My hometown paper wrote one of my very favorite pieces about Sweet Land of Bigamy.
A debut novel features a setting that will be familiar to residents of the Uintah Basin. It’s not by accident. “Sweet Land of Bigamy” was written by Miah Arnold, who grew up in Myton and is the daughter of the current mayor of that town, Kathleen Cooper. Although the book primarily takes place in the fictional tiny town of “Smoot’s Pass,” there are many scenes and places that will ring a familiar bell for locals. …One theme is the propensity of Americans to want to have things both ways. “Helen has two very different husbands and she loves them and she wants them both,” Arnold said. The character’s original husband Larry is a Mormon and a humanist and a religious man, yet he find work in the war. There’s the Mormon woman who wants to be a feminist and she wants to be a Mormon; Arnold said the woman is not going to leave the church so she is going to have to find a way to marry those two desires. Motes’ mother is an alcoholic, who decides to quit drinking – but only in the daytime. As she hears from various readers, Arnold said everyone reads the novel according to the situation they are facing in their own lives. One reader said he saw the tale in the book as a national allegory, noting that Motes loves this person in the left and the right, and can they co-exist? Another, a friend who is in a long-distance relationship, said he viewed the novel as a warning that if you don’t make choices together as a couple there is a danger in both going off on a different road. “That is the cool thing about putting a novel out in the world, to see how different people take it,” she said. “I love that, it’s not just my book, it’s everybody’s book.” A number of reviews on Amazon.com’s website for “Sweet Land of Bigamy” suggest that it would be an ideal book club selection, leading to lots of interesting dialogue. “If people want to talk about it in a book club, I would come and talk to the book club,” Arnold said.
Cherie Newman, at Montana Public Radio’s the Write Question, interviewed me in August. It aired yesterday. I was in the middle of my road trip when we spoke, and so I had forgotten much of what I said, remembering primarily how thorough and thoughtful she was as an interviewer. Here’s the proof!
At Nancy and Dan’s suggestion we decided to take our two small children on the ten hour, scenic journey to Seattle instead of the five hour, equally scenic to people from Texas, journey. That’s just what the kids get for having writers for parents, and what we imagined this part of the journey would be included our children getting drenched in waterfalls and moose sightings and snow angels in August. And do you know what? That’s what we got. We even ate the snow we found at the side of the road, knowing full well it was not the kind of snow meant for eating. But again: it was August. We saw the snow, we ate the snow. It made up for about two of those extra driving hours.
A few hours later we were gallivanting with my friend’s Dana and Finus and their kids Max and Zoe on the outdoor patio of a fancy Seattle condo building. Then the kids were asleep and we were relaxing with Morgan and Irene and baby Judah in their bungalow on MLK Boulevard. This is the little family whose marriage brought us to the Northwest in the first place. Lila asked Irene if Baby Judah was her family, and though we had all been apart a long time, we all became family again. Magic stuff, the words of children.
The audience at the reading at Elliott Bay the next night was like a warped version of This is Your Life: there was Holli from Bonneville Elementary, my aunts Mary and Melinda who I’ve only met a few times, Kiersten from High School, Britta and Dana from different parts of my life at Carleton College, Dana’s parents, Jake from St. Olaf and Northfield and post college road trips, and Emily from my MFA, and Irene and Morgan who I met getting my Ph.D. There were a handful of people I didn’t know, too. Of this group two people had read the early drafts of the novel. It made the whole event spectacular, and fun, and the energy in the room was crackling. I felt lucky and grateful to have this visual map of the people I’m made up of in front of me and bemused and surprised they were all here in a town that I have never lived in.
We celebrated this glee with Britta and Kiersten and Irene and Holli, afterwards. It was one of those nights in your life where you leave amazed that you’ve known such different and inspiring friends. In my first post I said I am the kind of person who can’t sign her name the same way twice, and there was a subtext in my head that meant: this means I always have to learn everything new and that is annoying about me, and hard to live with because it takes to much time to not remember rituals or rules or signatures, but it is me and I know it. This is a negative in a lot of life, but when it comes to how it has effected who my friends are it is a boon.
You ought to make your way to Auntie’s Bookstore a day in your life, and especially if you are an author on a book tour. Their author-handler is a lady by the name of Linda Bond, and she really made my reading into something very lovely and intimate. There were a handful of people and instead of having me stand and face a mostly empty room, she had us all sit down in a circle. I read to the eight people listening like my novel was a story book, and it was a new kind of thing for me.
I had left my family to play all day in a lake near Kettle Falls, Washington. I drove with my cousin/aunt Nancy and two friends from her writing group, Lahana and Nancy L. I’d just done lots of driving with my dad and then my husband and kids, but I wasn’t tired of the road. Three ladies and their stories of their life just south of Candada and East of Seattle transfixed me. The journey slipped past, barely noticed, as I learned of Lahana’s book selling and convenience store shifts, Nancy’s neighbor’s calving and her newspaper career, and Nancy’s life since I’d last seen her.
In Spokane, at Auntie’s, my friend Keya, joined our group, as did Linda, and an old man named Joe . Linda explained to me before the reading that Joe attends all readings, photographs the authors and asks them to sign a little book. She said some people are annoyed, but I wasn’t. His retirement hobby moved me; there are those who take cruises, and then there are those who make it to even the debut novelist from Utah’s reading to become an eighth of an audience. He did spend about ten minutes posing me just right after the reading, and it made me happy. I asked him if he had been a professional photographer, and after saying no and making me guess other possible professions, he said, “I was a jeweler and I engraved things.”
It made some sort of sense to me, and I left Spokane grateful to the ladies who drove four hours (2 there and 2 back) to see me read, and to Keya for having asked me sweet questions, to Linda for her kindness, and to Joe for his.
I was dazzled by those radio microphones. The interview is here!
As we drove out of Missoula – me, Raj, Vish, and Lila – we were wrapped in the enviro-green of Uncle Stephen’s Prius. It’s been an incredible gift of a loan. The first thing we saw from it, pulling onto the highway, was a golden eagle swooping down to capture some unlucky creature: we are the kind of people who considered that good luck. (Well, Lila didn’t, because she didn’t see it.)
The drive from Missoula to Spokane is breathtaking. I have heard Idaho jokes my whole life, but I’m here to tell you if you haven’t been, the joke is on you. We drove through Alpish mountains and windy corners and green, green, green. The heatwave oppressing the rest of the country seemed to have forgotten the tips of the mountains in northern Idaho.
In Spokane the family was treated to a delicious lunch at a restaurant called Sante by our dear friend Keya Mitra. Keya is in the throes of journey associated with novel publication – she has a story I haven’t read but trust is amazing because I’ve read a lot of her work – about ghost brides, which you should look up if you haven’t heard of.
After lunch we drove two more hours. The road out of Spokane Raj compared to Houston; but then about an hour later we were climbing deep into the backwoods, down roads that had dwindled from state highway, to county road, to dusty wooden path. At the end of the journey we got to see my aunt Nancy Betz and her husband Dan, whom I had never met before.
Now Nancy is a funny person from my history. I think I hadn’t seen her since I was eight or nine years old. But I knew her at a time I could not know my own mother, and as soon as I met Nancy I understood she was both like me and like my mother I didn’t know in profound ways I could name. Her own life was in turmoil when I knew her, but all I remember was her maternal kindness, her laughter, and her love of her three boys. I had known her mother, my great aunt Marva, and had heard tales of the homestead in Eastern Washington, and had wanted to get there my whole life.
So after we wound from highway into a dirt road, we followed an even tinier dirt road up a mountain to a lovely, square cinder block house overlooking a lake I forgot the name of! The house had giant eves to block the sun, and it was surrounded by a small grove a trees, and a garden, and a laundry line. And we were greeted by Dan and the cattle dogs Zeke and Zip. Within minutes Dan had solved the problem of two hot kids by turning on the giant sprinklers, and the kids had solved the problem of getting their clothes wet by shedding them all.
Nancy drove up as the kids leaped and screamed and squealed, and she got out of the car with about thirty mannerisms I associate with my grandmother Ludy, who died a few years ago. It was eerie and wondrous and the whole trip was like that: when Nancy didn’t remind me of grandma, she reminded me of my mom, and when she didn’t remind me of my mom, she reminded me of myself. She is, after all, a librarian and a writer, herself. When Dan had watered about every inch of grass he could without flooding himself, the kids dressed in long pants because the night was cool itself, and they picked raspberries from Nancy’s garden until they couldn’t eat anymore. Any cousins or grandkids of Nancy who are reading: her house is made for little ones! Go visit!
But back to the story: Nancy cooked us a delicious pesto, my husband and kids went to sleep, and I played cribbage with her and Dan – which reminds me of my grandpa! – before turning in myself. Dan reminded me of my dad, too, in many ways – his thoughtfulness, the cadence of his voice, how it got louder and more philosophical with a couple of beers.
All in all, it was a reunion better than I could have ever imagined. The next morning Nancy drove me down to Spokane for my reading alongside her two friends, Lahana and Nancy. But I think I loved that day enough I’ll give it it’s own post tomorrow.
Every city on my book tour so far has been full of surprises. My dad drove Lila and I up to Missoula, Montana in his shiny blue Cadillac. We reinvented travel bingo, and talked, and listened to more of Little House in the Big Woods, and then spent a couple days with my aunt Patricia Forsberg and uncle Stephen Speckart in Missoula, at their cabin in Rock Creek Canyon. We dipped our toes into a lovely pond with a slimy bottom, popped an inner tube, and dunked our hot Houston blood into lots of cold river water. Our bag is also now 20 lbs heavier, filled with heart-shaped rocks that aunt Patricia taught Lila to find when the tubing got too rough for a 6 year old.
We went birding and we reunited with Raj and Vishwa and we ate food from my aunt and uncles garden and we shopped and we all got to know each other anew. Dad returned to Salt Lake the day Raj arrived (he ran out of gas listening to a book on tape and had to be rescued by AAA outside Pocatello) and that night was my reading at Shakespeare and Co.
Every reading has its highlights. In Missoula there were a couple: most exquisitely my old friend Winona introduced me. Though I have friend at every reading, in Missoula aunt Patricia insisted that all writers should have introductions written by their friends, and so I asked Winona. Her introduction was sweet and reminded me of being in college and the long walks and talks we had. She said she’s been carrying around a yellowed story I wrote back then and still reads it yearly, and it was a good thing to hear because I think I always diminish the writing I did in youth.
The reading was filled with ten or so of my aunt Patricia’s best friends, inside a bookstore that was tiny and full of only interesting books you’d love to read. The owner, Garth, reminded me of my friend Chuck because he was all angular and interested and friendly. It was hot inside the store — Missoula was having a heat wave — but the audience laughed and listened and made me very happy.
The next morning I had an interview with Cherie at Missoula NPR’s ‘The Write Question.’ I loved that she asked lots of questions about the plot and about bigamy and that it was very grounded in my novel as opposed to my ideas about the novel. So many people in the world, I’ve discovered in the process of writing and publishing and reading, devote their lives to books. It’s such a generous thing to do, and so important, especially for emerging writers like me. Reporters like Cherie, and the owners of all these independent bookstores, and the people who make it out to readings to see either me or to support a friend who cares about me or just to hear a good story all astound and inspire and humble me. People worry so much about the state of reading and the book, but from my perspective, so far, the passion for the literary is aflame in the world.
My Salt Lake City reading at the King’s English Bookstore had a fantastic turnout. At least forty or fifty people came. As has been the case before, I knew most of them! I got to see old friends from school, their parents, cousins, aunts, and old family friends. Most incredibly, my friend Tami flew into Salt Lake from Tuscon to hear me read. But there was a good handful of people I didn’t know, too, and they weren’t shy in asking questions during the Q&A.
I read exactly what I’ve been reading before, at my other readings, but in hindsight, I would have chosen different material. Though I certainly have a couple characters who speak in a rainbow of obscenities, the majority of my characters don’t, but the former starred in the reading. I chose them thinking about story more than language. But then, when I was up there reading in front of a couple of my LDS friends and their mothers, I thought: you know, I really could have thought this through more.
It’s not that I think I should censor myself because the book is wrong-headed so much as it would’ve been pretty easy to choose sections of my novel that didn’t make people who have been kind to me my whole life feel very uncomfortable, and that still convey the life of my novel itself. Carmen is one of my favorite characters, but she could have stepped back for an evening (though, of course, she’d be delighted to have made some waves).
Of course, most people I talk to didn’t even think about the language in any sense grander than it was colorful language that befitted the characters. I”m surprised I never thought much about it before, though. I’ve lived a long time outside of Utah!
Aside from those worries, the reading went well. People seemed to enjoy it, and were engaged. I sold a number of books to people I know, and people I don’t. It was a bit like the Houston reading where I had the problem of the long line and the inability to scrawl just my name without a note — but again, I am fairly certain this will be the last reading with that problem.
We’re gearing up today to head for Missoula; the first of two eight hour stretches Lila is going to have to tolerate during this road trip. On the trip home from Cedar City, we listened to half of Little House in the Big Woods. It includes a thirty minute description of the scraping and smoking and butchering and blowing-up-of-the-bladders-into-balloons-for-kids of half a dozen animals during preparations for winter. Intense listening for vegetarian ears (it’s a theme for the blog post) but Lila very pragmatically explained to me that in that Wisconsin, in the winter, she’d have to be a meat-eater too.
We also found a game of travel bingo, which even my dad seems to enjoy. As in (Lila! Mary! Are you blind? I just saw a dozen birds fly by, don’t you have birds on your bingo cards?) Today offers the possibility of filling up the ‘entering a new state’ square on the cards twice.
If you have survived the great misfortune of missing one of my readings, but just barely, the people at Inprint, Houston, have done you a favor. Inprint is Houston’s top-of-the-notch literary nonprofit that hosts workshops, brings in the big-fish-writers for their Margaret Root Brown Reading Series, and funds little guppy writers like me.
They were kind enough in this instance to invite me to read in their nascent online reading series. If you are sick of me by this point in your perusal of my website, check out the other readings in the series by people far more accomplished than myself, including Robert Boswell, Antonya Nelson, Mat Johnson, Chitra Divakaruni, Martha Serpas, and Robert Cremins.
But if you really just want to see me, just push play below.