Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Genesis of a first novel: A candid and revealing interview with the author of Closing Circles



And artist's view of the riverfront of Westport, Connecticut the primary setting for "Closing Circles: Trapped In The Everlasting Mormon Moment"

 







February 14, 2012
Boston, Massachusetts        

Over the course of copyediting the manuscript for R.B. Scott’s first novel -- Closing Circles: Trapped In The Everlasting Mormon Moment – early readers/critics/editors put a number of tough questions to the author. Excerpts from these candid email and telephone exchanges follow: 
1.  You've had a 40-plus -year career in journalism at some pretty prestigious magazines. Why a novel now?
a.   Someone famous once said “every journalist has a good novel inside them.”  Some weather-beaten agent cynically added: “and that’s where they should be kept.” I hope that mine are good ones.  Counting Closing Circles there are five somewhat related novels in me, done or mostly done.  Depending on whether I finish the fifth, the assemblage will either be called “The Pratt Pentalogy” or “The Mormon Quad.”  Common threads-- the “Pratt” family, New England, New York City,  Mormonism, journalism, and golf – tie them together, more or less

Why now?  I am a very slow writer.  Actually, the process began as I left Time years ago. Technically, Closing Circles has been unfolding and revising since about 1983.  The last in the series – Leaving West Perish – got underway in 1987; the third in series – working title Play It As It Lies: A daughter, her father and the rub of the green – was born in the mid 1993; working title Quad Pratt: Prince of New England, Lord of Star Valley, began emerging in 2007; and the second in the series, The Mending: A life too well remembered  sprang to life around 2003.

In long, I was not propelled into writing novels by some age-related crisis or crushing melancholia.   Nor did I wake-up one morning and decide to write a novel.  Initially, my goal was to publish Closing Circles in the 1990s as the “Mormon Moment” began to unfold.  The delay makes the novel all the more timely.  It ties into events that are current in 2012 – the presidential elections, which featured two Mormon candidates – Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney.  Along the way it touches on the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and the dot-com bubble of the 1990s and associated turmoil.

My recent biography MITT ROMNEY: An Inside Look At The Man And His Politics , released in late November of 2011, was critical to the process in that it provided (is providing) many opportunities to promote both books.  It is complementary to Closing Circles and vice versa.
2.   So this is a timely novel, politically and socially. What about timeliness in literature? Is Mormonism an under-served entity in literature?
a.   Several years ago, I shared parts of Closing Circles with an editor friend, a lapsed Mormon.   His reactions were instructive.  He said he had enjoyed the parts of the book he read, however he worried that there was no market for the book:  devout Mormons would likely be offended by some scenes and revelations in the book while the rest of the world simply would not interested in a novel about Mormons.   So, yes, I would say that the Mormonism is underserved in the literary world, however I can think of a few notable recent exceptions:  Judith Freeman (Red Water), Joanna Brooks (Book of Mormon Girl) and Brady Udall (The Lonely Polygamist).  I have not yet read Udall’s book, but the Freeman’s is an historical novel, and Brooks recent entry is a wonderfully written, lyrical memoir.  As a rule, Mormon novelists have tended to write for other Mormon readers.  Closing Circles is not aimed at Mormon readers.  My hope is that it will appeal to a general adult audience, like Chaim Potok's and Philip Roth's novels about Jewish characters and culture catch the interest of Christians.  Closing Circles attempts to honesty tell the story of a young man who spends a lifetime wrestling with his religion and culture, adapting as required –and in ornate ways – by the realities of his life. 

3.      What is the toughest challenge you’ve encountered as a novelist?
a.  The toughest challenge? Um…finding an agent.  I have an agent who represents me in the non-fiction world.  She’s wonderful. But she won’t touch fiction.   New novelists – even ones who are established writers – always, always, always complain that fiding an agent is tough business. Finding an agent is usually a discouraging, even depressing process. Introductions from other published authors help, but they are no sure thing. Trust me, I know. I wouldn’t recommend the process to anyone, especially sensitive souls. Many --okay most --writers are overly sensitive, take nearly every criticism personally. Writing the actual novel is much easier, more enjoyable and certainly less stressful than dealing with the condescension and abuse one encounters when searching for an agent.

4.    The mandatory question that must be asked of all first time novelists is: “how much of the story is autobiographical?
a.   Not much.  Next question?  Seriously, germs for some scenes and characters in the novel came from real events and people. For instance, the encounter between the hooker and the churchman in the Old Hotel Utah was sparked by a vaguely similar incident investigated by the Salt Lake City Police in the late 1960s. However, as indicated in the novel, it is a fact that elegant historic hotel, a property of the Mormon Church which frowns on as coffee and tea, once did serve the best coffee in town.
  
5.   Using the actual names of towns and cities like Westport (CT), New York City, Boston, Cambridge, New Haven, Salt Lake City brings authenticity to the novel. However, I can’t find Canyon Mills, Utah on any map.  Where the hell is it?
a.   In my mind and nowhere else that I know of. Closing Circles is fiction. Canyon Mills is a creation, a construct  that encompasses the then unincorporated suburbs of southeastern Salt Lake City, near where I spent some of my youth –villages like East Millcreek, Mt. Olympus Cove, and Holladay. I was writing about what I knew best.  I used some aspects of my experience there as framework for the story. However, while the story is fiction, it is honestly and faithfully told.  The story/stories are within the realm of possibility. They definitely are not stranger than truth.
6.  Your portrait of the Mormon culture is a lot grittier and startling than most reports, even fiction, about the Mormon world. Why?
a.  Hey, don’t shoot the messenger.  Seriously, I tried to write forthrightly about the world and culture as I see it and saw it. No exaggerations. No stones left unturned. No sanitizing.  I tried not to worry too much about howthose with vested interests might react, one way or another.  The goal was to write a novel that people would understand, relate to regardless of their religious or ethnic background.  I wanted readers to see that the Mormon culture really is familiar.  Philip Roth and Chaim Potok made Judaism and its culture familiar to me. As for Mormons: some of us like to think we are soooo different. Now that’s real fiction.

7.   The protagonist of the book – also an author – worries about reprimands from church leaders should he write too candidly and descriptively about sex, or too critically of some church leaders and practices.  Do you worry about being called on the carpet by the leaders of your church?
a.   A little.  But not very much.  The church is much bigger than that, I think.  Closing Circles and the other four novels of what I call the “Pratt Pentalogy” (or the Mormon Quad if I don’t finish the fifth) tell parts of the Mormon story, as did my biography of W. Mitt Romney, for that matter. The books are neither faithful nor unfaithful treatments of Mormons and their religion. They are just good stories – well, I suppose readers will judge for themselves.  I hope they like what they read. And, if they don’t, I hope they will forgive me.

8.      Are you still a practicing Mormon?
a.  Practicing? Absolutely. I’ve been practicing all my life.  Some days I’m better at it than others.  Occasionally, I’m a duck hooking high handicapper with shaky hands, wobbly legs and very cold feet.  I was raised in a profoundly devout Mormon home.  Our world turned around the church.  The church is an all-volunteer organization. It is dependent on the activity and commitment of each member.  As a child I was indoctrinated to accept every “calling” issued by the church.  Here’s an odd fact: even during fairly long periods of being  the “duck hooking, high handicapper” I accepted each and every call.
9.   Time, Incorporated and the magazine publishing industry generally seem to be very important to Jed Russell, the protagonist of the novel.  Was Time an important landing spot for you?
a.   Absolutely.  It was my ticket to write and grow. Truth is, I learned about writing and the real world there.  Time took care of me, treated me with respect, and provided freedom to learn, report.  Writers need demanding editors, and the editors at Time –we all were editors in one sense or another – were exceedingly demanding and quite willing, even eager, to turn my work upside down and inside out.  Usually, their edits improved things.  My editors were my teachers. I rue the day I left Time. That regret may come through in the novel.  Some colleagues have observed:  “well, you never would have become a novelist had you remained at Time.”  I understand what they mean, but I don’t necessarily agree.  I loved the company, the way it was then.  In most respects I still regard it like friends do their years at Yale or Harvard or Amherst. It’s an odd attachment, I know. But, there it is.
10.   Would it be fair to say that sex is a predominant feature in Closing Circles?
a.   If you say so (laughter). Seriously, sex is a prominent feature of life, despite what they say, and you know who they are. So, seeing’s how you asked  – sex is not an issue I would raise (laughter) -- sex is prominent in the novel. So shoot me. But predominant?  No! The demands of writing, fact-gathering and religion predominate even if sex grabs the headlines. In the novel, sex – all of its permutations -- represents taboos, generally.  In the Mormon culture sex is a pretty big taboo. It’s a hush-hush thing even now, although Mormons are hardly unique when it comes to ducking frank discussions of sex. I take it back: Mormons talk about IT a lot, but they do it in the limited and the not very helpful context of “just say no…” This engenders lots of dishonesty, guilt and, um, destructive surprises. 

I remember an intense late night discussion with good friends --we were boys then, teenagers -- about sex and puberty and all that.  The conversation turned into a kind of confessional about masturbation.  Each guy got a chance to fess up.  I got to go last because I was the host.  Guys were saying   blush blush, “oh, uh, um I tried it once, but that was it and I repented.” And, on and on it went and then it was my turn. By then I needed hip waders to get through the B.S.  I said something deflective like: “ummm, well, ummm I don’t have anything to add.”  What I really wanted to: ‘you must be kidding!!!” I thought I was even weirder than I imagined I was already. So, I wanted to write in a way that would encourage personal honesty, connect with readers, most of whom once felt weird themselves and dealt with similar circumstances.  We all have our war stories!
 
11.   Is the book for young people, then?
a.   No, it is adult fiction. It is absolutely not aimed at young people, although some will read. Was Catcher [Catcher in the Rye] written for teenagers?  I don’t think so.  But, I read it when I was 15 or so.  As a general rule, Closing Circles is for adults.  A few chapters may be appropriate for some young people, but I dunno: they turn graphic in a flash. One minute Jed is the swaggering brainy, striving athlete, the next page he’s an outsider, turned upside down with insecurity over his sexual identity and conjured weirdness.
If young people read it, I hope the messages they take away include: you're not weird,  be honest with yourself, adolesence is tough on everyone who every lived even --perhaps especially -- your parents, acquiring self-control is useful but acquiring self-confidence is more important.
12. True to your Mormon heritage, the novel revisits plural marriage/polygamy.  Why go there, it’s so predictable to the point of being trite, isn’t it?
a.   Of course it’s predictable.  That’s why I went there. Polygamy waspart of the Mormon Moment from the beginning. It was the “visible context” for Mormonism for at least a hundred years.  Some will quibble with my estimate. Even today polygamy is the one thing that nearly everyone knows about Mormonism.  So, I had to go there! But let's get one thing straight: I think plural marriage was a really, really bad idea. It is part of my heritage, an interesting part of my heritage. Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman and I wouldn’t be distant, distant cousins if our common great-great-grandfather had contended himself with one wife.  Should I curse or bless Great Grandpa Parley?  Just kidding. I’m proud to be his descendant.  A writer from my background would be irresponsible if he attempted to deal with the complexities of sleeping around, marriage, divorce, conflicting family arrangements without examining  plural marriage, past and present.   The novel  does not address same sex marriage, but it deals sensitively, compassionately and forthrightly with same sex attraction. 
13.   What’s with the emphasis on Yiddish, the Jewish-Mormon cultural thing?
a.  Some of it comes from personal history.  My devout Mormon grandmother spoke Yiddish and a little Hebrew.  She ran a kosher household, more or less. Family jokes about this abound. I was 16 or so before I ate pork for the first time.  I was certain I would soon die. I am happy to report that I didn't!

Some of my interest in Judaism comes from Jewish friends in school. Some comes from caddying for really good Jewish men at The Country Club—the one in Salt Lake City. And, of course, some of it comes from my experiences in New York City and Westport, Connecticut, a town unlike most in Fairfield County.  Uniquely, Westport was open to Jews way back in the bad old days when Jews were excluded from some of the WASPier towns of  Connecticut.
Also, I could not pass up the “almost, but not quite accepted” feelings and insecurities that run through both cultures. There are other cultural similarities too like the very tribal Mormon-Gentile and the Jewish-goyim tensions.   These are powerful things.  Mormonism is a religion, but like Judaism it too has spawned a cohesive and distinct culture( I am not so sure about coherent!  Just kidding).  The Mormon culture -- Mormons as an ethnic group-- was there  from the beginning.  It intensified over the years.  I suspect that will continue to be the case.  Right now we are seeing the emergence of people who self-identify as Mormons but are not deeply religious. No doubt there will be more as time goes on. Mormons are also doctrinally connected to Judaism and Jerusalem in ways that go beyond what one finds in most other Christian denominations. 
14.   How would you respond to anyone. who may ask whether your novel is pro or anti Mormon, or whether the protagonist—Jedediah Pratt Russell -- is a faithful and loyal Mormon?
a.  Precisely the dilemma confronted by Jed Russell in the novel. He's uncertain about himself, about where he stands regards his religion. His family and friends are worried too. Ultimately readers will have to decide or whether or not Jed is faithful and loyal. But, before they make those assessments, they should  ascertain whether they consider any of Chaim Potok’s or Philip Roth’s protagonists faithful, loyal Jews. Historically, Mormonism has been a disturbingly black and white world:“Y’er either with us, or y’er the enemy.”  From the outset of his life, Jed is quite a bit more nuanced.  He definitely is a shades of gray Mormon. His approach to religion is unconventional, perhaps indescribable. He was a faithful young man and missionary, even as he became profoundly troubled by the sanctimony, hypocrisy and spiritual inconsistency he encountered.  Yet, it should be obvious to any reader that Jed’s roots run deep into Mormonism – the tribe, his tribe and their religion. 
15. Readers suggest  that your irreverence for the Mormon culture resembles how Philip Roth or Chaim Potok  got their arms around their Jewishness. Are you up to such comparisons?
a.   No.  Absolutely not.  However, my objectives were similar. Ditto John Cheever’s illuminations of his suburban high WASP tribe. Just the other day an early reader, a psychology professor at Brandeis University, compared Closing Circles favorably to Roth. I was thrilled. What author wouldn’t be? But let’s be real.  Another critic, who found freshness in my language and storytelling, observed caustically: “you are no Chaim Potok.”  I would agree wholeheartedly, although there are poignant Asher Lev moments in the novel. As for Philip Roth: we’re near contemporaries. I feel him in my bones. If you asked what writers influenced me, without a moment’s hesitation I would answer Roth, Cheever, Potok, John Irving and, of course, J.D. Salinger.  In different ways, Thomas Mann and the early Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward, Angel) and the contemporary Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of The Vanities, among many others) were instructive and inspiring. Jonathan Franzen and Jeffery Euginides have been recent influences. 
  
16. What’s next for you?
a.   Unless I have to update the Romney biography, I’ll be finishing The Mending: A life too well remembered. As its name suggests, the protagonist remembers too much detail about the past and, as a result, finds himself on a somewhat obsessive and tricky quest to revisit old wrongs and right them.  The story is an earthy and irreverent, and at times wrenching, journey of self-discovery.  It is a fictional memoir. These words from the novel are descriptive: This was a man who alternately remembered too much of everything and too much of nothing. To tell it true, as He might not, He had often visualized locating everyone He had ever seriously hurt or offended or cheated on, or lied to or about, or slapped or slugged or kicked.  One by one, He would fall on his knees like Moses before the Lord, seek their forgiveness and somehow figure out a way to make things right, start the mending on the spot and not stop until it was done. Or, until He was, whichever came first.

17. So you are mending, then?
           a. Always.  Perpetually. The alternative is not so inviting.

2 comments:

  1. Ron, thanks for posting this interview. I am always eager to understand the context of fiction that is engaging to me. I am a reader who becomes completely immersed emotionally in a book I love, and questions about the author's intention sometimes haunt me for weeks afterward. Once in a great while, the author will explain himself or herself, and if it's well done it's immensely satisfying. Congrats, by the way, on the great publicity you are getting around your Mitt biography. Reminds me of the Calvin Grondahl title, "Marketing Precedes the Miracle."

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  2. Thanks for the comments. after you have finished reading, it would be interesting to learn whether the Q&A helped or just got in the way. Also, if you have questions about Closing Circles or the Romney book, be sure to ask them.

    RBS

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