Thursday, December 20, 2012

"A Good Match": S. P. Bailey Talks About His Novel "Millstone City"



by Scott Hales (bio)

S. P. Bailey's novel Millstone City was published by Zarahemla Books earlier this year. It's a thriller about Mormon missionaries in Brazil who have to run for their lives after one of them witnesses a murder. Recently, S. P. was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the novel. What follows are his thoughts on crime fiction, missionary stories, and much more.

You can read the first chapter of Millstone City here or buy the book for Christmas through Zarahemla Books.

Scott Hales: Millstone City combines two things we usually don’t put together: crime fiction and Mormonism. What are some of the challenges that come with making that combination work?

S. P. Bailey: I read recent crime fiction. I usually enjoy it. My book could have been coarser or more violent, and some would probably say it should have been. If you were raised a good Mormon boy (I was) and you are an active, believing Mormon (I am), it is probably impossible to write crime fiction — particularly with Mormon characters — without wondering Is this demeaning to people in general? To my people? Thoughts like that probably helped shape Millstone City. It is about murder and human trafficking and Brazilian crime culture in the slums and prisons. But I think it maintains a certain dignity in its approach to individual characters. Some might put Millstone City down as old-fashioned. Depending on the context, I might take old-fashioned as a compliment. That being said, I think things like violence and coarse language can be surface issues. If you dig deeper, crime fiction is usually very moral. Good and evil exist there in completely non-abstract, concrete terms. Readers know it when they see it. They want the innocent to escape and survive. They want the detective to impose justice. They want evil vanquished and the universe set aright. In that sense, despite the potential surface issues, I think crime fiction and Mormonism are a good match.

SH: Can you trace the literary DNA of Millstone City? What other works influenced the novel?

SPB: I don't know about "literary DNA!" I didn't have any particular works in mind when writing Millstone City. I suppose the best I can do is give you a short list of things I admire that might have influenced Millstone City. I love the great American crime/noir authors: Raymond Chandler above all, but also Dashiell Hammet, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, and others. I grew up watching and rewatching old Hitchcock movies. I also love Brazilian films like Central Station and City of God.

SH: Of all the characters in Millstone City, Luz is my favorite. What do you think she brings to the novel?

SPB: I like Luz too. While lots of characters in the novel display humanity (the elders, the detectives, Heitor), she is not self-interested in what she does. And, despite her obvious limitations, I think she exudes a Brazilian sort of charm: bold, big-hearted, funny ... it pained me to write her last scenes in the book.

SH: How did you research the novel? Do you have first-hand experience with Brazilian prisons, for example?

SPB: I served a mission in northeastern Brazil in the 1990s. I came home in love with Brazil, warts and all. Millstone City is a kind of love letter to Brazil — particularly the region where I served. I enjoy Brazilian music, movies, books, magazines, and newspapers when I can (not often enough!). I've never seen the inside of a Brazilian prison — not in person anyway. I became interested in Brazilian prisons when, as a missionary, I taught a few discussions to a Brazilian prison guard. His stories amazed me. They were told in the spirit of never, ever, no matter what, should guys like you do anything that would land you in a Brazilian prison. If it is possible to get even more straight-laced than a couple of Eagle Scouts from Utah in short-sleeved white shirts and neck ties preaching the gospel, this guy scared us there. Subsequently, I read various things about Brazilian prisons (articles in newspapers and magazines, reports published by human rights groups, etc.).

Also, as a trial attorney, I represent inmates and their families in civil rights litigation arising from incidents in U.S. prisons and jails (among other things). While my professional life has taught me nothing about Brazilian prisons in particular, I think there is something of that experience in Millstone City.

SH: I have a theory that all Mormon novels are essentially didactic. Do you think this is true for Millstone City?

SPB: No.

SH: What draws us to missionary stories? Why do we like placing missionaries in perilous situations?

SPB: Being a Mormon today is a soft and cushy ride compared to what our pioneer ancestors saw with one significant exception: full-time proselytizing missions. Missions are perilous! Physically, spiritually, you name it! Missionaries are repeatedly forced to confront challenges to our peculiar beliefs and history head on. Missionaries fight, on a daily basis, human indifference to God. Missionaries face unspeakable physical dangers compared to the safe homes and families they left behind. I had experiences I didn't write home about. I had experiences I still haven't told my mom about, and I probably never will. I think Millstone City derives some of its intensity from Mormons' very sensible anxiety about the perils of missionary service. I know I have my anxieties about these things on behalf of my own children, and they are all several years from being eligible to serve. Mission stories draw on the fact that missions are the final frontier for the Mormon pioneering spirit.

SH: What did Millstone City teach you about writing? What surprised you most about the novel-writing process?

SPB: I don't know! Would it be a cop-out to say that I hope that my next effort will reflect what I learned? Millstone City was my second stab at writing a novel. (I salvaged various parts of my first manuscript and turned it into a story collection called The Mission Rules.) The final product as a whole this time around was better than the first (although I am very proud of the fragments I turned into The Mission Rules), and I can only hope that the same holds true for the third. Now if you held a gun to my head and demanded a real answer to this question, I would say I learned to sit down and write. I think that is a deceptively simple writing secret. Don't wait to be "inspired." Don't believe something called "writer's block" exists. Just sit down and write! I also learned that behind (or above or beside or whatever) every novelist there is probably a group of people (a spouse, friends, editors, etc.) who helped a great deal! Thanks everybody! You know who you are! May I return the favor someday!

SH: What plans, if any, do you have for a future novel?

SPB: I'm about 25,000 words into my next novel. It's a detective yarn set in Salt Lake City. It features Alma Knox, who first appeared in "The Baby in the Bushes," which was published in Monsters & Mormons.

About S. P. Bailey: In addition to Millstone City, S.P. Bailey is the author of The Mission Rules, a collection of missionary memoir short stories also set in Brazil. S.P. Bailey's stories and poems have won awards from Irreantum and B.Y.U. Studies — and they have been anthologized in Monsters & Mormons and Fire in the Pasture. Find out more at spbailey.net. S.P. Bailey is an attorney practicing in Utah and Idaho. He and his family reside in Logan — they enjoy hiking, biking, and skiing together.

Other MMM Posts

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...