From now through September 17, Everyday Mormon Writer is soliciting submissions (and financial contributions to pump up the prize purse) for its “Four Centuries of Mormon Stories” Writing and Art Contest. Today, By Comment Consent presents you an exclusive interview with James Goldberg (and conducted by James Goldberg) about the historic (and futuristic!) new contest.
James: I know this is a writing and art contest, but let’s start with a math question. 2012 minus 1830 equals 182, right? How do you get four centuries out of that?
Goldberg: Even at the ripe young age of 182, the Church has already hit its third century by a standard Gregorian count, so that a nonfiction writer could put together a triptych of Mormon moments with scenes from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Since this is a fiction and art contest, we’re adding the 22nd century, giving writers room to imagine a Mormon history nearly as long as Sikh history currently is.
James: Where do you think that history’s headed? Whether you’re talking about Partition or Operation Blue Star, it’s clear Sikhs had a complicated relationship with Indian society and government in the 20th century. And yet the early 21st century has given us a Sikh as India’s first non-Hindu prime minister. Do you think a Latter-day Saint will have a shot at the top office in the world’s largest democracy by 2199?
Goldberg: Who knows? But it certainly is interesting to consider the rapid turns history has taken, and to imagine what future turns history might take. Bringing together the centuries should be fun imaginative work, to be sure.
And perhaps also important. In Mormonism, we celebrate the gospel as simultaneously eternal in its essence and deeply contextual in its manifestations. I hope that lens will prepare contest writers and readers to value stories that combine particular, focused human dilemmas set against backdrops from the sweep of past and future events.
How might one core identity look when refracted through different times, places, and personalities over a four-century span?
James: So…you’re giving writers four months to come up with enough great stories to cover four centuries of material, including 187 years that haven’t happened yet? Wait. Let me phrase that question another way: on a spectrum from “optimistic” to “unrealistic,” where would you place yourself?
Goldberg: We are asking for stories that can be read by people with an online attention span of about three minutes or 1,000 words.
The very short form does pose some writing challenges, but it also makes the task of writing manageable. To enter the contest, you don’t need to come up with an elaborate plot. You just need to find a compelling moment, a compelling character, and a clear problem or dilemma for that character to interact with and you have the basis for a successful piece.
It may help to look at how setting, character, and dilemma interact in some of the recent pieces published on Everyday Mormon Writer. Scott Hales’ “Album” and Jeanna Mason Stay’s “No Substitute for Chocolate” both do a great job, I think, at creating specific, accessible dilemmas that speak to the place and time of their setting. Eric James Stone’s “A Great Destiny” is a good study in effective short-form structure and a great example of how any historical context can be used to raise questions that have particular resonance for LDS readers.
So find the moment and the tension that appeals to you and create a moving moment in it. I don’t think it will matter whether the historical moment is dramatic or simple. I find myself every bit as curious about how a convert who left England before the invention of the telegraph might have responded when telegraph lines reconnected Utah and Europe as about how an LDS woman in a marriage with significant personal ups and downs might have felt about her husband’s arrest in the polygamy crackdowns. I wonder how suburban Utah Valley Mormons might weather a peak-oil-induced collapse of the world economy, but I also wonder how those Mormons are weathering the disappearance of the region’s traditional family canning culture.
The way human beings handle problems is inherently interesting. For this contest, what we most need are imaginative, empathetic people willing to lend their voices to a wide range of historically situated problems and possibilities our brothers and sisters have faced, face, and will face in years to come.
James: So your top priority is creative contributions. But you’re also asking for money.
Goldberg: While we hope that the contest vision can be the central force that motivates writers, we suspect some healthy cash prizes will help stimulate prospective entrants’ imaginations and add to the excitement of the voting process in the fall.
James: Among the thank you gifts for donors are a “history dinner” with playwright Melissa Leilani Larson and a “future dinner” with Nebula winner Eric James Stone. I was surprised that the history dinner will be taking place this August rather than in, say, the 1880s. And that the future dinner takes place before the history dinner does. Aren’t you just a little bit afraid that messing around with time like that will tear a hole in the fabric of the universe?
Goldberg: If it does, it will have been entirely worth it. I can’t think of a wittier or more articulate individual to share the collapse of space-time with than Eric James Stone or Mel Larson.
And if the world is going to end abruptly this July 28th or August 25th, wouldn’t you want to be taking a bite of the Goldbergs’ paneer masala or taking a sip of homemade mango lassi at the time?
James: We’re nearly at a thousand words, which seems like a fitting time to wrap up this interview. But would you be willing to answer additional questions from BCC readers in the comments?
Goldberg: That what comments sections are for, right? I’ll try to keep up!