A giant billboard in a prominent place along the I-15 corridor at the point of the mountain between Salt Lake and Utah counties has a big name sprawled across it just now: Gerald N. Lund. Other small words march across the top of the sign, unreadable while speeding by in the car, but the advertisers knew what mattered.
This author’s name is enough of a signal. The master storyteller, Gerald Lund, must have a new book out in time for Christmas, and for those who love his books, his name is more important than the title. His fans will read whatever he writes.
What the finer print says on that billboard is that Lund has begun a new series with the publication of two books this Christmas (his 28th and 29th).
The first is the beginning of a new multi-volume, multi-generational series called Fire and Steel, Volume One of A Generation Rising that begins in a Germany ripe with unrest in the years just before Adolf Hitler came to power. The second is a stand-alone historical novel called Only the Brave that picks up the story four years after the harrowing journey of the Hole-in-the Rock pioneers.
Lund, who invited us into his home on a stormy afternoon, is the last person who would seek attention. Though he has written non-fiction and fiction books that have created a sizable LDS following, though his Work and the Glory series was made into films, though he has served as a General Authority, yet he is soft-spoken and these days much of his time his spent quietly writing.
Sitting before a picture window that frames Preston Peak, he tells about these new books, beginning with Fire and Steel. This is the beginning of a series that tell the stories of two families over a 70 year time span that begins in the late 1800s. The first, introduced in this book, is the Eckhardts, a German family who have finally had a long-desired son, Hans, who has such intelligence and promise that his success seems certain. The second is a Utah family whose story is told in Only the Brave. Both will be caught up in turbulent times before their paths cross and the stories merge in volume two of the series.
Lund writes, “The theme of Fire and Steel is how life provides the needed conditions to temper and strengthen individuals. The two families in the story will face the fires of tribulation, feel the hammering blows of adversity, and see everything they hold dear totally upended. They will be violently ripped away from their comfortable lives ad plunged into circumstances that will them to the very depths of their souls.”
He said, “Since I was in my late teens, I became fascinated with true stories of people in crisis. How do people respond when in such difficulty? World War II was still not that far away from our memory and I had several uncles in the army and navy, so I began reading about things like the siege of Stalingrad. It fascinated me how people reacted to that kind of trauma, where the whole society just collapses.”
“For seven or eight years now, I’ve had this idea that I wanted to take two families—one from rural Utah and one from Germany, start them in the late 1800s and follow them all the way through World War II and its aftermath.”
He began collecting books on Germany and thought about those people who endured a society in the clutches of hyperinflation. “In 18 months,” he said, “German marks went from trading from four to a dollar to 4 trillion to the dollar. President Benson remembers going to Germany in 1923 and paying a trillion marks for breakfast. People were wall papering their walls with money. They were printing money so fast that they only printed money on one side.”
The second family that will become entwined in the series after Volume One is from rural Utah. After Lund wrote The Undaunted, some came to him and said, “We are so grateful you told my grandpa and grandma’s story, but that it not the end of it. There is so much more.” In volume 2 the families will begin to merge and begin to interact beyond that. Lund won’t say how many volumes the A Generation Rising will eventually become.
The Characters Take Over
“I love my characters. They say, Don’t just gloss over our lives. This is fun for us.’” While his characters are not based on anyone particular, he does draw from stories that actually happened and then credit them in the footnotes.
He gives an example of a character that took hold of the story and didn’t want to let go.
The rising young German lad ends up joining the war, which completely turns his life over. He ends up wounded and in the hospital where he meets a nurse. At the same time he met a young, blonde clerk who was only meant to have a bit part in the story. She was supposed to be here and gone, but Lund laughed, “Say goodbye after this chapter because you aren’t going to see her again. She said, ‘Oh yeah?”
He also said that when he got into the research of the era “there is just so much that’s fascinating. When we think of our ancestry in the Church we think of England and Scandinavia. I was astonished when I started to research on the Church and found that in 1920 the German mission was the number one baptizing area in the world and had more members than California. The Church was strong there. Four or five presidents of the Church went to Germany. Even with that large number in 1920, thousands of the converts had already immigrated to Utah to be close to the temple.
When writing, Lund says he writes 70 or 80 single-spaced pages blocking out his story and character development before he starts writing the novel. “The key to writing fiction he says, is you start with your characters, then plot and setting develop as the place to let your characters act out their conflict. I wanted to show what happened to German people who had so much faith and confidence in their country—to the point that other Europeans thought they were arrogant—when life just uprooted everything about them.
“The best comment I’ve heard about writing,” he said, “is that good books aren’t just written. They are written and re-written.” He joked, “Writing is a curse and a form of Chinese slavery. If you don’t love to tell your stories, don’t write, but if you do there’s nothing else like it.”
Starting to Write in a Backhand Way
Lund says he got into writing in a backhand way. He was teaching Institute in California and came upon a book on the prophecies of the last days. “I found myself marking the book with three different colors,” he said, “Red meant this is a really strong quote. Blue meant he wasn’t sure about this one and yellow meant-what is this doing here?”
That frustrated him and he wanted to see a book that had all red markings because he had no questions about the sources. He started to collect his own quotes on the topic that he could use in his classes and people kept coming to him and saying, “Where do you get those quotes? Why don’t you write a book that includes them?” In response he wrote The Coming of the Lord in 1971 which is still in print.
Later he continued writing with a little prodding from his wife Lynn. One night she said, “Jerry, you know that Cindy graduates next year from high school and wants to go to BYU. Just how do you plan to pay for that?” He answered “Actually I’ve been thinking about writing a novel, if I could get a strong idea that I like.” She said, “You love Israel, why don’t you write something set in there?”
Lund keeps 3×5 cards with him to jot down notes for his work. In The Work and the Glory, for instance, a little boy says, “Mother, my feet are tucked out.” That was something that came straight from his son, Matt’s mouth when he was small. Benjamin in that series was modeled after his father. He was serious, not very tolerant of the trivial, but had rock-hard integrity kind of a guy. His wife was like Lund’s mother, gentle and quiet.
Sometimes Lund will be sitting in church and get an insight, sometimes receiving an idea while he is driving along in the car. He always keeps his 3×5 cards with him to jot down ideas when they come.
When he is creating, sometimes a flash of inspiration comes and he has to write as fast as he can so he doesn’t lose it.
Why Did He Turn to Writing?
When people ask Lund why he became a writer, he confesses that it is because he is a teacher and writing opens up a bigger classroom. “Writing is just a sneaky way of teaching,” he says. The same is true with this first volume set in Germany.
He sees disturbing parallels in the period from the end of World War I until Hitler came into power with today. High inflation, people coming to power with deceit and broken promises, the hiring of millions of civil servants, the naivete of even the most brilliant people. “It’s one of the things I hope to bring out,” he said. I hope that people will realize that sounds like today.
The thing that worries him the most is capsulized in this scripture in Mosiah: “if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you” (Mosiah 29:27).
“That’s not to say we are on the verge,” he said. “We still have a lot of decent, honest people in America, but to see the erosion of morality is worrisome.
“Some people say you old timers, your memory is bad. Every age has its problems, and that’s true. On the other hand I have great confidence that the Lord’s in charge and his purposes are going to come about. While I am concerned, I am not pessimistic.”
Losing His First Reader and His Best Critic
Lund initially pitched his new series A Generation Rising to Deseret Book a year and a half ago. He was told that June 1st of this year was the very latest deadline for the first volume to be completed for a Christmas release. Yet just like fictional stories that never follow the outline, so Lund’s year was much different than he hoped, fraught with heartbreak. Lynn’s health began to deteriorate, and after a struggle with ill health, she died. Of course, caring for her was Lund’s most important priority and this meant a missed deadline for a new book and additional understanding of loss.
Lund found that writing assuaged his grief. He called Deseret Book back July 1st, and said, “I know that the deadline has passed for this year.” The publisher responded, “Interestingly enough we have not filled that slot. What can you do?” Since he was already so far along, he finished both books in a month and they were released for this Christmas season.
His new series is dedicated to his wife, Lynn:
She caught my eye when I was twenty;
She held me transfixed for over fifty years.
So, the master storyteller who hoped to write about life’s tempering in this series that begins with Fire and Steel also lived it in this past difficult year. He has a special understanding about what it means to follow characters in crisis.