After a half decade of delays, obstacles, research, and revising, I am so pleased that this behemoth is now ready to release onto an unsuspecting world! The plays it includes (from such Mormon Letters luminaries as Eric Samuelsen, Margaret Blair Young, Melissa Leilani Larson, Thomas F. Rogers, Susan E. Howe, James Arrington, Scott Bronson, Tim Slover, Robert Elliott, and Thom Duncan) have effected my life in profound ways and I hope other people will feel the same. They make up some of the finest accomplishments in the history of Mormon Drama. The volume is huge… nearly 700 pages. It has 11 plays, playwright biographies, and a 30+ page introduction on the history of Mormon drama. We’ve tried to be thorough, we’ve tried to give you something meaningful. I hope you’ll see why this is a project I thought was worth working and waiting for.
It’s taken the better half of a decade, but Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama is off to the printers. This is the description of the book on Zarahemla Books’s website:
Saints on Stage is the most comprehensive and important work on Mormon drama ever published. This volume anthologizes some of Mormonism’s best plays from the last several decades, many of them published here for the first time. Several of these plays have won honors from institutions as varied as the Kennedy Center and the Association for Mormon Letters.
This volume includes historical backgrounds and playwright biographies, as well as an introduction that provides an extensive overview of Mormon drama. The following plays are included:
Fires of the Mind – Robert Elliott
Huebener – Thomas F. Rogers
Burdens of Earth – Susan Elizabeth Howe
J. Golden – James Arrington
Matters of the Heart – Thom Duncan
Gadianton – Eric Samuelsen
Hancock County – Tim Slover
Stones – J. Scott Bronson
Farewell to Eden – Mahonri Stewart
Martyrs’ Crossing – Melissa Leilani Larson
I Am Jane – Margaret Blair Young
We know you’ve heard this one before, but please bear with us:
So a Jewish grandmother walks on a beach with her beloved grandson when a big wave suddenly sweeps the boy underwater. “Dear God Almighty,” cries Grandma, “how can you do this to me? I suffered all my life and never lost faith. Shame on you!” Not a minute passed by, and another big wave brings the child back to her arms safe and sound. “Dear God Almighty,” she says, “that’s very kind of you, I’m sure, but where’s his hat?”
An oldie we know, but a true classic. What is this joke really about? more
In the latest issue of Sunstone (the latest for me, at least—I always get the new issues a couple weeks later than everyone else), Jack Harrell writes a provocative and, for me at least, difficult-to-argue-with essay about Mormon writing. In fact, I’m tempted to describe it as a manifesto. Sunstone won’t put it online for a few months, but I want to talk about it now.
He starts with calling Mormon artists out for our attitudes toward “two forces . . . [which] originated outside of Mormonism, and [that] tempt us to work below our station” (6). For simplicity’s sake in this review, I’ll refer to these forces as absolutism and postmodernism, but I want to be on record as saying that postmodernism means a lot of things to a lot of people and if you don’t how it’s been oversimplified in this post, get over it. more
I’m not going to make any notable efforts to prevent “spoilers” in this review. For a few reasons. First, if you haven’t read the book yet, no one’s making you read this review. Besides—I’m pretty sure you already know the gist of this story. So any spoilers have little to do with what and much to do with how.
2. Uncorrelating the Savior
To start with, he’s generally called Jesus in this novel. Compare that to these instructions from the General Handbook of Instructions:
If the Savior is portrayed, it must be done with the utmost reverence and dignity. Only brethren of wholesome personal character should be considered for the part. The person who portrays the Savior should not sing or dance. When speaking, he should use only direct quotations of scriptures spoken by the Savior. more
Theric: As I came to the final section of Roots—narrated by Bets—I was concerned. She’d seemed the least dynamic character to that point. Yet the first thing she does when she takes control is change her name to Elizabeth. And she only gets more interesting from there. I know the cover of your book makes secrets the Meaning of your book, but until Elizabeth I didn’t see it. Then, with Elizabeth, the layers of secrets truly begin to reveal themselves. Even when it ends up they’re not secrets. How are secrets important to your conception of the novel?
Courtney: Thank you for saying that about Bets. I argued with so many people about why in each section some of the women would use their full names instead of their nicknames and what you state is exactly what I hoped would happen.
What I’ve learned about secrets from my family is they are usually only secrets to the person who is keeping them. That is that we spend so much time trying to hide our mistakes or our personal natures from each other and don’t realize that in the hiding we reveal ourselves. I also found, especially with my older relatives that just because they didn’t speak of something didn’t mean it was a secret. My own grandmother had an illegitimate sister show up when she was a teenager and instead of being embarrassed or in denial, everyone in her family was like, well of course that’s Alice’s daughter.
I feel that way about secrets in my own life. There are actions and knowledge that I’m keeping from my kids, but when they are adults, I expect the reveal of such information will be much less dramatic than I expect.
Theric: That seems like a decent segue into the closest thing you have to an explicitly “Mormon” part of the novel. One character in the novel was born Mormon. But he was born in 1916 to a polygamous family so I’m not sure how, ah, Salt Lake-approved that family might have been. He also ends up being the novel’s only gay character. Given the difficulties inherent in representing a character who has slipped well into senility, he’s an extraordinarily well drawn character. But enough about art. Let’s ask the unfair leading question you would be thrown on cable news: “Courtney—your only gay character is your only Mormon character is your only character to fall into utter madness. How does your Church cause its gay members to lose their identity in order to belong?”
Courtney: I can’t speak directly to the experience of being gay or being a gay Mormon except to say that with Frank, I’d hoped to draw a character who helped readers understand the complex choices gay men and women have faced historically and continue to face when they are required to deny a portion of their identity. I cannot fathom being asked to abstain from the blessings of family and marriage because of my sexual identity, of which I have no choice in making.
Theric: Something I’ve not investigated but which the novel has left me wondering about is the science of aging. I’ve read a bit about the immortal jellyfish, but I have no idea how much advance has been made on the genetics of aging well. Given the importance on this science to your characters (one is spending his career on the question) and the novel’s structure (you’ve taken the risk of stepping away from the plot to discuss the science and public reaction thereunto)—I don’t feel totally out of line describing Roots as slightly science fiction.
How much did you research this science and how important was it to get the details right? (Also, as a side question, do you worry about it, ironically, aging the novel more rapidly?)
Courtney: At the end of the novel, I absolutely take a step outside our current reality and propel the characters forward into an as yet unwritten future. As I mentioned earlier, this current generation of writers grew up reading science fiction and fantasy and I feel like we are particularly open to mixing genres in a way that writers coming out of the academic tradition haven’t been in the past. Lauren Groff does the same thing in her amazing novel, Arcadia. I hope that it doesn’t age the novel, but immortality is a rare bird in the written word. My decision to add this element was driven by the characters themselves and wanting people to have a sense that this year in their lives changed the women, but it wasn’t the end of their existence.
As for research. . . . I did a ton, but it was mostly from tertiary and secondary sources. I read a ton of Time Magazine and New York Times articles on aging and genetics. Most of what Amrit discusses in his sections is true, if not exactly scientifically accurate. I was struck by the idea when working on this book that so many of our myths and religions are directly connected to immortality and yet science knows so little about aging—which is the process working against immortality. If there is any part of this book that is explicitly addressing being Mormon, it is in those sections about aging (and of course the olive tree).
Theric: After finishing Roots, I read the promotional short story “Under the Olive Tree.” (Which I have since thought about as much as the novel.) One thing it emphasizes is the stories Anna tells in both fictions. And through the short story I went from enjoying and admiring the stories to really loving them. Honestly, I kind of wish you would write a full volume of them for the kids. And, you know, me. Even considered that?
Courtney: Anna continues to tell me her stories, and I tell them to my own children. If there’s ever a book of them, they’ll probably be written by my daughter.
Theric: I can’t imagine a better or more suitable answer to that question.
Well, Courtney. It’s been a pleasure. In the end, I enjoyed your book a great deal. Sure, I had some issues with pacing and this and that, but overall, I won’t be shy about recommending it. Before I let you go, what question should I have asked? Answer that one too.
Courtney: How about if I just give you an answer and you and everyone else can supply any question they want. It’s my 42 if you will.
In part one, we discussed the women of Courtney Miller Santo’s new novel, The Roots of the Olive Tree. Today we talk a bit more about writing. One thing we will not talk about is the symbolic weight of the olive tree in her fiction. I’m not sure we should let authorial intention muddy the waters on that one. Instead, just go get the novel and write your own essay on the subject. For now thought, let’s get back to the interview.
Theric: One thing I find surprising about the less-enamored reviews of your novel is that they seem to be mostly griping that your story is too much like real life in that sometimes the sequence of events is not clear, sometimes events that seem important to an outsider don’t seem important to the characters, sometimes—most times?—threads don’t get tied off by the final page. Did you anticipate these complaints? What sort of discussions did you have with your readers and editors about the reality problem leading up to publication?
Courtney: The question I get asked most often at book clubs and other events is “What happened in Australia?” Which, for those of you who haven’t read the book, has to do with a trip the women in the book take. I don’t go into that trip. When I was writing, it didn’t feel like a central part of the story. Everytime I tried to write it, it seemed to me like I was writing an episode of The Brady Bunch where they all go to Hawaii.
Theric: When you introduced an upcoming trip to Australia I almost dropped the book. I looked confusedly at the sliver of pages left and asked aloud how the heck you hoped to fit that in there.
Courtney: The women in this book belonged in Kidron and although the book flashes forward in the epilogue, it was truly supposed to be about the one year in these women’s lives that changed their relationships in an unalterable way. For me, the closure came in that every woman in the book got what she most wanted, even if didn’t work out. Now, I wish I had thought more about the unanswered questions because I feel that in many ways those are interesting questions and valid ones. This book went through many readers before it made it to my editor and none of them had a problem with the perceived importance of the events or the unanswered questions, however, I wish that they had brought it up. My editor, who is amazing, did at one point ask whether there should be an Australia chapter, but I convinced her otherwise.
So, the long answer is that I didn’t anticipate those objections and I wished I had. I heard Michael Chabon speak a few years ago and he said that all of his book are about the same topic—that is, they are all about what they failed to become. I agree whole heartedly with this sentiment. Every book is a failure because the process of writing is one of translation and it is imperfect. My hope is to get better at it, and those questions have made me more conscious of plot and loose ends in the second book.
I will say, however, that Roots is supposed to be true to life and I’ll never end a book where everyone gets what they want and everyone is happy. I think most great stories leave at least one character pissed (can I say pissed?) and that’s satisfying to me.
Theric: I teach mostly argumentative writing, but the point remains: unlike, say, an equation which can be solved, writing we just make as better as we can until we’re done with it. Then it’s on to the next project. Moving on is as important as perfecting.
Courtney: I agree. It is an imperfect medium and the best we can do is put the truth as we see it clearly on the page. Of course in teaching writing to my students, many of them think it comes out perfect the first time. I spend much of our classroom time convincing them that revision can be as beautiful as putting that first word on a blank page.
Theric: That drives me bananas about students. I don’t know if I’m comforted or horrified to hear MFA candidates behave the same way.
When Mormon circles were talking about the release of your book, the novel you were most compared to was Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth. Not hard to see why: you’re on record liking her book, she’s on record liking your book, you both write about generations of women. But I want to talk about another similarity.
Angela’s book is a novel-in-stories; yours could easily be described as a novel-in-novellas. Each of the five generations of women gets a turn being p-o-v. This building of story from stories is on my mind as I’ve just finished drafting a novella-in-stories, so I want to get into how you made your decisions—who goes first, for instance. Anna you put first—which I think was necessary as her existence is what makes the family remarkable—but I found her so compelling that Erin (whom I eventually liked quite a bit) was hard to get into at first. How did you work at balancing each character, to give her a compelling voice and story and raison d’être and the ability to compete with the four other women for my affections. I mean—my gosh!—way to make things harder on yourself!
Courtney: I believe deeply that the structure is as important to a novel as the content. In a truly great book, the structure echoes the content and amplifies it for the reader.
This is not to say Roots is a great book, but I did give much consideration to the structure. The first draft of the book had each of the women in order, but my teacher and mentor, Tom Russell, pointed out that I was unnecessarily restricting myself by adhering to genealogical order and chronological order. Once I started to move the sections around, I began to feel the women talking to each other in a way they hadn’t before. Because my goal was to try to reflect my own personal experience of finally connecting with my own mother once I heard my grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s stories about her childhood and adolescence, I always wanted to tell this particular story from each woman’s point of view.
At the time I was reading Jonathan Ferris’s Then We Came To The End, which is written in collective first person and what I tried to do was use the various points of view of each woman to give the sense that they were individuals, but also they were a group.
Can I give a shout out to Angela? I read Bound on Earth my first year in the MFA program at Memphis and I felt like I’d been struck by lightning when I finished it. The book is exactly what I’d always hoped Mormon fiction could produce. It remains one of my favorites.
Everyone loves Angela. How can we help ourselves! Tomorrow we’ll delve into family secrets and the growing science of immortality.
Courtney Miller Santo saw her debut novel The Roots of the Olive Tree published last year by William Morrow. She teaches at the MFA program at the University of Memphis (of which she is an alumna). If you read the Mormon literary outlets, you’ve seen her work in Irreantum and Sunstone. In fact, she has a story in Sunstone‘s latest issue which is, I think, the most heartbreaking thing she’s written to date. But much like the painful moments in her novel, every painful aspect of humanity is balanced with a sense of growing freedom and peace. Based on what I’ve read of her work so far (the novel and at least three short stories), I suspect this balancing may be a hallmark of her work.
Theric: I want to start with a question I usually save for later. I hope you don’t mind.
Courtney: I always eat dessert first, so it seems appropriate.
Theric: I’ve heard it said that every first novel is autobiographical. The connection between you and the clan from Kidron is easy: five generations of women, all together at once. How similar are Anna and her family to your own heritage of women?
Courtney: Like many Mormon women, I come from a long line of incredibly strong and stubborn matriarchs. In my case, they also happen to live long lives and live them well—that is to say there have been little physical or mental limitations placed on them as they age. Anna is in many ways a version of my own great-grandmother, Winnie White, who died in October at 104. I modeled the town Kidron on Corning, California, where she spent her childhood and her retirement. I’m also fascinated by family stories—and because our family is so large, I’ve been able to collect many of them. While in my direct matriarchal line, I haven’t had anyone shoot their husband, or be the sole survivor of an airplane crash, these moments in the Keller women’s lives come from stories I’ve collected from my own family over the years. However, these are all just story points.
Where the novel is most autobiographical is in its depiction of the relationship between mothers and daughters. I find that sometimes you don’t get the mother you need. As an adult I had conversations with all the women in my family that revealed that hard truth, but I also learned by talking to my grandmother about my mother, to my great grandmother about my grandmother, that we don’t truly know our mothers. What we know is the version they’ve presented to us that allows us them to be a parent.
So this book really traces my complex and evolving relationship with my mother. As an adult I feel that I know her as a person, but only because I’ve been able to listen to her mother, and her grandmother talk about her.
Theric: One of the strength of the book is the respect you give your older women. They’re not identical dowagers puttering around the house without distinction. Each is a real person. I’m not sure old women usually get this respect. I’m curious if other people have reacted similarly.
Courtney: I’ve had the most difficult time when people find these women unbelievable (and not because they are 112 and can still touch their toes). There are reviews where people have said—I don’t think women in their sixties could be attractive, or could fall in love. It makes me want to scream. I’ve watched women in their sixties do exactly that. My grandmother, at seventy, took up kayaking.
The one bit of advice I held onto from my writing program is to write the book you want to read that nobody has written yet. For me, what I wasn’t seeing in the fiction I read was a depiction of older women as anything but old. It seems they are in books to serve the purposes of the younger protagonists.
In this case, I wanted the reader to get a sense that each of these women is vibrant and interesting and not at all perfect. I made it a rule early on that none of the grandmothers were going to bake cookies or knit. I will say that at bookclubs, which are nearly always older women, they are thrilled with the depiction of women in the book. I’ve heard a dozen stories of amazing accomplishments of women who are in their sixties, seventies, and beyond.
The key for me when I wrote this book was a conversation I had with my own great-grandmother when I was in my twenties. She was putting cold cream on her face and talking to my reflection in the mirror. What she said as she pushed around the wrinkles on her face was something to the effect of you know I still think I’m twenty-five. I know I’m old, but every time I look in the mirror, I’m surprised that I’m an old woman. So for me, I wrote these women as if they were the people they became at twenty-five—only with a bit more life experience.
Theric: I’m glad you said that, because my experience is everyone feels that way as they age. We’re who we made ourselves to be when we were young—only seen through a different filter.
Two writers I imagine you haven’t been compared to much but who came to mind as I was reading Roots (do you have a preferred abbreviation?) are Stephen King and Orson Scott Card. I was actually reading The Green Mile simultaneously with your novel and I couldn’t help comparing their depictions of love and vigor in very old age—and of prison too, though that connection might seem a bit more surface. And Orson Scott Card has written that too much of modern fiction is about adolescents—that we need more books about adults.
This doesn’t really add up to a question, but two things I hope you’ll respond to: Which authors would you most like to be compared to? and how diverse do you find current fiction’s protagonists?
Courtney: I find the fact that you bring up Card and King quite flattering—I include The Stand and Ender’s Game in my list of top ten books of all time. I spent most of my teens and early twenties reading science fiction and fantasy and then I discovered the South Americans and eventually Aimee Bender and George Saunders. Having said that, I don’t believe I’m playing at the same game as these writers, but I do count them as influences and in some cases deep influences.
The two writers who I can’t barely mention in the same breath as my writing, but who I am chasing when I write are both Canadian—Carol Shields and Alice Munro. I’ve been reading Munro also since my early twenties and she strikes me as a writer who has managed to write the breadth of a woman’s life. She’s in her eighties and I felt as amazed by Dear Life as I did by Lives of Girls and Women when I read it at twenty-one. Shields wrote my favorite book—and one that I’ve read fifteen times, Unless. It is one of those books that speaks exactly of what it means to be a woman in today’s world and speaks about feminism without getting caught up in blaming men. It also has the best depiction of female friendship, I’ve ever read.
Your second question is so much harder—I work at a job that requires me to read lots of literary fiction. In that case, I find the protagonists dispiritingly similar in age, gender, political affiliation and moral center. The same is true for some of the lighter reading I do. Where I find diverse characters and the sort who I find interesting is often in crime fiction and detective fiction. It’s been said that the genius of these books is that you get to see a character at work. I find that tenet of the genre to be freeing in terms of character development.
I will say that in women’s contemporary fiction, it remains rare to find a novel that isn’t romance driven in some shape or form. My goal with Roots (and I totally abbreviate) was to create a story that had plenty of women, but none of them talking about men, or in actuality, lovers.
In part two of this series, we’ll discuss difficulties in writing—both for ourselves and for our students—and the important of structure.