An Interview with Johnny Townsend

by Gerald S. Argetsinger

Gerald Argetsinger is an Associate Professor in the Department of Cultural and Creative Studies, Rochester Institute of Technology. He has published extensively on Scandinavian Theatre, dramatic literature, and magic. He also founder of the Gay Mormon Literature Project. His revision of the Virginia State Outdoor Drama, “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” is presented annually in the Tolliver Theatre, Big Stone Gap, VA, and his script “Equality of Rights: The First Women’s Rights Convention” is presented every summer at the National Women’s Rights Historic Park, Seneca Falls, NY. He was artistic director of The Hill Cumorah Pageant, 1990-97, and currently serves on the High Council of the Rochester NY Stake. He is married to costume designer Gail Bishop Argetsinger. They have two grown sons, whom they cannot extricate from their basement.

Johnny Townsend is one of the most prolific writers of Mormon-theme short stories, editorials and essays we have. His work has been published in such outlets as Dialogue, Sunstone, The Massachusetts Review, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and the anthologies “In Our Lovely Deseret: Mormon Fictions” and “Queer Fish.” He is the winner of the Brookie & D.K. Brown Fiction Contest Starstone and his book “The Abominable Gayman” was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best of 2011.

What might not be known about Townsend is that like many gay members who work for years participating fully in ward and stake callings, serving a mission and rendering uncounted hours of service, the church has not been welcoming. Decades of service are washed away with the short phrase, “You know he’s homosexual.” So now he writes about Mormons with love but with an eye that recognizes the anomalies of our quirky culture, as an expatriate; an exile who merely worked for a place at the table, but discovered that the actions of members often reflect the words of Ernest L. Wilkinson, who as president of BYU and representing the General Authorities who constituted its Board of Directors, stood in front of the student body and announced, “We do not intend to admit to our campus any homosexuals. If any of you have this tendency . . . I suggest that you leave the university immediately after this assembly . . . We do not want others on this campus to be contaminated by your presence.” (“Make Honor Your Standard,” 1965)

I met Johnny through the Gay Mormon Literature Project in 2008.  I had begun to assemble as inclusive a bibliography of gay Mormon theme narrative fiction and drama as possible, and I discovered Johnny Townsend with publication after publication. At the Sunstone Symposium in 2009, Johnny and I presented a panel on Gay Mormon Literature to a large, enthusiastic audience. The next year our group presented two panels and Johnny participated again.  He and I have maintained an internet friendship based on that work ever since and are now co-editing, with writer Jeff Laver, a representative anthology of Gay Mormon Theme stories entitled “Latter-Gay Saints.” We have collected stories by twenty-five highly regarded writers from both inside and outside of our culture that begin to illuminate just what it means to be gay/lesbian and Mormon.

Johnny has also recently published a new collection of his own stories, “Marginal Mormons,” and a collection of essays, “Mormon Bullies,” so it seems to be an appropriate time to talk with him about his life, his writing, his accomplishments, and his dreams.

I wish I had the budget for one of those Celebrity Interviews in a chic Hollywood bistro, but I am working from my home in Rochester, New York, while Johnny works from his in Seattle, Washington. At least we have the internet to facilitate our conversation.

 

Good morning, Johnny. I hope you’re up to this. My heck, I hope I’m up to this.

Good morning, Jerry. My life is an open book, for whatever it’s worth, shoot.

You’re one of our most prolific writers of short narrative fiction. I count about 200 published in a variety of Mormon and non-Mormon outlets including a series of ten anthologies. When did you first know you wanted to write?

I wrote my first story at the age of 8, for my elementary school teacher. I suppose my commitment to writing happened shortly after that. I was a big fan of the Happy Hollister books by Jerry West, and I began writing first chapters to my own versions of that by the time I was 10 or 11. I remember showing my Mom one of those chapters. I watched her face as she read it and said, ‘That’s really good.’ I’m sure it wasn’t, but I loved that feeling. In 7th grade, I won 2nd place for a short story in our middle school literary fair, and by then, I was almost fully committed to writing. I took a picture of myself with my red ribbon because I was convinced this was the start of my “career.” At the age of 16, I read about Mary Shelley writing “Frankenstein” while still a teenager and I decided to write a book while I was 16. I did, a full-length science fiction novel. It, too, was crap, and I eventually threw it away, afraid someone would see what a bad writer I was. But I knew that, success or no success, I was going to write for the rest of my life. And I felt sure that eventually I would be good at it.

How many stories did you write between the time you began writing and your first publication?

I’m not sure how many stories I wrote before finally publishing. It was a lot, though. I had finished my mission, my BA degree, my MA degree, and my MFA before I had my first publication. I had over 300 or 400 rejection slips. I can’t remember the exact number right now. But my first publication was to Newsday in New York, an Op-ed that was picked up the Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. My first story came not long after, to RFD, a gay magazine, and my third story publication was by Christopher Street. I thought I had arrived. But that was the start of a very long, hard road.

I already mentioned that we became acquainted because of the “Gay Mormon Literature Project” and you just mentioned that your first published stories were in gay magazines. Are you predominantly a writer of “gay fiction?”

Not at all, many of my stories explore what it means to be gay and Mormon, but I have other themes as well. I even have one collection of stories about my adopted faith, Judaism.  Most of my stories, whether the characters are gay or straight, explore my Mormon background. So I could more correctly be labeled a writer of general Mormon theme fiction. My upbringing was Mormon, but in some ways it was traditional and in other ways, it wasn’t. My immediate family of 4 converted when I was 9, and eventually, my mother’s sister was baptized, her brother and his wife, and my grandmother as well. So there are lots of LDS relatives. But I had lots of Baptist relatives and went to a Baptist high school and so had a lot of Protestant influence. I was active from 9-12 and then again from 14 till I was ex’ed at 26. I served a mission to the Italy Rome Mission and had tons of callings at church and was thoroughly and fully Mormon. After my mission I worked for several years with single adult members, and those experiences also infuse my writing.

You tend to write in first person narrative. How did you find that style? How does it help you to develop the messages of your stories?

I think maybe some of my favorite authors, like Robert Heinlein, used first person, and I liked it and picked it up. Some people like first person and some people hate it. I like both first and third person, but even with third person, I like a limited POV to concentrate on one character. I think in a short story, there’s not enough time to get to know everyone, so I concentrate on one person. I had intended to write novels, and I wrote a second SF novel in my undergraduate years. It was better than the first, but I threw this one away as well. I started short stories because that was the only writing course offered at my university, and I got hooked on the form.

You have some outlandish ideas on occasion: how do you “wonder” (for example) about the three Nephites and their hundreds of years on earth, do they still have to be concerned with issues of the flesh? What is the nature of Spirit Prison? How can a conservative Mormon in Utah be an environmentalist and WHY is that seemingly a conflict of interest? How can an excommunicated Mormon “Jew” continue to find community with his Mormon brothers?

These ideas don’t seem outlandish to me at all. They seem like the most perfectly natural questions! As far as the conflict between Mormonism and environmentalism, I honestly don’t understand why there is a conflict. I think there is plenty in LDS doctrine to support caring for the environment. I simply don’t see a lot of that in real life.

How do you interpret your own experiences? I’m thinking here of your character “Miranda.” I personally do not relate to her and her paranoia. Where did she come from? You mentioned that you worked actively with Young Single Mormon adults. What did you learn from that experience about how gays might be the same, or differ from other young Mormons facing their own demons?

My missionary stories are the most autobiographical, with very little interpretation. Most of my other stories are based on people I knew or stories I read in the paper or something I heard at a party or at work, and then I embellish or adapt as needed to get the story I’m after. I’ve known several mentally ill people over the years, and I find their plight pathetic and poignant and so very painful and lonely. I do want people to understand that there are mentally ill Mormons that we shouldn’t toss aside just because they are “difficult” to interact with. After about twenty stories, Miranda’s life issues are pretty much resolved, as much as they can be, in my most recent collection, “Marginal Mormons.” That volume also tells the stories of active Mormon artists attempting to work through their addictions and another sister learning how difficult it is to put off being judgmental in order to understand life through another’s eyes.

You are incredibly prolific. Where do you get all of your ideas?

Everywhere. Perhaps my partner Gary and I will be talking about some illogical LDS doctrine, or I’ll hear some comment from someone. A Jewish friend of mine who had investigated Mormonism once said, “Mormons are sometimes just like zombies.” I had an instant flash. “Zombies for Jesus!” Sometimes, titles come first, and sometimes plots come first.

Many of your characters express a concern that they are “not following Mormon doctrine,” even when it is folk doctrine, or outdated policy that concerns them . . . Is that a reflection of your own concerns, or does that come from interacting with others?

This is simply what I saw firsthand during my years at church. It may no longer be the case. I haven’t attended regularly in 25 years, but that was the way it used to be. From talking to my family and in-laws, I expect it’s still not far from that even today.

What is your relationship to other Mormon writers . . . gay Mormon writers? Do you talk together, share ideas, perspectives?

Donna Banta and I critique each other’s stories by email. She’s a great help to me, and I’ve had a chance to read her second novel in progress and see that it’s even better than her first (“The Girls From Fourth Ward”). I am also friends with other gay Mormon writers such as Jeff Laver (“Just Call Me Greg”) who is a great guy. I am in a writers critique group with Alan Michael Williams (“Ockham’s Razor”). And I’ve written a review of Marty Beaudet’s “By a Thread,” which I really liked (though no one has published the review yet). I‘ve also met a few of the other writers via the Gay Mormon Literature Project. I want to help and encourage other gay Mormon writers. I believe that interacting with other writers this way helps all of us.

How can you, as a writer and excommunicated Mormon, influence the predominant influence of homophobia within the Mormon Church?

I don’t know that I can. But just because something is difficult doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done. I plant trees in my yard and donate to American Forests to help reforest the country, but I’ll never be able to donate enough money to make a difference. That doesn’t mean I’m not still obligated to do my small part. I guess my hope is that I’ll influence someone who has a more powerful voice than I have. I see these obstacles like constructing a building. I may only contribute a few nails or two by fours, but my nails and two by fours are still important to the overall construction.

So Johnny, where are you now? and What are your current goals?

In some ways, I feel I’ve done what I really wanted to do. I published a book about my mission, “The Abominable Gayman,” which was my most personal work.

And let me add, that those are my favorite of all your stories, and I believe the most accessible to an active Mormon reader who wants to know a good jumping off point.

Thank you. I also published a book about the UpStairs Lounge fire, a tragedy in the city of New Orleans that had a profound effect on my life. I published a book of Jewish stories to reflect my time as a Jew. And I’ve published several books of Mormon and of gay Mormon stories. Some of the stories were better than others, and at this point, I just want to make sure that anything else I write is done very well. I don’t want readers to feel, “Oh, he’s done this before.” I don’t want my work to feel repetitious. At the same time, if I’m consistently focusing on unorthodox Mormons, to some extent, all my work will have a similar theme. I just want to find new and fresh ways of approaching it.

However, another of my goals is simply to promote the other unorthodox LDS fiction out there. Lots of good books are being written, most of which are completely ignored by Mormon readers and Mormon literati because the way Deseret Books has distribution strictly controlled makes it very difficult to find them. “By a Thread” by Marty Beaudet is worth reading, as are “The Girls from Fourth Ward” by Donna Banta and “Gman” by Jason Jahns. I think the success of any of us helps not only unorthodox writers in general but LDS fiction as a whole. I believe far too much emphasis is placed on “faith-promoting stories.” Even Zarahemla Books, which I applaud for publishing “edgy” material, maintains that this is a core feature of their books. I think this is a serious mistake. I think works like Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s “Book of Mormon: the Musical” do much more both to promote the faith and to tell a good story, primarily because being faith-promoting is not their main concern. The Mormon literary community must make questioning and exploring our culture more important than testifying of its truthfulness. A reader’s testimony is their responsibility, not mine. My responsibility is to treat the material before me (Mormonism) truthfully and meaningfully. To be sure, there is some good LDS literature being written from within, but I don’t want the literature that is being written from the borders to be excluded. That was really the whole idea behind naming my latest book “Marginal Mormons.”

Thank you very much, Johnny. We look forward to discovering your published stories and anticipating your future works.

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10 Responses to An Interview with Johnny Townsend

  1. Wm says:

    “The Mormon literary community must make questioning and exploring our culture more important than testifying of its truthfulness. ”

    1. There is no Mormon literary community. There are a series of communities — some overlap; some have very little overlap.

    2. We all write from what we believe to be the truth. We need to be careful to distinguish between outright didacticism and writing from the POV of a believer. All stories contain elements of didacticism and all literary values and boundaries and preferences (whether we’re talking about the genre of literary fiction or science fiction or mystery or whatever) contain within them their own didactic-ness and bundle with them their own heresies.

    3. This statement also ignores the need to make questioning and exploring other orthodoxies (whatever they may be) a primary concern of Mormon writers.

    Or in other words: when it comes to fiction, we all need to be discomfited and comforted; to learn about the other but also learn about ourselves.

    Also: who is the Mormon literati?

    • Th. says:

      .

      I find myself falling into this too. Dismissing writers and genres and publishers I don’t read. I’m trying to repent.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      I’m not convinced questioning and exploring are necessary opposites to testifying or affirming—at least not in every case. Interpreting another’s heart or intent is always a difficult thing; arguing an expansive approach seems a generally good thing.

      It’s easy to get a siege mentality when you feel your viewpoint is too easily dismissed for reasons you consider poor. All you can do is keep plugging (as Mr. Townsend has).

  2. Mark Penny says:

    I’m all for honesty, which, for me, includes doubt and faith. I have my doubts about the value (to faith) of literature that only questions.

    About a year ago, a young woman in a ward I attended here in Taiwan told me she was leaving the church because there was no place in it for her, a bisexual. I didn’t remonstrate with her, but I went to the bishop and suggested we make it clear to her that she was not being pushed out. Apparently she had spoken to him, too, and he had told her she had a place if she wanted one. We both felt that staying or leaving was her decision and it wasn’t appropriate to make a fuss either way.

    Mental illness is a more common phenomenon in the wards here and it can be a challenge. Some of the afflicted are philosophical about it, own their affliction, and manage themselves well enough not to be a burden. Others blame the world for not suiting them and project their ire on ward members, notably the bishop, often going inactive over perceived neglect or injustice.

    Certainly we should bear one another’s burdens that they may be light, whatever the burden may be. We should not cast people out of the synagogue because of their “clothes”. But neither should people who dress differently expect the church to stop being about families, chastity, charity and self-discipline.

    • Emily Milner says:

      Mark, where in Taiwan do you live? My parents are in Tai Chung right now but they travel to Gao Xiang (spelling issues on both) a lot.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      I struggle with the sense of being at the edge of many communities but embraced by very, very few. At times it has made me sufficiently uncomfortable with the social aspects of the Mormon community of saints that I have chosen not to attend—not out of anger or any loss of faith or doubt about the truths or realities of the restored gospel, but out of simple fatigue at always feeling like a stranger in every gathering.

      I think it’s why identity communities can be so alluring; they do congratulate us precisely for our elements of difference—not unlike literary genres or marketing categories.

      But I think your point is critical. The primary purpose of religion is not to celebrate our individuality, but to push us toward core principles of refinement and repentance—aka, changing ourselves to be more conforming (yes, I believe conformance to a righteous standard is a worthy pursuit) to beliefs and behaviors that will lead us to a preferred endpoint.

      Acceptance is not always the same thing as advocacy, and tolerance often does not include embrace. If we’re waiting for either the institutional Church or its members (often just as imperfect as we are) to celebrate our differences, we may wait for a very, very long time.

      But that’s part of the battle, isn’t it? And a subject quite fit (rife, even) for exploration in story within (the wide varieties of) the Mormon mindset.

  3. Wm says:

    Two more things:

    1. I agree that those ideas don’t seem that outlandish and seem like natural areas to explore in Mormon literature.

    2. I’d be interested in hearing more about the Gay Mormon Literature Project: what it is, who is involved and what it produces, and especially how those involved in it would situate within the overall context of the field of Mormon literature and the overall field of American literature.

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