Earlier this year, Sistering was awarded Best Novel by the Association for Mormon Letters, an international community that’s been very kind and supportive of my work. They sent one of their best and brightest, Michael Austin, to do an email interview with me–the most Mormon and, interestingly, the least gender role fixated one I’ve ever done. The link to read it is here.
Libraries are good for books and authors. Not only do they buy, circulate, and promote our work, they’re involved in the ever-more delicate process of cultivating readers so the pursuit of professional writing can continue to mean something. In my area, libraries also trouble themselves to run the annual Alberta Readers’ Choice Awards. Our Sistering has been included on this year’s ARC long-list. I am delighted.
Thanks again, libraries.
My career as a novelist is still fairly new but I’ve already been on both the loved up and the snubbed up sides of literary prizes. Awards are a bittersweet fact of life in contemporary publishing. For an essay that says everything I’d like to about literary prizes, I highly recommend this, by poet Kimmy Beach.
Sitting alone, secretly and miserably refreshing Twitter as award long-lists and short-lists are announced without any of our own work on them has got to be a universal experience for writers. It’s certainly been mine. However, I’m grateful to have also stood and bowed my head as winners’ medals have been hung around my neck. For my first novel, it was a weighty pewter disc on a blue ribbon. For my second novel, it was a lei made of kukui nuts. Yes, Sistering was awarded Best Novel of 2015 by the Association for Mormon Letters at their conference in Laie, Hawaii.
In a book-world full of so much good material, it’s hard to stand out. Being part of a group outside the deep, swift mainstream can help. I’m a white Anglophone woman but there’s no P in my WASP. Instead, I am the granddaughter of women who raised their families in post-World War II, post traumatic stressed New Brunswick, both of them seeking new spiritual compasses. Independently of each other, they found Mormonism. It was passed down to me, and while most of my family has let go of my grandmothers’ spiritual legacies, I’ve held onto them. The reasons are personal and religious—which means they don’t have much to do with reason at all. My faith is based in transcendent experiences that began in my childhood and continue today. I don’t usually talk about them in detail, not in public, and especially not on the Internet. But they are real, not the kinds of things I would deny or abandon.
Religious codes that include direction on how to live face criticism. It’s unpleasant but I suppose it does move adherents to keep examining our praxis and to focus on prevailing ideals like love and compassion. Differences of beliefs and lifestyles don’t have to mean discord. For instance, according to my religious beliefs, people shouldn’t be drinking coffee. That’s how I live, but I can still sit at a table and watch anyone drink coffee without feeling the slightest bit of bigotry or enmity between us. This example can be extended to any behaviour contrary to my religious ideals. Regardless of how I believe people should live, my strictest principles are leveled at my own heart. They’re based on the first laws of Christianity which are all about love—love to the point of the losing of the self, which, with typical religious irony, is actually the finding of the self. No matter how differently someone may live from me, I can love them. I do love them. It’s something I’ve learned to do because of my religion rather than in spite of it.
The Association for Mormon Letters “is a nonprofit founded in 1976 to promote quality writing ‘by, for, and about Mormons.’“ It’s not the only organization set up to serve and promote Mormon writing but it is the best fit for quirky Can-lit like mine which tends to get a rough ride in heartwarming “inspirational” fiction circles. The judges were kind enough to call me “one of the most talented” Mormon novelists writing today. The AML are my people. I’d be happy to join them even if they didn’t hand out their awards on the north shore of Oahu.
My husband and I were only out of the country for three and a half days. We left our kids here in Canada, in the care of their oldest brothers. One them is legally an adult, and the other has a driver’s license. Between the two of them, they’re enough man to run our household for a few days—but just a few days.
Outside the Honolulu airport, Hawaii is just as delightful as everyone says it is. Thanks to our Mormon ties we didn’t have to go full-tourist. Friends of ours–fellow Mormon-foreigners, a couple where the wife is South Korean and the husband is Japanese—have been living in Hawaii for years and showed us local favourites like a huge old banyan tree hidden off the side of the road, and a strip-mall restaurant serving massive “Hawaiian-sized” slabs of sushi. On Sunday, we wound up at a church service singing from a hymnal written all in Samoan and witnessing a congregation sending off a woman named Celestial to be a missionary abroad.
Our religious ties were a source of diversity and authenticity. It was our Mormonism—something often thought of as a parochial American backwater—that made this weekend of thoughtful, artful validation of my work possible. It was our Mormonism that spared us a spending frenzy in crowded, urban Waikiki and provided us with a walk through idyllic daily life in small-town Hawaii. It was our Mormonism that gave me something to say as I stood —so low and so small—in the Pacific Ocean, pitching in the currents, my back to continents I’ve never seen, calling out psalms to my husband and the sea and everything above it.
I shouted what, in one form or another, I always shout. “What is man, that thou are mindful of him?”
Sistering has been named a finalist in the novel category of the 2015 Association for Mormon Letters Awards. It’s the first time any of my work has been included in the annual awards and I am very pleased.
Here’s the link to the announcement. The winner is going to be announced in Hawaii the same day I’ll be making a mid-term presentation on the grammatical intricacies of the Chinese 把 construction in Edmonton. Ha!
Here’s the link the to announcement.
It wouldn’t be true to say I chose an arty career just to impress my kids. But I was definitely gratified this week when, right before my kids’ eyes, the unglamorous sitting and typing I usually do was fairy-godmothered into a morning of sandstone balustrades, live harp music, and canapés garnished with purple pansies.
The fairy godmother who conjured this fantastic morning for my kids and me was actually the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta. I’m one of the recipients of the 2014 Lieutenant Governor of Alberta’s Emerging Artist Award. It’s a fabulous, generous programme and I’m thrilled and honoured to be included in it. Canada is a constitutional monarchy and some of our traditional royalist sensibilities, like art patronage, provide vital support and recognition for artists – a term it’s probably high time I stopped apologizing for applying to myself.
The award was presented to me and seven other recipients – accomplished singers, filmmakers, poets, visual artists – in a private ceremony. I was able to invite five guests so I brought my parents, my husband, and my 17-year-old and 15-year-old sons – the kids of mine least likely to turn the whole thing into a brawl.
I arrived at the Government House mansion before my family and waited in the green room until we were ushered upstairs where our guests were already seated. We all rose when the “viceregal salute” was played on the harp and Queen Elizabeth II’s local representative, the Honourable Donald Ethell (who is more like an impressive great-uncle than like the queen of anything), entered to officiate from a throne made of dark wood and green velvet.
How cool is that?
Each of the eight of us was formally presented to the gathering as our bios were read. It was the first time I’d heard the adjudicators’ remarks about my work. They said, “Her writing is extraordinarily strong, powerfully handled, and evidence of a rarely encountered original voice.”
We then came forward to greet His Honour and receive a medal – and a discrete folder containing our prize money. (Apparently, Government House lacks a giant novelty-sized cheque printer.)
Just like the day years before when I was in this same room watching my extraordinary husband receive an award from the Department of Justice for his service as a prosecutor, the line from the bio that drew an audible murmur from the crowd was the one reporting our roster of sons. Lawyers, artists, everyone has something to say about a large young family.
Even His Honour mentioned it as he slipped my medal over my head. “With all the writing you do how did you find time to have so many children?”
“They were thrust upon me,” I said.
My mum loved that.
He recognized the pair of my boys sitting the audience. “Where are the other ones? In school?”
I shrugged. “I sure hope so.”
At the luncheon afterward, my boys didn’t fail to appreciate the never-ending platters of dainty sandwiches and sweets. No matter how nice they are, I have a hard time stomaching refreshments at events and it was good to see someone from the family eating my portion.
My sons met His Honour, Her Honour (his wife), their red-uniformed aide-de-camp, the Minister of Culture, the Mayor of the city of Red Deer, and a real live professor from the University of Alberta — the school my oldest boy will be attending in the Fall. The professor, Douglas Barbour, was there as a guest of one of the other artists but he also happened to be the instructor of the only senior-level English course I ever took.
Several times during the boys’ fancy morning out, I overheard strangers asking them if they were proud of their mom. It can be an eye-roller question — even for me, someone who prefers the term “pleased” to “proud” since it travels without the negative baggage and misunderstandings that can come with “pride.”
People in their late teens aren’t renowned for being gracious. They don’t efface themselves like I do but they scoff and sigh and shrug. And the truth is, my accomplishments have meant the boys’ childhoods have been lean on motherly touches like homemade baking and chauffeur service to school.
I kept smiling but I braced myself as I listened to my boys make their answers at the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Awards luncheon. In replying to kind strangers who wished us nothing but the best, the boys set aside any cynicism, bitterness, or semantic fussiness to answer with pleasant enthusiasm – enthusiasm for me and the tumultuous, demanding arts career that may have affected their lives as much as mine.
My dad has shown me enough inspirational sports movies and documentaries for me to know it’s best to wait until right before the buzzer sounds at the end of the game to score a big goal.
That’s the way the literary awards season for my debut novel has unfolded. The book was released in August 2013 and I sat here quietly and morosely ticking off each of the season’s awards as their short-lists were announced without my name on them. I got to watch kind well-wishers saying it was too bad I was overlooked and while that went a long way in buoying my spirits, it didn’t give me and my novel any grounds to be called “award-winning.”
Near the end of the season, I was named on one shortlist but, while I appreciated the honour, the award was a bad fit for me and I didn’t win it.
Since it’s Fathers Day this week, I’ll tell the rest of the story with a Canadian hockey history analogy. Let’s just say it was the final seconds of the third period of the literary award season…
“Henderson made a wild stab for it and fell”
… when I got a phone call…
“Here’s another shot right in front of the…”
…congratulating me on winning the 2014 Lieutenant Governor of Alberta’s Emerging Artist Award.
It finally happened. I won the last award I was a contender for this year – scored on my last chance to claim the “award-winning” designation, right before the final whistle. Along with the rights to “award-winning” it comes with a prize, a medal, media coverage, and a fancy ceremony with His Honor. I’m one of eight recipients chosen from a wide range of artistic fields to get the award. I’ll find out who the rest of them are at 10am today at Government House in Edmonton.
I couldn’t be more pleased or more grateful to the board for selecting me. Yay!
[Thanks (and apologies) to hockey legends Paul Henderson and Foster Hewitt.]
I’m churchy, okay. I’m not even sorry.
I wrote a novel about people who quote the Bible at funerals, have a large family, and conspicuously don’t drink coffee. I wrote a book with the words “Joseph Smith” printed in it. In case anyone missed it, my characters are Mormons and so am I.
Like all writers, my goal is for everyone to read my book. Everyone includes my fellow Mormons. The Church is active throughout the world but its densest concentration of members is in the American state of Utah. By the time my book was released, I had only been to Utah once. It was when I was twelve years old and caught in one of my parents’ horrifically hot transcontinental summer road trips.
As a grownup author with a book to promote, I didn’t know how to begin to infiltrate the Utah market. I picked through the Internet until I discovered the Whitney Awards. They were invented to recognize fiction produced by Mormon writers. It was a longshot but a few months later, a panel of judges selected my book as a Whitney finalist – one of the top five in the general fiction category.
And that’s when I tripped down the rabbit-hole.
I’m still a novice when it comes to understanding fiction considered “Mormon.” I haven’t learned all its terminologies and talking points. Please forgive any rookie misconceptions here. As far as I can tell from outside the scene, “Mormon fiction” means several different things. It has to since the Church is large and varied enough to include all kinds of people with all kinds of tastes and reading and writing levels. Contrary to nasty, simple-minded fairy tales, there is no monolithic Mormon person. Insisting there is would be calling on a stereotype and it’s as unfair to apply a stereotype to a religious group as it is to apply it to any other bunch of humans.
Far from being a unified movement, the Mormon book-scene is multi-faceted. Within it there are writers who craft books intended solely for Mormon audiences. They produce mainly historical fiction, kissing-only romance, inside jokes, and heartwarming lessons.
There are also Mormon authors – big commercial names like Brandon Sanderson and Stephanie Meyer – who write mass market speculative and young adult fiction.
When it comes to literary fiction, much of the book-length Mormon-y stuff is written from the negative perspectives of disaffected members – people who don’t like church anymore. Some of these writers – no one famous or influential enough for me to spontaneously remember their names – loudly reject the idea that there can be a “Great Mormon Novel” that combines good literary fiction with Mormon orthodoxy.
I didn’t know this a year ago, but I’ve heard there comes a time in most Utah-Mormon writers’ careers when they must ask themselves if they’re going to work within the Mormon niche or in the mass market. I have never asked myself this question. Until recently, the Mormon book-scene hasn’t been part of my consciousness. I’ve missed out on some good contacts and mentors because of that but I’ve also been spared some self-consciousness and second-guessing – the burden of a complicated, value-laden artistic and intellectual drama.
It was when my novel was named a Whitney finalist that it started to get traction in the Mormon book-scene. At first, it was received with enthusiasm. Kind reviews started to appear. People were happy to read my book. It unwittingly defied critics and filled a literary void in the 2013 Mormon publishing calendar.
What I didn’t understand was that all this goodwill was coming from just one corner of the book-scene. I hadn’t counted on the larger, sometimes more petulant corner that prefers to have its heart warmed, flipped over, warmed again, flipped over, warmed again… From that corner, literary work often seems risky and dangerous and pretentious.
I was about to learn this in an episode I’ll call “Off With Her Head.”
There’s a newspaper in Utah called Deseret News. It’s not run by the Church but it is owned by the Church. A freelance book reviewer assigned by Deseret News – a woman the same age as my mum — really, really hated my novel. I can’t find a way to say this that doesn’t sound like bragging so I’ll just blurt it out. I don’t have much experience with bad reviews. The fact that this reviewer didn’t like the book was strange and disappointing. But that wasn’t what made me sick about it.
The reviewer didn’t actually say much about the book – nothing that can be traced back to the text, anyways. Instead of offering an analysis of the story, she chose to denounce it via the lowest road there is: the one that ploughs through my quality as member of the Church. In this review, my book — and by extension myself — was pronounced “not the perspective of the Church.”
A complete stranger had called out my work in a Church-owned publication as bad Mormonism. I don’t know how other churches work but in my Church, book reviewers aren’t supposed to have the authority to say what or who is or is not doctrinally orthodox.
Now, the last thing a novelist should do upon getting a bad review is challenge the reviewer and her editors about it. Everyone knows that. We are aloof artistes. We ignore and move on. But the reviewer had raised issues outside my book. She’d attacked my integrity and fidelity. It was so far offside I blew the whistle.
I complained first to her immediate editors. They ignored me (though the reviewer showed some shocking hegemony when she wrote back telling me it is indeed her role to warn innocent readers when books “don’t match up” to good Mormon doctrine). Fuming, I wrote to the president of the newspaper. Within half an hour of sending that email, Deseret News apologized, took the offensive comments out of the review, and asked me to forward the email where the reviewer voiced her absurd self-appointed mandate to judge my orthodoxy.
My novel had become controversial and polarizing. When the controversy wasn’t terrible publicity, it was great publicity. In the days after the review, people defended my work. This included an old family friend who is actually an ecclesiastical leader in the Church. He likes the book, doesn’t find it doctrinally subversive, and when he read the review he wondered, “What book did she read?”
After all this, I decided to travel to Utah to attend the Whitney Award ceremony anyway. I’d been tumbling down the rabbit-hole of the Mormon book-scene long enough to start to examine my surroundings and the other objects falling with me. I was curious – perhaps morbidly so – and wanted to land in that world and move through it in the physical universe for a little while.
Once again, my parents were my traveling companions in Utah. We had the good fortune to be in Salt Lake City’s Temple Square during a quick, free concert played on the massive pipe organ inside the big church that puts the “Tabernacle” in the “Mormon Tabernacle Choir.” We all agreed this was the highlight of the trip. Instead of indulging himself with a fussy highbrow organ piece, the organist played accessible songs – organ pop-songs with swelling choruses and big finishes like sonic tsunamis. They were loud and fancy – songs meant to show us what the old pipe organ could do, sounds that vibrated through our chest cavities as if we were part of the instrument ourselves. The organist was playing to the hearts and souls of musical Philistines like my parents and me – and we loved it. It was exactly what we wanted. There are times and places to play to more subtle and discriminating tastes but this was not one of them.
Back at the Whitney Awards, things weren’t going so well. I’d brought books to sell and in an entire day, I’d sold one. Sure, it was to the fiction editor of Sunstone magazine but – come on. At the banquet I accidentally flung my tough cut of sirloin into the front of my dress and, of course, I did not win a Whitney Award. I’d been nominated alongside three romances and a buddy-road-trip novel. The best and most literary of the three romances won. For the overall best book award, another romance – self-described as Bronte inspired — was the winner. I was a little offended when, in her acceptance speech, the winner made comments that could have been construed as her claiming to have won because she had prayed harder over her book than the rest of us (again with the beside-the-point piety rankings) but other than that, the award made sense.
See, the final round of the Whitney competition is a popular vote. It’s like a free, quick concert on an ostentatious pipe organ. It’s got to be a crowd-pleaser, an easy, emotionally satisfying romp. That’s just what it is.
What I do appreciate is that someone in the previous selection round, one or more of the Whitney judges, had stuck their necks out and brought my novel – a literary piece, a critic-pleaser by an obscure foreigner – to the Mormon book-scene’s attention. The Whitneys aren’t really the time or the place to celebrate a novel like that – not yet, anyways. But someday they might be. This year, maybe they came a little closer. Maybe someday that mythical “Great Mormon Novel” will appear on the scene and by then even the most guarded reviewers in the Deseret News will have learned not to be angry and afraid of it.
Until then, take my novel, Mormon book-scene. Take it into your Wonderland and let it wear away some of the harshness of the hegemony still lurking there. Grind it up, add its few small grains to the foundation being built for something better than what’s there now.