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By Emily Bleeker

I took all of my kids with me to Target today. Yeah, you all know what that is like–lots of requests, lots of “where is your brother?” and plenty of forgotten items on my list. As I was checking out, there was a woman ahead of me on the phone, clearly in a hurry, and the cashier wasn’t moving fast enough for her. She rolled her eyes, first to herself and then she looked at me as though I was going to play along with her “can you believe this” game. I gave her a smile and a shrug as I managed my kiddos who were blissfully unaware of the drama ahead of us and placed my last items on the belt. Then the woman slammed on the counter, making us all jump, and said “COME ON!!!! Push the button!”

The cashier was a young woman with dark, curly hair and adorable glasses and looked vaguely familiar. When the woman slammed on the counter, she jumped and turned around, confused. Then taking it all in she said, “I’m deaf!” and pointed to a small handwritten sign on her register that said: HELLO, I’m deaf.

The angry woman didn’t seem to care. She rolled her eyes at me again, and this time I looked at my feet. The cashier also looked to me with tears in her eyes, and I tried to give her a little okay sign and smile. I wish I’d done or said more. When the woman snatched her receipt and walked off in a huff, I took my place in front of the register. The young woman looked at me and mouthed, “I forgot my badge today. Everyone keeps getting mad. That’s why I made the sign.”

I remembered why she looked familiar. She’d checked me out before but with a little tag under her name that said: “I’m Deaf.”

I felt terrible about the way she’d been treated and tried to tell her that it wasn’t her fault. I tried to find a way to show her that she was doing a good job, but I don’t know that I helped much. We were both shook up, and I’m sure she went home feeling heavier that day.

As we were walking away, my kids asked me, “Mom, why was that woman so mean to her? Didn’t she see her sign?”

I ushered them out of the store and muttered something like, “She probably didn’t see the sign.” Or maybe she did–I didn’t know. It took me a moment but I soon realized the mistake I was making with my kids. I stopped my cart and crew in front of the giant red balls lining the street and looked into their concerned faces. I took a deep breath and tried to explain the best I could.

“Listen, it doesn’t even matter that she did or didn’t see the sign, we shouldn’t treat other people like that. We should treat all people with respect and understanding. Remember how the cashier said she usually has a tag on her badge? And remember, today she wrote that sign so people would know she couldn’t hear and so they would be patient? Well, in this case, that cashier couldn’t hear and was asking people to be helpful and understanding, but in this world, everyone has invisible differences. Everyone. We should treat others with respect, not just when we know about their lives but also because we don’t know about their lives. We can’t ever really know what is going on inside of another person. That’s why it is our job to be kind.”

Who knew Target could hold such an awesome opportunity to discuss empathy with my kids? Addictive home décor and $5 tee-shirts–yes–but life lessons? Not listed in the sale ad.

Empathy–it has become somewhat of a battle cry in my life. It is a skill I’m continually trying to teach my children and myself. Empathy is also important in my career. It is one of the things I love most about writing novels. For 300 or so pages you live inside someone else’s life. You get to experience their family, their secret heartache and their private dreams. If done well, the reader then also gets to walk down that same path, invested in the character’s successes and crying with their sorrows. It’s an amazing duality, this sharing of lives and feelings.

I think this is one reason I sincerely love writing a variety of characters—in storylines I have never lived and making choices I probably wouldn’t make myself. How very boring to read what Emily Bleeker, a Mormon mother of four, would do on a deserted island or losing someone to cancer or at an active crime scene. I promise you’d get tired of me pretty fast.

But in WRECKAGE when Lilian is involved in a plane crash, she makes a decision that haunts her forever and makes the needle on her moral compass wobble. And in WHEN I’M GONE when Luke, an atheist, loses his wife of sixteen years he has to balance his idea of no afterlife with his children’s belief that their mother still exists. Or in WORKING FIRE when Ellie’s father has a stroke she is faced with the decision to give up on med school and move back to her small town or leave the burden to her sister and pursue her dreams.

Do they all make decisions that I’d stand behind if I were in their shoes? Maybe not. Do they make the same decisions you would? Only you know.

This variance is one of my favorite parts about Skyping with book clubs about my novels. I love listening to how everyone related to the characters and to what each person would have done in the same situation. It’s never the same twice and I can always tell when someone has made a deep connection with a character or situation. This particular type of book club participant doesn’t always defend the actions of the character, but they always defend the character–as a person. They look at the reasons for the choices that were made, and they want to know what happened after the words THE END showed up on the last page.

Believe it or not, these are the moments in my career that build my testimony the most, especially my testimony of the Savior. As I taught his words in Sunday School a few years ago, I came to have a deeper connection with his message than I ever had before. After thousands of years of detailed instruction, strict and sometimes harsh punishments and a lot of human interpretation of the Lord’s commandments, Jesus came with a clarifying message: “Love one another; as I have loved you” (John 13:34).

As we got deeper into our study of the New Testament, it became apparent that sometimes we use the gospel as a camera to take pictures of everyone else’s faults so we can compare them to our own and feel greater as a result. But Jesus taught us to use the gospel as a mirror to evaluate and improve ourselves rather than pick apart others. As a class, we took special note that when the Savior spoke to his followers, He talked of self-improvement and devotion to God and self-motivated obedience. And when He spoke to the Pharisees He talked about rejecting hypocrisy and putting on the glasses of compassion and empathy.

He illustrated this concept repeatedly in his mortal life.  Like when He showed compassion to the woman taken in adultery he showed empathy for her, not necessarily agreeing with her choices but understanding and protecting her nonetheless. Or when he healed the lepers, the true outcasts of society, he didn’t just cure their physical ailments but also brought them back into a world that had shunned them. And when he gave sight to the man who was born blind, declaring that it was neither sin by his parents or by him that had caused the issue, he gave a clear message—often bad things happen no matter how righteous you are.

This quality of empathy and compassion is the birthplace of charity, the pure love of Christ. It is something I cherish seeing in my readers as I share my stories around the world with people from all backgrounds, faiths and upbringings. I see it in the members of that book club I chat with that cried with Luke when he mourned his wife. I feel it in those emails from readers who fell in love with Dave and whose hearts broke with Lillian. I hear it often in those quick Facebook messages from “somebody” begging to know what happened next to Jessie. All these diverse individuals are learning and practicing this increasingly rare but beautiful skill of understanding and caring for someone who is completely different from them.

So, maybe my characters aren’t like a Mormon stay-at-home mom of four kids who prefers playdates to ambulance rides–but I’m honestly pretty happy about that. As the Savior said, “For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye?…And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others?” (Matthew 5:46-47)

I look forward to hearing how the sisters in WORKING FIRE hopefully talk to and touch those who read their story and gain access to their inner world. I know Amelia and Ellie’s lives touched mine as I wrote of the day that changed them forever and of the unbreakable bond they shared even when death and betrayal loomed over them. I hope I can find out more about my readers and their lives through their connections with my characters and writing.

And I hope, more than anything, that every one of us can apply empathy to all areas of our lives. Then we can end up in a place where we don’t need hand-written signs or special nametags to treat someone with human dignity and kindness, because we will have learned the lesson King Benjamin imparts in Mosiah 4:16-19:

“Ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain. . . .Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand . . . But I say unto you, . . .whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent . . . and hath no interest in the kingdom of God. For behold, are we not all beggars?” (emphasis added)

Because I agree: We are all beggars. We are all that cashier at Target. We are all tagless–are we not?

Emily Bleeker is a former educator who learned to love writing while teaching a writer’s workshop. After surviving a battle with a rare form of cancer, she finally found the courage to share her stories, starting with her debut novel, Wreckage, followed by the Wall Street Journal bestseller When I’m Gone, and Working Fire, which will be released Aug. 29. Emily currently lives with her family in suburban Chicago. Connect with her or request a Skype visit with your book club at www.emilybleeker.com.

Introducing Singing and Dancing to the Book of Mormon: Critical Essays on the Broadway Musical

Introducing Singing and Dancing to the Book of Mormon: Critical Essays on the Broadway Musical

by Jerry Argetsinger

Singing and Dancing to the Book of Mormon: Critical Essays on the Broadway Musical
Edited by Marc E. Shaw & Holly Welker
Roman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016
Hardcover, 196 pages, $75.00 (Kindle $56.80)

Now in its 7th year, having opened March 24, 2011, Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s The Book of Mormon is still one of the most popular shows on Broadway.  Two national tours have been crisscrossing North America for five years. Productions are also running in London, since 2013 and Melbourne, since earlier this year. Even as I write, a National Tour is performing for the second time in Salt Lake City.

An excellent collection of critical essays on the musical was published last year but seems to have gone mostly unnoticed. Mark E. Shaw and Holly Welker’s Singing and Dancing to the Book of Mormon: Critical Essays on the Broadway Musical has yet to be reviewed in any theater or academic venue. I was invited to write a brief introduction to the book for AML, even though I authored one of those essays. To be completely transparent, I do not know any of the other contributors and the first time I read their essays was when I received my author copy of the book May 3, 2016. When I finished reading the volume, I wrote this general response in my journal: “Six brilliant, two very good, and two all right essays on the Musical.”  Of course I included my own as one of the six, so there may be a bit of exaggeration on that point. I was honestly amazed at the quality of scholarship and am very proud to be included. Among the “reader reviews” at Amazon.com and Mormon Main Street, it is clear that essays are valued differently by individual readers who point out their own favorites. Continue Reading →

Interview with McArthur Krishna, AML Picture Book Award winner

McArthur Krishna, along with Bethany Brady Spalding and Caitlin Connolly, were the recipients of the 2016 AML Picture Book Award for Our Heavenly Family, Our Earthly Families (Deseret Book). McArthur is interviewed here by Rachel Davis, who often reviews LDS children’s books and teaching materials.

I know you and Bethany worked together before on a pair of Girls who Choose God books. How did your collaboration with Caitlin Connolly come about?

Continue Reading →

In Which I Solve a Maurice Sendak Mystery, by Mackenzi Lee

Below is a blog post by the author Mackenzi Lee, from August, 2013. I thought it was delightful, and asked Mackenzi to allow us to reprint it here. Lee has since had two YA novels published to great acclaim, including The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, which has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, and Booklist, and which debuted at #8 on the New York Times Young Adult Hardcover list last week. I will include more about Lee and her books at the end of this post. For now, enjoy her 2013 post, which she wrote while she was working as an intern at the Friend magazine. 

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a detective.

I think every kid goes through this phase at one point, and I remember mine very distinctly. I read detective books. Played detective games1. Had a detective club2.

But I was never good at solving mysteries. Not even the really obvious ones that all my friends claimed they had figured out from page five. I combated this by mostly reading mystery books that were billed as unsolvable, like Westing Game and And Then There Were None, so I didn’t feel so stupid when I couldn’t figure them out.

I’ve always loved mysteries, but real life mysteries are not like books. The clues never appear as conveniently or fit together as neatly as they do in books. And mysteries, contrary to what Nancy Drew led me to believe, do not happen every day.

But this week, I got to solve a real-life mystery. And not just any mystery—a kid lit mystery!

The story of my kid lit mystery begins yesterday morning. I was very grumpy yesterday morning. The hard drive on my work computer died, and thus I couldn’t do any work for a while. The only non-computer assignment I had was one my editor had given me a few days ago: a man had called and asked us to find a song he thinks was maybe in the Friend sometime between now and forty-five years ago, and he didn’t know the title, just the first line3. Seriously. So my job was to go through old copies of the Friend from the sixties and find the song.

I was not looking forward to this job, so I grumpily pulled up a stool in our archives and started grumpily going through copy after copy after copy of vintage Friends.

And then I found this:

Image

The cover of the November 1969 issue. Continue Reading →

Reconciling Fiction and Truth: Phyllis Barber’s Keynote Address at the 2017 AML Conference

RECONCILING FICTION AND TRUTH

by Phyllis Barber

Keynote Address for the Association of Mormon Letters, April 21, 2017, at Writ & Vision,  Provo, Utah

Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. Music, dance, visual arts, crafts of all kinds, all are central to human development and well-being, and no skill is ever useless learning; but to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story. -Ursula K. LeGuin

A note of warning: there will be many questions in this paper. Most are questions I’ve asked myself, but hopefully, some will resonate with you. But be prepared for questions!  The main one that comes to mind when thinking about this paper—“Reconciling Fiction and Truth”—is this:  There are history books galore, more published every day. There are lesson manuals. There are Sunday School discussions every week. Mormons give careful, unremitting attention to Truth with a capital T, dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” it seems, discussing scriptures endlessly, but is our culture, and are we, comfortable with the creation of art?

Yes, of course, most of us would say. There’s the Harris Fine Arts Center. The Springville Art Museum. The Church History Museum with its vast collection of Mormon art. And look at LDS Authors on the Internet—our best-selling writers. Most would say the Mormon culture is in good shape, nothing to worry or think about. However, I’m always one to ask questions, chief among them:  (1) What is the role of fiction and truth? and (2) Do we believe that art has value? Continue Reading →

The Beginning of a Mormon literature in Spanish? Part 2, Mexico, Uruguay, and elsewhere

By Gabriel González Núñez

Part I of this article can be accessed here. In it, some introductory thoughts were presented, and Argentine authors were surveyed.

Besides Argentina, another country where Mormon authors are beginning to publish is Mexico. There are two Mormon authors that I know of in this country. The first goes by the pen name Elisabet Zapiæn, but she also publishes under her real name Elizabeth González Torres. She debuted with a novel in 2012 titled San Rafael (Ulterior Editorial). The novel is about a love triangle against the backdrop of a murder mystery in a town called San Rafael. It has no distinctive Mormon features. Zapiæn has also published three short stories in literary journals, none of which have any Mormon elements.

Another Mexican author is R. de la Lanza. In 2015 he self-published a short story titled “El jerarca” [which can be translated as The Leader], which is a detective story about the murder of a Church employee. In 2016 he published his debut novel Eleusis (published by a group of publishers-in-training under the name Intendencia de las Letras). It tells the story of several generations of Mexican Latter-day Saints, from Mexican-Revolution-era pioneers to modern young single adults in Mexico City. The work is unquestionably of a fine literary quality, and it is definitely a work of Mormon literature. The novel’s portrayal of modern Mexican Mormons as largely a group of hypocrites is likely to be off-putting to some among the more faithful Latter-day Saint readers. De la Lanza has so far written about Mormon topics because, in his own words: “It’s the world I know […] I don’t know anything about drug lords, about other worlds, like the world of labor unions, of large corporations, etc. What I am most familiar with is the world of my brothers and sisters in the Church.” Continue Reading →

The Beginning of a Mormon Literature in Spanish?, Part 1: Introduction and Argentine authors

By Gabriel González Núñez

Gabriel González Núñez was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, and has lived in several countries, including Ecuador, Belgium, and the United States. His literary blog–which includes short stories, flash chronicles, and translations–can be accessed here. He lives in Brownsville, Texas, where he trains translators and interpreters at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. He is happily married and has, as of right now, two children.

Word has it that if you can speak English, Spanish, and Portuguese you can speak to the most members of the LDS Church. This reflects a demographic reality: the overwhelming majority of members of the Church live in the Americas. The most widely spoken language in the so-called New World is Spanish. Naturally, as membership grows in the Americas, the number of Spanish-speaking Latter-day Saints continues to grow. To me, this has meant for some time that there have to be Mormons in the Spanish-speaking world who write. And I’ve been trying to figure out who they are. Who we are, I should say, as Spanish is my native language and, I should add, the language of my heart (the two are not always the same).

As I searched, I discovered that indeed, Spanish-speaking Latter-day Saints are writing, some as a way to make a living and others because they have something positive to say. For this post, however, I will focus on writers who have published books that are literary in nature. I will survey a number of authors who are LDS and who have published either poetry, plays, short stories, or novels. I also will focus on contemporary writers, as my search did not really extend into past generations. Notice that the emphasis is on Mormon writers and not necessarily Mormon literature. That’s because, as readers will see, we can’t really speak of a Mormon literature in Spanish. Not yet at least. So literature by Mormons will have to do at this point. Even so, when I discuss these writers, I will make sure to point out any Mormon themes in their writing. Continue Reading →

Mormons and Horror: Light Within the Dark

Mormons and Horror: Light Within the Dark

by Michaelbrent Collings

Paper sponsored by the Association for Mormon Letters, presented at Life, the Universe, and Everything writing convention, February 18, 2017.

(This post contains just the first part of Michaelbrent’s presentation on Mormons and Horror. Please see the full paper at his website, Written Insomnia.)

I am a horror writer.

I am a Mormon.

Whenever these two intersecting – and yes, they are intersecting – facets of my life are discovered, the response is invariably one of surprise, if not outright incredulity. Contrary to most people’s expectations, no one at church has every said, “A horror writer? Well, you are definitely going to Hell.” Indeed, the first person I tend to call when I want to watch a scary movie is  my stake president. That being said, even he was surprised when he first found out. Because it seems… what? Wrong?

And yet, as will be stated shortly, horror is perhaps the best-suited “genre” for Mormons; and Mormons are themselves the most horror-laden people… and neither in quite the way you would expect. Continue Reading →

Award Winners: Essayist Joey Franklin interview

Wife Happily marriedJoey Franklin was the winner of the 2015 AML Creative Non-Fiction Award, for his essay collection My Wife Wants You to Know I’m Happily Married (University of Nebraska Press). Today we present an interview with Franklin conducted by Elizabeth Tidwell, a fellow BYU faculty member.

The essay as a creative rather than academic genre can be a foreign concept to some—we’ve often heard “essay” more connected to the five-paragraph essay than the personal essay. But that’s steadily changing as the genre is growing. You’ve just published your first collection of essays, so you’re clearly invested in the form. Why the essay?

I took a fiction class in graduate school and wrote three stories. The first was about a handyman who discovers that a widow in his apartment complex is actually a white-collar criminal. The second involved a disgruntled member of the Japanese mafia who shakes down a local pre-school. The third followed a pregnant Arab woman on a plane who stops a schizophrenic passenger from attacking her (none of those stories ever made it out of workshop). Continue Reading →

An Interview with Kristyn Crow, AML Picture Book Award Winner

We are pleased to present picture book aficionado Emily Debenham’s interview with Kristyn Crow, the winner of the 2015 AML Picture Book Award. 

kristyn-crowEmily: This interview is to celebrate the fact that Zombelina Dances the Nutcracker won the 2015 AML award.  This is your second book with Zombelina as the main character. Is it different writing a picture book sequel?

Kristyn: With a sequel, the idea is to hold on to what made the first book special and yet create a story that’s new. So writing a sequel is different in the sense that I’m not starting with a brand new character and concept. I’m expanding on something familiar. And with both of the Zombelina sequels there were specific marketing themes that the publisher wanted to craft the books around. That was challenging because prior to these books I had never written a manuscript “to order.” I was nervous I might not be able to make the second book as enjoyable as the first. Continue Reading →

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