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Utah author Mette Ivie Harrison talks about leaving the Latter-day Saint faith and her fictional sleuth’s religious journey

She digs into church patriarchy, homelessness and sexual assault in “The Prodigal Daughter,” out May 25.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mette Ivie Harrison, Utah novelist - whose latest mystery novel, "The Prodigal Daughter," takes her Salt Lake City bishop's wife detective, Linda Wallheim, on the case of a missing teen, while she also confronts the cracks in her Latter-day Saint faith and her marriage. Pictured at Fast Break across the street from Pioneer Park on Tuesday, May 11, 2021, is the location of one of the scene’s in her novel.

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Most interviews with authors don’t involve a three-block walk to a gas station where the pumps don’t have any gas.

But walking with Mette Ivie Harrison — whose new mystery novel, “The Prodigal Daughter,” will be released May 25 — to this location is important, because the FastBreak mini-mart, across 300 West from Pioneer Park in downtown Salt Lake City, isn’t just any gas station.

In Harrison’s new book, it’s the scene of the crime.

Harrison visited the FastBreak a few times in the five years she spent writing “The Prodigal Daughter” — the fifth in her series of mysteries featuring suburban sleuth Linda Wallheim, a Draper mother of five now-adult boys and wife of Kurt, a bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I came down here. I took out maps, too,” Harrison said. “I tried to measure how far away [another character] would be, where Linda would park the car.”

In “The Prodigal Daughter,” set around Christmas, Linda Wallheim is asked to help find Sabrina, the 15-year-old babysitter of Linda’s baby granddaughter. Linda learns Sabrina ran away from home in Ogden and is living on the streets of downtown Salt Lake City. Linda also learns why Sabrina ran away, and why the girl feels she can’t go back to her parents.

The FastBreak is where Linda first meets Sabrina, fairly early into the novel. It’s also where something big happens in the book’s climax, which will not be divulged here.

Harrison also visited Pioneer Park for her research, and the Salt Lake City Public Library’s main branch — a favorite spot for people experiencing homelessness to keep warm and get some rest during the daylight hours. Both locations are featured in the book.

Harrison said she did not, as Linda does, spend a frozen December night in Pioneer Park.

“I have a friend who insists that if you have a scene in a book, like an action scene, you need to act it out yourself,” Harrison said. “She wrote a crime novel, and had a friend drive her around in the boot of her car — so she would be able to write authentically from the boot of a car.”

Writing ‘the Mormon that maybe I could be’

In the book, as with Harrison’s previous four installments, Linda chafes against the patriarchal limitations of the church, and of being the wife of a bishop. Linda’s journey away from her faith, and the increasing tension with Kurt, is something Harrison baked into the series from the first book, “The Bishop’s Wife,” which was published in 2014.

Harrison created Linda Wallheim because “I wanted to write about a Mormon woman who was kind of the Mormon that maybe I could be,” she said, still using the common nickname for church members whose usage church President Russell M. Nelson in 2018 said should be discouraged.

Fans have suggested, Harrison said, “that Linda is me. I don’t think that’s true, because I don’t feel I am as much a believer as she is.”

Harrison grew up in a Latter-day Saint home, the ninth of 11 children living on a farm in central New Jersey. “It was beautiful,” she said. “Green, lots of room to run around, and trees for a kid to climb in.”

Her father, Evan Ivie (who died last year), was a computer scientist, working for 13 years at Bell Labs and being involved with the early development of the UNIX operating system. All six of Harrison’s brothers, and two of her four sisters, followed their dad’s path into computer programming.

“I really am the odd one out, even in my own family, as a writer,” Harrison said. “I started telling my parents I wanted to be a writer when I was 5, in kindergarten. My dad spent my entire youth trying to talk me out of it. And for many years, I was angry about that.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mette Ivie Harrison, Utah novelist - whose latest mystery novel, "The Prodigal Daughter," takes her Salt Lake City bishop's wife detective, Linda Wallheim, on the case of a missing teen, while she also confronts the cracks in her Latter-day Saint faith and her marriage. Pictured near one of the TRAX stations on Tuesday, May 11, 2021, is the location of one of the scene’s in her novel.

As an adult, though, Harrison said, “I have reached a point where I really understand why my dad did that. And I sometimes wish that he had succeeded in convincing me not to be a writer. [Laughs] It’s not financially very secure. And has become even less secure over the last 30 years.”

When Harrison was 10, the family moved to Utah, following her father’s dream of returning to his alma mater, Brigham Young University, where he taught computer science for 20 years. The culture shock was intense.

“In New Jersey, no one’s Mormon. And people assume you’re Catholic if you’ve got that many kids,” she said. “You come to Utah and suddenly being Mormon is normal.”

Harrison remained a churchgoer through college, marriage, grad school at Princeton, raising five children and launching her career as a writer of young-adult fiction, starting with “The Princess and the Bear” in 2009.

By this time, Harrison said, she was in her “atheist phase” — “I don’t know if I’m out of the atheist phase. But I’m a little softer about my atheism now,” she added.

“People do ask sometimes if my journey away from the church is what I have written year by year into Linda,” Harrison said. When she was first doing interviews for “The Bishop’s Wife” in 2014, Harrison said, “I made it really clear that Linda’s arc was headed out of the church. That’s the dramatic, interesting arc. Her staying in the church was not the interesting arc for the audience I was writing for.”

Harrison designed the Linda Wallheim mysteries for a national audience, one fascinated by Latter-day Saint culture and customs — and more willing to read Harrison’s interpretation of church history and doctrine, wrapped in the cloak of a crime novel.

“These books are almost exclusively read by non-Mormons,” Harrison said. “The Mormon audience is minuscule.”

Harrison chalks up the lower number of Latter-day Saint readers to a decision by Deseret Book, part of the church’s business empire, not to carry the series. “They made that choice from the very beginning,” Harrison said, “and they stuck to it.”

When “The Bishop’s Wife” was published, she said, “I didn’t plan, consciously anyway, on leaving. Even though I was an atheist at the time. I was still planning to stay.”

Publishing “The Bishop’s Wife,” she said, “made it more difficult to stay. It marked me as, very publicly, somebody whose views were different, and not very acceptable to the local people I was around. It felt like there was pressure on my leaders to censure me.” She added that she also made waves with her weekly “Mormon in Progress” column she wrote for The Huffington Post, from 2015 to 2016, in which she reflected on living as a Latter-day Saint.

“They didn’t excommunicate me,” Harrison said. “My callings changed, to the point I was in the nursery for seven years.”

If church leadership thought having her babysit the congregation’s youngest members would keep her from affecting their minds, she said, they were mistaken. When singing the hymn “A Child’s Prayer,” which includes the lyrics “Heavenly Father, are you really there?” Harrison said, “we sang, ‘Heavenly Mother, are you really there?’ Sometimes the 3-year-olds would say, ‘Those are the wrong words.’ I’d say, ‘Those are my words.’”

A tipping point for Harrison was when church leaders proclaimed, in 2015, that children of LGBTQ couples could not be baptized until they turned 18 and disavowed their parents’ same-sex marriage.

“I wore black, because I was in mourning, every day,” she said. “And I wore a rainbow ribbon. So I marked myself very clearly in my ward as not orthodox.”

Harrison also took part in a rally at Pioneer Park to protest the church’s policy. “That was when I started to see the homeless people that were here at this park,” she said.

As she walked across Pioneer Park’s soccer field — something that didn’t exist in 2015 — she noted the changes to the park, like the removal of portable toilets. “”That’s part of the book: Everywhere they go, they get pushed away,” she said.

In April 2019, the church reversed the policy against baptizing children of LGBTQ couples. Three months earlier, Harrison said, she had stopped attending church.

Seven books, and what happens after

When she wrote “The Bishop’s Wife,” Harrison said she mapped out a seven-book series of novels — each one exploring aspects of Latter-day Saint doctrine and culture. In the first book, a young woman goes missing in Linda’s ward in Draper, and Linda suspects the woman’s seemingly grief-stricken husband of murder. (The storyline was inspired, loosely, by the real-life 2009 disappearance of Susan Cox Powell.)

The second book, “His Right Hand,” started with the murder of a prominent male leader in the ward and the discovery during the autopsy that he was biologically female. In the third, “For Time and All Eternities,” Linda meets her son’s prospective in-laws, members of a polygamous community, where a murder happens. In the fourth, “Not of This Fold,” Linda lands in a tangle of extortion and murder in her ward’s new Spanish-language congregation.

“The Prodigal Daughter” is well timed with the #MeToo era, as it explores sexual assault of young women — and what Linda sees as a default within Latter-day Saint communities to blame the young women, rather than the men who commit those assaults.

Harrison has already delivered the manuscript for her sixth installment, “The Millstone,” to the publisher — it was originally meant to be the fifth in the series, but was swapped with “The Prodigal Daughter.” She said it centers on Linda’s youngest son, Samuel, who is gay but continues to serve a Latter-day Saint mission in Boston. Early this year, she said, she completed the draft of the series’ seventh and final installment.

Harrison said she wrote the outline for the series before “The Bishop’s Wife” was published to keep herself focused. “I was worried,” she said, “the Mormon reaction would change what I would feel comfortable writing about.”

She said she has changed details along the way — and seen details in earlier books become outdated — for the surprising reason that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has made changes.

“The church might not do Scouting any more? That was not in my head as a possibility,” she said. “The church might go to two hours on Sunday? Not one of the things that I thought would be a possibility.”

As Harrison considers life after the Linda Wallheim series, she will do so living alone in Salt Lake City. Last September, she said, her husband asked her to move out of their suburban home; he filed for divorce in October, and proceedings are ongoing, according to public records.

Here, Harrison said, reality and fiction diverge. “I don’t think Kurt would do that. Kurt’s sort of a softer version [of my husband].”

She moved into an apartment downtown, in the same building where two of her children live. She has taken a job with a financial company whose offices, once they reopen, are walking distance from her apartment.

“Since September, I haven’t felt like a writer at all. I have maybe 15 or 20 minutes a day to write,” she said. “The rest of my time is consumed with trying, as a 50-year-old woman, to get back into the workplace after 25 years off. … My whole life is really weird right now.”

“The Prodigal Daughter”

By Mette Ivie Harrison

In bookstores nationwide May 25.

Soho Press, hardcover, 264 pages, $27.95.

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