The 19th Wife by David EbershoffRandom House, August 2008 - 528 Pages
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The 19th Wife is a novel within a novel that tells two very distinct and yet related stories about the controversial issue of polygamy. One part of the novel is the story of Ann Eliza Young, the nineteenth wife of famed Brigham Young, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who divorced her husband, went on a national speaking tour, telling the story of her life and later wrote two books published in 1875 and 1903. The second part of the novel is a modern-day murder mystery that tells the story of Jordan Scott a young man expelled at the age of fourteen from the Firsts, a fundamentalist Mormon cult in Mesadale, Ariz. Jordan's newly discovered stability is turned upside down when he hears that his mother has been arrested for murdering his exceedingly creepy, polygamous father. He drives back home to see her for the first time in six years and reluctantly decides to help prove her innocence.
David Ebershoff, an editor at Random House, has written a very vivid novel full of characters emmersed in the world of polygamy and religion in the 1800s as well as modern characters who are also living a life in which polygamy and religion play a major role. The difference? One clear distinction is that the key characters in the story that take place in the 1800s are founders and early leaders in the Mormon church, the modern characters, still involved in polygamy, are part of a church that is called Firsts, a radical group that has broken off from the larger Mormon Church.
Ebershoff offers the reader a unique view of a very interesting time in US history as well as a eye-opening story of a modern fundamentalist cult and the struggles of one boy to free himself and the ones he loves from its grasp.
Kelly Hewitt: Having read and thoroughly enjoyed The 19th Wife I found that the two story lines complimented one another. But I wondered about what prompted you to add the storyline involving Jordan, the LDS exile? It seems as though the story of Ann Eliza Young was certainly rich enough to provide for an entire novel. What do you think Jordan's storyline adds to the overall message of the novel?
David Ebershoff: I wanted to tell a full story of polygamy in America. When I started working on the book, I initially thought the story would end around 1890, when the LDS leader, President Woodruff, changed the Church’s position on polygamy. But the more I got into the subject, the more I realized that American polygamy has had a whole second act that I could not ignore. And so I tried to come up with a story and a structure that could tell the reader about polygamy 2.0 in an entertaining and perhaps enlightening way.
Kelly: One of the major themes that exist in the modern polygamist storyline is include the "lost boys" of the Mormon faith who have been abandoned on the streets, of which Jordan is one. In your research did you find that this is a prevalent issue among young LDS males? Were you able to interview or contact any of these "lost boys"?
David: Just to clarify, the present-day polygamists are not LDS. They are called FLDS and in my novel I call them the Firsts. Their ancestors broke away from the LDS Church generations ago over the issue of the polygamy. The so-called Lost Boys – those boys and young men who are kicked out of polygamous communities – are, therefore, not at all a part of LDS culture. Yet among the FLDS the Lost Boys are, unfortunately, a sad truth. I spoke with some of them about their experiences. This is in part how I created the character Jordan Scott.
Kelly: Many of the reviews of The 19th Wife have drawn obvious parallels between the book and events that took place in April at the Yearn for Zion Ranch of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints in west Texas. Were you still working on the novel at the time? Given the amount of research you have done about the world of polygamy I wonder how what must have been going through your head at the time, aside from a general feeling of good timing on your behalf!
David: By April of this year, I was all but finished with the novel. We had galleys and I was making a few final corrections. When I saw on the news what was happening in Texas, like many people I found myself very concerned for the children. I kept asking myself, What would I want if that were me? In fact, I had asked myself that question many times during the four years I was writing The 19th Wife.
Kelly: Maybe this is a baseless and naïve question, but have you received any contact from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or anyone affiliated with it?
David: I have received hundreds of emails from Mormons, all but one of them positive. Many people have thanked me for telling this story, while others have told me stories about their own 19th century ancestors. And I’ve heard from a lot of gay Mormons. Let’s face it, it’s not always easy being gay and Mormon. Since the book came out a few months ago I’ve sensed from all the emails and people who have come to my readings that they appreciate seeing a character (Tom) who perhaps represents their lives just a bit. I’ve been very moved by all these responses, although I have to admit I am not wholly surprised by them because when I was writing The 19th Wife I met many people who were open about their faith and their Church’s past and graciously shared their own experiences with me. The Church itself has not officially contacted me. This is a novel after all. As the White House said recently in response to a question about American Wife (Curtis Sittenfeld’s amazing novel about a First Lady similar to Laura Bush), “We don’t comment on fictional characters.”
Kelly: I was astonished, and impressed, to read that you were Norman Mailer's editor for the last five years of his life. I am sure you are asked this frequently but, what was it like to be Norman Mailer's editor? How did working with Mailer influence your own work?
David: As an editor, it was both an extraordinary and very ordinary experience. It was ordinary because I work with all writers the same way: I read their manuscripts and tell them exactly what I think. I believe the best way to show a writer respect is to respond to his or her work thoughtfully and fully. And so that’s how I worked with Norman. But of course this was Norman Mailer, and so in many ways it was an extraordinary experience. He liked to be edited. That doesn’t mean he agreed with everything I said. But he was always open to comments about his work. He was always thinking about his work, always striving to improve it, always turning over ideas. He was like that until the last days of his life. He once said to me about writing, “You got to give ‘em fucking juice. The reader wants to know you give a damn.”
Kelly: I read in an interview that your sudden inspiration to write The 19th Wife was so strong that you set aside another book that you were already working on. Can you share any information with us about that?
David: It was a novel inspired by a true crime in Tijuana and San Diego in the 1920s – a terrible crime in which a whole family, mother, father, two daughters, end up dead. My best friend, who read the manuscript many years ago, keeps telling me I should go back to it, but I don’t think I will. At least not now.
Kelly: And finally the question that every author hates for an interviewer to ask, especially fresh after the release of a bestselling novel, but members want to know what's next? Have you already began working on your next novel?
David: I’ve just begun writing a novel about tennis. I know, polygamy to tennis? I promise, one day it will all make sense.
David's The 19th Wife Website has some wonderful materials about Ann Eliza Young, including a fully digital copy of her 1875 book about being involved in polygamy. It can be read here. Please do note that it is a large file.
The site also offers some of the original newspaper stories that are featured in the book. View those here.