Ryan McIlvain, raised as a Mormon (sixth generation), went on a mission and later, in his mid-twenties, quit the church.
A Stegner fellow who is getting his Ph.D. in literature from The University of Southern California, McIlvain's first novel, Elders, focuses on the fraught interaction between two young people on a mission in Brazil, as well as those they strive so hard to convert. A portion of Elders first appeared in The Paris Review.
Elders' psychological depth and feeling of genuineness make it a gratifying book to read. And now, here is my interview with Ryan McIlvain.
Q: You left the Mormon Church some time after your own stint as a missionary. Did you take notes during your mission with the idea that you might write about it someday?
Although I kept a journal every night for the two years of my mission, I didn’t draw on it at all in the writing of the book. I’m sure getting thoughts and images down on paper helped record them in my memory, but by the time I started drafting Elders a few years later, I think I wanted only the thoughts and images that rose to the surface naturally, organically. I didn’t want the inspiration, so to speak, to crowd out the fiction it inspired. And I didn’t want a journalistic feel.
But more to your question: I don’t think my journal keeping was any sort of conscious layaway plan (though maybe it was unconscious). Mostly I was terrified of losing my writing chops, my English, and I relished the chance to practice them after long days of speaking only Portuguese.
Q: Was the book accurate about the fact that, in knocking on a hundred or a thousand doors, you might only meet one person interested in listening to your spiel and possibly going further?
Accurate-ish, I suppose. When I sometimes tagged along with Boston-based missionaries as a teenager, I saw them suffer through odds very much like those. In Brazil, people are more open, more religious generally, I think, although now I’m starting to sound journalistic and I remember why I prefer a less accountable genre! For Elders I felt I needed a more economic cast of characters than your average missionary encounters. But in any case, “tracting” always entails more rejection than acceptance, by a wide margin. A little like journal submissions, it occurs to me.
Q: Why are there so many rules about what you could do or not do during those two years? No newspapers, etc. Two years is a long time to be "away."
It is indeed, and may I suggest you take up your implied critique with the Mormon hierarchs? (I hope you can hear me smiling—tone is such a slippery thing in correspondence.) But I think it’s basically a program to mortify the mind and the body, rather militaristic, a way to radically focus attention, renounce “the world,” etc. Like my characters Passos and McLeod, I went into the mission field shortly after 9/11, a harder-than-usual time to be cut off from family and friends and news of the world.
I remember with a sort of survivor’s pride that I was promised four phone calls home over the course of two years—two Christmases, two Mother’s Days—but during my first Christmas in the Missionary Training Center there were six hundred missionaries and two pay phones, so no dice. Four calls shrunk to three. My parents were irate, my father especially. “You know who doesn’t let their children call home for the holidays?” he wrote. “The Taliban!” So, yes, a lot of rules.
Q: What was the single most crucial bit of your becoming disaffected from the Church?
The truth claims themselves, particularly those unique to Mormonism’s unique brand of Christianity: Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, modern prophets, etc. That said, I’d long doubted supernaturalism in general, and I’d be loath to place too much emphasis on the Mormon gospel. By my mid-twenties I’d given up the faith quest altogether. Now it’s just longing, what-if questions, the poetry of it all, the kind of desiccated religiosity that religious people are right to resent. But what can you do?
Q: I know that was a rhetorical question, Ryan, but what you can do is give up the longing. Once you accept reality, it turns out to be enough. Meanwhile (speaking of reality), Romney's nomination made your book more timely. But will his loss affect sales, do you think?
Ha! I hope not, though I know very little about what actually drives sales. If Romney and the “Mormon moment” he was part of are on their way to a (very comfortable) retirement, I’ll be content that they left some greater cultural literacy about Mormons in their wake. Truth be told, I’m glad Romney lost, and not just for political reasons: I was vaguely afraid that Elders would look suspicious in its timeliness, as if it were just trying to capitalize on all the press. I started sketching out the book in 2007, a year before Romney made himself a household name. Those were purer times.
Q: Can you describe what helps you get into your most fluid writing mind?
It’s more a question of time than space, though both are factors. If I’m at home on the couch or at my kitchen table, or at a quiet library carrel, I feel comfortable space-wise. (I’m considering “quiet” a condition of space.) But I find I need at least a three- or four-hour chunk of time to get anything of consequence done, especially on a long-form project like a novel. If I can carve three hours out of a busy day, I’ll maybe get two hours of dream-state writing in. That first hour is for the descent, if you will, going back down into your work from the previous day, or the previous session, reading it aloud, making tweaks, bigger changes, trying to get back into that voice, that rhythm. I’m told Joan Didion does something similar, and I’m happy for the illustrious and reassuring company.
Note: In fact, many illustrious writers do something quite like what Ryan McIlvain described to get into a flow state. See a previous post.
Copyright (2013) by Susan K. Perry