Former Mormon explores missionary tale in fiction
"Write what you know" is the most time-worn, best-known advice offered to every aspiring writer.
As a former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who served a two-year mission in Brazil, Ryan McIlvain knows his subject intimately. For every door opened, hundreds remain closed. For every joyful convert, thousands remain skeptical.
But McIlvain wanted to capture not just the religious strains of these seminal years in almost every young Mormon's life. He also wanted to explore aspects common to virtually every personal journey, captured in fictional characters Elders McLeod and Passos. The two navigate Brazil's favelas with one eye out for Heavenly Father and another on the interactions that will, by book's end, transform them. Born in Salt Lake City, but a native of Marshfield on Massachusetts's South Shore, McIlvain is a Stegner Fellow at Stanford now studying for his doctorate at University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife. He hopes to bring his book tour to Utah later this year, after finishing readings on the East Coast.
The author bio is quite up front about your current relationship with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Talk about why you left the fold? • It's a long story, as these tend to be, but after a number of years trying to believe, it wasn't panning out. Certain events in life freed me from social relationships. When that happened, I just decided to part amicably.
Putting that on the book jacket is a way of saying the author knows whereof he speaks. But I guess I'm a little ambivalent about it. It's a craven surrender to the belief that you must have first-hand knowledge about a subject in order to write about it, which I don't believe. I think of it as a temporary feature of the author bio. When I'm not writing my next book about missionaries, I'll drop it. It actually feels a little passive-aggressive.
"Elders" deals a lot in the sexual frustrations of young men. Writing about sex, and sexual urges, is a frequent magnet for purple prose. How and why did you decide to approach this theme? • The fact that it's a large part of a young man's thoughts is part of the answer. I was interested in homing in, as closely and honestly as possible, on the inner lives of Elders McLeod and Passos. There's no shortage of gaggy, comic and light portrayals of Mormons in the media. But there was a dearth of emotionally earnest portrayals of Mormons. One of my Stanford professors said that sex is just something people do, like eating. It doesn't have to be imbued with taboo any more than eating. That's not to say you treat either trivially.
There's an inherent irony in the book's title, because of course men in their early 20s cannot be "Elders" in the strictest sense. But McLeod and Passos become more wise after their experience. • Sure, there is something deceptive about 19- and 20-year olds being called Elders. There's also something to this generation of late teenagers who are asked to think, on a daily basis, about deep questions. Why are we here? Why is this meaningful? The existential questions that missionaries ask could easily translate to a secular context. I'm not sure a lot of young people do that kind of thinking aside from undergraduate philosophy majors. Even then, the only things young Mormons on a mission can read is wisdom literature.
In my experience I didn't leave the mission field believing the way I wanted to believe, but I did become a wiser person. I was more humble and a little less cocksure about my own country. There's both an irony about the title, and a deep sincerity about it, too.
The book carries an interesting subtext about the ways language, and Scriptural language in particular, works. There's a curious phrase that emerges"The undemanding surface of all things"when Elder Passos talks about the beauty of I Corinthians 13. • It's about how Passoss, whose first language is Portuguese, feels the English language is given a certain unfair prestige in Mormon circles. He feels that should be independent, at best, to doctrine. But in fact he finds there's a hierarchy. Mormon Scripture has more features in English than it does in Portuguese. Passoss starts to feel it's just another kind of imperialism. That's what I most like about himhis ability to see the challenge and meet it. He feels doctrine is more essential than the way it's expressed.
A reviewer for Slate stated "The community of people with an interest in serious Mormon fiction is not enormous." Do you feel that's a fair assessment? • Who knows. One thing I really don't want to do in talking about this book is presume what a community of readers will think about it. I hope it could appeal to just about anyone, but even within the Mormon community I think that appeal is more changeable and flexible than people give it credit for. It's a surprising community, and I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't connect with many people in the church. A friend of mine who's a bishop said he couldn't wait to read it. I don't imagine he'll be preaching it from the pulpit, but fiction enters the mind silently, like a secret.
By Ryan McIlvain