Guest post by Tom Kimball
What a wonderful age we Mormons live in. Authors with LDS backgrounds like Elna Baker and Brady Udall are receiving national attention for their books, while Walter Kirn had Up in the Air turned into a film starring George Clooney. Scott Carrier turns up regularly on NPR. Even Deseret Book is publishing more fiction and personal essays than ever before. You can find Mormon stories in magazines and blogs and you can read them on Kindle and on cell phones. Now the Church itself is promoting authentic personal stories on its website, YouTube, and on ten-story-tall billboards (and there are some great ones from people like Brandon Flowers of The Killers). If you’re Mormon and have a story to tell, the only thing keeping you from presenting it to the world is your own imagination. Don’t try to tell a warts-and-all story at Church, of course; but otherwise, it’s gratifying to see the increasingly eager audience for it outside the chapel walls.
Of late, I’ve personally enjoyed Larry Menlove’s, “A Season in the Wilderness” in the June 2011 issue of Sunstone and “Bing” by Ryan Shoemaker in the fall 2010 issue of Irreantum. Both wrapped me with their engaging narratives. I guess I have a soft spot for anti-heroes because both stories have characters who run away from the conflicts they encounter. On the other end of that spectrum was a lucky turn of events in Jack Harrell’s short story, “Jerome and the Ends of the Universe,” which is in Signature Books’s A Sense of Order and Other Stories. In this case, the anti-hero is living in his mother’s basement until he gets an idea from his love of science to blow his inheritance on an exhibition of the universe—but the surprise is that in the end, he gets the girl. As things unfold, his view of the universe shifts and he and other characters in the story find their own thin slice of grace along the way. But for me it was much different. After I finished the story, I found myself pacing back and forth in front of my desk at work and a few hours later in front of the kitchen stove at home until I just couldn’t take it anymore and called Jack on his mobile to ask him what the story was all about.
“Oh, you liked that one,” he said. It wasn’t stated as a question.
“It’s screwing with my head,” I complained.
“That’s really nice of you to say. I almost didn’t include it. I wrote it back in the early 90s and pulled it out occasionally to tinker with it.” He wanted to talk about the mechanics of writing, while I was in the middle of an existential crisis! It’s interesting, the whirlwind of emotions a story like that can kick up.
I should probably be utilizing my space in this column to talk about the current trends in publishing or about Signature Books in particular, but I’m having fun in my reverie—and that’s what it’s all about, right? It’s the pleasure we all get from reading. While I’m at it, I should mention an essay that stood out in Stephen Carter’s collection, What of the Night, published by Zarahemla Books. It recaps Stephen’s experiences as a research assistant when Gene England began to be aware he had a brain tumor. Another great essay was Doug Thayer’s “About Serious Mormon Fiction” also in the fall 2010 issue of Irreantum.
Closer to home, Signature Books just released Why I Stay: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Mormons. The essays are so personal, and sometimes painful, that you almost feel like a voyeur reading them. Why is that so satisfying? Is it learning that we’re not alone in our little corner of the universe? As a publicist, I had to summarize what the book was about in a few words and chose to classify with a broad brush the twenty contributors to the collection as “liberals.” For that, I received a quick reprimand from Armand Mauss who insisted he is a libertarian, not a liberal! May I recommend one essay in the anthology? Jeff Burton, author of the Sunstone column “Borderlands,” tells how happy he is with the Church and gives reasons: that Jesus is at the center of everything we do as we promote “peace, rejection of war, justice for everyone, and equality of women and men. I have the wonderful feeling,” he continues, “that everyone is accepted just as they are.” You gradually come to realize that Jeff is talking about the Church as an ideal that exists in heaven, not the one we experience on earth. It’s like Elouise Bell’s essay, “The Meeting,” in her collection, Only When I Laugh, where she switches the gender of everyone at Church.
In other news from my workplace, we have a new employee, Devery Anderson, who has begun formatting our books for Kindle readers and doing some editing. Our first goal is to process our front list, then our best sellers and award-winners. The thought of a new wave of readers discovering for the first time some characters like Coyote in Patty Karamesines’s Pictograph Murders or the adventures of Toom Taggart in Paul Edwards’s Angel Acronym is exciting to me. Otherwise the Signature staff is humming along with various history, biography, and religious studies projects—and we’re building a new warehouse that will include two gargoyles reading books on the roof ledge. We’re thinking of calling them Cherub and Seraph, although the artist, Janet Dawson, is giving them horns and fangs so we’re open to suggestions. “Patience” and “Fortitude” are taken. Stay tuned, there’s a lot more to come.