On Mormon Alternate History Stories

Last year, William Morris announced on A Motley Vision that he would be putting together an anthology of Mormon alternate history stories. As William explained in his first post on the subject, Mormon writers seem to be turning to alternate history in the wake of the Mormon Moment for “more compelling ways of expressing our culture and help[ing] us think through both our past and future trajectories in interesting and fruitful ways.” As evidence, he cites D. J. Butler’s City of the Saints and several Mormon Lit Blitz entries. To this list you could add Steve Peck’s “A Strange Report from Church Archives,” published in the final issue of Irreantum, and a handful of stories and comics in Monsters and Mormons.

I’ve always preferred historical fiction to other genres, and alternate history has fascinated me since I was a kid playing Civil War video games that allowed me to change the outcomes of famous battles. In the last few years, I have thought much about the common ground between fiction and history, particularly in the writing of it. Aside from the academic work I’ve done in this area, which has dealt somewhat with alternate history, I’ve done some creative work as well. On Wilderness Interface Zone, for example, I published two works of historical fiction—“The Curse of Eve” and “The Mechanics of Creation.” Of the two, “The Mechanics of Creation” is more of an alternate history—if only because the main characters are actual historical figures engaged in a situation that, while possible, likely never happened.

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In Tents #49 This Jesus Whom Ye Slew and Other Texts That Don’t Behave

In the mid 1970s some theatrical entrepreneurs started thinking about a movie theater statistic: Attendance was lowest onTuesday and Wednesday. Could they fill more seats by offering a subscription film series on those nights, presenting great plays to a nationwide audience? I got season tickets (or saw a lot of the films, anyway), as did some of my high school friends, my father, and some of his faculty friends. I was excited to see Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, and enjoyed Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel as the leads. Lost in the Stars was haunting, and I loved Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which included Brel singing one song–”Ne Me Quitte Pas”–after the intermission. I recognized it as the original of Terry Jacks’ hit “If You Go Away,” but better. (I found out Jacks’ other hit, “Seasons in the Sun” was also drawn from Brel.)

I saw a lot of other films and enjoyed them, including Robert Shaw’s take-off on the Eichmann trial, The Man in the Glass Booth. Israeli agents kidnap Arthur Goldman and take him to Jerusalem to stand trial as a Nazi war criminal. At one point in the trial his assistant, Charlie, says something like, “Of course he’s a Jew. Who else could possibly be so anti-Semitic?” (I think it was at the end of Act I, but when I perused a copy of the play on a recent visit to BYU’s library I couldn’t find it.) A nice bit of comic relief in a fairly dark play, and poignantly prophetic.

I think about that line often when thinking about Jesus’s conversations with the Pharisees. Nothing Jesus says to them is harsher than the opening chapter of Isaiah.

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2014 Mormon Literature Year in Review — Part 1, National Market

I am splitting up the yearly review into two parts, first nationally published fiction by Mormon authors, then in February I will cover fiction published in the Mormon and independent markets.

I start with the surprising flow of Mormon literary fiction that appeared in the second half of the year. Then I will look at best-sellers and particularly well reviewed juvenile and speculative fiction books. And continue from there.

s WifeFor many years Mormon literature fans have been waiting for (quoting Theric) “A novel (1) about active Mormons (2) written by an active Mormon (3) is placed before a national audience where it makes a notably broad impact on discourse.” There have been several novels in recent years that met two of those criteria, but not one that met all three. In December we finally got one, Mette Ivie Harrison’s The Bishop’s Wife. Harrison has produced a murder mystery that explores Mormon beliefs, practices, and culture at the center of the discussion. She goes beyond stereotypes, creating complex, fleshed-out characters, whose relationships with each other are all informed to one degree or another by their membership in the Church. Although some have criticized what they see as an info dump explaining Mormon practices through internal dialogue early in the book, apparently requested by the publisher, overall it is an exciting development to see a real insider provide her take on Mormon culture to the broader world. Also, her New York City publisher decided to make promoting the book a priority, ensuring that unlike other such books, The Bishop’s Wife will reach a wider audience. Hopefully some of those readers will then seek out more literature about Mormons. Harrison has had several YA fantasy novels published in the past, this is her first adult mystery novel. It will be the first in a series. Don’t miss Theric’s reviews and discussion of the novel at A Motley Vision.

cityofbrickandshadowIt is inevitable to compare The Bishop’s Wife to another Mormon literary mystery published just weeks earlier, Tim Wirkus’ debut novel City of Brick and Shadow. Continue reading

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in verse #49 : Voice of the paper

In responding to my last post, “Voice of the turtle,” Jonathan Langford wrote:

It’s interesting that in your reading, Whitman — who was all about “voice” — is actually print-oriented, while Joseph Smith (source of some of our most striking scriptural quotes about the importance of written records, including but not limited to scriptures) is oriented toward [the] speaking voice.

I was, myself, surprised to learn that Matt Miller, in Collage of myself : Walt Whitman and the making of Leaves of grass, apparently argues that Whitman speculated that Leaves of grass might be a novel or a play as late as 1854, the year before the first edition was published.[i] But then I had never heard before what Miller claims Continue reading

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The Power of Not Preaching

When one says the word “religion,” there are a number of images and ideas that come to mind. One of the strongest, complete with positive and negative implications, is preaching. To those who don’t align themselves with an organized religion, just the idea of preaching leads to deep sighs and eye-rolling. And even for those of us who do, a good, old fashioned preach-fest can make us squirm in our hard, wooden pews.

Why is that? What is it about preaching that just turns us off? Looking at myself, I don’t do well with lectures. I never have. There’s a negative bent that comes with parents in stern voices telling their children to not put their elbows on the table, to vacuum the family room, to scrub behind their ears—usually because the more even-keeled first request has been ignored.

I think about the the Great Awakening, about pastors and preachers getting up on their soapboxes to testify of pending hellfire and damnation. Preaching tends to have a negative connotation because it often carries a negative tone. I don’t know about you, but hearing someone tell me I’m bound for hell no matter what I do— Well, that doesn’t exactly make me want to sit and listen. The fact that it was against such a backdrop that Joseph Smith, an ordinary man touched with spiritual gifts, received his First Vision is poignant.

Even when preaching takes on a more positive tone—General Conference is the most positive example that comes to mind—it is what it is. A spiritual leader stands before a congregation and meditates on the gospel. And while I look forward to General Conference as much as anyone, there are places preaching does not belong. One of those places is the theatre.

There is an age-old argument that the theatre is a place of enlightenment, not entertainment. That entertainment is in fact an unworthy pursuit. Like most issues in this life, the question of enlightenment and entertainment is not simple. It’s very much a gray area. The very best plays—the work of luminaries like unto Ibsen, Chekhov, Hellman, and Shakespeare—use drama as a shell for social commentary and suggested improvement. They suggest rather than preach.

It’s not to say that there aren’t playwrights and filmmakers who do take audiences captive and sermonize. I think sometimes that writers approach their work backwards: they start with the message and try to clothe it in a story. But the message, the preaching, the sermon—whatever you want to call it, if it’s the starting place of the work, it lingers. Looms. Considering my own work, as much as I know I want the story to trump the message, I might not always succeed. In the instances where I’ve started working with a specific agenda in mind, the play proves incredibly difficult to write. I’ve found that if I focus on the story built around relatable characters, powerful messages will come through and audience members will hear what they need to hear.

This weekend I saw the much-lauded film Boyhood. While I don’t personally find it the best film of the year, there is a lot about it to be praised, particularly in regard to its primary conceit. Writer/director Richard Linklater chose to tell a coming-of-age story quite literally, following a young boy for a week or so each year over 12 years. The cast, including well known actors Ethan Hawke and Rosanna Arquette, age right alongside the young protagonist. While there isn’t much plot, there is something quietly engaging about watching a boy mature before our eyes. Linklater doesn’t preach, and Boyhood is moving and effective in its tiny moments of real, familial affection. Watching it, I couldn’t help thinking how wonderful it would be to see an ordinary Mormon family like this. What could we learn from such an exercise? And how would the world react to it?

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The Business Side of Writing: Film and Television Rights

I am posting this from my hotel room in Toronto. Why am I in Toronto? I am here to visit the set of The Expanse, a new series by SyFy that is based on the books written by my friends, Ty and Daniel, better known by the pen name, James S.A. Corey. These aren’t the first or only friends I have who’ve landed television or film deals, but they do have the rare distinction of having their series in production. Why is that rare? Okay, let’s talk about film and television.

1. Hollywood buys a lot of intellectual property that it doesn’t use. Film and television can be very lucrative and this enables studios to buy options on rights that they end up not using. There’s actually a lot of warehousing of intellectual property, and quite a long gauntlet for it to run before it actually ends up a movie or television show. Given this, a lot of authors sell their film and television rights only to have them go unused. This means: Continue reading

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