Cult Fiction

How a Library Helped Save Me

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The Ernie Pyle Memorial Library

Albuquerque, New Mexico

A recently- discovered portrait of the famous WWII journalist Ernie Pyle is his last:  a photograph taken just moments after his death.  The body that housed all those words lies still and immortalized in black and white.

Ernie Pyle housed other words in a very literal way – words that meant survival to me, long after he was gunned down by a Japanese machine gun on a Pacific Island in 1945.

When I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico as a ten-year-old girl in 1962, I devoured the written word. From the time I was a toddler I had wondered at the magic of black marks on white paper and determined I would solve those mysteries; and once I learned to read I was voracious.  Previously living in the raw-boned boomtown of Farmington New Mexico, I never went to a library.  One Christmas my mother gave me six cheaply-bound books:  Alice in Wonderland, The Five Little Peppers, Black Beauty, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Little Women, and Treasure Island. I read each of them seven times.

But once we moved to Albuquerque I discovered to my delight that there was a library just ten blocks away, down the Chinese-elm-lined street of Girard Avenue. I discovered the Olive Book of Fairy Tales (and the Red, and the Blue, and the Yellow, and the Brown…)  I delighted in every Oz book Frank Baum ever wrote.  I found a whole collection of books about American Indians, and read every one in the little library, even the adult and scholarly ones.  (I once even read a book called the Chisel-Tooth Tribe, thinking that the author would stop talking about beavers and other mammals and get around to talking about Indians.)  Then I discovered the books about ancient Egypt, and I adopted another culture.

The walls of wonder in that library were a cosmography for my young mind.

Every few days I would bicycle furiously down the street with my wire basketful of books secured with a belt.  On the way home, I would often stop pedaling altogether as the strapped-down open book on top snagged my attention.  I would scramble off the bicycle just before it toppled.  The books and I would sit under a stranger’s tree until I finished a chapter, and I would pedal home.

I didn’t want to return there, to where I lived. It was a place of fits of rage, of crazed threats and screams in the night. It was a place where the emotions of adults ambushed children.  I didn’t have the language to express it then.  Now I would speak of mental illness, of schizophrenia.

The only refuge was high in the weeping willow tree, or hiding on the cool flagstone beneath the lilac bush. The only insulation was the world of books.

I survived that world, outlasted it, really.  I went away from it to college, deliberately forged my own sturdy and loving family.

I write my own books now– almost two dozen have been published.  I have written books of faith, to help other women have hope.  I have written a book about a child who has bad dreams and is helped by a multi-colored quilt and dreams of escape to wondrous worlds.  One of my newest books is an adventure:  a story of quests for truth, of golden treasures, of mysteries.

I go back to that little library sometimes.  What once seemed a kaleidoscope of ideas I now see as a tiny residence, where books were once “shelved” even in the bathtub.  It is the modest “little white house and picket fence” that Ernie Pyle often wrote about, the one he and his wife built, now a public library in Albuquerque. His dog Cheetah’s grave is still there. Ernie built that very picket fence.  It is a library that demands also to be seen still as a home.

I look at the photograph, the serenity of Ernie Pyle’s face in death.

I thank him for his home, the safe haven for my young mind.

Review of When Mermaids Sing

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The central plot of When Mermaids Sing by Mark Zvonkovic (IUniverse, 2008) focuses on the narrator, Larry, a man still finding himself. His own endeavors are side-stepped though, when his close friend and cousin, searching for many of the same things becomes affiliated with a powerful cult in the Cape Cod area. As Larry tries to remove him cousin from the cult he not only learns of the destructive of cults, but is startled to find many parallel constructions in the arguably commonplace society that he resides within. Expertly written, the novel pans back and forth between Larry’s past and present. Larry not only begins to understand the inner workings of cults, but makes some startling discoveries about the world he lives in.

–Reviewed by Jason Compton

Interview on Examiner

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The Examiner recently interviewed me with the following questions:

Q-How did you get started writing?
A-Writing begins, I think, with the art of noticing. One of my earliest memories is this:

I am standing at the end of a peach orchard in Farmington, New Mexico, in which my parents have cleared spaces to make a trailer park. Many of the trailers sit on blocks because their tires, along with the women’s wedding rings, sit in a hock shop until payday.

The peach trees are at the end of bloom, filing the air with a stinging sweetness and the ground with pale, brown-edged petals that swirl around in the wind. Down the row of trailers are cars and trucks, and men’s legs sticking out from underneath them, this way and that. Above them, the automobiles’ hoods are open, making them look like birds lined up, waiting for someone to feed them. 

This is a sight I see every weekend, when the men come home from working as roughnecks in the natural gas fields. Most of them drink too much, and curse as they work under the cars, all day Saturday and Sunday.

Not until I am an adult do I make a connection to all the legs sticking out from under the cars and what we children do all week long while our fathers are working. We have few toys and play cowboys and Indians (“Andale, andale, arriba!”) and roleplay shopping and gas station. For the last game we all use the square of window screen I found in a trash can. We take dirt and sift it into old coffee cans. One of them we have bent to make a spout, and while the boys let sticks hang from their lower lips like cigarettes, the girls hand them scraps of paper and tell them, “Fill it up and check the air in the tires.” We watch as they pour the silken rope of dirt into our parents’ gas tanks. 


Q-How old were you?
A- I began “noticing” and archiving details of what I saw from my earliest memory. As soon as I was able to write I began describing what I saw. 

Q-After you first started writing–how long was if before you were published?
A- My first published writing was an essay on fire prevention, written in the 3rd grade.

Q-Do you have a particular degree or other educational experience that has helped you write well?
A- Although I have advanced degrees, my most valuable training is in the repeated reading of the Bible. I’ve lost count, but I have read it all the way through dozens of times – once in Spanish.

Q- What compels you or has influenced you in your writing?

A- I have to write. Except when I can’t.

Q- How many hours a day do you spend writing?
A- It depends. When I’m on a roll, sometimes 12 hours a day.

Q- Who are your mentor(s) and supporters?
A- My husband and children are my biggest cheerleaders. I couldn’t function without them. My mentors are the fantastic writers I blog with at NovelMatters: Bonnie Grove, Debbie Fuller Thomas, Kathleen Popa, Patti Hill, and Sharon K. Souza. 

Q- When you first started writing, what was the biggest mystery to you about the process of publishing? And now?
A- Most of my writing that was published in my early career (including my first book with Zondervan, The Mormon Mirage) was submitted by someone else (teachers, other writers) to a publisher or magazine or contest, often without my knowledge. I don’t resent that—I see it as a sign that God was advancing my writing.

Q- Tell me about the day you first received word that your first work was accepted. What was it like? What did you do?
A- I was getting ready to attend a baby shower at church when I got the letter. I told people that Zondervan was going to publish my book and even though people were kind, it was obvious most were having trouble believing I had the story straight, so to speak. And honestly, I could hardly believe it myself.


Q- Is the “writer’s life” what you thought it would be?
A- After 40 years of writing, with dozens of books completed and hundreds of magazine articles published, I have to say (using my mother’s phrase): It’s not a money-making proposition. You have to have other motives and expect other rewards, and there are many of those. 

Q- How do you deal with writers block?
A- I am just coming out of a writer’s block valley. I have had speed bumps and school zones in my writing journey, but never a complete roadblock. You should probably ask me about this later this year.

Q- Was your work ever rejected? If so, how did you react?
A- I’m rejected a lot. Um, I mean, my work is rejected a lot. It’s hard to swallow when I believe I’ve written something really helpful.

Q- What are your biggest distractions?
A- The Internet and social media. Oops. That’s what this is!

Q- What was one of the best moments in your career and what was one of the worst?
A- October 31, 2008, my agent Janet Grant called and said that Moody wanted to publish my first novel, Latter-day Cipher, a murder mystery. Then an hour later she called and said Zondervan requested me to revise and update The Mormon Mirage. Both came out last year.

Worst time – hmm. Some of my books make people really, really angry. Most of the time they are past any kind of dialogue by the time they post something publicly or write to me. And to be honest, I can’t debate. When I have laid out facts and given the reader plenty of resources to verify what I’ve said, and the reader rejects it and hates me for writing it, it feels like a helpless, hopeless situation.


Q- What do you least like about being a writer? Most like?

A- During a particularly low period recently I was re-evaluating my life as a writer. Both my son and my daughter told me the same thing separately: They are proud of me and very grateful that I did not work outside the home but instead pursued a writing career that allowed me to stay home with them, teach them Scripture and spend time with them. Nothing in this world is more valuable than knowing my children are faithful, committed Christians who are close to me. 

Q- What is the role and importance of an agent?
A- I am so grateful for my agent, Janet Grant of Books & Such. She does those things that make me most uncomfortable, including trying to “sell” someone on my writing.

Q- What advice would you give to new writers?
A- Malcolm Gladwell says you have to spend at least 10,000 hours to be proficient in a true craft. Are you willing to do that?

Q- What is your personal ministry focus (if you have one) and testimony?
A- Some of my books are about my exit from Mormonism. Most people think that Mormonism is just another version of Christianity, but this is a religion that believes in more than one God. This issue is the deal-stopper. And my insistence on bringing that and other issues about Mormonism to the fore has been a focus of my life.

I’m continuing to write, but I’m moving away from writing about Mormonism. It will always be a part of me, but not what I want to write about much anymore. I want to explore other deep soul-issues, including those which involve a loss of faith.

Q- Do you have anything else you would like to share with our readers?
A- Writing is deeply satisfying – in the process, and in the completion. 

Q- When you see God, what do you want to ask him?
A- I want to ask Him about mental illness. Why. What are the issues of responsibility. How He views it. Why. Why. Why.

For more information, see The Mormon Mirage 3rd Edition:  A Former Member Looks at the Mormon Church Today(Zondervan, 2009). Also available as an audiobook and as an expanded-text E-book for Nook, Kindle and other reading devices.

No Silent Reading

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There have been many ground-breaking events in the history of Christian literature and its readers. Perhaps one of the most shocking events came about in about 400 AD when the famous St. Augustine walked in on Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, and found him doing something so unusual that Augustine described it in detail.

Ambrose was scanning the page of the book before him, Augustine said, and his heart was obviously deeply involved in the meaning of what he was reading, but “his voice was silent and his tongue was still.”

So what was the extraordinary, even shocking behavior the bishop apparently practiced?

He read to himself. All the time. That was. . . remarkably unusual.

That’s because from antiquity, what was written was meant to be spoken. Books were rarities, and were intended to be shared for the good of the many (who often could not themselves read at all.) And the rhythms and nuances of the world’s finest writing often must be voiced to be appreciated, even if experienced alone.

I listen to recorded books all the time. One reason is that I can’t stand to let my mind go idle while I do relatively mindless tasks like dusting, yard work, mopping, and long-distance driving. I can give myself a mental vacation and not feel guilty because I’m getting a lot done otherwise.

But secondly, it enforces a discipline. By listening, I make myself a captive audience and give a book a chance (at least the first 45 minutes) that I might not give a print book –I’d be scanning ahead, thumbing through, impatient.

Recently listening to an audio book may have rescued my writing career. About three months ago I was so deeply discouraged about my writing –in fact, perhaps for the first time in my life, even in a state of depression—that I could not write. I would sit for days in front of the computer without being able to complete a good sentence. I was completely stalled and sinking farther by the moment.

I prayed. I asked others to pray. I fasted. I meditated. I descended.

I shop for audio books at a local charity store. Usually I listen to something a previous owner donated: which means that my selection is usually quite limited and most often not what I would have bought for myself nor checked out of a library. But in that, I feel a guidance and direction of my listening.

Just how significant that is, became apparent during this great, bleak, wordless period. I began listening to The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr. Within ten minutes I was entranced. More than that, the glue of the depression began to moisten and loosen.

It’s not a Christian book at all (though Karr subsequently became a Christian.) But it was excellent, insightful, articulate writing. I found myself hearing the voice and participating in the wonder of words. I began thinking about a situation from my childhood and suddenly I knew exactly how to write it.

And now I am back to writing.

How about you? What role does the spoken word of literature play in your life as a reader or a writer?

(This post appeared first on Go Ahead and Wear the Purple)

Reason #126: A fictional account of losing faith in Mormonism

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In the previous item on the “365 Reasons” blog I described the situation that caused me to lose faith in Mormonism.  I have tried to describe this in a fictional account, too:  my novel, Latter-day Cipher. In this passage, an LDS man who is a spokesman for the church is explaining how he will counter the criticisms of non-members in an upcoming press conference. But this man, Roger, does not know that his wife Eliza is beginning to have doubts about the LDS church:

“But don’t worry – the Church has people – many of them—who are fulltime researchers, who spend every day working on explanations  that Gentiles would understand. And of course money is no object. BYU has a Web site, and scores of individuals do too, that make it their ministry to defend the Church.”  He saw her eyebrows rise. “And they provide explanations for us, too!  There are so many books out right now that dredge up old history, and try to make the Church look bad. And the Internet – it’s opened up all kinds of issues.”

Again the odd look on Eliza’s face.  She seemed to struggle with something, began to speak, stopped herself, and then began again.

“What kinds of issues – I mean, what explanations are you talking about?”

He spread his arms out as if scooping up papers being blown away by a sudden wind. “Oh, my goodness. You know, sweet Eliza, so many things are being published right now. You don’t really need to worry about them.”

“I want to worry about them.” Her voice was uncharacteristically flat. He eyed her with a nascent uncertainty. Surely, surely she meant that she would worry on his behalf, about the press conference.

“Well, for instance, one of the aims of the press conference is to show that, although the Church certainly invented the Deseret Alphabet, that doesn’t mean that all uses of it are authorized by the Church. One of the things I was told to mention is that just because somebody wrote something in the Cherokee alphabet, that doesn’t reflect negatively on Sequoia. That will make sense, don’t you think?”

Eliza nodded. “What other issues will you be addressing?”

“Well, there’s the delicate matter of blood atonement – you know that whenever anybody is killed and Mormonism is involved, critics and oldtimers alike bring up that issue, too. I have to be ready to respond there, too.”

“What will you say about blood atonement?”

“The Apostle Bruce R. McConkie says there’s not a single historical instance of what people call blood atonement in the Church’s history.”

“Roger, you’ve not been a Mormon your whole life, like I am. Everybody knows—we were all taught – that there are certain sins you can commit that aren’t covered by the sacrifice of Christ. That you have to have your own blood shed in order to atone. Like if you murder an innocent person. Why do you think we had capital punishment by firing squad for so long in Utah?  Haven’t you read Norman Mailer’s book, The Executioner’s Song?”

Roger did not know which astonished him more:  what she was saying, or the fact that his Eliza of such few words was so passionately articulate.  He felt like a heavy sack of grain that she was ripping open with her words. Part of him was rushing out the gap….

Eliza continued. “Don’t you know about the Danite “avenging angels” that Brigham Young would dispatch to people who left the Church?  Why, there are even people you know – and know well – who are descendants of the very people who carried out blood atonements!”

She was swallowing, hard, but went on. “And what do you do with the findings of legitimate historians inside and outside the Church who would say that the Church’s denials of blood atonement in the 1800s is just bunk?  Like Juanita Brooks, who wrote on the Mountain Meadows Massacre?  She called blood atonement ‘a literal and terrible reality.’”

“You’ve been reading these books?  Why?”

“Not just them. On the plane on the way to Egypt, I met a woman who was doing research for a theology degree. I had known about the old books, the Zane Grey and Arthur Conan Doyle books, and others that caricatured Mormonism and blood atonement. Those were books by outsiders. But I was up to the challenge, I thought. I knew I could defend the Church. So I wasn’t afraid to borrow some books she had, and I read them every evening. Some nights I didn’t sleep at all.”

She wrung her hands, distraught and spent. Her elbow knocked over her glass of water. They both jumped to sop the spill with kitchen towels. For the first time, Eliza seemed to notice the pile of newspapers that covered the books that Selonnah had left.

“Where did these come from?”

Roger stared at them as if they had been deposited by aliens, then watched with horror as Eliza picked one up and held it toward him.

“Selonnah left them…” he began.

“I’ve read this one,” Eliza said matter of factly. “There are issues here that have to be addressed, and not with “dodges” and self-protective hot oil over the battlements to quiet those who have questions.”

Roger was speechless. Eliza’s eyes softened.

“Roger, my precious Roger. I brought you into all of this Mormonism mess. I asked you to be part of a world I thought was good, and healthy, and sane and whole.”  She sighed and leaned back into her chair.

“I guess it had to come out. I was just too tired to deal with it when I first got home. Coming back to Utah was like having been on a long sea voyage, adrift in a sea of turbulence and choppy waves, no light at all. I thought when I landed here I was returning to the island of peace I’d always known. I came back to my refuge and I found that the contours of this island are still familiar, but that it’s become overgrown with thorns and burrs and tangled vines. You’re here, and Maria is here, and I’m sure about you two– but of nothing else.”

Roger felt chivalry rising within himself. “Let me help you. I’ll get some explanations” — here her face seemed to harden, and he changed the words – “I’ll get you some information. I’ll make sure it’s the real stuff, original documents. I have access to all the areas of BYU’s library, even the sections where only professors and researchers can go. I’ll make copies. You won’t have to take anyone’s word for anything.”

“Some things you won’t find there, Roger. And those are the things that are breaking my heart.”

“What do you mean?”

“For instance, a geneticist, faithful Mormon bishop, released a book recently that demonstrated beyond doubt that Native Americans aren’t descended from people in the Book of Mormon. You do realize the implications of that for me, don’t you?

“That means that I’m not a Lamanite. I’m not descended from Jews. I have no Jewish DNA. All the heritage that I treasured, that I believed that I and other Native Americans had, all of it is a lie.”

He tried to process not only her words but the fact that those words were coming from the lips of his wife. The words wounded Roger. But as he looked at the pain in her face, he saw that she was not only wounded but bereft. She began to cry, and he put his arms around her.

“There’s more, Roger. You think you’ve been shielding me from all the intrigue at BYU, the stories about the September Six.”

She paused in deference to his astonished look, his mental disorientation. “It is I who have been shielding you,” she continued. “I’ve just kept putting aside any questions about why the Church deals so harshly with people who do the research, who bring things to light. I’ve put aside my questions about the way they just cover things over and ask you to just trust their versions of things.

“I shut my ears to anything that would hurt my testimony of the Church. I didn’t want to hear it, never even noticed when I was being fooled. I mean, years ago I read the most famous LDS book about The Pearl of Great Price scrolls  — pages and pages of stories about how the scrolls were rediscovered and about how Joseph Smith had translated them and they became Scripture for us  — and never, ever noticed that the author left out the most important thing:  that the Egyptian on the scrolls doesn’t say what Joseph said it said!”

Words were spilling out of her, a stream of her own grain that was emptying her soul as well. Her sobs sounded as if they were coming from drowning lungs. Though Roger embraced her shivering body, he knew she was beyond comfort.

 

For more information, see The Mormon Mirage 3rd Edition:  A Former Member Looks at the Mormon Church Today(Zondervan, 2009). Also available as an audiobook and as an expanded-text E-book for Nook, Kindle and other reading devices.