Posts Tagged ‘The Lonely Polygamist’

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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The word polygamist brings to mind the image of a man with multiple wives, several children, a family that could likely fill three houses.  Place an adverb like lonely before it, and you might begin to wonder how a man in this situation could feel that way.  The title of Brady Udall’s second novel, The Lonely Polygamist, gets the reader thinking before he or she even cracks open the book, hinting at both the story’s premise and its emotional stakes.

Meet Golden Richards: a large man—six-foot-six—with a large family—4 wives, 27 (living) children.  When you add up the long list of problems he faces, it’s easy to understand why he feels, “once or twice each day, that he might be losing his mind.”  First off, his family is falling apart, divided literally—the family is unevenly distributed into three houses—and psychologically—the wives jockey for both position and time spent with Golden, while the children form alliances with each other, casting aside the ones that don’t belong.  And this couldn’t be happening at a worse time.

Golden’s finances are drying up—not the ideal situation when you’re trying to support a family of 32—and he’s forced to take a job 200 miles away, which prevents him from being around his family and maintaining order.  He’s falling out of favor with the church and worries what the consequences are if the community and his family find out that he’s constructing a brothel at this job site.

While he’s away at work, he begins to develop feelings for his boss’s wife, Huila. She represents the life he could be living, if it weren’t for his religious practices.  “Huila was different simply because he—he—had chosen her and she, by some miraculous coincidence, had chosen him.”

But one of the most heart wrenching aspects of Golden Richards is his connection to Glory, Daughter #9, whose tragic death years earlier still causes him regret, shame, and an unbearable sense of loss.

All of these surface-level and emotional conflicts weigh on Golden’s mind, causing him to close himself off from his family.  He tries to solve his problems alone, asking little help from his family, in hopes to keep his deepest secrets hidden.  When he adds it all up, “he has no idea what to do about any of it.”

In terms of craft, one of the most impressive feats Udall pulls off is how he develops characters when there’s such a large cast, without confusing the reader or clouding the story.  Udall weaves together the narratives of three characters—Golden, of course; Trish, wife number four; and Rusty, Golden’s eleven-year-old son—all of whom share feelings of abandonment and neglect, as well as grapple with the sense that they’re outsiders within their own family.

When we’re first introduced to Trish, she arrives at the Virgin County Academy of Hair Design—which is run by Golden’s second wife—to find all of her sister wives there.  While she’s getting her hair shampooed, the wives ambush her and request that she forfeit her upcoming scheduled time with Golden.  It seems like less of a request, though, and more like an order.  The fourth and youngest wife, she’s there simply to offer balance to the family.  In turn, she’s often disregarded.

Not by Rusty, though—the “weird” one, the loner, the boy who sifts through his sisters’ underwear drawers and the locks the family out of the house when he’s forced to share his birthday with his father.  His infatuation with Trish causes him to construct a scheme that will bring them together.  While his relationship with Golden is compared to Golden’s relationship with his father, Rusty doesn’t react the same way to neglect that Golden did.  Instead of yearning for the father-son connection, Rusty strives for more distance between them.  The result of which ends in disaster.

Udall shows compassion for his characters by focusing on what they think and how they react to their circumstances, rather than vilifying their beliefs.  Polygamy serves as context for the premise, and not the heart of the story.  Because first and foremost, Udall is a storyteller.  This isn’t to say that his prose lacks elegance or can be considered simplistic.  Absolutely not.  The writing is crisp and flows at a smooth clip, blending humor with the heartbreaking tenderness of what it means to be a family.  The language doesn’t distract the reader from the story; rather, it enhances the content of the narratives.  Expect to see this book on several top ten lists at year’s end.  It’s both a compelling story and a work of art.

W.W. Norton & Company
May 3, 2010
$26.95 hardcover

Image by Adam Rosenlund

Brady Udall is the acclaimed author of the novel, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, which has been translated into 18 different languages, and the short story collection, Letting Loose the Hounds.  His work has appeared in The Paris Review, GQ, Esquire, among others, and his story, “Buckeye the Elder,” won Playboy‘s College Fiction Contest in 1994.  The Lonely Polygamist–his third book, second novel–will be available everywhere May 3rd.  Udall teaches in the MFA program at Boise State University.

To read Udall’s 1998 Esquire article, “The Lonely Polygamist,” click here.

When I was an undergrad at Southern Illinois University, Brady Udall was one of my writing professors.  In workshop, he wasn’t afraid to tell you what he thought of your story.  In that sense, he was tough; but I felt his style of teaching got through to me.  Regardless of how he said it, what he had to say about story telling was dead on.  So while I was still in undergrad, I decided to read his first novel, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint.  It’s a story about a boy whose head gets crushed by a mail truck.  The book traces Edgar’s life from hospital, to reservation orphanage, to foster home.  Throughout, Edgar’s determined to find the man who ran over his head in order to tell the man that he survived, that he’s okay.  It’s a fantastic story that’s beautifully written.  I highly recommend it.

My senior year at SIU, I had a workshop with Brady.  He told us about a new book he was working on, The Lonely Polygamist–though I’m not sure if he had mentioned the title.  He just said that the book was about a man with four wives and twenty-something children.  I liked his first book so much that after graduation, I began this mild obsession with checking Google and Amazon to see when the book was set to be released.  The searches led me to the title of the book, and I had found several tidbits–articles,interviews, reading promos, etc.–that hinted at future release dates.  Based on the information I had gathered, this book was supposed to be released at least 80 times from the beginning of 2008 to the end of 2009.  But the internet is a mile wide and an inch deep, so I should have been a little more cautious when reading these sites.

Now, I don’t do these searches every day.  I’m not that big of a creep.  But every once in a while when I’m looking to waste time on the net, I might type in a name or a title (Barry Hannah, too).  And since it had been a month or two since the last time I checked on this particular book, I decided to do a search today.  And I found this article from the Boise Weekly.  There’s still no set release date; however, it does mention a late 2009, early 2010 publication.  The reason it has taken so long seems to be a result of the book’s page length–over 700.  Looking forward to tackle that one.  I’ll be keeping an eye on this and will post a publication date here once that information is available.

brady_webTo read samples of Brady Udall’s work, click the following links:

“Otis is Resurrected”
“A Story”