Sunday, August 7, 2011

Q&A with Orson Scott Card

Anyone who has ever talked to me about books probably knows I have a slight obsession with the author Orson Scott Card. When my husband and I were first married he suggested I might like some of Card's books. I started with Stone Tables, a fictionalized recounting of Moses and the Ten Commandments. I was hooked. From there, I devoured every book of his I could get my hands on and have since read almost every novel, numerous short stories, and regularly read his reviews and political rants on his website ( Ever since I read his novel Saints, it immediately became one of my all-time favorite novels. It cozily socializes with the likes of Gone With the Wind, The House of Mirth, and Anna Karennina in terms of epicness, heart-aching beauty, variety and breadth of character, and an honesty of storytelling that is requisite in any truly great story.
Saints follows the Kirkham family through their fall into poverty in Manchester, England in the early 1800's, their subsequent trials and struggle to rise above all that is thrown at them, their introduction to the Latter-Day Saint missionaries, and their moving to and settling in Nauvoo, Illinois where even more heartache and drama are thrown at them. Now, this book was not written for an LDS (Mormon) audience - Card has stated it was written specifically for a non-LDS audience. It deals very bluntly (moreso than any other fictional story I've read) with polygamy, but does not  apologize for, explain, nor justify. It merely explores what some people's experiences with that practice may have been. But not even polygamy is the central topic - it's background. It's part of the setting.
What sets Saints apart from the above-mentioned novels, I believe, is a strength of character that rarely occurs within fiction. Most of the characters in Wind, Karennina, and Mirth are barely hanging on through their trials, bitter, and/or completely engulfed by the ravenous waves of their misfortunes. While Saints certainly has its share of weaker characters, Dinah Kirkham and several others are streched beyond what almost anyone can endure and they endure it. Are they perfect? No! But, that's what helps them be even stronger characters. You don't empathize with perfection. You empathize with a human with foibles and follies who struggles to cope and endeavors to grow from their trials and heartaches.
It took a few years for me to recommend this for our neighborhood book club. Firstly, it's over 600 pages long. Secondly, I did worry that some would be offended by a humanized characterization of the LDS prophets Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. I was very relieved to hear they had the same reaction I did - it only increased their love and respect for these amazing men!
In preparation for leading the discussions, I tried in vain to find a Q&A with Card that was Saints-centric. Failing at that, I contacted him through his assistant on his website to see if it would be possible to submit some questions from the ladies in my book club that he could answer in time to discuss when we met. Despite his many other writing obligations, he consented. I would obviously like to thank him for his generosity! Everyone was very impressed that he took the time to answer our questions!
Before I copy his answers, I would urge you to go purchase this novel, or get a copy from the library. The cover of my copy says, "An epic of independence and devotion, of hardship and fulfillment . . . of a woman so strong that knowing her could change your life." In my case, that absolutely turned out to be the truth. This story of strength and struggle has become a part of me and my perspective in life. It isn't religious fiction - it's historical fiction! Don't not read it simply because the characters in the book believed in a different theology than you! Don't cheat yourself out of reading an inspiring tale of people who sacrificed when they discovered what they believed to be truth!

There are some spoilers in these questions and answers, so if you want to go into the story fresh, don't read this until after you finish the novel.

Here's the Q&A unedited:

1. What inspired you to write this story? Do you have ancestors that came from England or that lived in early Nauvoo ?

None of these characters is based on my own ancestors — I’m a great great grandson of Brigham Young and Zina Diantha Huntington, but they appear in the book as themselves.  Instead, I wanted to do a story very loosely based on the life of William Clayton — my father-in-law, noted LDS historian James B. Allen, wrote a biography of Clayton (writer of “Come, Come Ye Saints” and the scribe who recorded Section 132 and followed JS into plural marriage), and I have used many incidents from his life to provide the core of the story.  Dinah is my own invention, but everything that happened to her happened to somebody.  In a way, though, EVERY Mormon gets adopted into the great pioneer heritage, and what so many Mormons don’t remember is that a large portion of the Mormon pioneers weren’t Americans!  They began their lives as urban English people in the heart of the industrial revolution, so crossing the plains and founding Salt Lake was far more radical to them than to the American converts.  We all are their heirs, whether our genealogy traces to them or not.

2. I’m interested to know if Dinah giving up her children was based on a true story — did that come from a journal for example?

I read several journal accounts like this — several women were faced with that wretched choice.  But remember that in that era, children legally belonged to the father.  If women left their husbands for any reason, there was no chance of their taking their children with them.  What a wrenching choice!

3. Why did you have Porter Rockwell say to Dinah that she was Joseph’s Rachel? I wanted Dinah to be truly happy but this didn’t sit well with me when Joseph chose Emma. What was the character/or you thinking at this point?

Joseph Smith, from all accounts, loved his plural wives and regarded them as real marriages.  But his relationship with Emma always came first, if only because they had been through so much together.  Just because he believed that the Lord required him to set the example in plural marriage did not change the fact that it was terribly painful to do something that he knew would hurt Emma so badly.  So from one day to the next, I imagine that different feelings dominated in JS’s heart.  We get this idea sometimes that people in the past must have had only one attitude or one set of feelings, but human beings have many feelings and attitudes, often contradictory ones, and we are rarely able to sort them out in any rational way.

4. In your mind did Mary, Hyrum’s wife, know about plural marriage or was she strictly thinking she was helping convince Dinah to teach when she suggested that John Kirkham walk her to the neighbors so that Hyrum and Dinah could talk?

I just don’t remember what I had in mind.  If it isn’t clear in the text, I can’t help you.  I wrote this more than 25 years ago!

5. I’ve heard the story of Heber being willing to give Vilate to Joseph and I’m wondering if there is any account of this in a journal that you’ve read or if it’s just Mormon myth (as far as you know). Likewise, the story of Emma getting angry with one of Joseph’s wives and her falling down the stairs. Is there any truth to this?

I read the account in a fairly authoritative source based on Heber’s own account.  If you want, I’ll try to find the original source on that.  (I got all the research material from my father-in-law who was, at the time, Assistant Church Historian.)  Remember, though, that just because something has a source doesn’t mean it’s accurate.  Memory changes, people notice different things, and stories bend to fit present needs.

The falling-down-the-stairs story is more mythic than the Heber/Vilate account, which is definitely accepted by the family as true.  The fall down the stairs is part of the folklore attached to Eliza R. Snow, but she herself never said any such thing to anyone.  Doesn’t mean it wasn’t true.  And Eliza was considerably older than Dinah — she may simply have had a miscarriage and other people came up with a story that blamed Emma.

6. What was the concept behind John Kirkham coming back and claiming he wanted redemption just to sin with a prostitue? When it seemed that toward the end of the novel he had given up that life for good. What do you feel the turning point was for him? Was it when Dr. Bennett hurt Dinah? Did he truly turn his life around?

Everything I had to say about that is in the book.  I created these characters as believably as I could, making them behave in ways that real people behave.  But in general terms, I don’t think people have many “turning points” in their lives.  We are who we are, and while we might deceive ourselves sometimes about our motives or intentions, your core nature will come out.  If you’re a deeply good person, you’ll eventually overcome your pride and selfishness; if you’re truly strong, you’ll overcome temptations.  And if you’re not so good, or not so strong, then that, too, will surface, because your commitments fade in the face of attractive opportunities to sin.

7. When you are doing research for this kind of novel, how do you know what sources are trustworthy?

You don’t.  You make your own measured judgment based on what you know about human nature and the other behavior of both the source and the people the source is talking about.  Fortunately, in fiction I have a lot more wiggle room than a historian would have.  Readers aren’t supposed to take my speculations about motive as “the truth” — merely as one author’s best guesses.

8. You have said people are bothered most by things that actually occurred — can you give a few examples of those?

The idea has been around for years that Joseph’s plural marriages were all spiritual — he never actually consummated them physically.  But it was regarded as very important in the early days of polygamy to affirm that JS did in fact have real marriages with these women.  Emma’s supporters who did not embrace polygamy liked to put it about that JS was never really married to anyone but her, so there are conference talks and many testimonies by early brethren that polygamy wasn’t just preached by JS, but also practiced.  Many people want to deify JS and put him on some lofty plane where he doesn’t touch real life — but that’s simply wrong.  JS was a real person, with foibles and quirks, and he had a physical life as well as, and along with, his spiritual one.  Deifying our prophets is actually the opposite of what we should do — it puts them out of reach, as if they were not participants in human life.  It gives people the idea that we ordinary people can never attain their spiritual level.  The truth is the other way: They are real people and prone to mistakes like the rest of us.  They face all the same temptations and have all the same pleasures and pains.  So if we don’t match their spirituality, it’s not because we CAN’T, but because we haven’t chosen to do so — spirituality, like repentance, is equally within the reach of all of us.

9. Do you think Dinah’s children grow up hating her? Did they ever forgive her?

I always wanted to write their story, too.  I think their reactions would have been different, and vary over time.  When young, they would have been angry and severely hurt; older, having experienced life, some of them would have come to understand her, while others never would.

I think if you get a chance, you should look at Kim Catrall’s experience on the tv show Who Do You Think You Are.  Her great grandfather abandoned the family when her grandmother was little, and she tracks him down.  What he was thinking simply can’t be known — but the responses of the children are fascinatingly diverse.

10. Do you feel Robert was a bad brother because he tried to control others’ lives? Or, was he just misguided, though well intentioned?

Some people think they know best.  They truly believe they’re helping.  And sometimes they really are.  But often it’s also pride and the evil desire to control others.  Fortunately, it’s up to God to judge our motives.  If there’s anybody who has NEVER tried to force someone else to do “the right thing,” raise your hand!  Well, if you raised your hand, you’re just delusional, because you HAVE.  You just didn’t admit it to yourself.  When you withhold information from someone “for their own good,” you’re forcing them, deciding for them in ways they might not have decided for themselves.  And nobody’s motives for such a thing are pure.  You might think you know best; you might be right! — but you’re still keeping someone else from making their own decision.  So I don’t really think of whether Robert was good or bad.  He simply believed he had the responsibility and the right to decide for other people, and under law and custom at the time, he did!  It’s not as if he had Section 121 to guide him in exercising his stewardship.  It is the nature and disposition of almost all men ...

11. Did you have O. Kirkham say Dinah and Charlie’s hymns and poems are mediocre to show his characters critical view? Or because you didn’t want to seem to be basically touting poetry that you essentially wrote?

I don’t actually like O. Kirkham that much.  I know a lot of people like him, and it’s very important to them that people realize that they’re “superior people.”  So I’ve heard a lot of people speak with contempt of Eliza R. Snow and other early Mormon writers.  When they do, they merely reveal their ignorance of the period and of literature, and their arrogance and their hunger for the high regard of others.  It’s just sad.  The poems I wrote are of the kind that the Church’s best poets were writing at the time.  Fashions have changed — but what gets praised today by people like O. Kirkham is actually quite wretched, in my opinion.  Most people who take pride in being intellectuals are merely entrenched in their ignorance.

12. The short blurbs on the title pages of each section, are those the view of O. Kirkham of the events? Or yourself?

O. Kirkham.  Not me.

13. Is there any documentation that Joseph ever have any children by  any of his plural wives?

None whatsoever.  There were claims in the 1850s and 1860s that there was one child born to someone, but these are pious rumors and there is no believable claim.  He may have slept with his plural wives, but NOT OFTEN — his life was too confused, and he was in hiding too much of the time, plus he had to conceal polygamy from the public.  So it’s not really a surprise that JS didn’t father other children.  (The Eliza-falling-down-the-stairs story may have been invented simply to explain why he didn’t have children by his most famous plural wife.)

1 comment:

JennyKay said...

Thanks for the info. I love this book and my book club is scheduled to read this spring and I am scheduled to lead the discussion. This is a helpful q and a. Thanks