writing happens, because the writing is where my focus is supposed to be. That said, it can depend on where I am in the process. When I’m trying to figure out a character, I often will make her a playlist—not necessarily songs she would listen to, but songs that fit her and help explain her. If I do listen to music while I’m writing, it’s instrumental. Usually classical.

Give me three inks that fountain pen or calligraphy neophytes should try. Also: what are the colors you’re currently obsessed with and/or have an eye on?

For the neophytes, I would recommend:

  • Waterman Inspired Blue, a beautiful turquoise with some surprising pink shading. Waterman is a classic brand, and you can use it in just about any pen without problems. I love turquoise ink; it’s probably my favorite color family as far as ink goes. I have a range of them, some leaning more green and others more blue.
  • Robert Oster Dark Chocolate, a perfectly named ink. Somewhere between burgundy and brown. Just pretty. And dressy enough that you could away with using it at work. Robert Oster is a new ink maker from Australia who comes out with new colors all the time. Great stuff.
  • Diamine Oxford Blue, classic and classy, a dark and intense blue.

As for the ones I’ve been playing with myself, Diamine Blood Orange is an intense red/orange I just discovered and like a lot. I have been playing with Japanese inks lately and enjoying them immensely. Examples: Sailor Jentle Yama-Dori (“copper pheasant teal”) and Pilot Iroshizuku Yama-budo (“crimson glory vine”). Even the names are great. I’m not a fan of black inks; I know they are practical, but they are also boring. I do, however, enjoy grey inks; they have a lot more going on. My favorite grey at the moment is Papier Plume Oyster Grey, handmade in the shop that sells it—a stationary shop in New Orleans.

Going back to your question about getting myself a reward for finishing something—I get myself a fountain pen as a present when I have a show or a film open. It’s really something to look at a pen later and remember the stories that go with it.

That sounds very cool–and dangerous. I think I’ll stick to food for now, although I find the fountain pen life very tempting. Okay, final question: what creative works–theater or not, Mormon or not–are you finding particularly interesting, powerful, etc. right now?

The recent film Jackie is pretty fantastic. It’s a very thoughtful portrait of Jackie Kennedy; it’s also an incredible and compassionate portrayal of a woman in mourning. The shots are beautiful, and Natalie Portman’s performance is stellar. It kind of blew my mind. I had never thought of the parallels between Jackie Kennedy and Emma Hale Smith, but they hit me hard watching that film. I’m working on a piece right now in which Emma deals with the trauma of her husband’s death, and seeing Jackie was a timely and beautiful experience.

I’m a subscriber to NT Live, which is a really great service that screens performances from London’s National Theatre to movie theaters around the world. I go about once a month and the productions are almost always fantastic. The Bristol Vic did a wonderfully theatrical retelling of Jane Eyre that has just stayed with me. It was a simple show, with a few actors who each played multiple roles and a set that was basically a ramp with a few choice pieces of furniture. There was a live band, and the accompaniment really added a lot to the performance. The dialogue was lean and to the point, and yet the story was perfectly clear to those who had no experience with the novel. The emotion between the characters was palpable even though I was watching it several thousand miles away. Wow. It’s the kind of stuff I want to be making. Just beautiful.

Thanks, Mel!

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!

There and back again—
then onward ever onward
a chat with Dendo‘s Brittany Long Olsen

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I try to keep up on the what’s-what in Mormon comics, but I didn’t even hear about Brittany Long Olsen until she was getting interviewed by Andrew Hall, followed by her book getting serious attention from the AML.

Which book, by the way, deserves that attention. Dendo is the erstwhile Sister Long’s day-by-day comics record of her mission in Japan. By its gradual accumulation of small moments, both highs and lows—by relentlessly capturing the mundanity of mission life, she accomplishes the truly epic event that is a proselyting mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’m not a huge reader of the missionary-memoir genre, but for my money, Dendo is the best out there.

(And, I should note, for your money as well.)

This is an interview I conducted with Brittany on March 2, 2016 (with slight edits to make us both look better).

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Hello, this is Brittany.

Hey Brittany, this is Theric Jepson.

Hello.

How are you?

Good, I’m good. How are you?

I’m great. Shall we start?

Yeah.

Okay, so the first question I wanna ask you is: Dendo seems to capture missionary experience a lot more universally than you seemed to expect. Is that—

Oh yeah? Continue reading “There and back again—
then onward ever onward
a chat with Dendo‘s Brittany Long Olsen

Questions and Answers: Dave Farland’s In the Company of Angels

Earlier this summer, I helped start a book club among some of the more mature couples in our ward. (Yes, I’m aware that I don’t necessarily qualify. On more than one count. Don’t even go there.)

For our second meeting, I proposed three Mormon lit titles: In the Company of Angels, Dave Farland’s (aka Wolverton’s) historical novel about the Willie handcart company; Bound on Earth, by Angela Hallstrom; and The Tree House, by Doug Thayer. The consensus went to Farland’s novel. So that was the one we read and discussed.

Continue reading “Questions and Answers: Dave Farland’s In the Company of Angels”

Emily Harris Adams on her book For Those with Empty Arms

Cover of Emily Harris Adams book For Those With Empty ArmsEmily Harris Adams is a Mormon poet and essayist. Her book For Those with Empty Arms:  A Compassionate Voice For Those Experiencing Infertility was published earlier this year by Familius. In the book, Adams combines poetry and personal essay with Christian thought and a bit of self-help to tell her story in a candid, thoughtful way that those struggling with infertility (and their friends and family) will find relatable, touching and useful. Adams is also a perennial Mormon Lit Blitz finalist. Her poem “Second Coming” took fifth place in the Mormon Lit Blitz in February 2012; in May 2013, she won first place in the Mormon Lit Blitz with her piece “Birthright”; and she’s also a finalist this year with her poem “Faded Garden“.

Could you tell us about the process you went through to decide to prepare what is very personal writing into the book that Familius published? Why do it and what decisions along the way were easy and what were hard?

I first decided to write about infertility after a disappointing trip to a local bookshop. It was early in my infertility journey and I was looking for a book to help me cope with the overwhelming disappointment I was facing. Instead of finding any books about infertility, I found an entire shelf of books on parenting and childbirth. When I saw that wall of books, I felt more isolated even than when the doctor had given us our diagnosis. I decided I didn’t want anyone else to have that experience. So, as a writer, I felt my best option for preventing a similar experience was to write a book.

The hardest decisions to make were really just matters of transparency. Trent and I had to decide together how much we were willing to reveal about our diagnosis, treatment plans, and such. Personally, it was hard for me to reveal the times I didn’t behave well. In particular, there is an essay called “Envy” where I talk about how I started to become bitter about my situation. I almost removed the essay from sheer embarrassment. In the end, I decided to leave it in because I realize that many suffering infertility do have feelings of envy. They need to know they aren’t alone, and that they can overcome those feelings.  Continue reading “Emily Harris Adams on her book For Those with Empty Arms”

Flowers of Grace: a conversation with Teresa Hirst

Flowers of Grace, Mormon writer Teresa Hirst’s first work of fiction, was published last month. Here’s the basic pitch for it: “Set in an upscale St. Louis boutique amid a fragile economic climate when retail customers are trading brick and mortar stores for online shopping, Flowers of Grace is a story of love and loss, friendship and forgiveness.”

There is no specifically Mormon content to it, but it interested me thematically so I figured the best way to approach things was to have an email conversation with Teresa about it.

Teresa lives in Minnesota with her husband and children. She has worked for a newspaper, in public relations, and as a freelance writer and editor. Her nonfiction book Twelve Stones to Remember Him: Building Memorials of Faith from Financial Crisis was published by Walnut Springs Press in January 2014. And for a short while, she and I had LDS Public Affairs callings here in Minnesota at the same time.

My part of the conversation is in bold. You can learn more about the novel and Teresa at her author website.

As you began to outline/write the first draft of Flowers of Grace, what were the themes, images, characters that were most insistently inserting themselves into the process? Do you have any idea why they were on your mind?

Your question took me to a gray three-inch binder which houses the early workings of Flowers of Grace. In this crush of papers (they are not all neatly tucked into the three rings) I discovered several clues to answer your question including one of the first pages from my writing process. On this paper, I have the names of three women characters at three stages of life with a collection of words surrounding them that describe their personality, goals, weaknesses. The pencil marks, different colors of ink and stains on the page show that I collected these over time. The second clue was a handful of cards with names of secondary characters with similar character development. These reveal to me, as they most likely propelled me forward then, that this work would be a character-driven novel with the plot developing out of their relationships. All but one were women. As I began to put them together, I could sense the tangle of divisiveness that often occurs in a setting of women as well as the strength that can also develop. These opposing love/hate relationships among women pressed upon my own story. I also found clues to another theme that was inserting itself into the process. My main character’s name, Grace, was different in these original scribbles. Although my intent was not to introduce a spiritual theme, somewhere along the way, in this collection of dynamic personalities, I had added a copy of words to a song written by Patricia Holland called “A Woman of Grace”. There is a phrase in the song, “A woman of grace knowing God compensates.” Before I knew how this mesh of both internal struggles and external conflict would end for the main character, I knew I would change her name to Grace. Continue reading “Flowers of Grace: a conversation with Teresa Hirst”

Paying for [another’s] plagiarism

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I assume you all remember Rachel Nunes’s 2014 epic collision with a plagiarist. I recently was in touch with her for an update:

Most of the major details of who committed this crime and her resultant barmy attempts to coverup-slash-intimidate the truth have been public for a few months now. What’s not as widely known is what it takes to go beyond public shaming. In other words: the legal system. How did you find a lawyer and what is your lawyer’s usual specialty?

I found my attorney through another attorney who contacted me on Goodreads. She was helping me get the books off Goodreads and was watching for negative reviews put out by Rushton under her aliases. She was also instrumental in tracking down my copyright. Clinton Duke works at her law firm, and she recommended him. His specialty is copyright, patents, and litigation.

But unfortunately, he estimates 30,00 to 120,000 more to resolve the entire case, and I don’t have that kind of money. So at this point, I’m considering using him more as a consultant, which would still cost thousands, but would help me control the costs a little better because right now they are threatening to bury me. I’ve put out queries about other options, but no attorney has stepped up to the plate to do this at reduce cost (and really, why should they?) because they don’t expect to ever receive money from Rushton. (They are completely okay with me going into debt for it, though, lol.) Honestly, I’m not sure where to go at this point, but I am absolutely proceeding. We are entering discovery and I am working now with a few people to come up with a plan. I have an appointment with another attorney in a week to get his take on the case.

I wish I knew how to find more support from people or from law enforcement, but unless she starts shooting at me or I commit suicide or something, people have other more pressing things to support and think about. Again, I don’t blame anyone. I’m very grateful for the handful of authors I know who have been supportive, and others I don’t know who have come forward. I am way short of what I will need to finish this case, and I think it says something very telling about the current legal system where good folks have to mortgage their entire future to stop something that is supposedly against the law to begin with.

For me it’s never over. For instance, I spent countless hours this past week gather stuff for the case, and on Wednesday when I received another three thousand dollar bill from the attorney, it kind of ruined the whole season, you know? The impact on my family continues.

But my motto is upward and onward, so I’m focusing on that, but I will be very grateful when it’s all behind me.

Rachel

To help Rachel with her ongoing expenses, click here.

EDIT: READ INTO COMMENTS FOR MORE INFORMATION AND UPDATES

Outtakes from my Artistic Preaching interview

AMV turned 10 this month so Scott Hales interviewed me for his blog Artistic Preaching. I appreciate the publicity, but am sad about the questions and answers that hit the cutting room floor. So I have decided to publish the outtakes from our interview*:

SH: What advice do you have for young Mormon writers?

WM: You know the advice to show don’t tell? Ignore it. Or rather, show physical details and action and all that rather than just tell it, but make sure that you tell the reader how they are supposed to feel about each of the characters and their actions. You really need to drive home the correct interpretation of the dramatic situation to the reader; otherwise, you risk being misinterpreted. And no Mormon writer should ever be misinterpreted.

And remember: the bad guys have facial hair. Always and without exception.

SH: Can Mormon artists write tragedy?

WM: No.

SH: What do you think about the use of Twitter by Mormons aka the Twitternacle?

WM: Twitter degrades discourse because it limits thoughts to 140 characters. We are a people whose main form of literature is the 20 minute talk. Our leaders used to preach for over an hour. We are going to lose our stamina for longer form work if we continue to indulge in the quick quips and shallow thoughts of tweets. If you are serious about creating Mormon art, you should definitely not engage with the Mormon arts people of the Twitternacle. Even if some people who are part of it are incredibly amusing and interesting.

SH: What issues do we not talk about enough as a community?

WM: Rated-R Movies. The Great Mormon Novel. The lack of an audience for Mormon literature. Why Mormon artists can’t write tragedy.

SH: Entertainment has the EGOT. Horse racing has the Triple Crown. Tennis has the Grand Slam. What’s the Mo-lit Grand Slam?

WM: There are so few awards that I think it’s hard to hinge it around them. I’m going to say that the Mo-lit Grand Slam is getting a lit-fic story published in Dialogue or Sunstone, an historical fiction novel acquired by Covenant, a YA novel acquired by a national publisher, and a short story collection acquired by Zarahemla Books all in the same year.

SH: What’s with all the Mormon Science Fiction & Fantasy writers?

WM: There’s the “Mormons have weird doctrine and like to discuss it and so are used to the speculative form” theory. There’s the “there’s actual money in SF&F” theory. There’s the “critical mass of core writers which then snowballs across the community” theory. My theory is that sleep deprivation because of early morning seminary and/or other church activities and/or having children at a young age and/or going on a mission permanently changes members brains so that we are always in the slightly hallucinatory state that leads to wildly speculative daydreaming which then gets channeled into writing SF&F.

SH: What’s with all the Mormon YA writers?

WM: Well, duh. It’s because Mormons live in an arrested state of development and refuse to face the gritty, difficult, complex issues of adult life and so, naturally, they tend towards YA and middle grade novels both as writers and readers. Also: it’s where the money is.

SH: What’s with all the Mormon lit-fic writers who go apostate?

WM: They aren’t apostate. They’re sleeper agents among the artistic Demi-monde. You would think that they would have been triggered by the Romney campaign, but I have it on good authority that they are being reserved for a different project. It may or may not involve Neon Trees, Jabari Parker and Elder Uchtdorf.

SH: What’s the greatest threat to Mormon letters?

WM: The possibility of the Brethren clarifying once and for all the policy on caffeine, thus banning Diet Coke. Production of Mormon fiction would grind to a halt within just three or four hours.

SH: What’s your next project?

WM: A tragic, YA historical novel featuring Mormon sleeper agents and bad guys with facial hair that’s written as a series of tweets.

*Scott didn’t actually ask me these questions.