Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Another Author Interview on Kindred Spirits

Here's an interview I did with something called the Virtual Book Review Network. I'm unclear exactly when and where it will be posted, so I'll go ahead and just copy and paste the text here:

Tell us what Kindred Spirits is about.

This novel is about a Utah-native Mormon carving out an independent life for herself in the big city of Boston and perhaps biting off more than she can chew.

Finding herself still unmarried in her early thirties, Eliza converts and marries a willing local native. However, he brings baggage into the marriage in the form of an adopted daughter, an ex-wife, and the daughter's birth mother, all three of whom live together in an unusual arrangement and continue influencing the man's life.

Getting entangled with these characters causes Eliza to face new realities about people and wrestle with some elements of her Mormon background, such as polygamy.

Why did you write this book?

This novel is my fifth book on Mormonism. Much of my other writing taps into my Mormon superego, but this story taps into my Mormon id. I gave myself freedom to explore some of the more juicy, shadowy areas of the Mormon experience, including sexual sin, folk beliefs, and the nature of marriage and relationships.

Kindred Spirits is very much a character study, letting realistic characters take their natural paths without trying to manipulate them into idealized behavior, which is what happens in most fiction written by Mormons. I suppose in some ways it's also a character study of my own dark side, as some of the situations and odd beliefs and other story aspects reflect my own autobiographical experience, which I fictionalized by combining my own stuff with other things I've imagined or observed.

Another reason I wrote this novel is because I wish there were more Mormon stories executed in a manner similar to top contemporary writers such as John Updike, Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, and other mainstream literary authors. I'm not saying that my novel rises to their level of accomplishment, but certainly Updike is my main influence, and I wanted to attempt something similar.

You have written exclusively on Mormonism. Clearly this is a topic that you're passionate about—or is it a way to help educate the public on Mormonism?

Having been born and raised a Mormon and still involved in the faith, it's in my blood. As a writer searching for my unique niche, I'm aware that Mormonism is a vein that hasn't yet been tapped much by writers, partly because people are so uptight about the religion. Mormons are very reactionary against anything that doesn't stay Disney-pure in content and clearly build up the faith, and non-Mormons are skeptical about anything that seems like proselytizing, so at the national level you mostly get unfriendly exposés.

I'm interested in the middle ground of Mormon expression, writing that frankly portrays messy human reality but also allows room for Mormon faith. There are times when I feel the Mormon missionary spirit of sharing the gospel, but at other times I feel rebellious and want to stir up the culture's flawed and quirky aspects, which I find therapeutic and also believe can help humanize Mormons in useful ways.

The characters in your book are complex and have to make many difficult decisions. What was your inspiration for writing this book?

My main inspiration was probably unresolved autobiographical tension, the subconscious desire or need to revisit some of my own past relationship mistakes and play them out again, mixing in some additional complications that I've observed in the lives of people who are close to me. Mormonism is very big on repenting of sin, and perhaps deep down I don't feel like I've fully repented of relationship sins—in other words, premarital sex—from my young adulthood. So I felt compelled to revisit those sins in fiction, sort of like the biblical dog returning to its own vomit.

When I say I don't feel like I've fully repented, I mean that I haven't felt very guilty or personally at fault for my youthful mistakes; I haven't really felt what Mormons refer to as remorse or "godly sorrow" for my sins. Rather, I tend to think of those sins as a natural, unavoidable part of my personal development. While I've toed the line on Mormon sexual morality for nearly twenty years now, I'm not sure how sorry or regretful I am about the past—which, in turn, makes me still feel somewhat like a flawed, unripe Mormon.

Another internal tension that inspired Kindred Spirits is that, while I believe Mormonism is true and good for me and worth trying to live, I don't particularly enjoy its practice, with the heavy emphasis on obedience, purity, wholesomeness, conformity, etc. and the lack of emphasis on creativity, imagination, exploration, adventure, sensuality, and other "cool" things. So in the novel I play with some of those dichotomies, which many Mormons would say represent the difference between the devoted disciple of Christ and the fallen, carnal, natural human.

Would you consider this book to be a romance novel?

I did not set out to write a romance, and it's not a label that I'm thrilled about. However, it's true that the plot of Kindred Spirits is basically about a man and woman coming together and working out a relationship, which I suppose meets the definition of romance. But I think my story is much more than a romance, as I explore different aspects of spirituality and religion. I also wove in some satire of Mormonism, but that doesn't mean I don't believe in what I'm satirizing. Anyway, the driving force of the story just happens to be a romantic relationship.

Others have tried to pin the label of "women's fiction" on this novel, since the main character is a female. But these labels make me uncomfortable because they pigeonhole what I've tried to do and could also pigeonhole my readership. Fortunately, I've heard from male readers who got a kick out of the story.

Was it tough writing in a woman's genre?

As a creative exercise, I enjoy writing from a female point of view, so it was not tough in the sense of trying to somehow force myself into that mindset. Where it was tough was in actually getting the details right. Several female readers were kind enough to help me identify spots where my masculinity shone through too much.

When readers know an author is male and yet his novel is written in a female point of view, they are much harder on it than when the tables are turned with a female author writing in a male point of view. I'm not sure why this is, but I decided to just go ahead and not try to hide behind a female pseudonym or anything. Some female readers have complimented me on how well I did, but some have complained about funny little things that I don't think they would have noticed if the author byline were female.

I was reading your bio and learned that your great-great-great-grandfather had forty wives. How many children did he have, and what does an extended family like that mean to you now? Are you in touch with any of these folks?

I believe my great-great-great-grandfather Heber C. Kimball was the second or third most married Mormon polygamist from the 19th century, behind only Brigham Young and perhaps Joseph Smith. I am quite proud of the fact that I am descended through Heber's first wife, rather than one of the subsequent wives—in my family, we joke that we're from the real wife.

Although Heber eventually married a total of forty-three women, he was not intimate with all of them. Still, he had sixty-five children by seventeen different women! Here's a great quote that gives his outlook on the practice of polygamy: "I have noticed that a man who has but one wife, and is inclined to that doctrine, soon begins to wither and dry up, while a man who goes into plurality [of wives] looks fresh, young, and sprightly" (Journal of Discourses. vol 5, p. 22). In my family, we very much enjoy reading biographies and stories about our ancestor Heber, who played a major role in early Mormonism, and I'm proud that my middle name is Kimball.

While no one in my extended family today practices polygamy that I'm aware of, many of us still believe that polygamy is a divine principle that will be practiced in some form in heaven and perhaps even again on this earth at some future time, under the right circumstances. Personally, I find polygamy quite interesting to wonder about—sometimes I can almost imagine it working out, and other times it seems like it would be a complicated mess (and yes, I am enjoying watching HBO's Big Love series about modern-day polygamists).

As you can imagine, today there is a huge clan of Heber's descendants, probably numbering in the tens of thousands and focused mostly in Utah, but I'm not personally involved in any of the Heber C. Kimball associations and reunions, although I do sometimes run into fellow cousins and enjoy tracing our different genealogical roots back to Heber.

Having this ancestral background has certainly affected my imagination. In Kindred Spirits, I made the protagonist Eliza related to a similarly famous polygamous figure from 19th-century Mormonism, and I wove in some threads showing how echoes from that time continue to affect her outlook and that of her parents.

Overall, I hope that readers of Kindred Spirits will find it intriguing and engaging to experience an unusual, exotic perspective through my Mormon protagonist. She's certainly not a typical or ideal Mormon, but she's within the realm of possibility. This novel raises more questions and concerns about Mormonism than it answers, but that suits my purposes because I also coauthored Mormonism For Dummies, which helps calm down much of what I stirred up with this novel.

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