We lived in a tiny apartment then, in a run-down complex in a suburb of Seattle not known for its gracious living. There was constant noise, which has never been good for my mental health, and Paul and I struggled terribly to make ends meet. We were as broke as I'd ever been, and a good deal broker than Paul had ever been, and it weighed on us heavily, as poverty always does. Both of us were working almost constantly and getting nowhere. That night in December, Paul was at one of his jobs in a still-rougher part of town and I was baking cookies, which was all we could afford to give anyone as gifts that year.
Someone knocked on my apartment door. I looked through the peep-hole, but thanks to the heat of my baking and the cold weather outside, condensation blurred the view, so all I could see was a vague suggestion of two men standing at my door, both dressed alike, as if in uniforms. I instantly thought of Paul--had something happened to him?--and opened the door.
Instead of police, I found two young men in dark jackets, white shirts, and black ties, with the tell-tale black name badges clipped to their breast pockets. Mormons! It was only Mormons! I was so relieved that, as soon as they finished a rather hesitant greeting, I invited them inside. They looked at one another, plainly surprised. I don't think they'd had much luck on their missions so far.
I led them in and sat them down on my old ripped couch under a painting of Arches National Park in Utah, where Paul and I had been married earlier that year. I brought them warm cookies and milk and talked with them pleasantly while they ate: How has the mission been so far? First year, or second? Have you been able to call home for the holiday yet? I saw them glance at one another again. I clearly knew something about the church, just based on the way I spoke about LDS missions. I could feel their confidence growing, so I felt a little badly about what I was about to do. I waited until they'd finished their cookies and then I said, almost reluctantly:
"Well, guys, I'm afraid you're going to have a hard time getting me for the Church."
"Why is that?" one of them asked.
"Because I'm an atheist," I said. A brief pause. "And I'm also an apostate."
Now, unless you've been inside the LDS church, you don't know what a big deal that word is--apostate. As Saints, we're taught that those who leave the church are only one rung lower in the hierarchy of evil than murderers. Literally. That's what you're told as a true-believing Mormon. And I was one. I was born in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, to a thoroughly traditional and devout family--one I'd call "fundamentalist", drawing parallels with fundamentalist Evangelicals in America, except that "fundamentalist" and "Mormon" implies that someone is practicing polygamy, and as far as I know, nobody in my family did. We were hardcore Saints; I am descended from some illustrious figures of the religion's history; my roots are deep and still rather tenacious in Mormon country (which, in my experience, was not much like how Wallace Stegner portrayed it.) I knew what a big deal it was for me to call myself an apostate to another Saint--let alone two a couple of missionaries.
Those poor kids. Nineteen years old, and surely nothing in their limited life experience or in their missionary training had prepared them for this. Apostates aren't supposed to be friendly, smiling thirty-three-year-old women who welcome you into their homes on a cold night and ply you with milk and warm cookies. We're supposed to be cartoon villains, beings of almost-unfathomable evil. We're almost as bad as murderers.
It was then, after I'd confessed my nature, that all three of us looked at the book lying on my coffee table. Or maybe I stared at it intensely and they just followed my gaze. The book was No Man Knows My History, Fawn Brodie's exhaustive biography of Joseph Smith, the man who founded the LDS religion in the early 1830s in upstate New York. NMKMH is notorious in the church. Brodie was a member when she wrote it, but was excommunicated for her work because the biography was so thoroughly researched and so honest and insightful that it left no room for Smith to be a divine being. It portrayed him as all too human, and as such, left plenty of room for doubts and questions to creep in. True-believing Saints are cautioned not to read Brodie's book. I clearly had read it; dozens of colorful stick-on flags were poking out of the pages, marking passages I'd found useful.
The missionaries stared at one another again. One of them looked close to panic.
"So," the less-panicked of the two said, "you clearly know about the prophet Joseph Smith."
"Yep," I said.
"So... do you think he was just... lying, then?"
From there proceeded the most delicate and diplomatic conversation I've ever had in my life. I was acutely aware that these missionaries were just boys, really. Technically adults, yet who's really all that grown-up at age nineteen? Few nineteen-year-olds are really equipped to tackle a big, intense, important conversation about history, faith, human nature, sexuality, politics, racism--all the complex and infinitely nuanced shades of Mormonism; of all religions, perhaps--with a person in their thirties. It was a disastrously uneven match. I was acutely aware that I had sufficient knowledge and experience to destroy the faith of both of these young men with a simple conversation... and also acutely aware that I didn't want to. So I chose my words carefully and told them that I find many things admirable about LDS culture (I do) and also that over the years, I discovered that I can't adhere to any religion at all, because I simply don't believe it's either possible or plausible that any gods can exist. At least, not "exist" the way religions insist they must exist. The trouble, I said diplomatically, was all with me--not with any particular religion, including the one I'd left. Theirs.
We were able to part on pleasant terms, then, and I sent them on their way with a few more cookies, just to really drive home the point that apostates are not, in fact, evil. And after they'd gone, I flopped on my couch and laughed hysterically for a good five minutes, and then I picked up the Brodie book and read another chapter.
I'd ordered that book a couple of months before, in the fall, when an unseen force had stepped into my path, completely out of nowhere, while I'd been walking from my desk to the lunch room at work, and slapped me hard across the face with a sudden imperative to write a novelization of the founding of the Mormon church, but to do it honestly, with real history as my guide. Nowadays, after having written 39 books, I'm familiar with that weird, slappy force and its whimsical appearances (and long, annoying absences.) It's the creative spirit that tells me what to write--"my genius," as Elizabeth Gilbert identifies it in her excellent book Big Magic (and in this TED Talk.) NOW, I am acquainted with the Genius's vagabond nature and its great love for inconvenient timing. Back then, in the fall of 2013, I had never experienced anything like this before; I had never felt myself gripped by a frantic, desperate urgency to WRITE THE THING. I didn't know back then that the idea had chosen me. I only knew that I'd become, literally between one heartbeat and the next, utterly obsessed with the idea of writing a novel about Joseph Smith. I couldn't concentrate on anything else. The idea demanded that I devote every spare minute I had to IT. And I did.
First the research, throughout all of 2014--even while I worked on other novels. Then I began writing full-time, and this idea in particular was still possessing me. After I began working with Lake Union, I pitched the novel to them, and wrote a significant portion of the first draft, anticipating that they'd take it. They passed. I felt baffled and bereft for a long time--months--because even though I was building success as a novelist with other books, everything in me was still screaming that this book was the one I'd been meant to write; this was my book, the one, the big deal of my lifetime.
I put it aside for a while and focused on other projects--projects my publisher actually wanted to buy. My career grew steadily. "A while" became years. I kept writing other books. Some of them became quite successful; my career had grown into something even I had never pictured. And still I felt a nagging sense of incompletion every day, because my book was still sitting in my metaphorical sock drawer, doing nothing, unread--and, honestly, unfinished. I'd pull it out whenever I was between projects and try to finish it but I was always stymied. Something was gone from my book. I still believed in it to a degree that was beginning to look ridiculous, because I literally couldn't work on the damn thing whenever I tried. I wasn't being permitted to enter back into the world of that idea. I didn't know why.
Between 2015, when it was rejected by my publisher, and now--five years--I asked myself more times than I can count whether I ought to self-publish that book or what. I had it all outlined, of course; it should have been, in theory, a simple matter to get it done and put it out into the world. And I'd built my career and my reputation on self-publishing high-quality historical fiction. It's not like I didn't know how to do it. But I couldn't do that, either. I wasn't allowed. The book had other plans for itself, and I just had to sit and wait until the time was right.
The time was right in the summer of 2019, apparently, because the Invisible Slapper appeared again and smacked me hard, in the middle of an otherwise totally ordinary day, and told me what to do. SMACK. I realized all at once that I needed to enter the book into a contest at a major conference, go to that conference, and get an agent--something I'd been quite reluctant to do throughout my career, after some early very bad experiences with agents.
"Are you kidding?" I asked the Invisible Slapper.
"Nope," it said. "Do it, and then, with the help of that agent, pursue publication a the Big Five." (Also something I'd been reluctant to do, after coming to enjoy self-publishing and working with Amazon Publishing so much.)
But by the summer of 2019, I was an experienced professional author and also a little weirder and spookier than I'd been before. I decided to trust whatever "my genius" told me to do. I entered the unfinished manuscript in a contest, registered for the corresponding conference, and planned to go snag an agent and then a Big Five publisher.
I was not surprised when, a few weeks before the conference, I received a call informing me that my book was one of a handful of finalists out of 700 entrants. I hadn't won, but the placing would give me extra access to the agents attending the conference. (I wasn’t surprised not because I’m the fanciest writer in the land, but because that outside force had told me to enter the contest. It told me for a reason.)
I went to the conference, just as I’d promised the Invisible Slapper I would do, and found there was intense interest in my book. Three different agents expressed especially keen interest. I went with the one who’d shown the most excitement about the book.
And then I realized I really needed to get the damn thing finished. It had been sitting there, partially written, for almost five years.
I was terrified that it wouldn’t come together. But now that I’d done what the book wanted me to do, every impediment was lifted in an instant. No more difficulty in working on that book; not only did I finish what was missing from the manuscript, but I actually rewrote almost the entire novel—my longest to date—keeping only two chapters from the original partial (mostly) intact. I wrote 210,000 words between October 1, 2019 and January 22, 2020. (Later, I trimmed the ms down to about 192,000.) The book had put all its ducks in a row and it was finally ready to be finished, so it allowed me to finish.
Earlier this month, my agent sold the book to William Morrow and although nothing in this business is ever too terribly sure, it looks like it’s well set up to find its audience and tell the story it wants to tell.
This has been a long story to recount and it has been a longer five years to soldier through. There’s also a lot more to this story which I won’t add here because it’s just LONG already, and confessing the full history behind the making of this book will only make me look like an even bigger weirdo than I already do. I just want to impart one lesson to my fellow writers: When an invisible force jumps out at you and slaps you, stop what you’re doing and listen. Listen very hard. Take notes. And cooperate. Your genius knows what it’s doing. Go where it leads you. I promise you won’t regret it.