New Voices: Cynthia Whitney discusses the need for diversity in LDS fiction

When I was asked to blog here on AML, I struggled to decide how I could best contribute to discussions. I landed on the idea of voices: we have a lot of discussion here on AML about the state of Mormon Literature, but (I believe) not enough voices in our community. With this in mind, I will be interviewing a different LDS author each month about the LDS writing communities they belong to. I’ll be asking about their experiences working with LDS publishers, as indie authors, or as writers working toward publication. I’ll also be collecting opinions about what they feel is working well in LDS literature, and what they feel could change for the better.

I am hoping that, in bringing fresh voices to the discussion, we will gain ideas about how to broaden AML’s reach, meet some unmet needs in the LDS writing community, and cultivate more diversity in AML.

To that end, I chose for my first interview Lucinda Whitney, an independent author of LDS romance.

Lucinda, what do you write? Tell me about your most recent published work or your current work-in-progress.

My first book came out in January of this year and it’s titled The Secret Life of Daydreams. It’s a contemporary LDS romance set in Portugal about a guy who served his mission there and goes back eleven years later. He runs into one of his converts, a girl he baptized when she was seventeen. An attraction develops between them but she holds back because he’s no longer active in the church.

My work in progress is a novella set in Lisbon about a guy who’s hired to update the online system at a private English-only school and the director who doesn’t trust him. She’s recently lost her grandmother and is a new member in the church and she’s struggling with fitting in. This is titled One Small Chance and I hope to have it out by the end of summer.

 

What has led you to choose this genre?

I’ve been a voracious reader all my life and I eventually found the LDS romance genre in the early 2000s. As a convert to the church, I was attracted to these romance stories that featured church members. It was something I’d never read before.

I’m the classic story of the kid who always wanted to write. I started writing poetry, first in Portuguese when I was in high school, then in English during university, and my dream was to write and publish a novel. I had a story idea come to me in 2000 with a main character named Josh who followed me around for years and years, and I finally started writing it in 2012. Somehow, I never questioned that this story was LDS and that these are the stories that I need to write. The main characters are LDS and they live in Portugal. Maybe someday I’ll write something different, and I won’t be opposed to that either.

 

You are a diverse author. In fact, you are passionate about the need for greater diversity in LDS literature. Will you go into some detail about that?

In all the years I’ve been reading LDS romance, I noticed that a large quantity of these novels are set in the US (predominantly the Mountain West) with American characters who’ve been members of the church all their lives and have pioneer ancestry. After a while, these stories kind of start sounding all the same. Where are the stories about LDS characters who live in Europe or South America or Australia? About characters who are new members to the church, don’t have family support, and live in cities where there’s only one small branch?

The LDS church is global and more members live outside of the US than in it nowadays, and the current novels available do not represent this reality. Of course, when the main LDS publishers are located in Utah and they aim to cater to a target market that lives in Utah, Arizona, California, and Idaho, and who understand what being a single at BYU is all about, it’s hard for these publishers to think outside of the box. They want the stories that sell most and are not necessarily interested in investing in something new.

I realize I’m making very broad generalizations, but as a reader of LDS romance fiction for over fifteen years, I’m well acquainted with the market and with the few concessions to new themes.

But I believe there are LDS readers in other parts of the world who crave for stories that relate more to them. Being a single at BYU is foreign to them, but being an LDS single in Portugal where most of the population is not interested in religion is something they know. And these are the stories we need, with more variety in geographic, cultural, and social backgrounds.

Variety and diversity are good for everyone. They expand our thinking beyond our own reality which in turn develops empathy for others. When we read books with strong characters who live in different conditions than ours, our minds and hearts are open to them, our understanding deepens, and we are moved to help them. Empathic readers are charitable readers, and charity is at the core of our religion as followers of Jesus Christ.

 

How would you say being LDS has informed your writing? What makes you an “LDS author” as opposed to just a general author?

I joined the church when I was eighteen and that was something that changed my life. Apart from the religious implications, it also changed my perception of everything around me. Obviously, this transfers to my writing. I think I see it most in the theme of my stories and the tone of my writing. I don’t want my stories to be preachy or to have an agenda but at the same time I can’t separate something that is important to me. Even if I didn’t write LDS stories, I’d still be an LDS author, which is something I see in the writing of a lot of friends. We have a concern for quality, but it goes beyond that with a need for gradual improvement and development and that, of course, impacts the readers.

 

Where do you see LDS fiction going in the future? What do you wish we had more of?

I’d like to make the distinction between literary fiction and commercial fiction. I read and write commercial fiction (in my case, LDS contemporary romance) and I can’t comment on LDS literary fiction because I mostly don’t read it.

Independent publishing has opened the gates to the possibility of a more global market in LDS fiction. Writers are no longer constrained by the parameters set by publishers. It is possible to publish an LDS romance independently and do it right. I’ve done it, and I know of other authors who’ve done it. It has also made it possible for LDS authors to publish the stories they love and that sometimes fall between genres and are therefore unsuitable for publication by certain publishers. Not because they’re not quality work, but because they don’t fit inside the publisher’s box.

Fortunately, Amazon has a box called Kindle Direct Publishing that is plenty big for all the stories. Now we just need Amazon to tighten the quality control so the poorly written books with bad covers don’t tarnish the reputation for the quality books. I still get a lot of blank stares and awkward silences when someone asks me who my publisher is.

I would like to see more openness between indie authors and traditionally published authors. There’s still a rift between these groups and bridging the gap is beneficial to everyone.

At the same time, some of the major LDS publishers are starting to make subtle changes borne out of necessity in the rapidly-changing publishing market around them. And even though these changes are slow-moving inside the publishers’ circle, they will only improve the expectations for both readers and authors. There’s hope.

 

You are an active participant in groups like LDStorymakers and the Authors’ Think Tank group on Facebook. What has your experience been like, participating in the LDS writing community?

I’ve had a very positive experience. I find that LDS writers, and the writing community at large, are a very giving group. People are willing to share their knowledge and help others out. Sure, some of us write in the same genre, but the stories we write are different and we’re not one another’s competition.

I think, as a result of this, we see a lot of quality writing and authors/editors/other professionals concerned with quality products because everyone is invested in doing the best they can, both at the individual and group level. When there’s a sense of belonging to a community where everyone strives for quality, that’s contagious, and it helps beginning writers to see they too can aim higher.

 

What LDS fiction do you love? Name your top three, and tell me why.

Well, how do you ask an avid reader which book is her favorite? It’s impossible to say. In the past few years I’ve met in person a lot of my favorite authors who are very kind people and generous with their fans, and who are excellent teachers in their own right. It’s been a tremendous experience, especially when I attend LDStorymakers conferences.

In my early years as a reader of LDS romance, my favorite author was Susan Evans McLoud. I read all her books available at the local library and I think most of them are now out of print. She’s a very gifted author and her stories are engaging and a pleasure to read.

Then I read Betsy Brannon Green’s first book, Hearts in Hiding, when it was a new release, and I loved it. I sent her an email and she replied to me right away saying I was the first reader reaching out to her. And that was a lovely experience too, especially as an aspiring writer. To hear back from a favorite author, it just made my day.

As for my favorite LDS romance books at this time, I can’t name them here. But anyone can check my Goodreads account and see what I read.

 

What are your aspirations for the future, as a writer?

To keep publishing and to be a better author with each book I write. My goals include publishing a full length novel and a novella every calendar year. As an independent author, every aspect of my book depends on me (and those I hire for what I can’t do) and I’m more concerned with quality than quantity. That might seem a contradiction since most indie authors advise the opposite, but I want my books to be the best they can be, and that takes time for me. I’m a slow writer and English is not my first language (even though I forget that sometimes) and to publish a book that is well written, and professionally edited, formatted and with a quality cover is something that takes months and sometimes years.

And then I still have four kids at home, a calling at church, and a part-time job as a substitute teacher.

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Bio:

Lucinda Whitney was born and raised in Portugal where she received a master’s degree from the University of Minho in Portuguese/English teaching. She joined the LDS church in 1989.

She lives in northern Utah. When she’s not reading and writing, she can be found with a pair of knitting needles in winter, or tending her herb garden in summer. She also works part-time as a substitute teacher.

Lucinda is an active member of the League of Utah Writers, LDStorymakers, and Indie Author Hub. She’s the co-president of the Tooele chapter of the League of Utah Writers.

Lucinda released her first work, The Secret Life of Daydreams, in January of this year. The link will take you to the book on Amazon, where you can view the book’s blurb and buy a copy. You can visit her website here.

Thank you, Lucinda, for adding your voice to this discussion!

 

6 Thoughts on “New Voices: Cynthia Whitney discusses the need for diversity in LDS fiction

  1. Thanks for interviewing me, Sarah!

  2. Jonathan Langford on June 15, 2016 at 11:47 am said:

    Thanks to both of you for this interview. I think that as readers of Mormon literature, all of us share a love for the power of stories and an interest in how they intersect with Mormon identity — regardless of the specific type or genre of fiction that we write or enjoy.

    As someone who didn’t grow up in the Intermountain West but rather in western Oregon, where Mormons are a minority (though not as much as in Portugal!), I’ve sometimes thought that I had more of a craving to see Mormons in stories than people who had grown up around Mormons all their lives. For me at least, I was looking for a community that I didn’t necessarily find in my immediate vicinity, and looked to fiction (in part) to meet that need.

    With respect to diversity: I don’t know how it is in the romance genre, but in the genres I read (and write), it seems to me that readers are often looking for a mix of the familiar and the exotic. For some non-Mormon readers, the Mormon element itself can be exotic. For Mormon readers, seeing how Mormonism plays out for characters with a culture, background, and setting different from ours could also help provide that exotic element. I agree that variety and diversity make us more empathetic (or at least can do so if we let them); they also make stories more interesting!

  3. I agree. Readers tend to want the comfortable and familiar mixed with the new and different.

    What I love about what Lucinda said: there is definitely a need for more diversity in LDS literature, and a need for a good landing place fort it–to promote it and showcase it. And not just geographic diversity; genre diversity.

    That could be a good tenet of the continuing purpose of AML. Support for indie authors and genre-crossing authors, as well as literary fiction, poetry, short fiction and creative non-fiction.

  4. Thank you for this interview. I grew up in the Church in a part member family, in a small town with only a handful of LDS kids, and never attended BYU (attended University of Arizona where Mormons were a minority). I have always related to the “LDS minority” experience and always had trouble identifying with the traditional LDS romance novel. Times are definitely changing now, thanks to the indie author market. I second everything Lucinda said about the need for more diversity in the LDS fiction market. It’s great that authors like Lucinda are helping to lead the way.

  5. Moriah on June 18, 2016 at 1:48 pm said:

    My dear! How did I miss you’ve published?!?!?

    Bought.

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