An Interview with Brady Udall

Posted: May 13, 2010 in Interviews
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Earlier today I got the opportunity to chat with Brady Udall about his writing process and his new novel, The Lonely Polygamist.  Here’s what we talked about:

Live Nude Books: What came first, the novel’s title or the premise?

Brady Udall: They’re kind of entwined.  In 1998, I wrote an article for Esquire magazine about modern polygamy.  The original title of that article was “Big Love,” and without even asking me, the editor at Esquire changed the title to “The Lonely Polygamist.”  That’s what it came out as, and I knew when I wrote the article and did the research that one day I’d write the novel.  And even though I was a little miffed that the name of the article title was changed, I decided it was a much better name than “Big Love,” so that’s what it became.

LNB: So did you begin working on the novel in ’98?

BU: No, I’d been working on—Edgar Mint came out in 2001—so I just had the idea in the back of my head and had done a good bit of research already that after I finished Edgar Mint, the next novel I’d probably write would be about polygamy.  That’s pretty much all I knew.

LNB: When you spend so much time living with these characters, how does it feel to finish the story and essentially let go of them?

BU: Oh, it felt great.  I was tired of them.  I had been working on the story for so long—you do get to know them really well, and you become fond of them in certain ways, but like you do with those who are loved ones, you get annoyed by them, by the choices they make and their little bad habits.  So I was happy to send them off.

LNB: There’s a large cast of characters in this novel, many of whom have elaborate backstories, yet the details provided don’t seem overwhelming.  As a writer, how difficult is it to restrain yourself from including too much information?

BU: It was, in my case, too hard to resist.  At its worst, the book was 1,400 pages long, and I say worst because that was the longest it got.  So I had backstories that went on for hundreds of pages, actually, about various characters.  As writers we just have to write that stuff out to understand the characters and once we figure it all out, we can cut it.  That’s what happened with this book.

LNB: Several details in this book at first seem quirky and provide humor for the story, but later they turn out to have emotional significance; they work as symbols.  Do you start off with an image or detail and work toward symbolism, or does the story dictate what detail you’ll use to symbolize an idea?

BU: I don’t start out with symbols.  Basically what I do when a certain detail or an object keeps returning in the story, I start thinking: Ok, now.  This is important, for some reason. I have any number of those kinds of details and objects in the book, but you don’t notice them because they—most of them sort of drop away and never return.  But there’s a few that keep returning, and once that happens two or three times, I realize: Ok, there’s something important here. And it happens, I guess, organically would be the right word.

LNB: So many of the chapters—even sections within the chapters—feel self-contained, like they could stand alone as short stories.  Do you approach writing individual chapters this way?

BU: No, at some point when I was going to school, I heard somebody say the best novels have chapters that are like short stories.  And that’s a nice ideal, but in practice I think that rarely happens.  What I do think each chapter should have—even though it’s connected to everything around it—it should have an arc of its own.  At some point it can’t stand alone.  At some point, it is connected to everything else, and it draws on what came before it and moves toward something else.

LNB: Do you still write short stories?

BU: No, I haven’t written a short story in…jeez…six years, maybe?  Seven years?  I think it’s because when I start writing novels I kind of hoard everything into it; every good idea somehow becomes attached to the novel.  So, right now I’m not writing short stories.

LNB: What’s on tap for your next project?

BU: The next project that I’ve sworn to myself, now, is that it’s going to be short, that’s the main thing.  It’s not going to be 1,400 pages.  So the main thing is really, seriously to have a simple, straightforward story.  I don’t know yet, but I think it might be a young adult novel.

LNB: What are you currently reading or have recently read that you’re recommending?

BU: There is a book I keep on recommending to everybody—especially after the death of Barry Hannah about a month ago, I started re-reading all of his books.  My favorite of his books is Ray.  It’s just a great book, and it’s crazy, weird, strange—the kind of book that wouldn’t get published today, I don’t think.  It’s such a beautiful, funny book.  I’ll evangelize for it the rest of my life.  To me, he’s just the most amazing prose stylist that America has ever produced, and I just can’t believe he’s not better known than he is.

To read more on why he chose to write about polygamy, check out Udall’s essay at The Huffington Post.

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