June 2010

Richard Wirick


An Interview with Brady Udall

Although Brady Udall received some great reviews for his debut book, the short story collection Letting Loose the Hounds, he really took the literary community by storm with his 2001 debut novel, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, a dark, funny book that became a surprise hit. He's followed it up with the new novel The Lonely Polygamist, about a man with four wives and almost thirty children, which retains the dark comedy of his previous novel. A member of one of America's most famous Mormon families, whose members include Congressmen Tom and Mark Udall, former U.S. Senator Gordon Smith, and former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, Brady Udall was raised in St. Johns, Arizona, and now teaches in Idaho. Bookslut spoke with Udall in Los Angeles, in May 2010.

You decided to take your nonfiction article that first appeared in Esquire in 1998 and was originally titled ďBig Love,Ē and make it into a novel?

My novel is not based on the Esquire interview, exactly, but the research I did for the piece was the basis for The Lonely Polygamist (thereís a distinction there if you look for it). I have a strong family connection to polygamy, but I had no real understanding of how polygamy is lived today, and after doing the research and writing the article there was no question my next novel would be about contemporary polygamy. This all occurred well before the wave of fascination with polygamy in this country, and I thought it was something I absolutely had to write about, to call attention to in a fair, non-judgmental and (hopefully) compelling way.

Youíve said that you wouldnít be here except for polygamy; what do you mean?

My great-grandfather, David King Udall, was a polygamist. His second wife, Ida Hunt Udall, was my great-grandmother. So itís pretty straightforward: if polygamy didnít exist, neither would I. It seemed only right, then, that I should write a novel on the subject.

With the television show [Big Love] and all the current curiosity, I think people get confused. It (polygamy) has been most definitely illegal since...

Well, it was abolished by President Grover Cleveland in 1890. But of course there are [decidedly illegitimate] sects who practice it under the banner of Mormonism. None of it sanctioned by the Church. And I think the Church is diligent, assiduous about keeping itself detached from it.

It struck me that Mormonism gets a bad rap because of the oddness, to most people, of revelation and the role of prophets in such recent times: Upstate New York in the 1800s. I mean, we can handle Isaiah and such so long as they existed several millennia ago. Just donít give us modern holy men getting tablets in an American forest.

Exactly. All religions are based on faith, even the most practical ones like Judaism and, I would submit, Mormonism. So things that strain credulity and reason can happen at any time in human history, because credulity and reason are not religionís strong suit. The arcane doctrinology of, say, Catholicism contains concepts as faith-dependent and incredible as anything in Mormonism.

Are you Mormon? What was your own family dynamic like?

I am not so much a practicing Mormon as, say, my wife. However, I grew up in a devout Mormon family, and as one of nine children I had firsthand experience of what life is like in an oversized family. This experience certainly served me well in writing the book.

Yes, I see its themes revolving more around the abundance of family members rather than any specific religion.

I think thatís right.

At least you didnít have one of those diagrams like T.C. Boyle and Tolstoy have.

[Laughter, as Udall shows me diagram at beginning of book].

Well, thatís a good diagram. A simple one with Golden Richards at the center and the branches of the four wives going out from him at the center. The ones that are like dramatis personae at the beginning of a Playbill, or like family trees, are kind of a pain.

I know what you mean. These things are meant to go back to if you have some character confusion. Not meant to be studied at the beginning, before reading. And itís one family, unlike poor Tolstoyís list of numerous ones, in the order in which they appear at waltzes!

You spent time among polygamists while researching this novel. Did you go into the experience expecting a certain way of life?

Oh, yes. I figured Iíd meet a lot of megalomaniacal men with their shirts buttoned up to their necks, and their meek, cow-eyed wives (the ones with the pioneer dresses and weird hair-dos). I have to say I was almost disappointed when these people turned out to be nice, everyday, regular folks, hardly distinguishable from the rest of the populace. One of the families I got to know best lived in suburban Salt Lake in several well-appointed town homes. They drove mini-vans and wore jeans and standard modern American regalia. The husband was a businessman, and of the four wives one was a lawyer, one had a Ph.D, one owned a health food store, and one was a stay-at-home Mom.

And how many children?

Thirty. So what I found out was that these were normal people living in a very abnormal way, and I most wanted to understand how they managed to live that way, the sacrifices and compromises they all had to make to uphold such an extreme lifestyle.

Rusty is perfectly realized as a character. How did you keep from that age-old problem of forcing too sophisticated a set of thoughts through a young personís head? Were there any predecessor author models?

Good question. Rather than go back through Salinger or John Irving or someone like that, I went and looked at bad examples, just the kind of thing you are talking about, and decided not to commit those violations of verisimilitude.

Rusty is an isolated boy, growing very fast, and dying for the attention of his distant parents. Did he have any sort of particular inspiration?

Well, while most of us are fascinated with the hows and whats and whys of the way in which the adults navigate that lifestyle, the children are more often than not forgotten. And I think itís the children who suffer the most in these situations. In such a crowd, itís easy to get lost -- I can attest to this from personal experience. Though I had my difficulties, I fared okay as a kid in my own oversized family. As I see it, Rusty is the kid I might have turned into had I been ignored, lost in the shuffle, left to my own devices. Though his circumstances are very difficult in the book, and were sometimes hard for me as a† writer to face, Iíve never had so much fun writing a character.

A recent National Geographic article suggested that polygamy actually has many qualities of a matriarchy and not, as many people assume, a patriarchy. Is this accurate?

I think itís accurate in the sense that just as with monogamy, there are any number of permutations to plural marriage. In some marraiages the husband is the unquestioned leader. In others, a single wife, or the wives as a group, run the show. Itís all about how the different personalities relate to each other. In the time I spent with different polygamist families, I saw extreme differences in family dynamics and culture. Because of the size of some of the families I often felt like an anthropologist studying a tribe with its own unique politics and hierarchies and mores. It was fascinating.

It would be hard to imagine the man actually being the boss
in a house of sister-wives. Golden doesnít really seem to be...

Thatís so true. You are understanding this novel.

One thing that may be puzzling to some readers is why Golden would flirt with adultery. Seems a bit of a stretch for your audience to see temptation in a man who has multiple partners already?

Not really, because adultery is not so much about sex as it is about being someone else. That identity shift is what makes it attractive.

But the public fascination with polygamy, from Big Love and hopefully your growing readers, is centrally about sex, no?

Yes, in one word. Sex.