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).