Author interview: David Ebershoff and *The 19th Wife*

A few weeks ago I reviewed David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife when he stopped by my blog on his “TLC Book Tour.”  David offered to answer any questions that readers might have.  Without further ado, I present a wonderful collection of questions, in-depth answers, some humor, a lovely photo of the author, and a cute dog:

Kathy at Bermudaonion’s Weblog:    I just finished this book yesterday and loved it. My question for David is, “Have you been a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints?”

David:  I’ve never been a member of the LDS Church, but I spent quite a bit of time studying LDS doctrine and attended Sunday services for awhile.

Alyce at At Home With Books:  I am wondering what he did to research the book as far as how gay people are treated in LDS, and if he has actually met with any multiple wives from FLDS.

David:  I know some gay Mormons, many of whom have remarkable stories about how they have reconciled their faith, their cultural background, and their sexual orientation.  The character of Tom is partially inspired by a man I met: a devout LDS member who found himself rejected by his church because he was gay.  But rather than turning his back on his faith, he found a way to hold onto it, despite the fact that his religious authorities excommunicated him.  He said to me, Just because I can’t enter a temple doesn’t mean all of a sudden I stop believing what I’ve believed my whole life.  Faith, he said, is about what is in my heart, not what a bunch of church administrators say about who I can or cannot be.  In my heart, I know I am right and on this issue my church is wrong. 

I found this man’s resolve inspiring, and a testament to both his character and the depths of his faith.  He, and others, pointed out to me that until 1978 the LDS Church denied its black members the priesthood.  They believe that future church leaders will come to recognize its gay members as they see themselves: true Latter-day Saints.  I’m sure many of today’s leaders say to themselves, That will never happen.  But I’m also sure past leaders said the same thing about blacks and the priesthood.  Time will tell.

Before I began writing the novel I interviewed a number of former plural wives to understand the issue from their perspective and to get a sense of what an isolated community was like from the inside.  Some had been part of the FLDS, otherwise were indirectly affiliated.  I was denied full interviews with practicing plural wives, although I had many brief but revealing conversations with several.

annie at anniegirl1138:  I haven’t any questions for David but wanted to add that I found the way in which he connected all the characters to each other personally was very well done.

David:  Thank you.  Believe it or not, when I began writing I wasn’t entirely sure how the stories would come together.  But I had faith in the mysterious process of writing and that at the right stage I would see the connections.  And that’s what happened.  The surprises that the reader experiences are surprises that I experienced too as I was writing the book.

NicoleWith so many people fleeing polygamous lifestyles, do they “recruit” new blood, perhaps ‘lost souls’ or those needing a greater social connection? If so, how far do go to “recruit?”

David:  Proportionately, the number of people who flee is relatively small.  It might seem like many people flee because we’ve been hearing their stories in books and on TV in the last few years and so we think there are a lot who have escaped.  Religious communities like the FLDS expand essentially two ways: each woman tends to have more children than the average American woman; and some men find brides outside the community.  There are web sites that help connect men and women interested in polygamy.

Nicole:  Some groups that frequently marry within a defined circle will increase the likelihood of genetic diseases or traits, eg. the prevalence of Tay-Sachs in the Jewish population. Has this been noticed in any of these polygamy populations?

David:  Yes, there has been an unusually high occurrence of Fumarese Deficiency in polygamous communities such as Hildale/Colorado City.  This is a rare condition that retards a child’s mental development.  It also manifests itself in unusual facial features.   Circumstantial evidence suggests these cases are the result of the limited gene pool.

NicoleWhen David did research for this book, what obstacles did he face? What did he do to overcome these obstacles? In particular, when interviewing women that left a polygamous lifestyle, did David feel that his gender was a barrier to the interview?

David:  I began my research almost five years ago.  At that time, there was little national attention on the issue.  (I should note that Jon Krakauer’s superb non-fiction book Under the Banner of Heaven came out in 2003, and the local media in Arizona and Utah have been covering the story for many years with great attention and care).   The women I spoke to were eager to share their stories.  They wanted the nation to know about their experiences and they wanted to affect the debate (much like Ann Eliza Young before them).  Some of my interviews lasted for several hours.  They had a lot they wanted to tell me about being a plural wife, about growing up in a polygamous household, about the religious system that brought them to plural marriage, about the difficult choices they made in leaving.  I didn’t feel that my gender was an obstacle to these interviews.  Interviewing is about trust.  I believe the people I interviewed for this book – men and women – came to understand my interest was sincere that I wanted to write about the issue from many sides.

Shana at Literarily:  Given the many characters and story lines did David work from an extensive and detailed outline?

David:  Not exactly an outline.  After about a year of researching I conceived of the book’s narrative structure – that is, the way I would tell it.  There’s a clear pattern to who is narrating: Jordan, followed by Ann Eliza, followed by someone connected to Ann Eliza – a sort of ABC, ABC, ABC pattern.  Once I convinced myself it would work (at first I feared  it would be too confusing), I realized I needed to further connect Jordan’s story to Ann Eliza’s.  That’s when I started writing the “documents” – the preface by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the interview with Joseph Smith, the devotional hymn.  I put “documents” in quotes because these, of course, are fictional.  I wrote them in a way that would make them feel like authentic documents from the archives.  I wanted to give the reader a sense of what it’s like to spend time in the archives and on-line researching 19th  century polygamy.  So when I began to write I had a rough draft of my table of contents.  It changed as I discovered further connections in the story, but the table of contents served as my map as I made my way through the novel.

Sherry at SemicolonIn light of his research into polygamous groups, I’d like to know what Mr. Ebershoff thinks about the recent events in Texas when a whole group of children were taken from their FLDS parents and placed in the custody of CPS?

David:  When those children in Texas were removed from their families several months ago, I, like the rest of the country, looked on with an admixture of sadness, regret, anger, and uncertainty.  Because I’ve visited a polygamous community like the one in Eldorado, Texas, and interviewed people who were raised under similar circumstances, I know how difficult life can be for children growing up in such complex households.  Yet at the same time, when I saw those children boarding the buses, I had to ask: is this really what’s best for them?  Are they really better off in the court system, than home with their mothers? 

Polygamy presses against many core American values.  By that I mean, we, as a nation, cherish our right to religious freedom, our right to privacy, and the right of others to believe what they choose to believe. These are values central to the American identity.  They are ideals first established by the Founding Fathers.  And yet polygamy forces us to ask ourselves, Are there limits to those rights?  And if so, what are those limits?  And who gets to determine them?  Those are complex questions without simple answers.  That is why the recent debate about polygamy and the families in Eldorado, Texas, is so similar to the debate that swirled around Ann Eliza Young in the 1870s and 1880s.  If you compare her media coverage to that of the polygamists in Texas, you’ll see many similarities.  This tells us that the nation has not resolved these issues.

To my mind, the best way to think about this situation is not in terms of religious freedom, but in terms of the rights of children.  State and local authorities have existing legal frameworks for assessing and helping children who are being abused, or who are at risk of abuse.  Those should apply here.  Look, if 19 adult women and a man want to live together in one household, who am I to say they can’t?  If that’s what they believe, then I have no right, or inclination, to interfere.  But as soon as children come into the picture, which they inevitably do, the picture gets more complicated; it is no longer simply a matter of the beliefs of those 20 adults.  It becomes a matter of the welfare of children, and the larger community has an obligation to them to make sure they are okay.  The only way to do that is case by case, one by one.

Dawn at SheIsTooFondOfBooksIf you were to describe yourself, without using your vocation as an author/editor, what would you say about yourself?

David:  Today, on a cold Monday morning in November, I would use these words to describe myself: quiet, curious, serious/silly, slow, lazy but motivated, a little introverted, dog-loving, tennis-obsessed, a roamer, a dreamer, a planner, a frequently uninformed self-teacher, a space-cadet, a weird and unpredictable combo of optimistic and pessimistic with optimism usually winning out.  But if you were ask me tomorrow, I’m sure I would add a few more words.

Dawn at SheIsTooFondOfBooksIs there anything else you’d like to add? I read an interview at Musings of a Bookish Kitty where you talked about Joey being inspired by a real pooch, very sweet and personal.

David:  Joey, Tom’s dog who first appears on p. 305, is inspired by a real dog, Joey Brownstein, a sweet Golden Retriever.  (Here’s his picture.)  Joey – the real Joey – was a very good dog, well-behaved, thoughtful, affectionate, dignified, cheerful.  Jordan’s dog, Elektra, is inspired my actual dog, Elektra, who is, let’s just say, not as well-behaved as Joey.  The contrast between the real Joey and the real Elektra struck me as somewhat representative of the contrasts between Jordan and Tom, and so it made sense to include the dog storyline. Joey Brownstein passed away in 2006 at the age of 14 ½.  We miss him very much.  He was a good boy.

Dawn at SheIsTooFondOfBooks:  I want to thank everyone who left a comment, and to thank David for taking the time to chat with us.  I really enjoyed learned more about you, your research, and The 19th Wife itself (I didn’t pick up on the ABC ABC ABC pattern of perspective when I read it!).

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