Wednesday, November 11, 2009
LDS Forever Friends Book Nook Interview With Jonathan Langford
It's my pleasure to welcome Jonathan Langford, author of the new LDS novel No Going Back that I just reviewed here on the Book Nook.
1. What caused you to write a novel about this type of topic?
Several years ago, there was a discussion on AML-List, the email discussion list of the Association for Mormon Letters, about the scarcity of fiction dealing with the experience of those who are LDS but same-sex attracted — especially those who are committed to living Church standards and staying in the Church. It was amazing to me that so little had been written in this area. Then a story idea popped into my head, and it wouldn’t go away...
Part of my reason for writing about this topic was my sense that it could be important for the LDS community. I felt there was a need.
2. By using some graphic language, did you feel it needed that more realistic touch because teenagers were the focal point of the story?
I wanted the story to be as realistic as it could be, consistent with my goals of telling the particular story I wanted to tell and reaching believing LDS readers. If anything, the language used by the teenagers in the book is milder than what you encounter in basically any American public high school — or elementary school, based on my experience. (Among other things, I avoided any references to deity in swearing.)
The graphic language isn’t just there to make the story more realistic. Partly, the language is intended to show the influence of the world around the main LDS characters — a world that is not predominantly LDS. Chad, the bishop’s son (my main character Paul’s best friend), picked up a cussing habit a few years back when he was going through a rebellious phase after his dad was made bishop. He’s trying to get over it, but he slips back into it especially when he’s around his non-LDS friends. Sometimes Paul cusses too, but mostly when he’s really mad and wants to shock someone. The language issues reflect the kinds of conflict that the characters feel between LDS standards and what the world teaches.
I wrote a recent blog (http://www.langfordwriter.com/blog/?p=37) on why I felt it was so important to write a REALISTIC novel dealing with same-gender attraction. Basically, I wanted to show that the Holy Ghost could operate in the life of real-life teenagers living real-life experiences.
3. What was the reason for the fictitious name of Arcadia Heights?
Mostly, I didn’t want to write about a real place and get it wrong! Or get it right, for that matter. “Arcadia Heights” sounded plausibly tree-ish (appropriate for western Oregon) and kind of like the name a developer might stick on a suburb.
4. Why did you choose 2003-4 for the time period of No Going Back?
I wanted a fairly recent timeframe, and I’d already chosen western Oregon for the setting. Then I started researching and discovered the 2004 Oregon ballot initiative on gay marriage. I quickly realized that although the story wasn’t going to be primarily about gay marriage, the political campaign could be a source of external conflict to ratchet up the pressure for my main character. The rest of the timeline was built around those events.
5. I felt the story was very realistic. Why are some saying it was TOO realistic?
A former bishop of mine read the book recently. He told me that he thought it was worthwhile, but it had been very hard for him to read, just because it reminded him unpleasantly of what high school and being a teenager can really be like.
Part of the realism issue has to do with the cussing and other graphic language. I think more of it, though, has to do with the book not having a more positive ending. There’s no guarantee about what’s in Paul’s future — whether this challenge is something that might diminish over time, whether Paul will be able to be married someday, whether he’ll stay faithful to the Church.
That, for me, is highly realistic given that Paul is 16 when the book ends. I don’t think it’s a depressing ending, but admittedly he’s gone through some pretty tough times. He’s survived, and he’s stronger in some ways, but there are some lasting negative effects of what he’s been through as well. It’s a growing-up story — and growing up is tough.
6. Do you feel non LDS will get as much out of No Going Back as active LDS members will?
LDS readers were my intended audience. Without an LDS background, I think it would be hard to follow some of the details and understand a great deal of what the story is centrally about.
Some stories can be written for a general audience. Other stories pretty much demand to be told to a narrower audience. This is one of the latter, I think. Someone without a believing LDS background would, I think, find it hard to identify with what the stakes are for Paul — what it is that he would be giving up if he decided to leave the Church, and why that’s so important to him.
7. Why do you feel some LDS fiction readers tend to shy away from Zarahemla published books, when not all their books are controversial?
Part of it, I think, is that Chris Bigelow (owner/operator of Zarahemla Books) has been so eclectic in his publishing. You just can’t generalize about Zarahemla titles. That unpredictability makes some people wary, though I think it’s also a positive. I think he’d rather publish a title some people will love and other people won’t be able to stand, instead of a title everyone would agree is basically okay.
Chris also takes more chances than the Deseret Book/Bookcraft/Covenant crowd. He occupies a kind of middle position, where his goal is to be faith-affirming but he’s willing to go places where a lot of LDS readers may not be comfortable — though as you point out, some of his books, like Doug Thayer’s memoir Hooligan, aren’t controversial at all.
I also think some people want their LDS fiction to be safe. Even if they might read something that’s PG-rated or PG-13 from other sources, they feel betrayed when they encounter something like that with an LDS label. But I don’t know if that’s been a major factor in reactions to Zarahemla titles. Honestly, I think the biggest problem has been that the people who would like the books Chris publishes mostly don’t know they exist — something I’m finding quite frustrating at present...
8. We are a Church that teaches us to love everyone, the same as Our Savior Jesus Christ, does. Why do we tend to treat same-sex attraction this way, when some wish they weren't this way and attempt to live a righteous and morally strong life?
I actually think that on an individual level, we do pretty well at accepting people, though we also don’t condone same-gender activity. The problem comes when we talk and make statements without thinking about who might be listening.
I also think there’s a lack of understanding in the Church about how people can be same-gender attracted and still be a faithful member of the Church. I hope my book can help with this.
9. Why did you portray Sandy, the Bishop's wife, as a gossipy type woman? I don't see any Bishop's wife being that way. lol
I first became acquainted with Sandy at the point when I started realizing some of the possibilities if Paul’s bishop were also his best friend’s dad.
Some of Sandy’s characteristics were determined by the part I needed her to play in the story. I needed her to blow her top over her son’s best friend being gay, but if you look carefully, her reasons have less to do with negative emotions about gay people and more to do with feeling left out of an important decision — reflecting her resentment of the stress her husband’s calling is putting on their family.
I don’t really see gossipiness as one of Sandy’s major determining characteristics. Much more important, to my way of thinking, is her unforgivingly rigid view of the gospel, which she applies just as strictly to herself as to anyone else. Sandy doesn’t really get the Atonement. She doesn’t think of herself as a good person, but she tries to do the right thing anyway. There’s something admirable about that, in a messed-up kind of way — but who of us isn’t messed up one way or another?
10. Do you feel that a lot of our youth today believe they are gay because it's becoming more acceptable and are not really gay?
The whole issue of whether someone is “really gay” is a tricky one. From a doctrinal perspective, we as LDS are more or less committed to the notion that no one is “really” gay in an eternal sense. On the other hand, there seems to be a growing acceptance by Church leaders that some people have same-gender attractions that may not change in this life, for whatever combination of reasons.
I think that for youth who experience those feelings, there’s now a convenient label and growing societal acceptance that make it easier for them to decide they’re gay, while in earlier years they would have been more likely to try to deny it. I’m concerned that if all the stories they hear in the Church are about people leaving the Church because of this issue, they’ll decide that’s the only viable option for them as well — long before their parents and others even know this is something they’re dealing with. That’s another thing I hope my book can help with by generating more conversation about people experiencing this challenge but choosing to stay in the Church nonetheless.
11. How did your Bishop and your ward members feel about you writing No Going Back and what was their reaction to your book when it was released?
I have a very tolerant ward. Our family has lived here for 12 years now, and people pretty much know who we are and what to expect from us — the good and the bad.
My current bishop hasn’t read my book, but he knows about it. A couple of members of my recently released stake presidency read the book and liked it. I worry that some of my ward members may read the book just because I wrote it, and then will find they don’t like it. So far, though, most reactions have been positive, and no one within my ward has reacted negatively to me for having written it.
12. You were the moderator of the AML-List for quite some time. Can you tell us what this online list was for?
It was an email list for discussing literature by, for, and/or about Mormons, with a lot of spillover into other Mormon arts, literature in general, and sometimes Mormon culture and thought — though as moderator it was my job to try to make sure everything had at least a theoretically literary tie-in. Back in its heyday, before the days of blogging, it was an excellent way to find out about Mormon literature and just generally have a good conversation, especially for those of us living outside the Mormon heartland. It still exists today, though due to a combination of factors it’s not as busy as it once was.
There’s a huge database of book reviews that have been generated on AML-List over the years at http://www.mormonletters.org/Reviews/Default.aspx/.
13. What are you writing now?
I’m busy with a lot of non-creative-writing projects right now. I’m also trying to spend some time researching and plotting some fantasy stories that have been in the back of my mind for a while, though at the moment they’re taking a back seat to paid work, taking care of kids and family, and trying to promote No Going Back.
14. What do you do in your spare time? Your family? Any grandkids? What's your calling in your ward and aside from writing, what do you do for a living?
Starting with the last... I’m a freelance informational writer and editor. Most of my clients are educational publishers or otherwise in the education field. It allows me to work from my home, which is good, since my wife Laurel teaches at our local university. We have three children — the oldest, Nathan, is 20 years old and currently serving a mission in Washington state. Our daughter, Rowan, is 14 and currently starting high school (and early-morning seminary — out the door by 5:45, ugh!). Our youngest, Michael, is 9 and in third grade.
Most of my spare time is spent at home. I like to cook and read. I like to garden, especially herbs, but we haven’t been here for the last several summers, so I haven’t been able to do much with that. I’m a ward membership clerk and was recently also called as ward Young Men’s secretary.
Well Jonathan, it's been a pleasure having you with us here on The Book Nook. If Jonathan has sparked an interest in reading his No Going Back, you can find it at Amazon and B&N and at your local LDS bookstore.