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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Questions for Angela Hallstrom, Author of Bound on Earth

by Scott Hales:

Few recent Mormon novels have received as much praise as Angela Hallstrom's Bound on Earth, which was first published in 2008 by Parables. (You can read my enthusiastic review here.) Because the book is being republished by Mormon fiction powerhouse Zarahemla Books, I sent Angela a few questions about the novel, the change in publishers, and the state of Mormon fiction today.

Here is what she had to say...

Scott Hales: Tell us a little of the history of Bound on Earth. I gather that it began as a series of short stories about the Palmer family. At what point did you begin to think of it as a novel?

Angela Hallstrom: During my MFA program I was focused primarily on short story writing. Near the end of my program I took a point-of-view class that was very influential, and in it we read a few novels-in-stories. I was taken with the idea of exploring one Mormon family using such a method. I wrote "Thanksgiving" in that class, which later became the first chapter of Bound on Earth and the foundational story around which Bound on Earth was built.

The novel has recently switched publishers. What motivated the move to Zarahemla Books? Have you made any revisions to the novel in tandem with the move, or is the novel essentially how it was when it was published by Parables?

I enjoyed working with Beth Bentley at Parables, but her husband and business partner, George, recently passed away, sadly. His passing precipitated some changes at Parables and I found that the rights to the novel reverted to me. I've worked with Chris Bigelow and Zarahemla—they published the short story anthology I edited, Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction—and I approached him, knowing the novel would be in good hands. I knew I'd be in good company, too: Zarahemla has published some of the best contemporary Mormon fiction in the last decade. No changes have been made to the novel itself, but I'm grateful that my partnership with Zarahemla helps keep the novel in print.

I’ve taught your short story “Thanksgiving” several times to non-Mormon students, and every time it resonates deeply with them. Why do you think that is? What is it about that story that is so universally appealing?

Family is universal. Trying to love someone who is difficult to love—or, conversely, being that difficult someone who is desperate not to be left behind—is also a universal dilemma. Perhaps the multiple points of view help people connect to the story as well. There's a character for almost anyone to identify with.

The novel’s epigraph, which comes from The Little Prince, suggests that we are “responsible forever for what [we’ve] tamed.” Why did you select that quote, particularly for a novel so interested in eternal covenants and families?

There are many, many novels and stories about leaving. This makes sense: a protagonist throwing off the shackles of his former life and learning to navigate a whole new world is one of fiction's foundational plots. A "leaving" plot also helps provide conflict, suspense, opposition for the protagonist to push against, and the opportunity for change—all key elements of an engaging narrative. But I wondered about the drama inherent in staying. I looked around me and realized that, in real life, most challenges revolve around keeping your promises, making the best of a difficult situation, keeping hope alive when change can't be glimpsed on the horizon. In other words, enduring. These challenges are particularly potent in regard to family life: why, and how, do we stay, even when staying is hard? So the Little Prince quote did a great job encapsulating both the heavy responsibility, as well as the safety (I'm so glad that others are responsible for me!), to be found in such a world view.

Also, I love that book because my husband bought it for me when we were dating. It was appropriate on all sorts of levels!

You are also the editor of Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, the most recent anthology of Mormon short stories. How would you characterize the state of Mormon fiction today? How has it evolved over the last fifteen years or so?

There are scores of excellent Mormon writers. Many of them, like Brandon Sanderson, James Dashner and Ally Condie, have found a great deal of acclaim in YA and/or SciFi/Fantasy, which absolutely thrills me. That said, we don't have many Mormon writers of contemporary fiction for adults, especially writing for non-LDS presses, who have truly "broken out" and achieved a lot of acclaim, although Brady Udall has a great reputation among readers of literary fiction and Courtney Miller Santo is seeing a good deal of mainstream success. Many of our most talented writers of contemporary fiction for adults write short stories—and it's no secret that short story writing isn't the best path to riches and fame! Over the last fifteen years, though, I think both the quantity and quality of literature written by, for, or about Mormons has definitely increased. I do wish we could nurture our writers of contemporary literary fiction a bit better, however. There are wonderful support systems for Mormon YA authors and Mormon writers of speculative fiction and LDS-market writers, but it's hard for the rest of us to find a toehold within the LDS community. Harder still to try to write about Mormons for a national adult audience: non-Mormon publishers can have a difficult time with a straightforward, non-sensational take on Mormonism, and LDS readers are often very hard on LDS writers who they expect to somehow be proselytizing rather than telling and honest and meaningful story imbued with conflict and ambiguity.

In your opinion, what directions does Mormon fiction need to take? What new ground would you like to see it break?

As I said above, I'd love to see more support for Mormon writers of literary fiction. I would also love to see more institutional support from places like BYU in encouraging or discussing fiction that depicts Mormon life. Writing fiction with Mormon elements—especially for a Mormon audience—is not only not encouraged but often actively discouraged by some at BYU. Obviously I think this is a shame, since BYU could be a great place to both support budding writers interested in telling Mormon stories and (possibly even more important) a place to introduce thousands of students to LDS writers and open up discussions about Mormon literature. Too many Mormons think Mormon literature begins and ends with Jack Weyland. How can we expect the outside world to take us seriously when we won't even take ourselves seriously? I think it's great that BYU has an MFA program, and I know there are strong champions of Mormon lit like Margaret Blair Young at BYU, but we could do so much more.

What Mormon writers have influenced your fiction the most?

Margaret Blair Young was the first LDS author I ever read who made me believe I could write the kinds of stories I wanted to write. More recently, Jack Harrell continues to challenge me to see all the amazing weirdness that Mormonism has to offer, both culturally and theologically, and forces me to ask myself why we're not writing startling, innovative fiction more often. Steven Peck does that too. Brady Udall is a master of character-building, storytelling AND wordsmithing, and Ally Condie's YA novels are lovely and smart. And while she's definitely not a Mormon, Marilynne Robinson is religious, and her writing has influenced me more than anyone's. I just got her new novel, Lila, in the mail yesterday and I can't wait to read it.

Aside from the anthology, you’ve published a few short stories since Bound on Earth first appeared. Do you have any other novels in the works?

I'm working on a YA novel. Slowly. Actually I have two YA novels in the works, and I keep going back and forth between which one I like and which one I hate. I wish I had more time to dedicate solely to writing, but I find myself completely buried by papers to grade during the school year (I teach at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls) and completely inundated by the human beings who live in my house during the summer. But I'm okay with slow writing. Better than no writing! I just keep plugging away.

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Scott Hales lives in a small house in a suburb of Cincinnati with his wife and three daughters. He spends a lot of his time reading Mormon fiction and trying to come up with original things to say about it. On weekday mornings, he gets up at 4:40 to teach seminary. On weekday evenings, he and his wife watch network television and wonder what it must be like to have a satellite dish and 400 channels. During the daytime, he is a graduate student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Cincinnati. He doesn't like pets or home repairs. He always likes to watch superhero cartoons with his kids. Sometimes he rides a mountain bike in the woods behind his neighborhood. When he's feeling particularly nostalgic, he'll pull out his masterfully written mission journals and remember the days when he didn't sport sideburns. Twitter: @TheLowTechWorld. Blog:
 photo Line-625_zpse3e49f32.gifImage credit: Scott Heffernan (used with permission).

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