Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Inner Voices - A Conversation with the Novelist and Editor David Ebershoff
There’s been some criticism. “Oh yes,” the American novelist David Ebershoff knows what I’m talking about. He laughs if off – but like any good writer he still seems to be digesting the highs and lows in releasing one of the New York publishing scene’s most anticipated works last year, his third novel The 19th Wife. And so it is that a question lingers, unspoken, impolite, beneath our conversation: does that book succeed?
Ebershoff’s sprawling novel tells the true-life, nineteenth century tale of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of the Mormon “Prophet” Brigham Young. Her story of outspoken apostasy (she would campaign against polygamy as a form of slavery and become a national celebrity in her day) is twinned with a modern-day murder mystery set among a Mormon sect in Utah who refer to themselves as “the Firsts” because of their on-going loyalty to Young’s polygamous vision.
The 39-year-old author uses a host of voices and source materials – including a mock Wikipedia entry, newspaper articles, letters, hymn lyrics and online conversation transcripts – to unfold his ambitiously structured narrative. It’s this array of characters and patchwork storytelling techniques that has brought Ebershoff such uncertain praise.
Ironically enough The 19th Wife is an enquiry into the relationship between faith and doubt. It takes its cues quite sincerely (as well as ambiguously) from an epigraph attributed to St Augustine: “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”
The process of developing a novel can be a mysterious business, for the writer as much as any reader. “Writing my way through it told me how to do it,” Ebershoff admits of The 19th Wife. “So I really appreciate you responding [positively] to the structural aspects. They’re so central to the book and what it is – and also how I came to the book to begin with.”
“I actually heard about Ann Eliza Young about seven years ago. How she was the 19th wife of Brigham Young,” he says. “That phrase really intrigued me: ‘the 19th wife’. About four years ago I moved into her story and really started working on it, reading her memoirs, her lectures, the hundreds if not thousands of newspaper articles about her, material from people she knew, Brigham Young’s biography, which didn’t gibe at all with her version of him…
“Information came from all kinds of places and different texts. But I still couldn’t quite get an answer to a central question, what did it mean on an intimate level to be the 19th wife? That’s why I wrote the book as fiction. I realized I needed to interview some ‘plural wives’, so I went down to a remote and isolated community in Texas. Everyone in that town, all the families, were polygamous. But I wasn’t able to get an interview because I was such an outsider no one would talk to me.”
As Ebershoff drove around he became aware of a police vehicle tailing him. It followed him until he left the local limits feeling suitably intimidated. “I couldn’t believe that in modern day America I’d just been driven out of town.”
“I saw that this was another part of the story – and got in contact with people who helped people leave that community. That’s when I found out about ‘the lost boys’ (boys and young men who are expelled for their crimes of sinfulness, largely to prevent competition with the senior men for fresh young wives). Their stories were just heart-breaking. I saw that if the nineteenth century story was that of a wife, the contemporary one should be of a child of polygamy.”
Over time Ebershoff accumulated more and more documents, texts and interviews. “What I kept coming back to me were all the voices,” he says. “It was very compelling to me. I just kept telling myself: Believe in the voices. That is what is taking me through the material and that’s what will take the reader through it too. Even if you disagree with what the people are saying! So the structure actually came out of the story.”
In the end, two figures come to dominate the book: Ann Eliza Young herself, whose memoirs and public speeches Ebershoff re-tuned and extrapolated from to create a stunningly convincing picture of early Mormon life; and the 20-year-old Jordan Scott, a ‘lost boy’ who has been excommunicated from ‘the Firsts’, only to be pulled home again after reading over the internet his mother, a contemporary ‘19th wife’, has been arrested for the murder of her husband.
Jordan is something of a gay Holden Caulfield, sardonic and sentimental by turns. Ann Eliza is more upright, but her narrative shows similarly persistent flashes of sarcasm that stab at the core of polygamous practices: “In the Saints’ troubled institution, a wife’s confessions to her husband hops from one pillow to the next with the determination of a bed bug.”
It’s worth noting that despite these elaborate weavings The 19th Wife is not so much a post-modern literary experiment as an old school blockbuster. One’s mind immediately drifts to films like The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Witness for structural and dramatic comparisons, as well as the HBO program Big Love. That television series, along with a controversial raid on a cult in Texas early last year gave The 19th Wife added topicality upon release, not to mention the fact Mormonism is the fastest growing religion in the USA today.
Ebershoff hastens to clarify that his book has been well-received by mainstream Mormons who remain proud of their history despite the fact they now abhor polygamy and find themselves embarrassed by these recidivist cults. He nonetheless talks with great intensity about interviewing former “plural wives” and “lost boys” – and how much their testimonies matched documentary records of a hundred years ago, when people similarly questioned their religion while caught inside a totally confined community world. “The loneliness of it,” Ebershoff says, each word pounding out, “the confusion, the self blame, the very difficulty in forming doubt and the overwhelming disorientation in the formation of that doubt as it rose up inside of you.”
In the past Ebershoff has stated he “began writing to escape from the emotional drama of being a teenager.” While that experience is hardly unique for a novelist, it’s not hard to assume connections between his development as a gay young man and the consolations of literature. It was perhaps fated that as a hotshot young editor for Random House he would be put in charge of Truman Capote’s literary estate, including the discovery of an early lost novel entitled Summer Crossing published in 2005. Ebershoff heard of an auction of four notebooks at Sotheby’s purporting to be a ‘lost novel’. He flew to London expecting to find notes and scene sketches. Ebershoff recounts the thrill of sitting down in a tiny room and reading “Capote’s small, crabbed handwriting” and realizing it was a complete work. “So I contacted the [Truman Capote] Estate and said we have to take this seriously.”
Fortunately the New York Public Library bought the note-books to add to their Capote archives. Written when Capote was just 19, “it was clearly an early novel, wonderfully precocious,” says Ebershoff. “We spent several months discussing should we publish it and what would it mean if we did? And we decided, one, it was a very good first novel as long as we didn’t publish it as a lost masterpiece. And two, when you look at Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, that the publication wouldn’t dent them. They’re too good. As long as we put Summer Crossing out modestly there would be people who welcome it, especially seeing an early character in the book who is the prototype for Holly Golightly.”
During this time Ebershoff was also appointed Norman Mailer’s editor, working with him for the last five years of his life on Why Are We At War? (2003), The Castle in the Forest (2007) and a collection of poetry and drawings entitled Modest Gift (2003).
“Working with Norman was not what I expected,” Ebershoff says. “His reputation was very large. I made an assumption that he wouldn’t want an editor; that he would fight for his own way on everything… In fact he wanted to know exactly what I thought and why. I loved being so wrong about him – he was always so generous to people and their ideas, so curious about everyone he met. About what was being discussed, what was in the air. And he applied that interest equally and democratically, which of course explains the breadth of his work.”
“Norman actually spoke of Capote very fondly,” Ebershoff adds. “He enjoyed his company a lot and [told me] he admired his courage and his books.”
Now an editor-at-large for Random House, Ebershoff is engaged at the time we speak on a book about Iran by the journalist Azadeh Moaveni as well as the new biography of Abraham Lincoln by the historian Ronald C. White, Jnr. “It’s the editor’s job to understand the writer’s vision and help the writer achieve that vision,” Ebershoff says. As a commissioning editor he goes one step further – what he looks for in a writer is “not just a story well told, but the depth of talent to sustain a career”.
Ebershoff’s own career has been tilting towards big things for some time. His debut novel, The Danish Girl (2000), was based on the first person to undergo sexual re-assignment surgery and is currently being turned into a film starring Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron. His next book, a collection of short stories about teenage boys and young men entitled The Rose City (2001), was named one of the year’s best by the L.A. Times. Ebershoff’s second novel, Pasadena (2002), a highly romantic attempt to write a Californian equivalent to Wuthering Heights, hit the New York Times best-seller lists – as has The 19th Wife more recently.
Outwardly it’s the kind of solidly ascending career any writer would be glad to have. And yet it’s not quite the heights Ebershoff clearly would like to reach. He tells me he is “beginning a new novel, and I’m just as nervous as ever.” He sounds very sincere about those nerves – and way too professionally razored as a top American editor to give in to his doubts. However underwhelming the critical reception to The 19th Wife has been, book sales indicate he has struck a popular as well as literary nerve, a balance the likes of Mailer and Capote similarly sought. Ebershoff is already talking of a new novel that “has a pulse, a beat. I can feel it, hear it. And it demands attention, like anything alive does.”
- Mark Mordue
= David Ebershoff is a guest at this year's Sydney Writers Festival 2009.
* An edited version of this story was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Books pages on September 20th 2008. It can currently be found in full at the American art, design and media website, Culture Now, which I can thoroughly recommend as a site to join and explore - link below: