NOTE: I recently posted a shorter version of this Q&A on Modern Mormon Men. Here now is the Q&A in full. Most of the new stuff you’ll find about two-thirds of the way down.–SH
Tell us about Dark Watch and Other Mormon-American Stories. What’s the genesis of the project? How long have you been working on this collection?
A little over two years ago, I realized that I had enough stories that had been published in Mormon journals plus others that I had completed or would soon complete to make a collection of my Mormon-themed short fiction. At the time I had focused my writing more on (not-Mormon-themed) science fiction and fantasy, and this felt like a good project to serve as a coda to my work in the MoLit field. Wrap up in a neat package, put a bow on it and move on. I was interested enough in the idea to come up with a cover concept for it and then it sat for awhile until I finally convinced two family members who have professional-level editing experience to copyedit and from there it was simply a matter of creating the ebook files and setting up the accounts for Amazon, Nook, Kobo, etc.
And, as it turned out, in the process of putting the collection together, I found myself re-engaging with the issues and imagery and experiences that had caused me to write the stories in the first place, and so as much as I enjoy writing science fiction and fantasy aimed at the mainstream market and will continue to explore that part of my creative live, I’m actually not yet done with Mormon literature. I now look at it less as the end of my engagement with the field and more like the beginning of a new phase.
It’s interesting that you call your stories “Mormon-American.” What does that term–or label–mean to you and your fiction?
It’s a joke and a wistful desire and a call to action. It’s a joke because nobody uses the term Mormon-American, and it’s highly debatable whether or not Mormonism was on its own for long enough to truly develop as an ethnicity. It’s also a nod to Michael Austin’s use of Mormo-American in his 1994 essay The Function of Mormon Literary Criticism at the Present Time, a usage which he meant slightly tongue-in-cheek. It’s a wistful desire because there are times where I wish that Mormons who live in the United States and Canada identified more strongly as Mormons in a socio-cultural sense and embrace their Mormon-ness in ways that go beyond the basic of LDS Church activity even though I know that that’s not really a reasonable (or possibly even desirable) expectation. And it’s a call to action in that I part of me does think that thinking of oneself as a Mormon-American is useful and worthwhile for us as individuals and as a community. It underscores the fact that there’s a core aspect of ourselves that is not whatever our national identity is (an increasingly important thing in an increasingly worldwide church); it creates some distance between our identities and the socio-political trends/groups of the idea; and it exhibits a sense of pride in our tradition as a people as well as our current communities and cultural production.
The stories seem to follow a loose progression from the recent Mormon past (i.e. the late twentieth century) to the distant Mormon future. What common threads, if any, tie these Mormon experiences together?
It’s not a loose progression in terms of the timeline. The stories go in exact chronological order. That doesn’t mean that they’re all exactly in the same imagined world. For example, characters from one story don’t carry over to another (with the exception of The Church Historian and Dark Watch) and some stories are more tied in with mimetic realism than others. What they all share (and this didn’t become clear to me until I pulled the stories together into the collection) is a preoccupation with how Mormons experience their Mormon-ness, especially in situations where that Mormon-ness is constrained or awkward or difficult or buried. I was a little embarrassed once I had them all in one place to discover how predictable my fiction was.
What story in the collection resonates most with you? Why?
I believe I’m supposed to do that author cheating thing where I talk about how I love all the stories in different ways and then toss out three or four stories and what I like about each of them. But since I like to be honest in my dealings, I’ll only cheat by rewording the question a bit. And it’s true that all the stories resonate with different parts of me and my history. The story that resonated most across all levels of who I was when I wrote it is without a (shadow) of a doubt: “PAIH”. It’s not the best story in the collection. It’s not great science fiction. It’s kind of depressing if you look at the actual world building context for it. And it’s certainly not me truly trying to prophecy the future. But there was something about the form of it, the characters and the way they communicate with each other that hit me hard when I was writing and revising it. And it still does when I think about it. It’s also a story that best works within the context of the collection. It serves as one of two pivot points — the other being “Ride Home”.
I really connected with the story “Conference,” but when I taught it to a class of non-Mormon students, they had a hard time understanding the main character’s inner conflicts and concerns. Does that surprise you? When you write a story, how much time do you spend thinking about your audience? Did you have a target or ideal audience in mind as you wrote the stories in Dark Watch?
That’s not a surprise. Almost always when I write Mormon-themed fiction, I’m looking to explore something unique to the Mormon experience, and I rely heavily (perhaps too heavily) on readers being able to speak the same language I do so that I can take that common understanding of experience and language and play with it — twist it, layer it, extend it, dissect it. And that’s really all I rely on when it comes to the actual act of writing. For all that I think a lot about audience in my role as a Mormon cultural critic/gadfly/cheerleader and even though I’d like to have as wide an audience as possible, that all falls away when I go into fiction mode. Even with revision there are few moments — and none that I can currently identify — where I think “hmmm, maybe I should soften that or sharpen that.” Maybe I was self-conscious when first started writing Mormon fiction, but fairly quickly, I lost the fear of appearing totally believing or heretical or weird or critical or sentimental. Because I’m all of those when it comes to my Mormon identity.
That doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t a target audience for the collection. These stories were all written in a particular period of my life and the history of the LDS Church, and once I collected them together, it became clear that I was mainly speaking to educated, largely white, mostly assimilated, mostly GenX, American Mormons. Of course, I also hope that Mormons that don’t fit that demographic as well as non-Mormons will still find the stories interesting and valuable.
Can you trace the literary DNA (Mormon or otherwise) of Dark Watch? What works and writers have influenced it? Also, how would you situate Dark Watch in contemporary Mormon literature?
Now that I have more completed fiction under my belt (including quite a few non-Mormon-themed stories), I think it’s safe to admit what I’d been avoiding which is that the two major influences on my fiction are Franz Kafka and F. Scott Fitzgerald (his short stories–not the novels). I’ve always claimed Kafka. Fitzgerald–not so much. But I read his collected short stories quite a bit when I was a teenager and there’s something about the tone and rhythm of his stories that crop up in my work. It’s most immediate predecessor is Todd Robert Petersen’s collection Long After Dark. The other important precursor is Bela Petsco Nothing Very Important and other stories, which is a must read for Mormon fiction writers.
As far as contemporary Mormon literature goes, Dark Watch falls smack dab in the middle of the various streams that are current right now–faithful realism, science fiction, and postmodern weird with a dab of what I’d call next-gen home literature (that is, stories that deal with Mormonism in a sentimental, affirmative way rather than a critical one).
One thing I appreciate about this collection is its tone. So often, I think, literary Mormon fiction–for lack of a better term–assumes either a humorously dismissive or righteously indignant tone towards contemporary Mormonism and especially Mormon-American culture. I didn’t find that to be the case in your stories, which have an earnestness and humility in them that remind me very much of Douglas Thayer’s fiction. Was this tone deliberate? Was some part of you responding to the “Signature Books School” of the 1980s and 90s?
Thanks. I have my issues with modern Mormon-American culture. But I also am from a different generation than the writers of the 1980s/1990s fiction you’re describing. I’m not scared of appearing provincial because I know that everybody is provincial in their own way. I’m not scared of coming across as elitist and cosmopolitan because I know that I come by those attitudes and markers without artifice. I’m a small town boy from southern Utah who then became a Provo youth (who spent a lot of time on the BYU campus) and then a teenager of the California suburbs (and a very Mormon one at that) and then a Mormon missionary in the early 1990s in Bucharest, Romania, (which if it had been a reality show would been called Kirtland: Eastern Europe), and then the Mormon dude at two of the most liberal, multi-cultural college campuses in the U.S. that were also, actually, quite supportive of my Mormon cultural identity. That doesn’t make me special or anything, but all that does flow into who I am as a Mormon and what sets of experiences I draw on to inform my creative work.
I would definitely say that Thayer is a bit of an influence, although at the time I was writing many of these stories, I had only read Under the Cottonwoods and Other Mormon Stories. If anything, I’d chalk up the earnestness and humility (hopefully also shot through with a bit of dry humor) to F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Eliot, Henry James, Willa Cather, Marilynne Robinson and Jane Austen as well as to my particular personality and life experiences. In addition to Petersen and Petsco, who I already mentioned above, specifically Mormon influences include Margaret Young, Angela Hallstrom, and Alan Rex Mitchell (in particular his novel Angel of the Danube). There are also a whole host of other writers and critics who are a less direct influence on the actual style of my writing but have been very influential on the thinking that goes into them. I don’t want to leave anyone out so I’ll just say that anyone who has blogged at A Motley Vision or Dawning of a Brighter Day or been published in Irreantum or posted to the AML-List in its heyday falls into that category. These stories very much come out of those ongoing conversations about Mormon literature.
What advice would you give Mormon writers today–particularly those who want to write about Mormon experiences? What would you say to those who don’t see a point to writing about Mormons?
The field is white, ready to harvest. The body of creative work by Mormons that is about Mormons is still fairly small, which means there is a lot of opportunity to stake out your section of the garden. But also because of that, I highly recommend doing some reading in the field so you aren’t repeating the mistakes of your predecessors, which become glaringly apparent because there’s so few precedents in comparison to other genres. You don’t have to read everything (I haven’t), and there are works that might take some searching out, but I do think too many folks want to write without having read.
I’d also say that in order to write about the Mormon experience interesting, it helps to have Mormon experiences that are worth writing about. That doesn’t mean that you have to have had a jet-setting life. Rather, it means to observe and think about your own life and the lives of those around you and engage with Mormon history and thought.
As far as general advice for Mormon writers (whether they are engaged directly with Mormonism or not), I’d say that the best advice is to ignore most of the advice out there. Mormons tend to be really good at putting together a program of self-improvement and then implementing it. Which is fine, but doesn’t always lead to the best creative work. So ignore what non-Mormons tell you you have to do or can’t do and ignore what Mormons tell you you have to do or can’t do. And whatever anyone tells you about how you have to do it. Write what you want, write as much or as little as you are able to (with no guilt and no undue anxiety), and write with fierce engagement with the worldview you have developed through your unique brand of Mormonism. And that’s whether or not you directly address Mormonism or not in your work.
I have nothing to say to those who don’t see a point to writing about Mormons. They earn their reward.