Writing a Novel About Your Hometown Without Offending (Too Many) People
I live in Utah and I wrote a book based in Salt Lake City. In realizing location will nuance story, what do you think my book is about? Come on…say the first thing that pops into your mind.
Now with that subject in your head, let me say this: I’m not Mormon. Now what’s my book about?
When I told friends I was writing a book based in my neighborhood, many groaned and said, “Please tell me it isn’t another Mormon exposé?” It’s not.
On the other hand, Utah has several small-press publishers and one dedicated book store chain – all specializing in LDS literature. A different group of friends eyed the glass of wine in my hand, and said, “I guess they won’t be selling it at Deseret Book?” Maybe they’ll carry it, but I’m not holding my breath.
Many actually have a name for this cultural chasm that spans Mormons vs. non-Mormons. It’s referred to as the Great Divide. But what if I wrote a book based in my hometown that does not take sides? What if I based my story in my neighborhood simply because it’s mine? Because I know it, because I love it, because the history is unique and interesting?
And by the way, there are many places with controversial histories – think the southern states. When approached truthfully, with kindness, and without any editorializing by the author, this history can be enlightening rather than a stain. So how does an author go about tackling this?
Although every author will face a different challenge, based on his or her own personal circumstances and settings, here was my dilemma: often those interested in the history of the Mormon Church want fact-based non-fiction. Others sort through the concepts of polygamy or a living prophet and are eager to pounce on the scintillating nature of these tenets – think Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven or HBO’s Big Love. But most people who love Utah, because there’s so much more to the state – think mountains, skiing, national parks full of red rocks, blue skies, a thriving economy, nice people, sunshine – are sick of the whole issue.
So does my novel address Mormonism or ignore it all together? Root, Petal, Thorn is a braided story tracing the lives of five women who inhabit the same historic home over the course of a century, from the early 1900s through the present day. Trouble comes in many forms, and each woman marks good times and bad, by leaving clues (some intentional, some not) within the walls of her home – a home which happens to be located in Salt Lake City, Utah.
So of course, some of the stories are touched by the church, but also by a variety of other events, such as WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, lunar landings, mental illness, love and loss. These landmarks in time are not unique to Salt Lake City, but the lens through which a worldwide experience is seen, can’t help but take color from personal circumstance and location.
Will it be offensive to my Mormon friends and family? I sure hope not.
It’s all about character building. Characters do crazy things in books. They make choices we don’t approve of, they say mean things. Conflict makes for good reading. If a story has no conflict, there is no story. But at the same time, if a reader doesn’t sympathize with the characters, they won’t stick around long enough to understand. And they certainly won’t recommend the book to their mom, a friend, or their book club. The author must create sympathetic characters and illustrate the motivation behind their actions, or they will appear counterfeit (at best) or offensive at worst. I hope I achieved this.
There were points while writing Root, Petal, Thorn when I felt like I was walking on eggshells. For crying out loud, my own book club argued over some of the decisions my characters made. But guess what? That conversation was one of the best we’ve had, and my book club is full of smart, well-read, savvy women – Mormons and non. I may have broken a few eggs to tell a complicated story, but no one went home with yoke on their face. In the end, Root, Petal, Thorn isn’t a happily-ever-after tale. It’s about heartbreak, hope and tough choices. It’s about life. And, oh right, it’s also based in Utah.
Root, Petal, Thorn is a story of five fascinating women who inhabit the same historic home over the course of a century – braided stories of love, heartbreak and courage connect the women, even across generations.
Ivy Baygren has two great loves in her life: her husband, Adam, and the bungalow they buy together in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Salt Lake City, Utah. When Adam’s unexpected death shatters Ivy’s life.
Striving to be strong for her two children, Ivy decides to tackle the home-improvement projects she and Adam once planned. Day by day, as she attempts to rebuild her house and her resolve. And as Ivy learns about the women who came before her—the young Mormon torn between her heart and anti-polygamist beliefs, the Greek immigrant during World War II, a troubled single mother in the 1960s—she begins to uncover the lessons of her own journey. For every story has its sadness, but there is also the possibility of blooming again, even stronger and more resilient than before.
About the author
Ella Joy Olsen lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, in a century old brick bungalow with her husband and three children. She spent nearly a decade on the Board of Directors for the Salt Lake City Public Library system (and even more years browsing the stacks), and is a member of Women’s Fiction Writers. For more information visit www.ellajoyolsen.com.