Monday, December 06, 2010

Author Interview: Jonathan Langford

Nearly a year ago, as a Whitney Awards judge in the General category, I read No Going Back, by Jonathan Langford. I knew little about it going in, but I admit to being somewhat wary. This was a first-time novelist taking on a daunting task of telling the story of a faithful LDS young man who struggles with same-sex attraction. Basically, he's a faithful, gay Mormon.

One thing that surprised me (in a good way) about the book is that it wasn't, as I expected, a didactic, preachy story where the author had an agenda he was determined to whack the reader with so often that there's no way to avoid getting the message. (Something that did happen in another nominee I read.) I talked about the difference between the two back in January over at the AML blog.

As my long-time readers know, I don't review books here, but I do sometimes interview writers. So here's my interview with Jonathan Langford, whose No Going Back did end up being Whitney Award finalist for Best General Novel.

How long have you been writing and how did you get started? (When did the bug bite you?)

I had a poem published in The Children’s Friend (its title back then) when I was 8, I think. Does that count?

I’ve always had an interest in stories and writing, and used to spend a lot of time thinking out plots for stories when I was younger. Mostly science fiction and fantasy. A lot of them were interactive stories that my best friend and I would make up spontaneously and act out. Then in college, I was part of a creative writing group at BYU with several people who later became published sf&f authors, including Dave Farland, who’s a good friend of mine. I always seemed to do better at editing and critiquing other people’s work than producing my own, though.

Eventually, I got into informational writing, which is what I do professionally now. I enjoy that — but I also felt that something was missing. Then a few years back, about the time I turned 40, it was like something in the back of my head went “Ding! Time to start writing stories again!” I floundered around for several years, working on fantasy stories that never seemed to get anywhere (though I still have hopes for some of them). Then I started working on the idea for No Going Back, and everything seemed to come together.

Where did the idea for No Going Back come from?

For me, story ideas come from imagining a particular character in a specific situation. We’d been talking on AML-List, an email discussion group sponsored by the Association for Mormon Letters, about the relative lack of stories about faithful Latter-day Saints who are also homosexually attracted. A friend of mine, Rex Goode, who is same-gender attracted but also a faithful member of the Church, explained how people in that situation often are misunderstood both within the Church and within the gay community, which has no sympathy with their desire to live according to Church standards. And then in the middle of that discussion, an idea popped into my head — from wherever it is that story ideas come — for a story about a teenage LDS boy whose best friend (also LDS) confides in him that he’s gay, then is eventually outed and encounters difficulties at school and Church for being gay, even though he’s committed to live by Church standards. I had a picture in my mind of the story ending with the non-gay best friend kneeling at the sacrament table and having a hard time forgiving the members of his ward for the tough time some of them had given his friend.

So originally the story wasn’t going to be about Paul, the boy with homosexual feelings, but rather about Chad, his best friend?

It would still have been largely about Paul, but from the point of view of his best friend. At the time, I was envisioning it as a short story. I put the idea on a back burner, though, because I was busy trying to work with my fantasy ideas at the time. A few years later, I was feeling thoroughly stuck with my other stories, and so I started thinking about this one again. Things started clicking, and I saw how this could become an entire novel. A big part of that was adding Paul as a point of view character, and developing the character of his bishop—who also happens to be Chad’s father—more thoroughly. And then I started writing, and things proceeded from there.

What research did you have to do for the book?

I wound up researching a lot of picky details, such as what kind of music was popular among teenagers in 2003 and what movies were being released. Then I had to watch some of the movies and listen to the music. I interviewed the advisor for our local high school’s gay-straight alliance club, and I attended a meeting of PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). I went online to check out what priesthood manual was being used that year, and then was able to borrow one of the lessons pretty much as is for what turned out to be one of the funnier scenes in the book. Research can be a pain, but it delivers gifts to the writer. Doing your research and then finding a way to stay accurate within what you found often results in much better stuff than if you just follow your imagination. At least, that’s what I found.

I mentioned on the AML blog that I appreciated how you didn’t approach the topic in a didactic way. Did you go into the book with a message you were trying to convey? Did the story grow organically?

The story grew organically, but I also had some things I wanted to communicate along the way. I wanted to give a sense that it was possible to experience homosexual attractions but also to be quite sincere in wanting to follow the Church’s teachings. I wanted to communicate a sense of the difficulty of being pulled between the world’s way of viewing this issue and the Church’s teachings on this topic. On a broader scale, I was hoping that reading this book might prompt people to think about positive ways they could react if someone told them he or she had homosexual feelings, and to stimulate more discussion of the issue from that perspective among Church members. I didn’t mean to advocate any particular answers, but simply to increase understanding and compassion—along with telling a compelling story about characters whom the readers would hopefully care about. Without that part, all the positive messages in the world won’t get you anywhere.

Back when I was teaching freshman composition in college, I used to tell my students that they should be able to create a thesis statement for their argument papers beginning with the words, “I am arguing that . . .” Generally speaking, you shouldn’t be able to do that with a story. I’m not saying that good stories never come about that way, because Milton and Vergil (among others) might have something to say about that, but as a general rule, stories aren’t about themes but rather about experiences. Inevitably the stories we create will reflect our morality and the way we believe the world works. On the whole, though, story-writing—and reading—isn’t really that much like writing and reading an essay or a how-to manual. As someone who’s written plenty of essays and how-to manuals, I can definitely attest to that.

What was the most interesting thing you learned through the process of researching/writing NGB?

I learned that a lot of what I thought would work for me as a writer, and what I’d heard other people say worked for them, didn’t necessarily work for me. For example, the tactic of writing quickly and then going back later to polish proved to be an absolute disaster for me. I almost literally could not bear to read the stuff I produced that way, which kind of defeated the purpose. Instead, I found that I need to take the time to write as well as I can the first time around — with a lot of revision afterwards, of course. And I found that when my writing quality starts going downhill, I have to walk away from it for a while before writing again: an hour, a day, whatever.

That’s only an example. For me, the process of becoming a story writer was filled with surprises. It still is.

I also found myself surprised at just how definite my conceptions of my characters became over time. Often during the editing process, I’d react to a proposed edit by thinking, “No, he wouldn’t say it like that. Instead, he’d say __.” Once a reader referred to one of my minor characters as homophobic, and I said, “No, he’s not homophobic, he’s . . .” And I spouted about five minutes’ worth of explanation about things I hadn’t realized I knew about that character and his motivations.

What is your writing style? Are you an outliner or a by-the-seat-of-your-pantser? Somewhere in between?

Somewhere in between I think. I’ve tried outlining my other stories, and in fact I typically use outlining in my informational projects, but I found that when I outline my stories, I tend to stick too close to the outline and the stories never come alive. On the other hand, when I go in without any idea what comes next, my story wanders all over the place and never acquires any focus.

With No Going Back, I had a good idea of most of the major plot points and how the story had to end. The rest I worked out as I went along. I wrote the story from beginning to end, but I also jumped ahead many times to write a scene that I had just imagined or that I knew had to come further down the line. That helped me in several ways. For one thing, it gave me something to work on when I was either away from the computer or stuck on my current scene. Second, it allowed me to work on scenes while they were still fresh in my mind. Third, writing later scenes often helped me in writing earlier sections by giving me a clearer idea of where the story was going.

What is one big thing you’ve learned through the process of publishing your first novel?

That if you want people to read your story, book promotion can take almost as much time as writing the story to begin with—or more. That may not be true for authors who are working with larger publishers that have a bigger advertising budget. However, I’ve heard authors at every level make this kind of statement, so I suspect it’s true whatever your sales figures may be.

To be honest, though, I don’t really mind. For one thing, it gives me a chance to talk with people about my story. I wouldn’t have written it if I didn’t want to do that. I’m a bit like a proud papa who keeps dragging out all the pictures of his clever children. The bigger challenge for me is to learn when it’s time to shut up about it.

What’s been the biggest surprise about the publishing process?

The cheap answer is that the biggest surprise is that it ever actually happened! My family has been hearing about my writing for years. They were all quite surprised when I actually finished a novel and got it published. Actually, I think they were more surprised at my finishing it than at its being published.

Aside from that, I don’t think I experienced that many surprises. Maybe that’s because I’ve been around authors and book publishing so much over the years. Probably part of it also is due to having been published by Zarahemla Books, which is pretty much a one-man operation. I’m quite happy with the way Chris Bigelow (owner of Zarahemla Books) treated me, but it’s probably true that I haven’t experienced the “genuine” publication process as it might occur with a larger publishing house.

Maybe I’ll have a better answer when/if I get another novel written and published for the national market . . .

Which authors are your biggest literary influences in the national market?

That’s an interesting question. It’s not the same as asking which are my favorite authors, is it? I’d have to say that writing No Going Back, I kept thinking about Chaim Potok and The Chosen, partly because he does such a good job of showing religious belief as part of an ordinary life, and partly because it’s so thoroughly a novel about friendship, which at one level is what No Going Back is about too. And The Chosen is about relationships between fathers and sons, which also play a role in No Going Back, though not as big. I also have to put in a plug for juvenile sf&f writer Andre Norton, whose novel The Crystal Gryphon, which I reread many times as a child and adolescent, does a fine job with alternating viewpoints from highly sympathetic and distinctive characters—something I attempted in No Going Back. And then I’d say Willa Cather, who does an excellent job of telling quiet stories about ordinary people that are nonetheless finely crafted and heartfelt. You care about her characters—and you like them. And you feel that you know them.

There are probably many other authors who have influenced me as much as these three, but they’re the ones that come to mind right now.

In the LDS market?

I haven’t read as widely as I’d like among LDS authors. Of those I have read, probably the biggest influence is playwright Tom Rogers. His plays illustrate how universal themes can be dealt with powerfully within the context of specifically LDS stories. Maybe Dave Farland, to some degree, though he’s published more on the national scene than in the LDS market. Reading and critiquing his work over the years—and hearing him talk about it—clued me in to the fact that people grappling with, thinking about, and talking over ideas can be an interesting element in a story.

How does being LDS impact you as a writer?

Being LDS impacts me as a writer in many ways. One of the most important is that my reasons for wanting to write stories have a lot to do with my LDS beliefs. In the LDS way of thinking, one of the principal goals of mortality is to develop compassion and understanding for other people, all of whom are literally sons and daughters of God and as such, our brothers and sisters. Fiction is a superb tool for doing that. Being LDS also places a religious value on developing one’s talents, as an act of service to others and an act of worship to God.

At the same time, being LDS means there are a lot of other things that have to take priority over being an artist, like taking care of your family and doing your home teaching. I’ve heard people speculate that this kind of split attention might mean we’re never likely to have world-class LDS artists. I don’t buy that. As best I can tell, all art, whether by Mormon artists or not, is created under conditions of distraction. I don’t think we as LDS artists are any worse off in that regard than anyone else.

Any advice for aspiring authors?

Keep writing, and follow your instincts. And remember that being a writer, even a very good writer, doesn’t give you a pass from being a good person. Story writing is important, but so is turnip farming. Take your writing seriously, but don’t deify it.

Read the first half of No Going Back for FREE on Zarahemla's website.


Melanie Jacobson said...

Jonathan Langford gave some really thoughtful answers here. Good stuff. I like his list of writers he looks up to.

Susan Anderson said...

What an interesting interview. I'll have to look into his book, because I liked everything he said (and how he said it).

I also related closely to his way of writing. I always know the beginning and the end, but I don't outline or the story loses its color as I wind up marching from one point to the next.

For me, it's better to sort of wander randomly toward the conclusion.


Helena said...

Hey, I know him! He and my husband were friends as BYU. Very cool.

Julie Wright said...

Great interview!


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