A confession: before 2008, I didn’t care much about LDS fiction. To me, that genre meant overtly inspirational stories of mediocre literary quality that barely skim the surface of what it means to be Mormon, not to mention what it means to be human. Friends recommended a few better-than-average titles, but saying a book is “very good for Mormon lit” is a half-baked compliment at best (like the time someone told me I was “in great shape for someone with seven kids”). Angela Hallstrom’s novel-in-stories, Bound on Earth, was my first encounter with unconditionally excellent fiction written by and for Latter-day Saints. So when I picked up Dispensation, the short story anthology she edited for Zarahemla Books, my hopes were high. And I’m pleased to report that when I finished the volume, I was thoroughly satisfied. The quality of writing in this collection exceeded my already-high expectations. Its stories engaged me so completely that I felt fully gratified as a reader—even blessed. And taken as a whole, its artistic and spiritual potency leaves me deeply impressed by the talent of our very own fiction writers, not to mention excited for the future of this genre. Today, BCC welcomes Angela Hallstrom for a conversation about Dispensation and its significance in the realm of LDS fiction. (I was gonna post a photo of the cool book cover, but Steve already did. Besides, Angela is even better looking.)
Angela, creating an anthology is a lot of work—especially when you’re already busy editing a lit mag and teaching creative writing classes and working on your own writing as well. Why at did you find this project so compelling?
I wanted to shine the spotlight a little more brightly on the excellent short fiction that’s being written by contemporary Mormon authors. Although we have some great Mormon novelists, over the past ten years or so there’s been a lot of exciting stuff going on in short fiction. The problem is that so few Mormon readers know about it. Bright Angels and Familiars, a seminal anthology of short fiction by LDS authors edited by Eugene England, came out in 1992, but lots of great work has been published since then. Chris Bigelow at Zarahemla Books and I began discussing the need for a new anthology, and both of us agreed it was high time somebody tackle this project. I was excited to get started.
How did you even know where to begin?
I’ve been involved with the Association for Mormon Letters for many years and currently serve as the co-editor of Irreantum. Because of this involvement, I’ve been made aware of and come in contact with many talented LDS writers. As I started looking for stories, I initially sought out work by some of the big names that I knew must be included in an anthology like this one, writers whose work is geared toward a national audience as well as writers who primarily target a Mormon audience: Brady Udall, Orson Scott Card, Levi Peterson, Margaret Blair Young, Doug Thayer, Brian Evenson, Mary Clyde, Todd Robert Petersen, and many more. Then I sought out the work of lesser-known (but incredibly talented) writers whose work I’d become familiar with as an editor and an active participant in the AML. Once these “must have” stories were selected, I began reading back issues of magazines that publish short stories with Mormon elements, like Irreantum, Dialogue, and Sunstone, and I found a number of top-notch stories by authors whose names were unfamiliar to me. Finally, I solicited suggestions from readers and writers I trust, and got some great recommendations that way, too.
So did you set out to collect the best stories written by Mormons, or the best stories written about being Mormon?
First of all, I felt it was important that the authors represented in Dispensation have a background in LDS culture and theology. I didn’t consider stories written “about” Mormonism by writers without personal ties to the religion. Some stories are written by active, believing Mormons, while other stories are written by former Mormons, but each writer has an authentic, personal understanding of what it means to be LDS. Once I narrowed the field using those parameters, I looked for stories that represented literary excellence (stories that could stand toe-to-toe with the best short stories anthologized for national audiences) and also stories that expressed recognizably Mormon themes or took place in Mormon settings.
Why so much Mormon-ness?
I’m interested in furthering the cause of Mormon literature. In my opinion, both Mormon theology and Mormon culture are bursting with literary possibilities that Mormon writers are just beginning to explore. It’s one thing to say, “Look! Mormons can write!” It’s another thing (an even more exciting thing, I believe), to say, “Look! Mormons can write! AND we can write about Mormon themes and Mormon culture in an interesting, powerful, artistic, universally accessible way.”
Was it difficult to find stories of high literary quality that directly addressed Mormon themes?
It wasn’t difficult as you’d think; in fact, I had a tough time narrowing the field. Of course, I plowed through my fair share of mediocre fiction during the selection process, but I found myself continually delighted and surprised by the number of excellent short stories being published by Mormon writers. Authors in this collection have won prestigious national awards for their short fiction: Darrell Spencer, Paul Rawlins, and Mary Clyde all won Flannery O’Connor Awards for their work, and Brady Udall, Stephen Tuttle, and Lisa Madsen Rubliar’s stories won contests run by well-known national magazines. Many of our authors have received Pushcart Prize nominations, and a number of our stories have received honors from organizations like the Utah Arts Council, the Association for Mormon Letters, and various LDS journals. These are our very best Mormon stories.
Anthology editors face the challenge of maintaining balance on a number of levels as they select content. What variables did you consider?
I wanted diversity in style (“literary” stories, traditional stories, experimental stories), diversity in tone (light stories, dark stories, funny stories, weighty stories), diversity in subject matter (multicultural stories, stories that examine different definitions of what it means to be Mormon, realistic stories, fantastic stories), diversity in author background (believing Mormons, former Mormons, young writers, experienced writers, male writers, female writers). This means there are stories in this book for everyone. This also means that an individual reader probably won’t enjoy every story equally. The stories my mom liked, for example, are very different from the stories my non-Mormon former writing professor enjoyed. But both readers found stories that thrilled or touched them.
That was certainly true for me. I didn’t fall in love with every story (ironically enough, my least favorite was written by the renowned Orson Scott Card), but even the more subtle pieces touched me meaningfully. And a few packed a punch so hard I saw stars. There was great contrast from story to story—overall I think you made the editorial balancing act look easy. But I’ve just gotta ask: what’s with all the hobos?
Yes, yes. The hobos. I’ll sheepishly admit that I didn’t notice the recurring theme of wanderers and vagrants until I’d neared the end of the editorial process. For example, I’d originally considered different stories written by both Margaret Blair Young and Doug Thayer (there are so many to choose from by both of them) but after speaking to both authors, I decided Young’s “Zoo Sounds” and Thayer’s “Wolves” were the stories that must be included. In “Zoo Sounds,” a bishop’s wife meets a homeless street preacher who changes the way she sees her life; in “Wolves,” a 1940’s-era Provo teenager stumbles into a hobo camp and disaster ensues. I’d already accepted a few other stories with homeless or wandering main characters, but it wasn’t until I decided that I must use “Zoo Sounds” and “Wolves” that the vagabond theme really started to stand out. But, by then, each and every “hobo story” (your term, not mine!) had cemented itself as necessary to this collection.
And to your credit, no stereotype of vagabonds (okay, that’s a better term) emerges from this subset of stories. All of these characters are unique individuals and help carry the plots in distinct ways, despite their commonalities.
Yes, I agree. And I’m sure part of the reason we see so many stories like this has to do with the truism Margaret Blair Young notes in her introduction. She says that, in literature, “there are really only two stories: a man goes on a journey; a stranger comes to town.” Many of Dispensation‘s protagonists are either on a journey themselves or find their placid lives complicated by unexpected visitors. These complications make for great literature, as stories like “Zoo Sounds” and “Wolves” affirm.
Oh, man. “Wolves.” Definitely one of my favorites, although it hurt terribly to read. It healed its own wounds, though. And I’d say one of the most remarkable aspects of Dispensation: its exploration of the spiritual dynamic between darkness and light; its true-to-life illustrations of how good and evil give each other existence and meaning in the best 2 Nephi sense.
To be sure, the stories in Dispensation explore what it means to be a fallen man, or a fallen woman. But I also believe reading stories like these–stories that are simultaneously complicated and compassionate– can be an ultimately joyful experience, even when the themes explored are sometimes painful. “Wolves” is an incredibly painful story, but it has its own kind of beauty.
What are some of your other favorite stories?
I have so many. Levi Peterson’s “Brothers” is a perfectly structured story, threaded through with powerful themes. Images from Paul Rawlins’ “The Garden” are seared into my brain. Lisa Downing’s “Clothing Esther” gets richer and more meaningful with each reading. Brady Udall’s “Buckeye the Elder” is funny and sad and full of compelling energy. Steven Tuttle’s “The Weather Here” is an example of literary speculative fiction that’s just plain cool. The last page of Lisa Rubilar’s gorgeous “Obbligato” still makes me cry, every time. And Jack Harrell’s “Calling and Election” is Mormon fiction in the very best sense of the phrase. I could keep going all day, but I find every story in the book praiseworthy for different reasons.
Harrell’s story freaked me out (in a good way). Here’s a teaser for those who haven’t read it yet: the protagonist is this seminary teacher who gets visited by a messenger from either God or Satan (I’m still not certain) and signs a paper to make his calling and election sure, with harrowing results. Its core message—“Even your goodness is your enemy”—still has me spinning in meaningful thought months later.
One of the things I love about Jack Harrell’s work is how fully he embraces the implications of Mormon theology. Not only are his characters culturally Mormon, but they live in a world where miracles actually happen. Given our history, Mormons shouldn’t be surprised when angels (or demons) show up in our fiction . . . but we are. And “Calling and Election” is exactly the type of story that takes some of the really meaty, amazing stuff at the heart of our belief system, like the notion of having one’s calling and election made sure, and explores the implications of these ideas in a fictional character’s life. The interesting thing is that Harrell is a writer who is coming from a position of belief–I know Jack, and that he personally accepts the theology he’s exploring–but his stories still tend to make readers feel off-balance. I’m not sure what your average Deseret Book shopper might think of “Calling and Election.”
Yes, this is not your typical mainstream LDS fictional fare. Let me just rattle off a few of the story topics that haven’t already been mentioned: A white missionary in South Africa is targeted by anti-apartheid rioters. A married couple sings hymns in a Mormon chapel perched at the edge of the disintegrating universe. A Native American girl in the 70s is uprooted from home to live with an LDS family who tells her she’ll “turn white” when she’s more righteous. A zealous new convert unravels after administering a life-saving priesthood blessing. An ex-convict finds love and stability in the home of an aging mother and socially ostracized daughter. A former bishop commits suicide by laying his head on the railroad tracks. I’m curious: what did your mom think of all this stuff?
My mom liked most of it. There were a couple of stories that she found a little irritating or difficult, but overall, her response was very positive. I think there are lots of readers out there like my mom: she doesn’t see rated-R movies and believes Dancing With the Stars is embarrassingly risque, but she has a history of reading quality mainstream literature. (She introduced me to Anne Tyler when I was thirteen.) What readers like my mom are allergic to are agenda-driven stories. LDS fiction has been plagued by various agendas (the desire to convert or propagandize on the one hand, the desire to “expose” or blame the Church on the other) for a very long time, and this has made many Mormon readers understandably wary. But I worked hard to find pieces for the anthology that weren’t agenda driven, and I believe the stories in Dispensation are motivated by the simple desire to explore Mormon lives and themes honestly and authentically. Such exploration, by its very nature, means readers are going to bump up against ideas or characters that might be unsettling. But I also firmly believe that being unsettled by fiction can make us better people. In the contributors’ notes for The Best American Short Stories 2007, the author Richard Russo articulated my reasons for reading great literature (and challenging literature) better than I ever could. He said, “The study of literature has had what I believe to be a salutary effect on my own character, making me less self-conscious and vain, more empathic and imaginative, maybe even kinder. Perhaps it’s an oversimplification, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to wonder if maybe this is what reading all those great books is really for—to engender and promote charity. Sure, literature entertains and instructs, but to what end, if not compassion?” (409) I believe each story in Dispensation can help facilitate the kind of charity Russo describes. But, again, not every LDS reader is going to agree with me on the merits of reading difficult fiction. And it’s not just LDS readers who feel this way, either. After years of teaching English, I’ve finally figured out that, for many readers, the pig’s head on a stick in The Lord of the Flies is way too gross to ever serve as an enlightening metaphor.
The pig’s head rocked (as did yelling “sucks to your ass-mar!” in junior high English class). But yes, I agree that Dispensation is not a title for every Mormon reader. I’d give the collection a PG-13 rating for mature content and light profanity; it includes no graphic violence or sexuality but draws on both of these elements thematically. And given its overall sophistication, I’d say it’s better suited for the shelves of a university-level English department than the shelves of Deseret Book. Who do you hope might read this anthology?
I hope Latter-day Saints who love good books will give it a chance–especially those who have steered clear of LDS fiction due to doubts about its quality. I also hope this book will extend beyond the borders of Mormonism and will be read by non-Mormon readers. Many of these stories were written for a general audience, and although most of them have Mormon characters and settings, I believe the conflicts and themes explored are universally accessible. As far as using the book in the classroom is concerned, I think Dispensation would be a worthy addition to any Mormon literature class or a course on the short story, but the book could also be a great resource for a Mormon studies or comparative religion course that wants to delve more deeply into honest and realistic depictions of contemporary Mormon culture.
I can’t wait to see what comes next in this genre. What’s the latest news in LDS literature?
As far as national market novelists go, Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist is an incredible novel. I tore through all 600 pages, and it deserves all the praise that’s being heaped upon it. (Fair warning, though: it’s too risque for my mom.) I just finished an advanced review copy of Ally Condie’s upcoming YA novel, Matched, and loved it. (You’ll be hearing a lot about Matched this winter–Penguin acquired it after a heated bidding war and plans to pull out all the stops with publicity. Hooray Ally!) I also loved last year’s YA title by Carol Lynch Williams, The Chosen One. We have a bunch of other successful Mormon YA authors currently writing popular and/or critically-acclaimed books: Stephenie Meyer (of course), Brandon Mull, James Dashner, Ann Dee Ellis, Shannon Hale, to name just a few. And authors like Brandon Sanderson and Orson Scott Card are huge names in speculative fiction with current or soon-to-be-released titles.
But there are great things happening with LDS market fiction as well. The Whitney Awards and the AML Awards do a great job highlighting the best of the best in Mormon writing and are a good place to start for those who rarely darken the door of a Deseret Book store. Small publishers like Zarahemla Books and Parables are publishing fiction that Deseret Book/Covenant/Cedar Fort won’t, and we’re richer for it as a culture. After a long hiatus publishing fiction, Signature Books is set to publish Jack Harrell’s collection of short stories, A Sense of Order, very soon. I’m in the middle of reading it right now, and it’s going to be great. And speaking of short fiction: submissions to Irreantum’s fiction contest are rolling in as we speak (the deadline is May 31). Each year we receive between 80-100 entries, and we seem to be on pace this year. There are plenty of great Mormon writers out there writing. We just need to get more Mormon readers reading their work. In my humble opinion, Dispensation is an excellent place to start.
In my not-so-humble opinion, I wholeheartedly agree. Well done, Ms. Hallstrom!!