During the 2012 presidential election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney's openness about his Mormon faith brought to the surface many of the generalizations Americans maintain about what it means to be a Mormon. Ryan McIlvain's debut novel "Elders" might serve as a fascinating and lively fictional corrective — a portrait of what it can mean to be a Mormon missionary — complete with all the doubts, hesitations and temptations that come with the territory.
McIlvain, who was born in Salt Lake City and left the Mormon Church in his mid-20s, tells the story of Elder McLeod and Elder Passos, two young missionaries in Brazil, each struggling with specific aspects of their faith. The simmering tensions also test their friendship. McIlvain not only dives inside these missionaries' lives, he also tackles the prickly question: What happens when the person we are no longer aligns with the person we are expected to be?
We caught up with him by phone to ask him about “Elders,” his own struggles with the Mormon faith and his decision to write about a personal subject matter. McIlvain, who is currently getting a doctorate in literature at USC, will be reading and signing at Skylight Books on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.
This is your debut novel — what did you find the greatest challenge to be?
In terms of a craft perspective, I found it most difficult to sweat and bleed through a draft that you were sure was finished, and then have trust in readers telling you "that needs to change." And the "that" they refer to is about half of the novel. And so to start a whole new, fresh draft, after having invested a year or two in the draft, was something that required tremendous discipline. And it’s not really a discipline you can acquire unless you need to acquire it.
The process of just rewriting — or as John Updike said, "writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying." That process was painful and frightening and uncertain. You didn’t know until the end that it was going to work out or that you were going to get a finished book that was worth reading. That uncertainty may have taken a few years off my life.
Like your protagonists, you spent two years in Brazil as a missionary. Was most of the research that you did for this novel taken from your own personal experiences with the Mormon Church?
Absolutely. For my mission, I served in Brazil just like Passos and McLeod. I kept a journal each night and I did that for a few reasons. One, I was terrified of losing my English. I had this bonkers notion that speaking Portuguese all day was going to atrophy my English. Of course that wasn’t the case. I also loved writing and I wanted to connect to that part of my life, even if it was only for a few minutes before bed after those long days. So I would write about the events of each day and any memorable images and so on.
But what I found interesting is how little I drew on those journals when I was writing the book. In fact, I didn’t draw on them at all. Once I had committed to the material, I found that the most memorable images and experiences had already floated to the surface. I didn’t think it would be to the story’s advantage to go back into my journals and pick up a new shot of a particular afternoon. I wanted the story to have its own logic and its own mind that would draw on the images the story needed.
So I actually didn’t do too much research even from my own archive. It was very much memory meets invention and imagination.
You have two very distinct protagonists who experience faith in different ways. Do you personally identify more with one of your protagonists?
I think I gave parts of my personality, particularly my mental temperament, to each character. The events themselves, my mom would want me to point out, are more fictional than the mental states I portray, which do have more of a root in my life experience. So McLeod’s doubting, on the one hand, does grow out of some very specific doubts that I had at the time or that I’ve had since. But by the same token, Passos’ almost tyrannical earnestness is something I can relate to. And his ambition and the guilt he feels over that worldly ambition, that’s something, again, that I can relate to and I sympathize with.
At what point did you decide to leave the Mormon Church, and what spurred that decision?
I had doubts for many years, about as early as I was conscious of my position as a Mormon. It’s just this inheritance from birth. And then eventually you get savvy enough to realize that other people in the world don’t believe as you do and so you start doing some comparative, religious analysis. About the time I started doing that, around 14 or 15, I started having doubts. The next several years were an attempt to put those doubts to bed and, in fact, what my mission was supposed to do. Again, this is just like McLeod, but when it didn’t actually pan out, I saw that to be a hugely disillusioning experience. Around that same time, my mid-20s, some of the other personal relationships — the community-based relationships that were holding me to the church — collapsed. I realized that I didn’t really have a doctrinal footing in the church, to the extent that it asks you to believe a series of propositions about the universe. To that extent, I knew I couldn’t invest.
But what I could invest in — and I still invest in, although informally as a former member — are the good things that community does for the people. I find that still deeply touching. But of course that isn’t specific to Mormons; you can find that in any faith community or in any community that doesn’t necessarily tie itself together based on supernatural principles.
Does your family still belong to the Mormon faith?
They do. My parents are lukewarm Mormons — more my dad than my mom, I suppose. But I say that with a smile and I mean it as something of a compliment. Mine was a moderate home — I feel very grateful for that. As a result, even with me leaving the Church, they’re totally supportive. I think my mom might be a little embarrassed about some of the language or depictions of sex, not personally, but she has to run into friends in the ward and I wonder if that will hang in the air between them.
But my dad, he’s essentially out of the Church as well and my sister is in the same boat as my mom — she’s a believer but her belief would never drive a wedge between our relationship. I drew a good set of cards.
Were you ever hesitant about writing on a subject matter that was so personal?
I think I was, but hesitation for two reasons. One, I wasn’t sure I wanted to risk being pigeonholed or marginalized as a Mormon writer, especially as someone who started writing these stories a few years after I had given up trying to believe in the Mormon doctrine. But Mormonism and childhood in general is so formative — those ideas, thoughts and images are the ones that you can command with most authenticity, I think. So that’s why I said I would resign myself to the subject matter. Now, I’m quite proud of the book and I think that writing about Mormons is just as valid as any way to take on the depths of human consciousness and relationships and the gap between who we’re supposed to be and who we are actually becoming.
There are moments when you have that little self-censor and you think, "people who are very close to you — loved ones — will be embarrassed about this." I recently convinced my sister to read the book. That gives you a little bit of pause but you really work hard as a writer to push past that self-censor and try to let the story call the shots. To quote a Mormon hymn, "do what is right" — for the story, I could add — "let the consequences follow."
Was there a moment that you finally decided, ‘I should write about this’?
When I was at Rutgers as an MFA student, some of my friends who knew I was on the outskirts of the Church, said to me, "Hey, McIlvain! We just saw your people!" What do you mean? "Oh, we just saw some missionaries and they were in their white shirts and black pants. Security booted them off campus." And I thought: Jesus Christ, if you knew the small, daily inner turmoils that these young men — or young women, as the case may be — were confronting, you wouldn’t kick them off campus. You would offer to buy them an ice cream cone, or something. But you see these guys and you think, "Oh, here comes a pitch." And often the pitch is on its way, so it’s understandable but they’re so young and they’re so far from home, more often than not. And it’s so difficult to put yourself in that situation of talking about personal things to complete strangers, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day. I think the dark, quiet agony of missionary work gets lost and I wanted to portray some of that in the book.
As someone who left the Mormon faith, how did you approach creating this world and these characters without judging them?
I’m not sure how successfully I’ve done it but I can tell you about the attempt. I have a lot of affection left in me for the culture I grew up in. I think I was able to balance that affection with portrayals of some counter forces.
There’s this desire to serve God and to find out if these things are in fact true — if these secrets of the universe are in fact real. I think that desire is genuine in the majority of missionaries, elders and sisters. But I don’t think that’s all that happens in a missionary’s head. I was very interested in showing the entire landscape of a missionary’s interior life: emotional, intellectual, what kind of temptations, what kind of doubts he or she would confront. In the book I am really striving to show a full portrait. To that extent, the characters come alive and it allows me to just describe their actions, and leave the judgment up to the reader. I think that’s the type of writer I prefer to be and I prefer to read fiction that is not didactic — that instead withholds judgment for the most part and just tries to describe things as truthfully as possible.
Do you feel like there are a lot of misconceptions about the Mormon faith? Or do you think Americans have a strong understanding?
Well I think it’s certainly getting stronger — and we can thank Mitt Romney for that. I think whenever there’s a subgroup or a subculture that is relatively new to the public spotlight, there’s this tendency to make them homogeneous or monolithic, as if all Mormons think a certain way. Or if to find out what was going on inside your Mormon coworker’s head, all you needed to do was access the Wikipedia article about what Mormons believe, and there you go. Of course all religion, all belief systems are so much spunkier than that — they allow for so much more personal variation and the experiences that people bring to their religion, make a new religion for each individual member. In a way I think there are as many Mormonisms as there are Mormons. I think that has been missing from a lot of media portrayals.
And then there’s also the fact that most of us only see missionaries from the outside and there’s relatively little that tries to show what the Mormon missionary must feel like from the inside. When I was writing the book, I didn’t want to be kooky, I didn’t want it to be a particularly comic novel (which was easy because I’m not a very funny writer). I wanted the story to take the interior lives of these young men very seriously.