Writing across Utah's cultural divide
Todd Robert Petersen isn't your traditional Utah Mormon.
Raised in the progressive, punk-rock milieu of Portland and Seattle, he converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before graduating in 1987 from the University of Oregon in Eugene with a film degree.
"Almost no one gets religion in Eugene," said Petersen, 40, from his office in Cedar City, where he teaches creative writing at Southern Utah University. "More people lose it there, in fact."
In his first novel, Rift, the Utah transplant has created an iconic Mormon character almost immediately recognizable to churchgoers. It just goes to show that sometimes the most acute observers are those who see things from the outside.
Coursing through every page of his 2009 novel is Utahn Jens Thorsen, known to all his fictional brothers and sisters down at the Sanpete wardhouse as a stalwart soul with a rusty heart of gold. Donning his bolo tie and walking with "a bearlike lope," Thorsen lives each and every gospel principle, just so long as he doesn't have to take orders from the Brethren. Especially, that is, from his upstart local bishop, Darrell Bunker.
Thorsen is a retired highway worker with a lineage stretching back to old Denmark, and a bickering wife who can't decide whether she's "proud or ashamed" of him. He's the kind of priesthood holder who has never once submitted his home teaching report over the phone. "Dulls my blade," he says.
In younger days, Thorsen made a mess of his mission to Holland. He and his partner moved the village statue of Virgin Mary to the town hall steps, a "miracle" resulting in a flock of Dutch who returned to Catholicism. All's forgiven, though, as long as you know Thorsen's most crucial dictum: "Looking holy and being holy are two different things."
You won't find that holiness in Bishop Bunker. He all but forces his daughter Angie to bear testimony to the entire ward after leaving home. He also dismisses Thorsen's Sabbath-day plea to enlist ward members to save the home of the Gentile town doctor from rising flood waters.
That figures. As Thorsen suspects, it was Bunker who aided the developer in selling the lot for construction in the first place, even though he knew it sat on a flood plane. "Our people are smug about everything," Thorsen vents.
But as Thorsen rages and Bishop Bunker fulminates, Rift undertakes greater plot twists, to the point where, as Petersen puts it, "everyone looks almost equally stupid."
"Knowing affirmation" is how Petersen describes the reaction to the Thorsen character from Cedar City ward members who have read his novel.
"One woman will say that Jens Thorsen is her husband, but then her husband will read the book and say, 'No, I know the real Jens Thorsen. He lives down the street from us,' " Petersen said. "It's good to know you created a character type that's almost immediately recognizable."
Published late last year, Rift made a fast impression. The Association for Mormon Letters has selected it as a contender for its "Novel of the Year" award, among about 70 books submitted for the prize. Awards will be presented at the AML's annual conference on Feb. 27 at Utah Valley University.
Christopher Bigelow, owner of Zarahemla Books, said he had his eye on publishing Petersen's book since he read the first drafts in a writers' group in 2005. Bigelow wanted to read more about the Thorsen, after publishing Petersen's short story introducing Thorsen as a character -- "Thorsen's Angle," included in Petersen's 2007 short-story collection Long After Dark .
"Todd thought he'd written a national book, and shopped it around for quite a time before he relented to have me publish it," said Bigelow, a longtime friend. The two writers met in 2002 and quickly found they shared a sense of humor. For five years, they wrote and maintained the Web site The Sugar Beet , a faux-satirical news source inspired by The Onion , but with an LDS twist.
"I was pretty adamant that he'd written a Mormon book," Bigelow said. "He was speaking to Mormons, yet with a voice that was more humorous and realistic than 'Pollyanish.' "
The book had a long incubation. Upon graduation from U. of O., Petersen enrolled in the doctoral program in English at Oklahoma State University to study under Brian Evenson. Evenson is an academic and esteemed writer ( Altmann's Tongue, Open Curtain and Last Days) who, like Thorsen, had his own run-ins with the LDS Church before leaving his teaching post at Brigham Young University.
"It was a very deliberate choice," said Petersen of choosing Evenson as a writing mentor. "I got an Evenson education at a state university price."
Upon taking a job at SUU, Petersen found himself teaching 19-year-old students while at the same time living in a neighborhood where almost half the residents were older than 65. There were also frequent trips to Sanpete, home to many of his wife Alisa's relatives. Literary influences such as Flannery O'Connor and Denis Johnson were a spring board, as well as the southern Utah culture. Petersen took all of it in.
"She [Alisa] was enjoying her family," Petersen said. "I was taking notes. I didn't really write what I knew, I wrote what I was around."
Aaron Gwyn, a friend of Petersen's from graduate school days who now teaches creative writing at University of North Carolina in Charlotte, was an early booster.
"You have a curmudgeonly guy who's also very principled," Gywn said. "He does things his own way, but also has a belief system he has to answer to. That tension was interesting to me in that it resulted in a lot of cool angles."
He believes there's a distinct difference between Petersen's Thorsen and other LDS characters drawn by writers with Mormon backgrounds, such as Evenson and Walter Kirn.
"With them [Evenson and Kirn] there's almost always this ironic distance," Gwyn said. "Not a belittling, but a play with irony in the treatment of the character's faith. Petersen plays it straight and sincere, so that we accept the character's faith as an asset of his personality."
Petersen, who said he's served as elders' quorum president "more times than I'd like to mention," has found his faith an asset, as well.
"The coolest thing about being a writer and being in the Church," he explained, "is that it's really easy to avoid becoming insular. You don't get to pick who you go to church with. If I only hung out with writers, we'd all be eating Reuben sandwiches and talking about horror movies."
Todd Petersen's Rift is considered for the Association for Mormon Letters annual awards.
When » Feb. 27, registration at 8 a.m., luncheon at 1 p.m. Reception and readings by AML award recipients at 6:30 p.m.
Where » Utah Valley University Library, 800 West University Parkway, Orem. (The library is in the northeast quadrant of the campus' main buildings)
Reception » Readings by AML award recipients at 6:30 p.m.; for address, contact Boyd Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org.