Healing from the damage inflicted by an absent father and a chronically depressed mother, polygamist Golden Richards has learned to cherish family above all else. He'll be the first to admit, however, that juggling four wives, 28 children, and a full-time contracting business tests his resolve daily.
In The Lonely Polygamist, Brady Udall, author of the bookseller favorite The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, once again proves his talent for exquisite prose. With the greatest care and a bit of humor, Udall paints the portrait of an American family, complete with flaws, heartbreak, and love.
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Jill Owens: A few years ago, you wrote an essay for us about The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint. In it you write:
For a while, I was happy to live under the illusion that I was indeed the god of my own little universe. Then, very early on in the course of writing the book, something funny happened: Edgar started to go his own way. He began to defy me.
I wondered if something similar happened with the characters in The Lonely Polygamist.
Brady Udall: Yes. It's like having children. You have these expectations and hopes for them. You're sure it's going to go a certain way, and, of course, it never does. It never goes the way you want or hope. That's what happens when characters become full and realized. At some point, they can't do the things that you want them to. They have to do things according to their own personalities that have developed over the course of the novel. That is one of the difficulties in writing a novel. You can't control it like you might be able to control a short story, especially if it's a long novel.
Jill: You wrote an article for Esquire in 1998 called "The Lonely Polygamist." Is that where the inspiration for this book came from?
Udall: Yes, definitely. Basically, the research I did is what really got me interested in writing a novel about it. I have a background in polygamy. My great-great-grandfather was a polygamist, and his second wife was my great-great-grandmother. I owe my existence to polygamy, in some ways. I was inclined to write about it, but I really didn't know much about it at all beyond what I knew about my own family. So Esquire asked me to write this piece — not about polygamy, but just about my religious background or my religious thoughts. Then I decided to write about modern polygamy.
I went into it thinking what anybody might think: these people are a bunch of gothically dressed weirdoes, pedophiles, and creeps. What I found was anything but. People seemed mostly normal, living in ways that nobody would think of as strange at all, except for the fact that they have 30 kids and four wives in a single household.
Jill: How did you find the people that you talked to for your research?
Udall: I'm not a journalist, so I lucked out. I happened to have an acquaintance who's also a writer and is the 28th of 48 children. So, I went to her and said, "Look. I'm not a journalist. I don't know how to find people. Can you help me out?" She gave me some contacts. The thing she said to me that I'll never forget was, "Just remember — I trust you." What she was saying was, Don't make fun of these people. Give them the benefit of the doubt, the way that you would with anybody else. So, that's what I try to do in everything I write. I think it's easy to be judgmental. And polygamists are an easy target. I wanted to approach their story with as much humanity as I could.
Jill: In your Esquire article, you describe Bill, the father, as if "he were the prime minister of a small, unstable country, mediating disputes, keeping his eye on trouble spots, putting down rebellions from within." That seems to be a good description of what Golden aspires to be.
Udall: Yes, and the funny thing about Golden is that he's caught up in a predicament not entirely of his own making. I think we tend to think of a polygamist male as somebody who is power hungry and wants to dominate. What I found is that's clearly not always the case, but being at the head or the center of a family of that size becomes very political very quickly. It's not a simple, intimate thing. Mary Karr, the memoirist and poet, said, "A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it." That's awesome. That's totally true. And when you multiply that by 33, a giant mess is what you've got.
Jill: That's something that most people don't necessarily think about in terms of polygamy, or that I didn't think about — what a tremendous responsibility it is to be expected to take care of that many people. That burden is a huge theme in the book.
Udall: You can just imagine. I would ask these polygamous men to detail what they do over the course of their day. The amount of things they have to think about and take care of and attend to is enormous. One man took me back into his office, and it was stacked with bills. He showed me a dental bill for $28,000. I said, "Wow, that's quite a bit for a year," and he answered, "That's for the month." He said, "You know what the worst time of year is? August. Back-to-school time." He was showing me all the bills for the kids' clothes and for all their school stuff. It's basically a normal person's struggles and obligations in multiples of four or five or six. I don't know how people do it, honestly.
Jill: How did you decide how to structure the different points of view? I think the use of the character perspectives, alternating between Golden, one wife, and one child, was really effective.
Udall: That was actually an easy decision. I knew you couldn't write a book about a family this big from only one person's point of view. It wouldn't work. So, it made sense to choose one of the wives and one of the children. My plan was just from those three points of view. But as I got further in the book, I felt there needed to be a more distant viewpoint where you could see the family in its entirety in some way. That's where those more omniscient sections come in. That really helped me as a writer to see the family as a large organism rather than just being in one little corner of it.
Jill: Did you have a chart with everyone and their relationships?
Udall: No. When I teach my writing students, I always tell them to make a synopsis and keep notes. And then I don't do any of that. There were so many names — I would keep forgetting the kids' names. Then I would say, "Oh, I'll just throw this name in there, and I'll come back and fix it later." There are 27 kids in the family. I think by the time I got done, there were probably like 65 different names. [Laughter]
For a while, it was a grand mess. I mean, it was 1,400 pages long. There were a lot more stories with some of the kids and Golden's father, and all kinds of other stuff. I had to figure out how to focus it. It was a very difficult task to take that many people who are on intimate terms with each other and give it a proper depiction.
Jill: It's impressive because the final product feels really tight to me. There is a lot of foreshadowing in the book, which you realize by the end.
Udall: Sure. When you read a book, and it's good and you love it and you're just amazed by it, it feels like everything was with intent. It seems like the writer had this amazing ability. I think people who aren't writers don't understand this, and writers don't really advertise this very much. But most of it's just bumbling around and making mistakes. You happen on something, and think, "Oh, this works. Okay." Then you throw something else out, and it's just this chaos that eventually you wrestle into order. Most of it's what I would call mistakes or errors of judgment that turn out well somehow. When I look back, even when I was close to finishing the book, I thought I could never make this work. But somehow I found a way.
Jill: Did you hear stories in your family about your great-great-grandparents and the polygamy?
Udall: For a time, I lived in the house that my great-great-grandfather built. It was a big house, with 10 bedrooms and 5 or 6 bathrooms. So we knew that there was this polygamy in our background. But whenever we asked about it, it was swept under the rug. It just wasn't discussed much. It always remained a mystery. We felt a little teased by it. It was clear that it wasn't something that was to be discussed.
I understand now the reasons for that. The Mormon Church has an odd history. We're proud of our legacy and background, but the current church does everything it can to disavow its connection to polygamy. It's embarrassed by it, which I think is wrong and dishonest.
Jill: I didn't know — and I should have, I think — that there were so many nuclear tests in Nevada and Utah that affected so many civilians living downwind of the tests.
Udall: You know what? You're not alone. Most people don't know about that. I didn't know about it, and I grew up there. It's crazy to me that 50 or 60 years ago our government basically used its own citizens as guinea pigs. And thousands and thousands, tens of thousands were killed or harmed, and it keeps going through the generations because of the genetic damage. There are still, today, people affected deeply and severely by all of this. When you start to read the literature about it, it's just amazing that this isn't better known. It's really horrifying. If you're interested, check out a book called American Ground Zero. It's a book of photography of victims and their personal stories. It'll break your heart. It's amazing.
For me, what's really terrible is that they would wait for the wind to blow east. Not when it was blowing towards Las Vegas. It almost never blew west anyway, towards Los Angeles, but it always blew towards the small towns, the Mormon towns. They even called it a "low-use segment of the population." It was like, "Well, it has to go somewhere. It'll go here." It has affected much more than the people just in those areas. It's all over the West. And, the nuclear fallout created irradiated hail in Chicago, in Washington D.C. It's had long-term effects all over the country.
Jill: Is that something that affected your family at all?
Udall: Not really, no. It was funny. I asked my dad about it. I said, "Do you remember any of this?" He acted like he didn't for a second. He grew up in a little town very close to these towns. Then he started telling me about all these people that had cancer. I said, "Dad, it's probably related to the tests. People weren't having cancer that much back then." He said, "Oh, I never really thought of that."
These were people that were very patriotic and very dedicated and trusting. That's what makes the tragedy all the worse. Even now, people that have been affected by it won't admit it or won't even entertain the thought that the government would do something like that to them.
Jill: That's the attitude of the characters in your book, as well, which is really heartbreaking.
In the story, there are the deaths of several children. It's both a recurrent grief and also a catalyst at certain points. What made you want to examine grief and loss in that particular way?
Udall: The first thing I'll say is that, to me, that's almost the only thing worth addressing in literature: death and how we deal with the loss of the people we care about, in particular, the loss of children. I write a lot about children and I have my own children. Luckily, I've never lost one, but I think about it a lot. John Irving wrote The World According to Garp, and in it Garp loses one of his boys. The book was a huge hit and lots of people wrote to Irving and said, you must have lost a child yourself because you understand it so well. He wrote an essay about it, saying he hadn't lost a child, but that he loses his children in his imagination every day. I'm not sure, but writing for me might be kind of a self therapy to deal with the possibility of such a tragedy.
Jill: The story of Glory in particular in this book is so poignant and illustrates the kind of father Golden wants to be but can't be because he has so many other children. I said, half jokingly, that we should choose your book as a Father's Day pick, because it really is about fatherhood in a lot of ways.
Udall: Yes, I think so. And that's a very astute observation. With Glory, because of her disability, Golden doesn't have to worry about playing favorites. He doesn't have to worry about making everything fair, because she's disabled. He can treat her with as much love and attention as he wants without worrying about spreading it around to everybody else. So, you get to see, in one aspect, the father he would be if he only had one or two kids. You know? But when he's faced with this daunting hoard, he's not up to it.
Jill: He just flees, or checks out.
Udall: Yes. He just doesn't know how to deal with them. Plus, the fact that he's lost Glory obviously affects him badly. It makes him unable to connect with his children in a way that he otherwise might have.
Jill: You manage to write about some pretty bleak things in your novels, in this one and in Edgar Mint, but then they're often really funny, as well. How do you think about tone?
Udall: That's a good question. To me, a book with a comic sense to it is what I want to write. Right now, I don't think there are many writers that are writing well in both the comic and tragic vein simultaneously. Those are the books that I love. So, when I set out to write this book, my major goal was to be able to place comedy and tragedy as close together as possible, to push the envelope on that. For me, that creates a lot of energy and tension. For some people, it's too much, I think. I've had people read Edgar Mint and tell me that it's fall-down funny. Other people say they didn't laugh once. I can understand both. There's some bad stuff that happens in the book, and I can see not being able to laugh in the midst of reading something that's so dark.
Jill: I laughed at both that book and the new one.
Jill: I was also very moved, and kind of heartbroken, at points, as well.
Udall: I hope what happens is it heightens both emotions a little bit, having the sour and the sweet. I don't know, exactly. But when you're feeling bereft by something you're reading, and then you laugh, it makes the laugh that much sweeter, I think.
Jill: I would agree. Something in the new book that embodies both of those things to me was Raymond the ostrich. Because it comes up as an object of humor at points, but then it's also there at these just horrific and tragic moments.
Udall: In all my stuff, I tend to use animals in some way or another. They represent things, I suppose. There are funny things in some of my stories — for example, there's a guy with a pet vulture. We tend not to look at animals in the same way we look at humans, obviously. They can accept and absorb our hopes and fears in a way that humans can't.
Jill: You brought up John Irving. I was going to mention that you keep getting compared to him. I was trying to think of someone else who's similar, but I couldn't come up with anyone.
Udall: That's probably why I keep getting compared to him! [Laughter] You know what's funny? Before the release, my publisher asked, "Who should we compare you to on the back of the book?" I just said, "How about Dostoevsky?" [Laughter] They said, "No, no, no."
Jill: Maybe Dickens...
Udall: Dickens starts getting thrown around because Edgar Mint is an orphan. But I think John Irving does the same thing. That's what I like best about him, his ability to do comedy and tragedy at the same time and in very close quarters. I admire that. It's fairly rare these days. I don't know why. There seem to be writers that are really good at comedy. And then there are those that do sort of earnest tragedy, or the intellectual writers who write novels of the mind. But I'm not sure why that is. I don't think comic writing is as respected as it should be.
Jill: What are you reading now?
Udall: Right now, I'm re-reading Ray by Barry Hannah. It's one of my favorites. I think I'm supposed to recommend it on NPR, or something like that. But it's a wonderful book. Barry Hannah passed away last month, as you might know. I've been re-reading a lot of his stuff. He is one of my heroes, a writerly hero, and Ray is hilarious. I mean it's kind of undisciplined and crazy, but it'll make you laugh. And it's really short, too. You could probably read it in a couple of days.
Jill: By the way, thank you so much for signing all of the Indiespensable books for us.
Udall: Oh, no problem. You know, it was very cool to go to the warehouse and sign them. There were around five people helping me. One person would take a book off the big stack, and somebody else would open it up and slide it over to me. I'd sign it, and then they'd take it, and box it. I just spent the whole day with those people, those warehouse workers. I had fun.
Jill: This is a somewhat tangential question. Do you know the band Ted Leo and the Pharmacists? [Editor's note: A main character in The Lonely Polygamist is named Ted Leo.]
Udall: [Laughter] You are now the third person to ask me that! No! Well, now I do. After I was told about them, I listened to some of their music. But as far as his name and most of the characters' names, like I was describing about all the kids' names, there are dozens of them. I don't settle on one until near the end of the book. So, the character was called all kinds of things throughout the book, and then it settled there on Ted Leo, and suddenly it belongs to some musician.
Jill: I thought maybe you really didn't like their music, since the Ted Leo in your book is such an evil character.
Udall: [Laughter] Actually, I really do. That's what's crazy; I really like the music.
Jill: The typewriter in Edgar Mint is almost a character of its own. Is that how you started writing, on a typewriter? And do you still?
Udall: I'm not that old — I'm 40 — but when I was a kid, yes, my mom had an old electric typewriter. There were no computers at that point and that's what I wrote on. I loved the physicality of it. It sounded like a machine gun, hitting the keys on that thing. I don't write on one anymore, but a typewriter is a beautiful thing. For a writer, it has a special place in my heart.
Jill: Yes, I love them. I collect them, actually.
Udall: Oh, do you? I don't know anything about them. I just really like them when I see them. I don't use one now. I haven't typed on one in a long time. I don't collect anything, but if I did, I would probably collect typewriters.
I spoke to Brady Udall on April 21, 2010.