November 2006

Angela Stubbs


An Interview with Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson writes stories that make you want to sleep with a light on. His work is crafty and creepy and intriguing. He is the master when it comes to language, and before you know it, his stories and descriptions will have taken you hostage from your own moral judgments, allowing you to accept sociopaths, the perverse nature of violent acts being committed, along with a few zealots tossed in for good measure while taking in the psychology and religious ideology that seem to be present in all of his work. If you are a character in an Evenson short-story or novel, you are most likely being drowned, having your mouth (full of bees) stitched closed, or enduring some form of psychological or physical trauma. Evenson’s novels and stories are continually dark and always present to its reader the unexpected.

The Open Curtain is Evenson’s latest work and it reveals a great deal about the rituals and symbolism that have evolved within the Mormon Church since its inception. This novel explores violence in a way that is unsettling and even addicting for the reader. Evenson digs deep to show what happens when you lose the one thing that defines you as a person. The main character of The Open Curtain develops his own schizophrenic way of defining who he is and what he thinks about life and his religion. In his quest to redefine himself, he latches onto the identity of another LDS (Latter Day Saint) member who was accused of performing a violent ritual which resulted in murder some 100 years prior. Evenson shows us how sectarian violence masquerades in a culture where secrets and religious based rituals can take a psychological toll on those who are emotionally vulnerable.

When I spoke with Brian, I realized how passionate he is about storytelling, but also about simply presenting troubling accounts of horrific violence in a thought-provoking way. He has the capacity to write violent and visually disturbing stories and chapters without being too graphic. His unique way with language enables him to give us just enough information to let our imaginations run wild. Brian and I talked on the phone about what it is like to be Mormon, how difficult it will be for him to not write about Mormonism in his next novel, church history involving violence, murder, church rituals and ceremonies, and the pressures that exist in organized religion as well as why he chose to expound on what happens behind closed doors in the wedding ceremony at the LDS Temple in his new novel.

You mentioned having come across the Brigham Young story about his grandson and the murder he was being accused of from the early 1900s. What were you doing at that time when you discovered the information?

I think I was living in Oklahoma at the time, just having left Brigham Young University after controversy surrounding my first book. I don't remember what I was looking for exactly, I think maybe something about another murder, when I stumbled onto a brief mention that a grandson of Brigham Young had ritually murdered a woman in New York in 1903. What surprised me was that, despite growing up Mormon and despite having thought a lot about the relationship of violence to religion, I'd never heard that one of Mormon prophet Brigham Young's grandsons had committed a ritual murder. From there, I began to research it more fully, spending a lot of time paging through microfilms of the New York Times and other newspapers in a way very like how Rudd does in the novel.

I think it’s really interesting when you find something, especially when it is directly linked to your faith and even more so because it’s not just a murder, but it’s linked to something that’s close to you in a weird way.

I'm a strong believer in randomness and coincidence, and a lot of my work seems to come about in this way, just being open to seeing connections between things. I feel like this thing happens all the time. For instance, just a week ago, I was e-mailed by someone whose last name was Brown who wanted me to submit something to her magazine. Funny, I thought, since I go to Brown, to be solicited by someone named Brown. Then I opened the next message and found it to be a note from someone also named Brown asking me to submit to a different magazine. If you're even a little bit inclined toward the irrational, it's hard not to read significance into something like that. If you have a tenuous hold on reality, it can become the launch pad for delusion. When I came across the Hooper Young murder, it was hard not to feel it was something I had to write about; it just fit so remarkably well with my concerns. But it took me a while to figure out what exactly I wanted to do with it, that I wasn't interested in doing a traditional historical novel.

The main character in The Open Curtain is Rudd Theurer, a high school student in Utah who becomes obsessed with the murder that involves Blood Atonement. He chooses to write a school paper about the crime. The research he does refers to or implies that the murder had something to do with the Blood Atonement Doctrine. Did such a doctrine exist in the church? Is there any debate over whether or not it’s real or practiced?

There's a lot of debate about it. The official position of the Mormon Church is that it never existed and was never sanctioned by the Church. The evidence we have about it is partly anecdotal, but there is enough of that to suggest something was going on, whether secretly within the Church or among fringe Mormons, and several deaths that seem consistent with Blood Atonement. Brigham Young, among others, did preach that certain sins can only be atoned for by the shedding of the blood of the sinner, but whether this led to actual practice is difficult to say. Whether it actually happened or not, the idea of it circulates in the Mormon subconscious and definitely has had some effect on how Mormons think, and a startlingly large percentage of Mormons do believe in it.

Do you feel that it’s inherent in Mormon culture to suppress or deny religious history or at least the facts that might blemish the church’s reputation in any way?

I don’t know if it's inherent, but it's certainly been established practice for a number of years. In the 1950s, the Mormon Church had almost no publicity department; now, that's one of the largest departments in the Church's bureaucracy. The Mormon Church has acted more and more like a corporation as time has gone on, and has become incredibly conscious of negative publicity. I do think that too often that leads to suppression of or minimizing of facts from Mormonism's very colorful and to my mind very interesting past. In the last few decades Mormonism has worked very hard to present itself as a Christ-centered Church that fits really snugly into Middle America. But to be able to see it that way, you have to forget a lot of Mormonism's history.

I think often times Mormons are shocked or surprised when violent things bubble up. It’s really difficult for them to fathom how or why violent crimes like the Lafferty murders take place in a religious culture where things can be blatantly disregarded. Mormonism places a lot of pressure on its members to do and be a lot of things. It can be overwhelming.

Yes. I think this is true in any faith that puts a lot of pressure on people to conform. Most people adapt themselves to that pressure and conform or they leave the Church, but a small percentage of people find themselves caught in the middle in a way that either destroys them or transforms them into a kind of juggernaut of violence. I grew up in Provo, Utah, which people referred to proudly and unironically as "Happy Valley." People took great pride in looking on the bright side of life. In addition, we were counseled to only record positive things in our journals so that our memories of things would preserve the good and forget the bad. Well, to be able to do that, you need to repress a tremendous amount, and some of what's repressed is going to bubble up again. The return of the repressed is something that functions both for the individual and for the culture as a whole. After spending a few years looking at violence in Mormon culture carefully, I wasn't surprised that what's repressed causes upswellings of violence, but I was that these up swellings didn't happen more often.

What I find interesting, having grown up around a lot of Mormons, is most times questions that revolve around controversial issues (i.e.: polygamy, temple rituals, etc.) are always answered with a certain vagueness or in a way that blatantly disregards history or fact. Do you feel there is a closed door with some issues in the church?

Yes. Even now that I've been out of the Church for several years if you ask me certain questions about Mormonism it's hard for me not to slip into vague, safe responses. It's much more difficult for me to talk about the sacred and secret elements of Mormonism than you'd think, very hard to turn off the Mormon self-censor, and I think a good part of the intensity of certain scenes in The Open Curtain come from that: I've had to go through an internal struggle to get where I get to on the page, the stakes of which are very high. That self-censor something that you're taught as a Mormon, the presumption being that there are certain things that someone who's been Mormon for a long time will understand but that someone without that commitment won't. But obviously there's something a little cultish about that attitude.

At the same time, I think the vagueness about something like polygamy is indicative of a kind of uneasy truce within most Mormons, a willingness to accept the past that's still partly a denial. At the same time, I don't think Mormons are bad people. Indeed, in my experience exactly the opposite has been the case; they're for the most part good, generous people who really do care about other people and really do want to help. For instance, I'm still Mormon enough that I feel an incredible satisfaction in helping someone move; it makes me happy to help someone in that way, which my girlfriend thinks is somewhat perverse. They're good people but they can be unnaturally gullible (which is what my novel Father of Lies was about) and when you cut through their goodness and gullibility, they're also a very complicated people, simple on the surface but as gnarled as the rest of us when you start to work through that.

In your novel, you touch upon the dismissal and blatant denial some Mormons revert to when confronted with issues or scenarios that are less than positive. In The Open Curtain, Rudd discovers his deceased father seems to have fathered a child with a woman across town. When Rudd comes across letters to his father from the would-be mistress, he confronts his mother about it, who essentially denies any affair or illegitimate child. She tells him, “She was mistaken in the man. We know the truth. There’s no reason to speak of this again.” There’s seems to be a blindness that some members develop in regard to negative situations that would reflect poorly on them as Mormons. Is that common?

I think the extreme quality of her response isn't common, but I do think that some level of denial is very common indeed. I saw it, both as a child and then later when I was in a Bishopric in Seattle (where I was the second of three religious leaders running a large congregation), in the way that Mormons responded to child abuse or infidelity or corruption among local leaders or other things that were difficult to face. I don't think this is particular to Mormonism, by the way, but rather is something quite common to all religions. I just happen to know best how it functions in Mormonism.

In the novel, Rudd and Lyndi get married in the temple and they are right out of high school. The pressure to get married young and to have a temple wedding, especially for the remaining single members of the church is of high importance. There are other expectations the church seems to have for members in numerous other ways that don’t revolve around marriage. Would you agree?

Yes, there's incredible pressure to go on a mission if you're a man and then to get married shortly after you get back. I got married four days after my 23rd birthday, which was actually slightly late in Mormon terms: a lot of my friends were married at 21 or 22. My (now ex-) wife and I were in a class together one fall, where I just began to get to know her. By May of that school year we were engaged, and we were married three months later in August: that, too, was slightly more prudent than many Mormons: I knew people who managed to go from meeting someone to marrying them in under three months. There are lots of pressures to get married quickly and to quickly have a family; it's a way of keeping people involved in the Church among other things, of folding them back into the structure, and also a way of keeping them from looking elsewhere for how to live.

You touch upon some of the things people don’t talk about in The Open Curtain, whether it’s the temple ceremony or the suppression of actions or incidents that reflect poorly on the church. You don’t appear to have any qualms about voicing your opinion on such sensitive issues.

Well, I did actually have some qualms. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I felt I could reveal and what I didn't want to reveal. I tried to be respectful, but since Mormonism doesn't want anything about the ceremony revealed, that's a losing battle. Still, I had to feel for myself that I was doing what I was doing for artistic and mimetic reasons and that there was nothing gratuitous about it. In the original version I'd talked about the Mormon temple ceremony in a lot more detail -- that chapter was probably twice as long and was more than one chapter, but I kept cutting it back, trying to get across as well as possible what it was like to be going through the temple for the first time without making it feel too voyeuristic. The details that you see now all have real resonance in the story that surrounds them. I hope it feels very organically a part of the book. I think if you're Mormon, you could probably skip that chapter entirely and still do very well. But, yes, I did feel that the only way people could really understand Mormon culture is to have some glimpse of its hidden sides. Mormonism looks very different once you see those sides, and any book that wants to take on the culture in a serious way has to acknowledge that somehow. Of course, for me to do so as overtly as I have makes me a heretic in the eyes of most Mormons. There's a lot of talk in Mormon artistic circles about "The great Mormon novel" as being something on the horizon, but I tend to think that as long as Mormonism controls the dissemination of information about it so tightly, the so-called great Mormon novel will have to be an act of heresy.

You mention films like Fight Club and The Matrix in your Author’s Statement about The Open Curtain as being similar in that they cause the reader/viewer to question fantasy versus reality. I think The Open Curtain does that and asks the reader to question what’s real and what’s imagined and where those lines blur.

Yes, especially as the book moves forward the difference between what's real and what's imagined becomes more and more difficult to make out. In some senses the book simulates a mental breakdown; in others, it just uncovers the gap between reality and our perception of it that is always there. I like to think of the book as teaching people how to read my fiction, the first two more conventional parts leading them carefully in to the final part, where all the rules undergo a sea change.

Because Rudd has been living in a religious culture where he’s been told how to think and feel about things for so long, he’s lost the ability to make decisions for himself. He turns to this alter-ego or other “self” to tell him what to do or who to be. Why do you think Rudd has these issues?

I think it's an extreme response to a subculture that has a kind of internalized split. Mormonism in its day-to-day services seems very Protestant; in its temple ceremonies, it's very ritual and almost pagan at times. You talk about the Church in one way among Church members and in another way to outsiders. And then you try to reconcile that to the ideas and attitudes and mores of American society as a whole, weaving yourself carefully into that fabric as well. And then if you've have a religious structure telling you what to do and what to be, what happens if you lose your faith? Who tells you who to be and what to do then? Maybe nobody, or maybe you start hearing from all that that religious structure has repressed. I actually think that this is the basic American dilemma, at least for our age: the kind of tension between religion and capitalism that dominates American culture as a whole right now creates a way of responding to situations that often seems schizophrenic.

When you live in a religious culture where your beliefs are defined for you and where there constant pressure to live up to the image that the church has, it can be easy to crack under that pressure, much like Rudd does.

The more pressure there is, the more likely there is for there to be an explosion. I think religion both can strengthen a person's motivation, reasons for living, reasons for being, that strengthen their sense of themselves and generally make them feel more part of their community and of the world as a whole. But for someone without a core self it can also do the reverse: It can either leave them adrift or can substitute in place of a self and of an ability to choose a rule-bound doctrinaire attitude that ends up feeling very much like fascism.

Mormons spend a great deal of time in church and participating in various church groups that revolve around the scriptures in the Book of Mormon. Rudd’s character says he finds himself having an “odd relation to words,” where certain phrases from the Book of Mormon circle through his mind. As a writer and as a former LDS member, do you find that words or parts of scripture, like “Lo, verily” still make their way into your head?

Yes, they're still very much there. It's hard for me not to think of certain scriptures in certain situation. That'll always be a part of me. I tend to have very obsessive responses to certain phrases or certain moments in a song, and do get caught up in repetitive cycles not unlike Rudd's.

Jon Krakauer’s book, Under the Banner of Heaven, and your book both deal with a violent undercurrent that seems to exist and often prevail in Mormon culture. When we think of practicing Mormons, we think of family and community-oriented followers. There is also the flip side of that which is where something like the Mormon fundamentalist comes in. People in our culture are not willing to look within our own country and our own cultures to see how and why these types of violent acts take place, and The Open Curtain sheds some light on why certain people become vulnerable to this violence, whether you’re Islamic or Mormon.

I hope that's the case. And I'd hope it'd shed light whether you're Christian of any kind as well. Mormonism has a lot in common with other fundamentalist Christian religions, most of which are full of good interesting people but most of which also have undercurrents of violence to them that make certain attitudes toward things like war and terror possible. I think that looking at the more neurotic fringes of a culture, as I do with the sometimes extreme situations in The Open Curtain, helps us to begin to see things about the larger culture that we might not notice otherwise.

As a Mormon rule, non-members aren’t allowed to witness the temple wedding ceremony. Rules like these cause suspicion among non-members due to the secretive nature involved with this ceremony. You go into great detail about the temple ceremony in The Open Curtain. Do you feel you’ll get any backlash from friends/family members who are still LDS or fellow readers for divulging top secret information?

Since Mormons are generally polite, I think generally there will be very little overt response: they simply won't respond. Certain of my friends who are still Mormon are likely to break off their friendships with me, others will simply pretend like the book doesn't exist. A few friends who feel particularly close to me or family members might say how sad it makes them that I would write about Mormonism in this way, and there will be some public discussion of the book on Mormon e-mail lists and blogs that will probably be upset with the book. I've gotten several weird emails, always from anonymous sources, telling me that if I look hard enough at myself, I will see I am a tool for evil and I'll repent. I've also had several death threats, but they're always very silly and not worth paying attention to.

Your narrative is very precise. You don’t seem to affect the reader with your narrative. By that, I mean you aren’t telling us how to feel about certain issues or how we should judge certain things that you write about. Does that organic quality seem to be inherent with your writing or do you consciously make that decision in advance?

I think that from the beginning I've been less interested in telling readers what or how to think and more interested in putting them into positions in my fiction where they have to make choices about how to respond to what they read. Often by having a kind of blankness of judgment you put the reader into a position where he or she has to make a judgment about what he or she is seeing. I think that the precision is related to trying to create as clear and accurate a world as possible for the reader to inhabit. I think I naturally tend toward that style, though I've written stories in very different modes from that, in different styles. I think each work tends to dictate its own parameters for me.

In the past, you seem to have published with a number of indie presses. Do you feel that due to the type or style of work that you’re doing that indie presses are just a better fit for you as opposed to the bigger houses?

I tend to read more and more books from small and independent presses, fewer and fewer from large houses, and I think that it's the indie presses keeping our literature alive while the big houses with their marketing departments are killing it or processing it into something safe. I've had a much better experience with the smaller presses I've published with than I did with the larger press I published my first book with. At the same time, the big presses have great editors at them; they’re just not always given the room and freedom they need to work. Finally, I'm less concerned with the house and more concerned with who I'm working with and how strongly they believe in my work.

Did you begin working on The Open Curtain when you were working on The Wavering Knife? The last half of the book really ignites and the cadences in the writing keep the reader moving along. I found myself turning each page taking in every word, every sentence without judgment. Did you have any difficulties writing any part of the novel in particular?

I tend to work on several things at once, so a lot of the stories in The Wavering Knife were written while I was working on The Open Curtain, a few beforehand but most during. The first and second sections of The Open Curtain came very quickly, felt very natural, partly because I was thinking of each as a separate novella. I had this notion that I would write a novel out of several novellas -- I kind of have to trick myself into writing a longer novel. That worked fine for the first two sections, but when I got to the third and final section I couldn't figure out how to do something that would make the three parts into a larger whole. At first the third section was about twice as long as it now is and took place in Mexico -- it was radically different -- but it didn't work at all. There's a story in The Wavering Knife called "Moran's Mexico" which salvages certain things from that first draft of the final section. Then I tried it another way, and it still didn't work. Then I tried it another way. I ended up going through a lot of drafts, and spending about four years figuring out how to do that last section. And I think it was Steve Erickson's novels, what he does with disparate worlds that opened up the way for me to do what I finally did.

As far as the writing process goes, how does it differ for you when you sit down to write a novel versus a short-story? Do your short stories evolve when you least expect them?

I feel very comfortable with the short story form and think of myself primarily as a story writer. I like the way things condense in a story and like as well the way a story takes on a particular shape as it progresses. There's more of an immediate satisfaction to me in working in the short story than there is in the novel. I used to write a lot of short-shorts but now almost never do. Every once in a while I still do, but I think I figured out what I wanted to do with that form, so I need to change and evolve more as a person before I'll want to go back to it. I think my short stories have generally been getting longer, and for the last six or seven years I've been most interested in the novella. I like that form in that it has at least some of the strengths of the novel and some of the strengths of short fiction as well. You can keep it tight and focused and taut, but it has a different sort of scope. I felt with The Open Curtain, though, that I had a topic that couldn't be accommodated by a short story or a novel.

The Open Curtain is going to be translated into French and published by Le Cherche-Midi Editeur for 2007. Contagion was also translated into French. Tell me about how that came to be. Why French?

I was contacted by an editor named Claro at Le Cherche-Midi who had just started a line of innovative American fiction and who had had my work recommended to him by another writer. He became very interested in Contagion and translated it himself. The translation is excellent: Claro's done translations of some incredibly difficult writers such as William Gass, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and William Vollman, among others. Claro is a novelist as well as a translator, and I ended up translating one of his books for Soft Skull Press, a book called Electric Flesh which is about the convergences between Harry Houdini, an out-of-work contemporary executioner, and the history of electrocution in America. The Open Curtain, which was translated by a very savvy husband and wife translator team, was actually accepted in France before it was accepted in America, and the translation is complete; it'll come out in January of 2007. They've decided to call it Inversion rather than translating the title directly. I think that the French have a kind of understanding of what I'm doing that sees philosophical and literary influences that American readers don't think about as much. I think my work feels very American to them, but at the same time there's a European strand running through it. It's that combination, I think, that's made me appealing to them.

You mention in the Afterword of The Open Curtain that your next work would not involve Mormonism. Have you begun your next project? If so, has it been tough not to write about Mormonism?

I have some smaller projects I'm doing and I think I'm well on my way to putting together a new story collection. I'm at the stage where I'm trying to decide what of my work to include and what still needs to be written. I'm also trying to write a sequel to a little limited edition chapbook I did called The Brotherhood of Mutilation. I keep getting notes from people who have read The Open Curtain and who insist that there's no way I'm done writing about Mormonism. I really felt I was done when I finished that book but the other day I stumbled onto something that seemed just too coincidentally perfect to me, having to do with a schizophrenic Mormon I know who was keeping bomb parts in a safe and the way that coincides with something that I don't want to reveal at this point (to be evasive in a Mormon way). So I might write about Mormonism again after all. But I'm trying to resist.