Interviewed by Neal Hammons
Can you tell us about your writing background—when you began writing fiction, what inspired you to start?
I came to writing pretty late. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where we didn’t always have access to contemporary literature. But the department stores sold classic novels for fifty cents, and my parents started buying them for me, probably as a means to keep me quiet for a few days. I struggled through the Brontës, H. G. Wells, Dickens, and Hawthorne, often going back and rereading each book a few times. All of these older books gave me the impression that writing was something of a bygone profession—that people just didn’t do it anymore. This notion is probably also a byproduct of having gone to a public school where the teachers had been teaching the same books for thirty years; we just didn’t read or talk about contemporary writing. Going into college, I’m guessing 1984 was the most recently written novel I had ever read. It wasn’t until my junior in college that I noticed creative writing classes in the course catalogue and decided to give them a try. I found that I had internalized some good habits from those classics (probably a few bad ones, too), and I liked the idea of having an audience where unlike, say, a critical analysis, if I did a really good job, someone other than my instructor might actually read a story I’d written and find it interesting.
When you became more familiar with contemporary literature, what were the writers or aspects of contemporary fiction that really clicked with you? Any modern literary gimmicks that repulsed you?
Oh, definitely. I was enamored with short stories, which was an altogether new form to me. I was amazed at how a writer like Alice Munro could seem to build something that felt like a novel in the space of thirty pages. And in general, I’m still impressed by the emotional journey a writer can take the reader on in a few pages. Of course, that can be a bit gimmicky when it falls flat and appears too contrived or reaches too far too quickly. Conversely, I learned (through workshop trouncing) that the days of being paid by the word and writing six pages of someone saddling a horse were over. That was a pretty good lesson to learn, I think.
How do you think your MFA program affected you as a reader and a writer?
I’m not someone who thinks an MFA program is a must for a writer, but for me, the MFA program at Montana forced me to take my writing seriously. We had some pretty tough professors there, namely Brady Udall and Charles D’Ambrosio, and I think the fear of workshop humiliation made me care about the quality of my sentences for the first time. Since I wasn’t a creative writing or even an English major as an undergraduate, I had some catch-up to do. I arrived in Missoula with two or three decent stories and no real idea of how I’d written them. Mostly I was just happy to not be in West Virginia anymore. What I soon found was that for the first time in my life, I was around people who wanted to write and were willing to devote significant time to it. To some extent, my competitive nature took over, and I decided to put in the work.
As a reader, the MFA taught me to look at a piece of writing I liked—or even one I didn’t like—and try to diagnose what worked and what didn’t. In some ways, it took the magic out of literature, but I think that’s part of your job as a writer: to take the magic out of what you love. It’s hard to be critical of something while in awe of it. At times, it felt like I was performing an autopsy on a story, cutting it open and seeing the parts rather than eulogizing it.
I grew up in Ohio, and I always think of Montana as having a really impressive natural environment. Did the move from West Virginia to Montana have any affect on your writing?
I can’t really pinpoint anything specific, but my guess is that the landscape affected my writing in ways I’m not entirely aware of. Missoula is a small city in the Rockies, so there are nice vistas and lots of trails. But once you leave Missoula, it’s three or four hours until you reach anything akin to civilization. I think Seattle is nine hours by car, and that’s not always a viable option in the winter. In Montana I had a sense of being sequestered or separated from the rest of the world. This really bothered some students, but I found it comforting. In the small towns where I grew up, it seemed like everyone knew everything about each other, but in Montana I had this wonderful feeling of anonymity. I felt unmoored by place and family and the past. I suppose feeling unmoored is a pretty good state to figure out how to write a decent story.
Your story “What Doesn’t Kill You Will Build Toward a Testimony” involves an LDS teenager who is beginning to confront the doctrinal details of his religion. For those readers not familiar with the term, could you tell us what the term “testimony” means to these LDS characters?
Sure. I grew up LDS, and at least in our branch far from the mothership in Salt Lake City, we were always talking about testimonies. One Sunday a month, we had “Fast and Testimony Meetings” where we would skip a few meals then deliriously take turns at the podium telling the congregation what we believed. I think it was Boyd K. Packer, an apostle in the LDS church at the time, who said, “A testimony is found during the bearing of it.” That particular phrase always struck me as strange, and in my teenaged mind, I think I loosely translated it into “Tell yourself something enough times, and you’ll start to believe it.” To me, it always felt like a directive for self-indoctrination. So, a testimony was something to build and strive for, like your own prayer you could develop, then deliver to everyone. As you might be able to tell, I never came up with a good one.
So you were familiar with the LDS religion and community long before you began working on this piece.
I was born and raised in the LDS church, but of course that doesn’t make me an expert. For a few years now, I’ve described our particular brand as “amateur Mormonism,” since our congregation consisted almost entirely of converts. Pretty much everyone, including my parents, had converted from another form of Christianity, so at times it felt like we were speaking Mormonism with a kind of Evangelical accent. My guess is that we had more fire and brimstone than your average LDS congregation in Utah or Idaho. In Montana, I met a few other people who were raised LDS, and over time I realized that we had had very different experiences. That was around the time I thought that writing about my particular circumstances seemed like it might create some fruitful scenarios.
What kind of feedback have you received about these stories from people currently in the LDS church?
I haven’t yet heard any feedback from any current LDS members. I haven’t been an active church member in well over a decade. I hope the stories aren’t offensive, though my guess is that most active members wouldn’t much like them.
I can think of a few writers—Graham Greene, David Foster Wallace—who have written fiction that concerns religion but that doesn’t come off either as faith-based or as anti-religion. Was that a balance you were trying to maintain with this story? What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
Those are both writers I admire, and I love how they’ve struck the balance you’ve mentioned. For a while now, I’ve been working on a linked collection of short stories from this narrator’s perspective. One of the challenges has been to allow the narrator to struggle with questions of faith without coming to any definitive conclusions since that would remove the central tension of the collection. Besides, in general, I think uncertain characters are more interesting than certain characters. Of course, certain characters are easier to write. In some ways, I tried to think of the LDS religion was a kind of family business that the narrator couldn’t decide whether or not he wanted to take over.
I’m curious about those other stories in the linked collection you’re working on. Can you tell us why you decided on a linked collection and how you envision that collection as a whole?
After graduate school, I found myself writing stories that had a number of similarities, and a good friend suggested I consider a linked story collection. I had the idea in the back of my mind for a while, and then I began to stumble across linked collections. In particular, I found Bad Haircut by Tom Perrotta and Mother of Sorrows by Richard McCann inspiring. I read those books and thought, “This is something I could do!” So, I set out to write stories covering different periods of the narrator’s life. The first occurs at age seven and the last at eighteen. A few family members reoccur and a few church members, too. In general, I tried to focus each story on a particular facet of growing up LDS in a place that was predominantly not LDS. For example, the first story deals with the difficulties of teaching children to live in the imaginative world of scripture but also in the real world, which lacks miracles. That always struck me as a tall order for anyone, but especially a child.
“What Doesn’t Kill You Will Build Toward a Testimony” is very loosely based on a trip I made to the Washington, DC, temple when I was fourteen or fifteen. I went in with high expectations and remember leaving feeling more or less non-plussed. But as I was searching for potentially formative moments that would make for a good story, I began to consider this idea of a temple trip, and of the narrator placing pressure on the trip. After more drafts than I care to admit, it became a kind of personal pilgrimage for a testimony.