Douglas Thayer is one of the pioneers of what Eugene England called “faithful realism” in his definitive study of Mormon literature. Besides having taught literally thousands of Mormon writers during his fifty years as a professor of English at Brigham Young University, his short story collections Under the Cottonwoods and Mr. Wahlquist in Yellowstone have become a template for those writing about the interior life of Mormons today. He has also published the novels Summer Fire and The Conversion of Jeff Williams.
[Interview questions by Margaret Young]
What progress do you see since you published Under the Cottonwoods, both in the appreciation of good literature among Mormons, and new, talented authors?
Certainly I see some very talented writes in our writing students here at BYU, some of whom are publishing nationally (mostly fantasy and young adult fiction), but not Mormon stuff. National publishers still donâ€™t seem particularly interested in Mormon fiction, but maybe that will change with Mitt Romney running for president, the new film on the Mountain Meadows massacre, and the recent PBS series on Mormonism, but maybe not. I donâ€™t see the appreciative audience growing particularly. From what Iâ€™ve heard, the Dialogue, Irreantum, and Sunstone subscription lists stay about the same, if thatâ€™s an indicator. Mormons arenâ€™t clamoring for good literature; never have and never will, as far as I can see.
How much do you consider your audience as you contemplate beginning a piece of fiction? Do you ever find yourself censoring artistic inclination in favor of audience sensibilities?
I write what I want to write, but then I have no desire to shock my readers. I like to think that what I write makes sense, is insightful, skillfully done, and perhaps even true, and entertaining. I write about somewhat ordinary, faithful Mormons living their contemporary lives, people who stay in the Church, whatever their inclinations otherwise. Their lives arenâ€™t aberrant, so their isnâ€™t much to censor, but much to understand and portray.
Generally, how does your faith inform your fiction? Does your fiction ever inform your faith?
Both, I hope. Iâ€™m trying to understand Mormon faith and say true things about it. I think that good fiction teaches ultimately, but not in any obvious way, contrary to what Chekhov, and his many followers, believe, or think they believe.
What advice would you give a young LDS author?
Learn your trade well (for it is a trade) and write for everybody. And you donâ€™t need an MFA to be able to write, or to be allowed to write. Get one if you want one, but donâ€™t make the mistake of thinking itâ€™s a necessary certification.
President Kimball, in his call to artists, said, “real craftsmanship, regardless of the skill involved, reflects real caring, and real caring reflects our attitude about ourselves, about our fellowmen, and about life.” Could you comment on that?
Obviously a writer must care about himself or herself, his or her fellow men, and about the craft. Otherwise, their isnâ€™t much point in writing, unless one is writing only for money, and even then there might be some caring.
You have written some stories (like “The Clinic”) which portray a genuine crisis of faith. How does the portrayal of a crisis of faith help us be more faithful Latter-day Saints?
Perhaps by showing how faith works in a practical way, or at least how it might work. This assumes of course that the reader believes the story, that the story is true enough, and good enough, which is asking a lot of a story, and the reader is perceptive enough.
Please discuss your current project and what your hopes for it are.
Iâ€™ve been finishing up a memoir, Hooligan: A Mormon Boyhood, a young adult novel, Beneath, and a collection of stories. Next project will be a heavy rewrite of a “finished” novel thatâ€™s been sitting in the drawer for three years or more. My hope is to get everything finished and published.
President Kimball lists Shakespeare and Goethe as some of his favorite authors. Who would you list? How have they influenced your own writing?
Because theyâ€™re honest, very skilled, intelligent, knowledgeable, and somewhat hopeful: Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Flannery Oâ€™Connor, James Joyce, John Steinbeck, Eudora Welty, J.D. Salinger, James Thurber, E.B. White, D. H. Lawrence, Leslie Norris, and Alice Monroe.
Do you read much LDS fiction? If not, why not? if so, do you have any particular favorites?
I read the stories in Dialogue and Irreantum and novels and collections that get reasonably good reviews. No particular favorites, but Iâ€™ve probably missed some good things.
Gene England once identified your “Red Tailed Hawk” as the best LDS story yet written. What do you personally see in that story that you think Gene was responding to?
As I recall, Gene (how can that man be gone?) thought it was lyrically romantic in terms of manâ€™s response to Nature. I suppose it is, although that wasnâ€™t a preoccupation when I was writing it. I was working with the idea that total freedom, even for a boy, is dangerous. You have to live in a village, neighborhood, family, if you want to survive, and find any sense in life.
We have recently seen some good Mormon writers and filmmakers distance themselves from the Church. Do you think Mormonism is particularly hard on its artists?
Does Mormonism “have” artists? Never really considered the possibility, unless in some odd way Mormonism has what it doesnâ€™t really want or need; assuming, of course, that such a thing as Mormonism exists to begin with. No, Mormonism isnâ€™t hard on its artists; the artists are hard on themselves. Filled with self-importance and a need to suffer, they exaggerate their worth, as far as Mormonism is concerned, although they may be worth a great deal otherwise, maybe.
President Kimball urged artists to get past mediocrity. What do you think are the most dangerous or most common temptations for LDS artists?
Believing theyâ€™re special (“special” in the uniquely Mormon sense of that word).
I just have to say that when I went to Guatemala in 1975, I had two books with me in addition to my scriptures: _Moby Dick_ and _Under the Cottonwoods_. Both great reads!
Doug Thayer is a gift to all of us.
And this — “Their lives arenâ€™t aberrant, so there isnâ€™t much to censor, but much to understand and portray.” — is exactly right.
To expand on what I’ve said before. I don’t think “The Conversion of Jeff Williams” got anywhere near the amount of attention that it should have received. Yes, the same could be said of quite a few Mormon novels and short stories, but I really think that it’s the type of novel that could and should have become a perennial fav among LDS young adults (even those who don’t read Mormon fiction). And maybe it has and I just am not aware of that.
Also: Here is my review of Under the Cottonwoods. I’d say it’s probably the best to start for those who have been ignoring Mormon fiction but are now tempted to try it out.
Thanks for this. I enjoyed “Under the Cottonwoods” when I read it after returning from a mission back in the 70’s. The deer hunter’s story hit me particularly bcause upon my return, I was beginning to question more maturely some of my family’s norms. Have to find that book, after so many moves.
I read “Elder Thatcher,” the story in Under the Cottonwoods which William Morris rightly identifies as one of the best Mormon stories ever, while I was a freshman at BYU, twenty years ago. I can remember turning it over and over in my head, trying to understand what it would mean to be that returned missionary, someone challenged to “tell the truth” about his mission. When, years later, I was that returned missionary, I could understand better what pressures and confusions a returned missionary faced…but I still couldn’t have put them any better than Doug Thayer did. I’m sure I still couldn’t today.
Incidentally William, have you reviewed “The Conversion of Jeff Williams” yet? The reviews that I have seen have been mixed, at best, suggesting (among other things) that there is a huge class issue in the book that Thayer doesn’t address. (It’d be great if he weighed in here himself to offer his thoughts….)
I haven’t really read any of Doug’s stuff, I confess. To me, he was always the Young Men’s adviser who lived a couple houses down from my parents house, and who still goes fishing with my dad on a regular basis. He’d also drop in at our house from time to time to chat with dad on the doorstep and always seemed to catch us in the middle of family scripture reading or something – for which he called us a “pious” family.
I will say he has a very dry sense of humor that came out rather well in the interview. He’s a real riot to listen to sometimes.
Mack Wilberg lived at the end of our street and was our ward organist, choir director, and primary pianist on different occasions.
Weird how you can grow up with very impressive people and never know it…
“No, Mormonism isnâ€™t hard on its artists; the artists are hard on themselves. Filled with self-importance and a need to suffer, they exaggerate their worth, as far as Mormonism is concerned, although they may be worth a great deal otherwise, maybe.”
These answers were very enjoyable to read. I took Professor Thayer’s freshman English class in the 80s, and enjoyed his dry humor. Classmates often accused him of sarcasm, to which he would respond, “I’m not being sarcastic. I’m being ironic.”
I thoroughly enjoyed Margaret’s interview with Doug Thayer.
If you think Mormons have a literary history, as I do, then Doug Thayer’s work is a crucial development in the history of Mormon fiction.
A number of LDS of Doug’s generation and just before were marvelous writers. They understood the craft of writing and found in Mormon society a background for some very good stories and novels. I’m thinking of Virginia Sorensen, but there are many others.
Doug did something different. He wrote, and still writes, carefully crafted fiction firmly set in the center of Mormon society. But the short fiction was about Mormon epiphanies. He boldly asked a simple and probing question: What happens when the comfortable and normal world you have loved and enjoyed comes into some kind of conflict with your faith? Maybe I should have put it the other way. What happens when the quality of your faith places your comfort in question?
Doug also wrote, in _Summer Fire_, a very fine novel that twists that formula around. The conflict between Owen and Staver cuts right to the heart of the conflict between the ideal and the real in a righteous young man’s life. Doug’s work has looked at the spiritual life of Mormon young men as well as anyone who has written Mormon fiction.
Doug’s own faithfulness allows him to question our faith, while inviting us to explore the sometimes paradoxical relationship between everyday faith and everyday living. Resolving those paradoxes, for Thayer, is what faith requires. Try to get better by examining your life, your culture, your faith. Bring yourself to a more abundant life, rich in the joy of faith and enriched by fiction that, if you are lucky, allows you to look ever so briefly into your own soul and nourish it with the the inspiration that may come your way.
Most LDS choose not to be challenged by this kind of fiction. I count myself blessed that I have accepted the challenge and chosen to be nourished by the man and his fiction.
I have not reviewed The Conversion of Jeff Williams. It’s probably another casualty in the long list of blog posts brainstormed but not written.
It’s been awhile since I read it, but I seem to recall that Thayer addresses the class issue just fine — in that he shows both the good and the bad in that particular brand of affluence found in certain sections of the Provo-Orem rich. The kind of folk that engage in a sort of earnest, benevolent Mormonism. I don’t want to say too much without being able to reference the novel, but I wouldn’t say that he doesn’t address the class issue and that as I recall the narrative doesn’t really require addressing in the way that someone who says that a class needs to be addressed would be satisfied with.
Or to take a more readerly-response angle: I started out the novel sneering at Jeff Williams’ rich relations. At the end my feelings were quite a bit more complicated, and I do remember thinking that I needed to be a little less close-minded about rich Mormons (who I have tended to criticize and make fun of).
(1) I agree with Eugene England’s opinion of “Red-Tailed Hawk”. It may be his only published opinion that I agree with.
(2) My copy of Under the Cottonwoods and other Stories is copyrighted 1977. Was there a previous edition of the book?
(3) If there’s an issue in Jeff Williams that Thayer didn’t address, how did the issue get in the book in the first place? Is the complaint that the book is insufficiently didactic? That the teen-aged Jeff is an insufficiently socially conscious narrator?
Particularly interesting to me is the apparent tension between these two statements:
“Mormons arenâ€™t clamoring for good literature; never have and never will, as far as I can see.”
“Mormonism isnâ€™t hard on its artists …”
Indifference itself is a kind of hardness. Yet I agree that capital “A” Artists can be insufferable, and that their artistic suffering is often self-inflicted. Charity is needed on all sides.
I was in Provo for law school. I wound up seated next to Douglas Thayer at a professor’s wedding reception. I was going on about dreading my future life as a lawyer and envying his life as a teacher and writer. About my secret desire to get an MFA or lit. PhD. He told me (in so many words) that I was being silly. He told me to appreciate the upside of lawyering. And he challenged me to write for one hour a day. I have done so more or less. Thank you, Mr. Thayer, for your wise advice. As for my bad prose (mostly still unknown to the world): it’s your fault, at least in part!
I agree with William, it seems to me that TCoJW addresses class insightfully. While Thayer portrays the wealth itself as empty (the comparisons of Jeff’s Uncle’s house to the great and spacious building are striking), he portrays rich people as quite a bit more complex–their wealth is one more burden they must bear. TCoJW is beautifully written, I read it to know I’m not alone. “Zarahemla” (included in UtC) is also a beautiful and thought-provoking story; it explores the tension between the Mormon need to acclimate to modernity and the desire to hold firmly to our roots. All Thayer’s writing is beautiful.
BTW, some here have mentioned mediocre reviews of TCoJW–does anyone have links to them? I have never been able to find more than one review of any kind.
Thanks for this, very interesting. I think the bloggernacle can do a lot to promote interest in LDS fiction. Besides these interviews, I think book (or short story) groups have a lot of untapped potential (I think I’ve seen a few book groups in ‘nacle, but I’d be interested in links if anyone can provide them…).
Chris–now that I think about it, I had _Under the Cottonwoods_ with my on my third trip to Guatemala, which was in 1978. Alas, the older I get the more the years merge. That won’t start happening to you for several years yet.
I do love these glimpses into Doug that don’t necessarily concern his writing. I am aware of how quietly but constantly he lives a life of service. When Bruce Jorgensen’s mother was in a care center in Provo, Doug would often take a moment to visit her, and I learned of other unheralded acts of kindness which were (and are) simply a part of who he is. His sense of humor is dry and sometimes sardonic, and some might not realize how to-the-core GOOD he is.
As for his writing–I loved “The Clinic” from my first read way back when. (I read it when it was published in _Dialogue_.) It is still one of my favorites, though I also think “Opening Day” and “Red-Tailed Hawk” are wonderful.