Wrestling with the housewife; or, why not bake some muffins?|
Without a doubt, I've never taken such huge risks when writing a book as I have with this one. As much joy as there was in the writing process, there was also the stark cold terror of standing on a cliff's edge in high wind and knowing I could fall any moment. The first risk was that this book didn't fit comfortably into any genre (I talked about that on my blog). The riskest risk was making the main character religious (rare in mainstream novels, I'm sure you've noticed). It's always risky to portray a character in any religion because religion can cause passionate feelings in people and be divisive. But on top of that, I gave her my own religion. She is an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or a Mormon. Doubly risky! So why do it?
Since I grew up as a Mormon, I've often wanted to use my knowledge of that unique culture in a story. At this point, I've written seven young adult books--fantasies set in worlds I created. austenland, my first book for adults, was also my first book in a contemporary, realistic setting, but certain plot points made it difficult and unnecessary to give the main character any religion. I wasn't sure I'd ever incorporate my knowledge of this religion into a book when I had a dream that set this story rolling.
When I first began to accept this burgeoning story as the impetus for a new novel, I knew what most drew me to it was the idea of two absolutely opposite people finding friendship. Making Becky Mormon--and not just any Mormon, but a Utah-born conservative Mormon--seemed so delightfully opposite Felix I had to do it. There was a lot of pleasure in writing a character whose background was similar to my own. I too was born in Utah (in Salt Lake City, which tends to be a tiny bit more liberal and diverse than Becky's Layton), and I am active in the LDS church today. I had plenty of fodder to draw on.
But it was intimidating too. The story wasn't about religion, and I didn't want that aspect of it to overwhelm the book. Besides, spirituality is such an intimate aspect of my life, I was afraid I couldn't be objective writing about something so close to me. One choice I made to balance that was to give the narrator a strong personality, one different from Becky, the main character. The narrator has differing opinions. Though not a character in the traditional sense, I had a strong image of the narrator and let her opine and get involved and view the situation from a different place. The narrator was not religious, did not share many of Becky's beliefs, and immersing myself in that tone helped me stay a step back.
Another way to distance myself was to make sure Becky was different from me. If I tried to write my own self, I was afraid I'd lose the story. I'd be too close to it to see what was important or even true.
Another risky aspect of writing a religious main character is it can seem as if the main character is representative of an entire religion. This is an intimidating idea. I never wanted to make Becky a poster girl for Mormonism. What a disaster such a goal would bring about! But I anticipated that other LDS readers could be sensitive to a book about a fellow church member. I wanted to be extremely sensitive. I never wanted to take for granted that my experiences and views of the LDS church were the only valid ones. So I had several different LDS friends of different backgrounds read the manuscript and give me feedback.
Yikes. They all disagreed. All of them. Not one of my early LDS readers viewed Becky or the other LDS characters the same way. Some said, "She's so liberal--she's unrealistic and she'll give people a negative impression of this church." Others said, "She's so conservative--she's unrealistic and she'll give people a negative impression of this church." I kid you not.
This makes me wonder--are conservative Mormon characters not allowed a voice in literature? What about liberal Mormon characters? Who is the ideal Mormon? Who is the ideal of any religion or any group of people? What exactly is a realistic character?
It wasn't just my early LDS readers who didn't agree. I had several other readers as well from different faiths or no faiths. What some people liked, others didn't, what worked for some completely didn't for others. No two voices chimed in unison. For example, my editor's very favorite scene in the book was another reader's very least favorite scene. I took all the criticism seriously and did my best to address their concerns. But at the same time, I had to sift through it, work hard to make the story the one I wanted to tell, the one my internal reader loved. How could I write any story that would jive with my readers and not offend anyone's sensibilities? Hearing so many contradictory reactions made me realize how many different ways people can read the same book. And I despaired of anticipating all the various ways my potentials readers might take the story.
So, months before my deadline, I was faced with the reality that my story just might anger or turn off everyone in some way. I am not a fan of controversy. I don't like to make people upset. There were two points when I had to stop and ask myself if I should publish this book at all. I was so afraid of what might come after--even if 90% of the readers loved it and appreciated what I was trying to do with this story, even if only 10% of the readers hated it and wanted me on a scaffold with a scarlet letter on my chest--that would be too much! I didn't know if I could face that.
So I took some time and meditated on the issue and really thought and talked it through with my husband. I'd never had that experience before, never considered pulling the plug on a book so late in the process. It was kind of scary. But ultimately I decided that I had to see this through. I loved this story, loved the characters, and I yearned to share it, as we tend to do in any creative art. I came to a place where I felt very good about it, excited even, and I decided I was strong enough to face whatever would come. Most importantly, I knew I could stand by this story.
Still, I was petrified. At least, I was when I wasn't at work. Whenever I was immersed in the story, I didn't find it hard to turn off the shouting voices and just let the story and the characters lead me. Thankfully, or I never could have written this book.
This book is about Becky Jack. I hope it will be read that way. I hope no reader assumes the book is trying to represent the ideal of Mormonism or any religion or religious person.
In interviews, I'm often asked, "What do you hope readers take from your books?" I have a hard time answering that question, because I never write toward a purpose or moral. I just hope that a reader takes whatever she needs from my story. And while that's still true for this book, I do have a tiny hope: I hope that readers want to talk about it. I have a lovely dream of groups of readers, women especially, sitting around and talking, heatedly sometimes, questioning the actions of the characters, debating some of the questions raised, what the characters did or didn't do, and the way I chose to tell the story. I hope there are lots of questions, debates, and listening too. And I hope that activity is fun.
Based on the early feedback, I know not everything in this book will be acceptable with everyone who reads it. But I also know that I worked very hard on it for two and a half years. I spent thousands of hours ruminating over it, let alone writing it. I was constantly jotting down ideas or lines after a shower, in the car, in the middle of the night, while playing with my kids. I did many drafts. And what I mean to say is, this was a true labor of love, which I took very seriously, eventually coming to a draft that I feel great about. Still there will be ideas and portrayals and events that some people won't like. That is completely understandable and absolutely every reader's right.
I really, really wish I could please everyone. I hope each reader can take what he or she needs from this story. I hope this story is a positive experience. I hope it makes you laugh and maybe cry a little too, sigh and question, and just enjoy the process of reading words on a page and allowing them to create a full-blooded story in your mind. For better or for worse, I had to tell this story.
And if you hate it, I have a really good idea--instead of sending me hate mail, why not bake some muffins instead? Mmm, just think about that...muffins...
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