Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist Interview: Part II

You can find part I of the interview here, including the context of this interview.

Jake Seliger: [Ideological conformity] seems like one of the conflicts between Beverley, who I think is homeschooling all of her children, and the—

Brady Udall: Right, Roland and Rose-of-Sharon, when all the other kids are at public school.

JS: Where they’re known as what Rusty is very aware of—as a Plig kid, which has a pretty obvious negative connotation.

BU: Polygamists face these kinds of feelings almost anywhere they live.

JS: It reminds me of—I went to high school outside of Seattle [in Bellevue, for those of you wondering]. At my high school, we had a relatively large Mormon population. There were also some—not a lot, but some—mainline Christians. The mainline Christians often thought the Mormons weren’t real Christians.

BU: Sure.

JS: And the Mormons would sometimes be a little, well—I mean, most of us were busy drinking and taking SATs and having sex, but—

BU: But that goes on and on. We’re out trying to convert the Baptists, and the Baptists are saying we’re not Christians. There’s going to be those conflicts everywhere. And more. Those conflicts exist in my own marriage. You know, it’s me and one wife. I just can’t imagine—you put two or three more wives in there.

JS: There’s also this establishment of what Golden’s life feels like. Early on, there’s a section that says, “Normally there would’ve been a crush of children waiting at the door, all of them shouting at once, pulling his clothes and asking what he brought them. The little ones standing on their heads, displaying some new bruise. Look at me! Look at me!” That little interjection there—look at me, look at me—is a lot of what’s going on among the children and among the wives. The wives are hanging back, waiting for their chance to lay claim on him, almost like he’s a piece of land. Just that phrase, “to lay claim on him—”

BU: Yeah, well that’s exactly it. The active verb is not his—it belongs to everybody else. And so he becomes more of a figurehead.

JS: Right.

BU: He’s like the president, you know what I mean? He is who you want him to be. But there’s a person there.

JS: When we enter his consciousness, we see his point of view, and he’s not really—he’s less concerned about dealing with each individual child and more concerned with Huila. He’s concerned the construction site. He’s concerned with his wives. It seems like the children are more concerned about him in many ways, than vice-versa.

BU: Yeah. He doesn’t have the wherewithal to deal with anybody individually. And I really wonder sometimes if the person who exists who can do this. You know what I mean? Maybe there is. I don’t know.

JS: It’s hard to wear the crown. Even if you want to be the king.

BU: I guess so. I just don’t know that this could be done. I don’t know where the cutoff. I was one of nine kids. My Dad did the best he could. But is it enough? What does a kid need? I’m not sure. I think it’s a pretty interesting question, actually. Most cultures, you know, want you to have more kids. Now we have two. Has it gotten any better? Have parents gotten better? Do kids become, you know, more mature, better readers now? It doesn’t seem like it. You know what I mean? I don’t know. . .

JS: What’s ideal. Or if there is such a thing.

BU: That’s what I’m saying. I don’t think there is. We’re telling ourselves that we think we know. It’s better to have fewer kids. I just went and said, is 28 obviously too many? I don’t know. It’s a good question.

JS: The issue of children is present because—in the interview you did with Powell’s Books, you said your characters were like having children. So what’s it like, then, having a child in the form of Golden, who’s in turn dealing with all the rest of these children?

BU: That’s a good question. As a writer, that’s very difficult. I look at myself as kind of a Golden. I put myself in his place, and I’d be like, “Damn.” So as a writer, dealing with all these characters, trying to keep track of them all, trying to understand what all their motivations are—it’s just a huge, daunting task. That’s why I write 1,400 pages. It was hard. But I guess I just wanted to do it right. And I had to go all out. I couldn’t do it halfway. I couldn’t easily. . .

JS: Abandon your literary children?

BU: I could have, you know, ten children. It would’ve made things easier, with only two wives, or three.

JS: But that would probably be less chaotic feeling.

BU: Yeah, that’s what I really wanted—that really big family. Because, you know, when I grew up, it was a family that wasn’t polygamous, but there were 16 kids. So it still happens. I want to go beyond anything that could naturally happen, in a regular American household. And it does, in polygamous households, around this country.

JS: Sixteen children goes back to the old Groucho Marx quote, I like my cigar but I take it out of my mouth every once in a while.

BU: [Laughing.] I haven’t heard that one.

JS: I’m surprised. It seems appropriate.

BU: It seems applicable, doesn’t it? I should mention that one to my Dad.

JS: Yeah.

BU: And we have versions of that, but yeah. But sometimes you wonder why. You see people with all these kids and sometimes the first question you want to ask is, “Why?”

JS: If you have a religious injunction against birth control, that’s where some of the culture gets going—

BU: That’s right, that’s right. And that’s an important part of all this. And you probably remember that Golden looks at the thing, the condoms, I remember the thing—it was imbued with the power of dark and benevolent Gods, or something like that, like a ring in a fantasy novel.

JS: That’s not at all how I view you. You know, you go into Rite Aid to buy 20—

BU: You know, with 28 kids—it’s such a possibility that’s not even available to you. That was the question—why would women have so many children? Well, that’s the whole point.

JS: Yet at the same time, that’s ultimately the tipping point for Trish to cheat.

BU: Absolutely.

JS: Because feels he’s not going to get the job done.

BU: He’s not going to get the job done. And that’s a very simple equation. You’re right. Their desires are at cross purposes. She wants to increase the family. He’s scared of the family. He doesn’t want it to increase anymore.

JS: He also has a million other things that are concerning him.

BU: Anyway, so that works out. That kind of conflict. That’s what story is. Put two characters in the same place with different desires, and that’s a story.

JS: I feel like I just walked into the Brady Udall creative writing seminar—

BU: Yes, yes, this is creative writing class.

JS: How do your students respond when you tell them variations on that theme?

BU: Well, they listen, but I don’t know if they always act. I just try to make it sound simple. They don’t seem to always believe me, that it’s that simple.

JS: It reminds me of your comment—I think you said, that’s the only thing worth addressing in literature—death and how we deal with the loss of people we care about.

BU: That’s right.

JS: Obviously, a fair amount of that comes in here. It sounds like you’re channeling Leslie Fiedler, in Love and Death in the American Novel. So my question would be, why death? Why not the love half of that as well?

BU: Well, obviously, there’s love and death. And love is the only thing that can overcome death. I think Fiedler talks about that. I’m just more interested in the death part. And the reason death is so meaningful is because of love. It all becomes the same thing. It wouldn’t matter if we didn’t love the people who go [I wonder if science fiction is exploring this space], who disappear from our lives. So love is a huge part of that. It’s not just death. I’m not as interested in romantic love. I don’t know why. I guess I’m just not a romantic person. I tend to leave that out. Even in this book, there’s certain kinds of romance going on, but I think it’s clear I’m not as interested in it. So it’s probably just a personal thing.

JS: Right. And the characters—they all seem to be driven by desire, but often not by desire for the person who they should want to desire.

BU: Right.

JS: You see that with Golden—

BU: We use other people to escape the people we should be with.

JS: Part of Rusty’s problem is his age, part is because of his circumstances—there is no one for him. No one who would be appropriate for him.

BU: Right. It’s totally true. His desires are totally inappropriate.

JS: And yet they make sense within the context.

BU: Sure. But if you think about it—for any 11-year-old kid, everything’s pretty much inappropriate. There’s no appropriate anything. Like most 11-, 12-, 13-year-old boys, he’s in a bad place.

JS: He’s in a particularly bad place, because even if he has an object of affection, and she’s another polygamist, she’s pretty strictly controlled.

BU: And June, June is kicked out. His group, someone shows affection for a certain girl, and that’s out of bounds.

JS: It seems like in some cases it would actually be harder for the girls to rebel. There’s a fairly strong hold to try to keep them. . .

BU: Absolutely. It’s almost impossible.

JS: So I don’t know what it would take, if you were a 16- or 18-year-old girl, to say, “Fuck this,”—

BU: “I don’t want this.”

JS: Do you have to call 911? Can you call 911?

BU: It’s much more difficult. It’s such an almost, I don’t want to say it’s wonderful. It is a great irony. In certain ways, the female has more power. It’s interesting stuff.

JS: The power of no, which it seems like they have.

BU: It’s power in a way, because they have a commodity. Which is horrible, obviously. They’re the ones, if you have five, six, seven wives, the more righteous and powerful you are. . . but the women become a commodity, and therefore have significant power.

JS: Assuming they manage to exercise it.

BU: Yeah, if they figure out how to do that.

JS: I believe there are a couple of older teenager girls in the novel.

BU: Sure.

JS: I love, by the way, the little family web at the front of the novel.

BU: Right, I made them do it. They wanted to just list it, but I made them do it that way.

JS: The thing is, instead of being a family tree, there’s a family web, with Golden at the center.

BU: Golden had to be at the center. That’s the whole point of it. That’s exactly the place he does not want to be.

JS: So it’s obviously not their story, but we don’t hear as much from those girls, the older kids. Em and Nephi are getting towards—

BU: If you remember, Em comes and stays with Trish for a while. She dresses up. She dances to the Beejees. But Beverley comes and shuts it down. So she has a little moment where she feels free, though.

JS: Perhaps Beverley is doing that because Beverley is thinking back to her own past.

BU: Yeah, sure. It’s the worst thing that she can see her daughter doing. Going anywhere near that sort of lifestyle. The world, or whatever.

JS: Here are some of my big, standard questions: What question do you wish interviews would ask and they never do?

BU: [Laughs.] Well. I wish I had a good, quick quip for that one, but I don’t.

JS: All right, I’ll give you my card. If you think of an answer, send me an e-mail.

BU: You probably want a real answer, and I don’t have one.

JS: Any kind of answer is okay.

BU: I get asked mostly about—you know. The same stuff. You do a good job, because you’re not asking all the same questions. You usually have to answer the same questions over and over again.

JS: Any time I interview a writer, I try to read at least a couple of other interviews so I don’t go over the same territory.

BU: Yes, and you’ve done a good job, sort of—what I like is talking about the book. Too often it’s about—and you see this in criticism—is a focus on the writer as opposed to the work. Which I have to say—I think it’s nearly useless. But people seem to find it interesting. That’s why there’s a magazine called People.

JS: People always ask you, “Do you use a Mac, or do you use a PC?”

BU: That’s right. They want to know. You know, I understand.

JS: I did see in one of your interviews, you said you like old typewriters.

BU: I don’t use a typewriter.

JS: Have you ever gotten a—for a while I used a keyboard called an IBM Model M, which is from the 80s. It’s got a very clicky. [We trade e-mail addresses.]

BU: I love that. The keyboard I have is that chunk, chunk-chunk chunk. You have to whack the keys to get it to respond.

JS: Do you have any final thoughts or things I should know?

BU: No, I don’t think so. I do appreciate the focus on the book, and the characters.

JS: I tried to talk about the language some.

BU: Language is very important to me. I’m trying to do two things at once. I don’t want the reader to notice the language, most of the time. But I’m trying to make language that’s, I don’t know, extraordinary. I don’t want it to disappear. I want the reader to sometimes go, “Wow.” To be moved by the language as much as the story itself. So that’s what most writers, anyway, look for—the Holy Grail. To have it both ways.

JS: I remember Stephen King, when someone said, “I want to be a writer,” or something like that, said, “Do you love sentences?”

BU: I love that. I love it. In the end, that’s all we have as writers. We just have words and sentences. We have nothing else. We don’t have pictures.

JS: Well—

BU: Yeah, you could. I mean, I might try that sometime. It might be easier than doing sentences. But I tell my students, you have to care for the sentence. You have to really care. Or your work’s not going to be worth that damn.

JS: I guess your last comment is, love sentences. I think that’s appropriate.

BU: Yeah, I like that. That’s appropriate.

No answer as to whether he got a different keyboard in response to this interview.

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