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Monday, January 21, 2013

"I Knew I Had a Great Book": Theric Jepson Talks About Byuck

by Scott Hales (bio)

Theric Jepson's new novel Byuck should be required reading for BYU students, alumni, and basically everyone else who appreciates good fiction with a healthy dose of quirk. It recounts the adventures of David Them and Curses Olai, two BYU roommates who defy Brigham Young's call to "get married to a good sister, fence a city lot, [...] and make a home" by writing a rock opera with an unpronounceable name.

Theric recently was kind enough to answer my questions about Byuck, his first novel. He also offers some keen observations on the value of Mormon Art and why Billy Joel makes such an excellent punchline.

Scott Hales: I think we ought to get this question out of the way first: How do you pronounce Byuck?

Theric Jepson: As for me, I rhyme it with yuck, but I don't really feel it's my job to tell people how to pronounce it. I'm the numbskull who gave my novel a ridiculous name. Now I must live with the consequences.

SH: What is the origin story of Byuck? If I understand correctly, you wrote Byuck a while ago, but shelved it after you were told that is was basically unpublishable? Is that right?

TJ: I started Byuck as a play back in 1999. I had some problems developing it and shared what I had with one of my professors at BYU, Donlu Thayer. She liked what I had fine, but gave me some stellar advice. She told me I wasn't ready to write this story yet, that I needed some distance. So I set it aside.

I picked it up again sometime after I graduated in 2002 (by which time I was also married). By 2004 I had a working rough draft which Fob(of The Fob Bible) helped me polish.

My original plan was to try and sell the book outside the Mormon ghetto, but I did have a weird history with Deseret Book, so I decided to try them first. Which is where the comedy started.

They liked the book but told me women won't and since women are the only people who buy books they wouldn't publish Byuck until I did some market research for them. (Really.) So I spent a year talking to women not related to me and who did not owe me money (Deseret's stipulations) to read it and write responses. Those responses ranged from positive to very positive (except for the U of U alumna who accused me of writing BYU propaganda). I wrote up a massive report, sent it in, and received a form rejection letter. (Really.)

Which upset me, so I went to Covenant. And so it went for the next several years. The book was accepted by one company's editorial department only to be rejected by their marketing department. Accepted and edited for a year, then dropped just before publication. That sort of thing.

Byuck was my albatross. I knew I had a great book, but I didn't believe I could sell it and I didn't feel I could write other long fiction while it hung around my neck.

(So instead Iwrote short fiction and edited things.)

SH: What brought you to Strange Violin Editions, the publisher of Byuck?

TJ: Therese Doucet, who runs Strange Violin, sought me out. Although Byuck's never been published, many people in MoLit have heard of its tortured tale. (In fact, both of the blurbs on the back cover are from people I didn't know well when they suddenly emailed and asked to read my manuscript.)

At first, I was nervous about Therese taking the book since she publishes from a distinctly post-Mormon standpoint, but then she published Steven Peck's A Short Stay in Hell. I'm always happy to share space with Steve and hey---Byuck has pissed off plenty of people (I've only mentioned the people who like it but some people think jokes = attack), so we both moved outside our comfort zone and met in the middle. She's been great to work with, though. Even if she, ahem, worships at the altar of Chicago Style even when my punctuation is clearly funnier.

SH: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Byuck may be the definitive novel about the BYU experience. What makes BYU such an excellent setting for fiction, particularly comedic fiction?

TJ: It's funny you ask this because I was just thinking yesterday about one of my all-time favorite comic novels---and favorite Mormon comic novel---The Invisible Saint by Curtis Taylor. It only has a couple BYU scenes, but they're hilarious. And they're significant to the main character's development.

I think BYU is inherently useful to the writer of fiction because it brings with it so much symbolic weight. It's like naming your protagonist Hamlet. All of a sudden the reader has something to go on. Even if you're not LDS, you have certain assumptions. Even if you're a Ute, at least you know you start the book hating it.

And having that set of opinions and emotions to play against is great. Sometimes I play to stereotypes, sometimes I play against them. Sometimes I ignore them.

But even more importantly, BYU is one of the few places in the world where, for instance, I can have an entire population whose default is Mormon sexual mores. BYU allowed me to dig deeper without denying breadth.

Also, BYU is just hilarious.

SH: Who is your ideal reader for Byuck?

TJ: I have two.

The first will enjoy at least 60% of the jokes (and believe that someone else is getting the other 40% and not stress about it) and believe in the characters as human beings. I don't care if this person is young or old or Mormon or not---we just need to share a sense of humor and the belief that character is paramount. I know that's a worthless answer. Sorry.

My second ideal reader gets so livid when reading "To Build a Fence" or considering what Byuck might rhyme with that they organize a bookburning and get me on All Things Considered.

SH: Shifting gears, I think you are generally considered one of the great Mormon literature advocates of our day. What initially drew you to Mormon literature? What keeps you invested in the field?

TJ: Shortly after I was converted to the cause, I was working with a film junkie. He was Mormon, a BYU student---all that stuff. And I was trying to convince him to watch Brigham City. He couldn't believe it would be worth his time. But then! on the back of the box! a blurb from a reviewer comparing it favorably to the Coen's Blood Simple! Which blew his mind. Because Blood Simple is a good movie and Brigham City is ... is ... is ...a Mormon movie.

But he still wouldn't take it home. His wife would never agree to watching "that kind" of movie.

I think it was this attitude that not only first turned me to Mormon lit, but keeps me focused on it. I get so angry when Mormons dismiss Mormon-made art. What makes you better than other Mormons? What makes you think we can't make our own art? What about being Mormon makes us crappy artists? Shouldn't we, in fact, have great art? Where's your argument? What? You don't have one? You're just a prick with a poorly thought through bias?

I used to be such a one. Until I started looking around. Good stuff is happening. And has been happening for a long, long time. You mentioned Disco Dancer. I defy anyone to read that book and dismiss it as tripe. You may not like is as much as I did, but you can't merely dismiss it as mere Nonart Made By Mormon.

SH: Last question: What makes Billy Joel such an excellent punchline?

TJ: Ha! Well.

Actually, that chapter [in Byuck that involves Billy Joel] makes me a little sad. The "official" version of that chapter still hasn't been approved by lawyers so the version people will read is lacking its full lyrical glory.

And special shout-out to grocery stores! If it weren't for them playing that song every few months ten years ago I may never have successfully brought Byuck to its crashing conclusion.

In other news, I'm thinking of petitioning the White House to get Billy to bring "We Didn't Start the Fire" into the present decade. We're probably too late for Inauguration, but maybe he could open next year's State of the Union? Who's with me?

Theric Jepson writes about Mormon literature at A Motley Vision and other stuff at Thutopia. He co-edited Monsters & Mormons and can be blamed for other acts of wickedness as well. He lives in El Cerrito, California, with his wife, three sons, and countless snails.

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