It took me a while to warm to the young adult novel Keep Sweet, by actress-author Michele Dominguez Green. It wasn't just that I'm not exactly the target audience for this book, but it was bad timing.
Her book arrived at a time when I was studying Mormonism as part of a middle school class I teach at a Unitarian Universalist church. A continuing theme throughout the year, as we have studied Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam has been that, when examined closely. each religion is more understandable and appealing when you talk to mainstream members of it.
Or to put it more simply, don't let the extremists scare you off, whether talking about Christians, Muslims or, in this case, Muslims.
So a book that starts with a girl being part of a sect in which polygamy is part of the way of life rubbed me the wrong way because even former Mormons who spoke to our class were acknowledging that polygamy is not an accepted part of Mormonism anymore.
I made a deal with the author: I would do this interview and help promote her book only if I can ask questions that are more challenging and pushy than I might normally ask.
She agreed and this is the result. I have also finished the book and it's quite well done.
Why did you decide to focus your book on a Mormon family? I haven't finished the book so can I ask a question some potential readers will wonder, namely do the fictional families in the novel realize they are out of the mainstream of Mormonism or is that even brought up?
The families in Keep Sweet are Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, which is a group that mainstream Mormons have no affiliation with despite the fact that they began as the same religion. Mainstream Mormons practiced plural marriage after the original prophet Joseph Smith decided to make it part of the doctrine as it still remains in section 132 of the Doctrines and Covenants. But even then, his first wife was opposed (for obvious reasons!) and a great many other Mormons were as well and they broke away to form a splinter group. But Mr. Smith and Brigham Young and the other patriarchs of the religion had more power and plural marriage became part of the religion.
Eventually general public opinion in the US turned against Mormons and polygamy and in order for Utah to be allowed into the Union, Brigham Young renounced polygamy, although he continued to keep something like 19 wives in secret! So, the FLDS are very aware that they are outside the mainstream of Mormonism and, in fact, consider mainstream Mormons to be apostates who have fallen from the true faith.
Polygamy is the cornerstone of their society and belief system and for that reason they live in separated, insulated communities. Or they live in places like St. George or Salt Lake and try to blend in (as in Big Love), which requires a great deal of secrecy and puts tremendous pressures on the family, especially children. But the FLDS and mainstream Mormonism are very aware of each other and of being different from one another.
I wanted to write this book after seeing an interview with Flora Jessop, who comes from one of the prominent FLDS families and escaped from a tightly controlled community. Her younger sister, Ruby, was seen as a teenager kissing a local boy and was immediately married to an older man, against her will. Ruby tried to escape, was brought back and then went into what amounts to 'deep background.' No one saw her or heard from her for years. Flora's attempts to get her out were unsuccessful. Another Jessop, Carolyn (also FLDS, related to Flora by marriage, since they all have the same five surnames, more or less), escaped from the FLDS in a hair-raising episode, taking her eight children with her.
After reading these stories, I was horrified that things like this happen right here in the US to young women and children who have rights under the constitution as American citizens. I couldn't believe it, really. Then I read Jon Krakauer's Under The Banner of Heaven and I had nightmares! Many, many people confuse the FLDS, which is basically a cult that openly violates U.S. law, and mainstream Mormonism and the FLDS exploit that misunderstanding. I wanted to write this book about the dark side of what goes on in these communities, told from the POV of the kind of person most affected by it: a teenage girl.
Did you do research for this book, and what did that research involve?
I read many accounts of women who had escaped the FLDS, I had a pile of books on my desk and unfortunately, the stories were shockingly similar from Arizona, Utah, Colorado to Mexico and Canada. All told of women having virtually no rights or control over their lives, of being forced to follow the orders of the prophet, no matter how erratic or irrational. It is a world that is dangerously insular with a concentration of power that has more in common with Jonestown in Guyana than anything we associate with our democratic society. I contacted Andrea Moore Emmett, who is a journalist that has covered the FLDS for much of her career and she and I spoke at length about the FDLS and the dynamics at work in those communities and the misperception that many Americans have about them. I was also put in touch with a woman who had escaped an FLDS community and she and I spoke at length as well.
As I warned you, via email, this book hit me at an odd time as I've been leading a middle school discussion of other faiths at my Unitarian Universalist Church and we are in the middle of studying Mormons. And so when I first started this book I thought, "Oh no, another book focusing on the stereotypes and extremists of Mormonism instead of the reality that most Mormons, for example, don't believe in plural marriage." So let me turn an abbreviated rant (too late?) into a question: Do you share my concern that a novel like this could give people the wrong impression about a religion that many in society do not fully understand? Don't get me wrong – I'm not pro-Mormon and I'm not anti-free speech (heck, I'm a long-time journalist and fiction writer in my own right) but one refrain from my class has been that all religions are often more good and compassionate and helpful to the world than most realize and that one must avoid judging religions based on extremists. (Sorry for the long winded question)
This is a great question. I am very clear in this book that Alva and her family are fundamentalists, that they are separate from mainstream Mormons and that they live by different rules. The voice of the book is clearly that of a young person who has accepted all kinds of radical, dangerous beliefs (i.e. African Americans are 'cursed for their evilness with black skin') and her emotional journey to realizing that her world is really warped is the central arc of the book.
The character of Brenda Norton is a mainstream Mormon whose husband has become a fanatical fundamentalist and she has followed him into Pineridge in an attempt to save her marriage. She offers a very different perspective on Alva's world and the bizarre rules that govern it. Brenda is really Alva' s window into the outside world and the idea that mainstream Mormons are not the evil, immoral people she has been taught that they are. Precisely because many people don't know the difference between mainstream Mormonism and the FDLS, I feel that this is an important book as it makes that divide very clear. There are Mormons on the outside, like the police officer Oberg, who returns Alva to her family when she escapes the first time, who are sympathetic to the FLDS and historically, the state government of Utah, which is heavily Mormon, has turned a blind eye to these groups, but mainstream Mormons on the street are usually appalled by the FLDS.
Fundamentalism is dangerous in any religion and needs to be exposed as being separate from the mainstream faith. Writing a book about an Islamic fundamentalist who blows up a building is not a book demonizing Islam, the same way that writing about a Christian fundamentalist who murders an abortion doctor is not an indictment of Christianity.
The danger with the FLDS is that many people only see the backlit photos in People magazine of little girls wearing long prairie dresses and the old-fashioned hairstyles and they confuse that with the general modesty and industriousness of mainstream Mormonism. The FLDS are very savvy at controlling the spin on press coverage about them and they have figured out that there is a very deep-seated desire in our American culture to believe that somewhere, in our crazy, demanding fast-paced world where parents worry about sex and drugs and the internet, we as a culture want desperately to believe that there exists this utopia where children work hard and obey their parents and don't wear revealing mini skirts or pants falling down around their waists, where they do their chores and respect their elders, etc. While many of us may think that a community like that would be too strict for us or our own children, it is comforting to believe that somewhere in Utah under the big, wide blue sky, that exists.
The reality is that when the social workers went into the YFZ ranch after the last raid, they found a community that had no toys, nor coloring books, no crayons, absolutely nothing related to the mental and emotional development of children. In fact, one of them said that you would never know that children even lived there if you did not see their little shoes lined up outside the doors of homes. All those children did was work, from sun up to sun down. When they were in protective custody and wanted to go outside, they asked permission to go pull up weeds because work was the only way they knew to ask to step outdoors. And many boys as young as 11 or 12 are pulled out of school to work on construction crews, violating child labor laws.
Girls are often taken out of schools (which are run by the FDLS and inadequate by U.S. standards) by puberty to prepare for marriage. This is not a utopia by any stretch of the imagination! And this is not mainstream Mormonism. Again, the character of Brenda asks Alva what she does for fun and Alva doesn't know how to answer. Brenda describes her own childhood of going to the park or the movies with friends and Alva is baffled by such freedoms.
One thing that stopped me from giving up on the book and this interview was seeing that you are involved in the television series Big Love, which I know both Mormons and non-Mormons like and respect. What do you think of the show and what is your role in it?
Big Love is very well written, very funny and dark and very well acted. It is great show. Its take on the FLDS and plural marriage chooses to focus on the darkly comic side of living a polygamous lifestyle and trying to hide it as well as manage several wives and their jealousies, etc. It is one perspective on plural marriage. I enjoy working on the show and the people are terrific but I don't think it even alludes to the dark side of plural marriage and how it really puts women in a compromised, powerless position nor any of the other uncomfortable/criminal aspects of these communities.
Do you have friends who are Mormon? Did you share your book and get feedback from any Mormons?
I grew up in L.A., where there is a giant mixed bag of religious faiths! I dated a Mormon boy in high school, I knew many Mormons from my involvement in high school drama as we were always going to other schools to compete and meet other kids from different parts of the city. A good friend and neighbor who I see regularly (our toddler sons are best pals) is a Mormon and I spoke to him a great deal as well. Ms. Moore Emmett is a former Mormon and I actually got a nice review of the book on Amazon from a practicing Mormon, who said it was well researched and as a Mormon, the FLDS was like "the creepy uncle' who shows up at parties that you'd like to ignore but can't as he's part of your family.
You have an impressive acting resume. Can you speak to your highs and lows and be sure to mention your L.A. Law role?
Being an actress is very challenging, a lot of fun, extremely interesting from a storytelling perspective and it gives you the chance to really explore and investigate how other people live, think, feel. It requires you to step into another person's perspective, to see the emotional arc of any moment in life, to see the greater themes at work. It is a fabulous preparation to being a writer, especially in terms of character development.
I started my career as an actress when I was 17 and it became the main focus my my professional life as I had a lot of financial responsibilities within my family and it paid really well. The whole time I was in college I worked in TV, playing teenage runaways, etc. and I began supporting myself and paying my school expenses from the first job I got. I never felt like acting was my real calling artistically, I enjoyed it, it was a good emotional outlet at a time that I, like many young people, was experiencing a great deal of emotional turmoil, navigating my way to adulthood.
I started in L.A. Law when I was 24 and suddenly I was on this hugely popular show, making a lot of money, getting my picture taken at restaurants, etc. It was a little weird, I never felt like it was real, it felt like an odd, early chapter that was leading me someplace farther down the road. I was always at my core, a writer. I was always writing and always felt more fulfilled and engaged by writing. It took a slow down in my acting career for me to really give myself time to embrace becoming a writer and I'm so happy I did! I still enjoy acting, I love being on a set and working with a crew, I love cinematography and the dance between the actor and the camera, I adore doing live theatre. My perfect life would be writing novels and occasionally doing plays and working in TV and film on the projects that I am really inspired by.
Was it always the plan for this book to be aimed at the Young Adult audience? Are you planning other books of this or other genres?
Keep Sweet is my second YA novel. The first, Chasing the Jaguar, came out with Harper Collins in 2006 and was nominated for an ALA award. It is a kind of teen paranormal mystery about a young girl who finds out she has inherited amazing psychic powers from her Maya ancestors. It is the first in a series,The Martika Galvez Mysteries, which I am moving to a new publisher at some point. It is in the process of being developed as a TV series. That is exciting and I can't wait to do the next book for Martika, who I love as a character. I love this genre, I love writing for teens because it is such a powerful, loaded time in their development and a good book can really expand their minds and hearts, when they are still young and flexible and open! I am also working on books in other genres, I love writing and it is necessary to my emotional equilibrium that I get some work done each day, which isn't easy sometimes with a current book to push, as a single mother of a very active toddler who loves to climb on every dangerously tall thing in his path! And maintaining a house with dogs and cats and dishes to be washed and vegetable gardens to be planted, etc…oh my….it never ends!
What are you working on next?
I am finishing a new YA book, starting a women's fiction novel and one third through a crime suspense novel. And slowly finishing a non-fiction book. And rebuilding the carport (not by myself, of course!)
I'll end with my version of a freebie – what question do you wish you would get asked that you are rarely, if ever, asked?
I am never asked what my favorite junk food, drive though restaurant is. Jack in the Box, the two tacos for 99 cents are the best tasting, horrible-for-your arteries snack in the Western United States. I don't even want to know what scary meat product is in them. I only allow myself to eat them once very two months or so.