Irreantum Interview with Novelist Dean Hughes, author of Deseret Book’s best-selling Children of the Promise series
Editor’s Note: The following interview with novelist Dean Hughes first appeared in a slightly different form in the summer 2000 of Irreantum, the Mormon literary quarterly published on paper by the nonprofit Association for Mormon Letters. Irreantum features not only author interviews but also original fiction and poetry; reviews of books, films, and plays; essays about Mormon literature; news about all kinds of Mormon-related books, films, and plays; and much more. For a sample issue, send $4 to AML, P.O. Box 51364, Provo, UT 84605-1364. For more information, visit www.xmission.com/~aml.
Reader’s comments on what Irreantum brings into their lives are found at the end of the Dean Hughes interview.
Interview with Dean Hughes
Born in 1943 in Ogden, Utah, Dean Hughes has published more than 80 books for children, young adults, and adults. He wrote several Mormon novels early in his career, including Hooper Haller, Jenny Haller, Cornbread and Prayer, Under the Same Stars, and As Wide as the River. More recently he has been working on the best-selling Children of the Promise series of historical novels about World War II, published by Deseret Book.
The holder of a B.A. degree from Weber State College and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Washington, Hughes was an associate professor of English at Central Missouri State from 1972 to 1980 and a part-time visiting professor at Brigham Young University from 1980 to 1982. He has also worked as a part-time editor and consultant, guest lecturer, and workshop leader at various writer’s conferences. After 17 years of full-time writing, he recently returned to the classroom as a creative writing professor at BYU. He and his wife Kathleen have three children and three grandsons; he and his son Tom have co-authored three nonfiction books.
Irreantum: Trace for us how your writing inclination developed and how you first became a published writer.
Hughes: Back in my childhood days, I somehow developed a sense that I was going to do something interesting with my life. My teachers told me I was smart-and I was a good student (in spite of talking too much). But it was really my mother who made me feel I could do whatever I set my mind to. She read to me and created my first love for books, and even more importantly she welcomed me in from catching grasshoppers and taught me to embroider. Somehow, along with the desire to do something well, she also gave me the feeling that the range of joys in this life is very wide.
I started talking about wanting to be a writer when I was a kid, and by junior high I told people I was going to be a writer when I grew up. I read a lot, started writing stories, had a great creative writing teacher at Ogden High, a man named Wilson Thornley, and just kept believing I could do it. I wrote a novel-a Catcher in the Rye kind of thing-the summer after I graduated from high school, and it got rejected. By then I had developed a secret image of myself as sensitive and rather deep-but I was still playing football.
At Weber State I majored in English, took creative writing classes from Gordon Allred, and decided to go on for a master=s in creative writing at the University of Washington. I wrote a novel for my thesis but didn’t publish that one either. I had already planned to go on for a Ph.D. in literature so I would have a way to make a living. I did that and then found a job at Central Missouri State University. I was teaching a lot of literature classes at first and had little time, but I got interested, because of a children’s literature festival there, in writing for younger audiences. I wrote a young adult novel, it got rejected, and then I did a children’s historical novel about the early Mormon period in Jackson County. In the meantime I had published some children’s nonsense poetry and some stories, but nothing else, and a lot of years had gone by since I had written that first novel.
I was 34 when I finally sold that historical novel, Under the Same Stars, to Deseret Book, so I had been trying for 17 years and it was the fourth book I had written. All this was ever so much more complicated than this summary may imply, and the truth is that I quit a dozen times but then couldn’t ever “stay quit.” Interestingly, however, after I sold the sequel to that first novel, I sent a humorous children’s book to Atheneum in New York and sold it to the first editor who read it-the famous Jean Karl-and I’ve been publishing in both the Mormon and general markets ever since.
Irreantum: What are your favorites among your works? If someone asked you where to begin reading your books and how to get the best overview of your career and writing range, where would you point them?
Hughes: I have written everything from nonsense verse for preschoolers to an adult true crime book. I do sports, but I also do humor, mysteries, historical fiction, and serious young adult novels. I get so many ideas that I can’t settle down to one thing.
I’m concerned that some kids overemphasize athletics. Those concerns come out in various ways in my Angel Park books. I try to portray Little League the way it should be: with a coach who teaches kids to play the game well but doesn’t pressure them too much about winning. In the soccer and basketball books, I raise questions about the relative importance of sports, the dangers of racism and sexism, and the struggle of growing up in a complicated world. I see nothing paradoxical about writing a fast-action sports book that also raises questions about life.
I have always enjoyed writing more serious works. I loved writing Switch Tracks, a young adult novel, along with Family Pose and Team Picture. Another of my favorites, more about my own life than most, is The Trophy. I suspect that Children of the Promise is my best work, although that’s difficult for me to judge. I’ve had lots of fun with some funny books about Nutty and Lucky, and I think the sports novels are good, solid books for kids-especially some boys who are reluctant readers. I have a young adult novel coming out with Atheneum called Soldier Boys. It’s also about World War II, and it includes a prominent Mormon character, but it’s for the national market.
Irreantum: Most fiction is a combination of three elements: what the author has experienced, observed, and imagined. How do those three elements work together for you? How much is autobiographical?
Hughes: I think my work is almost never autobiographical, in one sense, and of course always is. All my characters are me, to some degree. When Alex gives a young woman a blessing in Rumors of War, feels the Spirit, and then a few minutes later doubts his own faith, that’s right out of my experience as a missionary and right out of my “never quite as spiritual as I would like to be” life. But I do think I have one gift: I seem to possess a good deal of capacity for empathy. I seem to be able to imagine how I would feel in certain circumstances, and I like to believe I can imagine myself as older, younger, a woman, and of course a soldier, even though I’ve never been one.
Irreantum: What works of Mormon literature have you personally most enjoyed? What works of general literature? How have these influenced you as a writer?
Hughes: I really read a lot of different kinds of things. During my years as a literature professor, I specialized in 19th-century British lit, with an emphasis on the novel. So I love the great, classic novels. In Mormon lit, Levi Peterson and Doug Thayer are two of my heroes, but I don’t think I write very much like them (and, of course, not as well). I love Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy and Ann Tyler and Ivin Doig, and a lot of other fiction writers. They’re not much like each other, and I’m not much like any of them. I guess they have some influence on me, but I couldn’t say exactly what the influence is. I do know that I’m limited in my own talents, so I’ve learned to do what I can do: tell a good story and try not to get in the way too much. When I try to write great sentences, I usually embarrass myself.
Irreantum: Do you like writing? Tell us more about your writing habits: how often you write, how you balance it with other things, any rituals or conditions you must have for a good writing session, and perhaps some comments about whether you use notes, outlines, research, multiple drafts, etc.
Hughes: I love the process of writing, and I think I have a good MO. I do a lot of prewriting-brain-storming, outlining, describing characters, etc.-and I write a fast, sloppy first draft. All of that is creative and fun for me, and then, once I have a draft in my computer, I love to revise more than anything. That’s the polishing, artistic part of writing, for me.
I do like to sit down at 8:00 in the morning and think of myself as going to work. Usually at 8:00 I don’t feel like writing, but by 8:30 or 9:00 I almost always feel sorry for all the people in the world who do anything else. The self-pity usually hits me again in the afternoon, by about 4:00, when I stagger upstairs (I write in a little basement office). I go for a run at noon sometimes, and I can handle interruptions without a lot of problem. I know I’m not a great writer, but I do think I’m a pro. I pride myself on my discipline.
What motivates me? That’s always so complicated to answer honestly. I started out, like most young writers, thinking I would get fame and fortune. The fame a writer gets is very limited and gradually means almost nothing, and the money is so unpredictable that it’s the scariest part of the life. What I love is to create the stories. I like responsesletters from kids or, now, adult readers, or meeting people who want to talk about the booksand I’ve enjoyed doing school visits over the years, but for me the great joy of being a writer is the writing itself.
Irreantum: You worked for about 15 years at home as a writer while your wife worked outside. You served as a bishop during much of that time. Tell us more about this side of your career: how you got up to full-time writing, how you balanced art with family and other responsibilities, what the bread-winning aspects of your career have been. How much of your career did you plan, and how much has been serendipity?
Hughes: I quit teaching because I was too naive to know better. I don’t recommend such stupidity, but I don’t know how I could have done it without being naive. My wife, Kathleen, is a very organized person-a busy school administrator with big responsibilities. And she likes security. But when I told her I wanted to give up my tenured teaching position to write full-time, she leaped off the edge of the world with me, and she trusted that we would land somewhere.
At first I taught technical writing for Shipley Associates, did some writing for hire, and made money from school visits. It took six or seven years to get to the point where I was making a living. Kathy provided the steady check and the insurance benefits, and that’s one of the biggest problems for a writer: operating without those paid benefits. But overall it’s been a fairly easy ride for me, considering what we bit off. I was able to publish consistently, find new ideas, move into various markets, etc. I was home writing when I was a bishop, and sometimes that meant too many telephone calls, but it also meant I was there when I was needed sometimes. My kids were gone away all day at school, so I had the house to myself most of the year, and when they were home Kathy was home on the same schedule. I loved being home when my daughter needed a ride to dance class or one of my sons had a JV football game or a track meet. I could knock off and be there for all those things.
I hate to admit it, but it’s been a good life. Writers love to suffer, I know, and maybe that’s why I’m no better than I am. I’ve had life too good: lots of freedomeven golf on Friday, like a dentist, sometimes-and pretty good financial rewards. Would I recommend it? Well, it takes a certain personality, maybe, and some luck. I would definitely have another career option ready.
Irreantum: What have you learned about marketing yourself as a writer and approaching different publishers? What other things have you consciously done to carve out and maintain a full-time writing career?
Hughes: I think most writers sort of feel their way along in this business, and that’s what I’ve done. My agent thinks I should have developed more of a niche, probably stressing my sports fiction, but I’ve always done a lot of different kinds of things: middle-grade, young adult, adult, even an early reader book; fiction, non-fiction; LDS, national; humor, sports, serious subjects, mysteries. I do what seems fun, and I write the ideas I get. The one obvious thing I’ve had to do is figure out what I can sell and what will bring in enough income to feed a family. I’ve done more series books than I might have done if I hadn’t been trying to make a living by writing. Series provide security, and they don’t have to be poorly written, but they do tend to use certain formulas, and they’re not as satisfying, for the most part, as the more literary novels I’ve done. Of course, when I speak of series, I’m excluding Children of the Promise, which is a series but is quite different from the more commercial children’s series I’ve done.
I have written a lot of books, and one thing has sort of led to another. I got interested in a Mormon history series because I was living in Missouri and because I wanted to do children’s books. From there I moved to other topics: humor, sports, etc. And then other ideas came as I had to take a hard look at how a person could actually make a living writing. Children of the Promise was the outgrowth of wanting to return to historical fiction and realizing that a period as vast as World War II would work only as a big family saga.
Irreantum: Tell us about your teaching profession. How does teaching writing and literature affect you as a writer? Is it even possible to teach creative writing?
Hughes: I really prefer to write. Now that I’m teaching at BYU, I’m much happier on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings because I teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I like the classroom part of teaching, but I weary of reading student writing (not that it’s bad, but just that there is so much of it). On the other hand, I find that teaching forces me to take a harder look at my own writing. As I revise, I ask myself how tough I would be on a student for some of my vague descriptions or maudlin sentiments.
I do think that creative writing can be taught. Talent can’t be taught, of course, but that’s true in any area. I can teach process, and I think that’s something creative writing teachers have tended to avoid. To me, the idea that each person has some magical way to write is nonsense. The creative process can be improved, adjusted. Just think how many people opposed using word processors for creative writing when they first came out. Hear anyone saying that now?
So I feel I can teach process, and by workshopping with students I can see what makes sense in their writing and what doesn’t. Every semester I’m stunned by how much my students improve. I really emphasize revision, and that’s something students need to work on more than almost anything. What most young writers lack is discipline.
Irreantum: Will you give us an idea of what your sales have been like? You have published in both the Mormon market and the national market. How do they compare?
Hughes: Sales have really varied over the years. I’ve had some lean years, but I’ve almost always done as well as I would have as a professor, and sometimes much better. Most of my books are out of print now-just because books do disappear quickly in the modern market. I think I’ve published 83, but I could be one or two off there. In terms of my total sales, I have no idea. I would think the number is in the millions.
I don’t think the national and Mormon markets are so different as people might think. Deseret Book is very professional, and as the organization grows it is becoming a little bit too much like the New York publishers. (Books go out of print faster, you get your editor’s phone mail instead of live voice, and all the rest.) Certainly, there are some things a writer can’t deal with in the Mormon market, but those things are becoming fewer all the time, and most of the things I can’t deal with I wouldn’t choose to write about anyway. For a long time I felt I couldn’t write about Mormons in the national market, but I’m seeing some better signs there all the time.
Irreantum: What are future prospects for Mormon literature? Will anything beyond inspirational romance and historical fiction break out in the Mormon market? Do you think this nation will ever have a Mormon Saul Bellow or Flannery O=Connor, someone winning a Pulitzer or National Book Award for fiction that deals with Mormon themes, settings, and characters?
Hughes: I think the future looks great for Mormon literature, but then my assessment of where it is now is not quite so gloomy as your description. People keep saying to me, “Thank you for telling the truth.” I know that my books are pretty safe, but if readers are looking for more realism, less that is promotional and self-satisfying, that’s a very good sign. We are getting to be a bigger market, so we can produce books for different tastes and still sell enough to make them worthwhile. Watch how we’ll move into more genres and styles in the next twenty years. In 1979, when I sold my first novel to Deseret Book, there was almost nothing. In fact, in 1975 a Bookcraft editor told me that the company had never been able to sell fiction. Look at us now. But it’s a very young art form in our culture, and it takes time. The great mistake is that many fine Mormon writers avoid the market because it isn’t good enough. But they are the writers who can bring it there. Maybe I’ve compromised on some issues over the years, but I would like to think I’ve helped bring the quality of Mormon fiction to a little higher place.
Do I think we’ll have Mormon writers winning national awards for writing about our culture? No question. But we’ve got to learn to look at ourselves honestly, and not everyone is going to like that. I just don’t think that means we have to give up our faith and commitment. There’s plenty of room for conversation about who we are without throwing out the basic things we believe and share.
Irreantum: Talk to us in more detail about Children of the Promise. What has been the response in terms of sales and feedback from readers? How did you conceive this series, what have been some highlights and challenges in writing it, and where do you see it going?
Hughes: Children of the Promise was something my wife got me thinking about: Why don’t you write about the forties? But I spent two years reading about World War II before I began writing. The whole experience has been life-altering. I have put seven years into the project now, and I’ve never steeped myself in anything so long and thoroughly. I’ve loved it all; I am somewhat tired now but enormously exhilarated. I’ve reached a bigger audience than ever before, even with my national books; made more money than I’m used to; and received an overwhelming response. I get letters from adults, who can tell me what they like about the books-really wonderful, moving letters. And my name is actually recognized once or twice a month (instead of once or twice a year).
So it has made a great difference in my life, at one level, and finally not that much difference. But wow! How many things in life are this dramatic, fulfilling, and satisfying? I have loved writing the books. I will finish the last chapter with at least as much sorrow as relief.
Irreantum: What do you see in your near future?
Hughes: When I finish my last volume of Children of the Promise, I want to go back and revise my first series of children’s books, about the early Church. I also have in mind another adult LDS series, possibly a spin-off of Children, but I’m not ready to say very much about that yet. I’ll keep writing for children and adults and for both the national and Mormon markets, but I want to slow down a little. My goal is to write books that are truly fine pieces of art. I don’t feel I’ve done that yet; I always think my next book will be the one I’ll finally be satisfied with. I have a feeling I can get better in my old age, and I want to try to do that.
I was ecstatic when I discovered Irreantum. Not only do I love reading each issue’s well-crafted creative works-poetry and short stories-that speak to my interest in expressions of Mormon art and faith, but I also look forward to the interviews, reviews, and publishing notes. Since I live on the West Coast, I don’t have access to all the Mormon-related media and events that those who live in the Intermountain West enjoy. With Irreantum, I feel more connected to the Mormon arts scene.
Over the holidays I had a chance to share the latest issue with my siblings and parents, who are all educated, avid readers but who have, for the most part, avoided the Mormon publishing scene because what they’ve been exposed to in the past didn’t match their interests and live up to their expectations. Every single one of them devoured the magazine, and we had some lively discussions about Mormon art. It was obvious to me that they (and me) are starving for a publication that seeks to capture all facets of the Mormon experience. My family members would never read Sunstone because they don’t have any desire to filter through work that in their point of view actively challenges or is condescending toward their orthodox-in-living, liberal-in-thinking brand of Mormonism. But we all have enjoyed Irreantum.
I think Irreantum is great! It tells you everything that’s going on in Mormon literature. To those of us out here amongst the gentiles in Pennsylvania, it’s really wonderful to know what is being written and to have reviews to help us decide what to buy. But Irreantum also publishes some excellent stories and poems. I’ve been very impressed with a number of them. They are intellectually and artistically interesting and still accessible. I also like the general tone of Irreantum. Although I consider myself to be liberal, I believe in the church. Irreantum is both spiritually and intellectually valuable without harping on tired arguments about the shortcomings of religion.
-Edward R. Hogan
How does a woman feel when she is released as Relief Society president after years and years of dedicated service? How does she fill up the hole in her life? When a teenager girl watches one of her friends die in an accident, how can her father help her deal with the conflicting emotions she goes through as she tries to understand an apparently meaningless tragedy? Do our pets have spirits? Can a pet care enough about its owner to die for him? These questions have all been explored by Mormon authors in short stories that have recently been published in Irreantum. These stories have helped me think about what I value and believe. They’ve also offered me the special gift of good literature-a glimpse into another human being’s heart and mind.
-Gae Lyn Henderson
We have publishing companies, like Deseret Book, that cover the faith-promoting aspect of LDS literature. We have companies that push the limits at the other end of the spectrum, like Signature Books, which explores the fringe aspects of Mormon culture and doctrine, some might say to a negative degree. And we have anti-Mormon publications-clear attacks on the Church and its beliefs. But where is the middle ground? Where is the LDS literature that explores the hypocrisies of Mormons, the deep struggles of morality, spectacular failures at living the gospel, spectacular changes of heart from despicable lifestyles, the real day-to-day struggle of working out one’s salvation through fear and trembling, all while remaining true to the gospel? Where is the LDS literature that examines the multi-faceted experience of faith from new and fresh points of view?
To my knowledge, Irreantum is the only publication dedicated to the entire spectrum of LDS literature. While avoiding any attempt to be critical of eternal truths, Irreantum allows all voices to be heard among the increasingly diverse community of Latter-day Saints. Irreantum provides a forum for the publication of literature and ideas that might receive no other forum. If you are interested in LDS literature and do not read Irreantum, you will be the poorer for it.
-D. Michael Martindale
Irreantum has everything I like: good fiction of all genres, essays on the craft of producing that fiction, interviews with the leading voices of the LDS literary scene. And it’s remarkably, refreshingly balanced, like no other Mormon publication I’ve read. I eagerly look forward to each new issue.
I consider Irreantum indispensable for any Latter-day Saint who reads avidly. The quality of the literature published in and highlighted by Irreantum is phenomenal for a culture the size of Mormonism. The magazine has no political agenda and doesn’t push any one religious viewpoint. It’s simply about presenting the best writing by and about Mormons.
Not so many years ago, if Mormons wanted to read fiction they had to choose something written by someone who knew nothing about being a Mormon. That has changed! And Irreantum, the New Yorker of Mormon letters, is the tool that will help us make choices and develop taste in the flourishing Mormon publishing market.
Bibliography of Dean Hughes
About the following bibliography, Hughes says: At doesn’t include a few nonsense poems I’ve published in children’s magazines and a story or two, but I’m not sure you want all of that. There’s a certain point where a writer becomes ashamed of producing too much. After all, anyone who writes a great deal must be >cranking them out.= Isn’t that what we always hear?@ Note: An asterisk indicates titles that are out of print.
Atheneum Publishers (Simon and Schuster), New York:
Nutty for President (1981)*
Nutty and the Case of the Mastermind Thief (1985)*
Nutty and the Case of the Ski-Slope Spy (1985; Aladdin paperback 1990)*
Nutty Can’t Miss (1987)
Nutty Knows All (1988; Aladdin paperback 1991)
Nutty, the Movie Star (1989; Aladdin paperback 1991)
Nutty’s Ghost (1993)
Re-Elect Nutty! (1995)
Honestly, Myron (1982)*
Switching Tracks (1982)*
Millie Willenheimer and the Chestnut Corporation (1983)*
Jelly’s Circus (1986; Aladdin paperback 1989)*
Theo Zephyr (1987)*
Family Pose (1989; as Family Picture, Scholastic paperback 1990; French, Clandestin L’htel, Castor Poche, 1993)*
End of the Race (1993)
Team Picture (1996)
Scrappers series, 9 vols., Atheneum hardcover, Aladdin paperback, all 1999: Play Ball!, Home Run Hero, Team Player, Now We’re Talking, Bases Loaded, No Easy Out, Take Your Base, No Fear, Grand Slam
Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, New York:
Angel Park All-Stars series, 14 vols., paperback and library editions: Making the Team (1990)*, Big Base Hit (1990)*, Winning Streak (1990)*, What a Catch! (1990)*, Rookie Star (1990)*, Pressure Play (1990)*, Line Drive (1990)*, Championship Game (1990)*, Superstar Team (1991)*, Stroke of Luck (1991)*, Safe at First (1991), Up to Bat (1991)*, Play-Off (1991)*, All Together Now (1991)
Angel Park Soccer Stars series, 8 vols., paperback and library editions: Kickoff Time (1991)*, Defense! (1991)*, Victory Goal (1992)*, Psyched! (1992)*, Backup Goalie (1992)*, Total Soccer (1992)*, Shake-Up (1993)*, Quick Moves (1993)*
Angel Park Hoop Stars series, 4 vols., paperback and library editions: Nothing but Net (1993)*, Point Guard (1993)*, Go to the Hoop! (1993)*, On the Line (1993)*
Angel Park Karate Stars: Find the Power (1994)*
Angel Park Football Stars: Quarterback Hero (1994)*
One-Man Team (1994)
Backup Soccer Star [girls’ team] (1995)
Baseball Tips [nonfiction, with Tom Hughes] (1993)
The Trophy (1994)
Brad and Butter: Play Ball! [Stepping Stones Series] (1998)
Pocket Books (Simon and Schuster), New York:
Lullaby and Goodnight [adult nonfiction] (paperback only, 1992; British edition, published under name D. T. Hughes, Hodder and Stoughton, 1992)
Deseret Book, Salt Lake City:
Mormon historical fiction series: Under the Same Stars (1979; paperback 1988)*, As Wide as the River (1980; paperback 1990)*, Facing the Enemy (1982; paperback 1991)*, Corn Bread and Prayer (1988)*
Hooper Haller (1981; paperback 1987)*
Jenny Haller (1983; paperback 1987)*
Brothers (1986; paperback 1990)*
The Mormon Church: A Basic History [nonfiction] (1986; paperback 1991)
Lucky series, paperback editions only: Lucky’s Crash Landing (1990), Lucky Breaks Loose (1990)*, Lucky’s Gold Mine (1990), Lucky Fights Back (1991), Lucky’s Mud Festival (1991), Lucky’s Tricks (1992), Lucky the Detective (1992), Lucky’s Cool Club (1993), Lucky in Love (1993), Lucky Comes Home (1994)
Great Stories from Mormon History [nonfiction, with Tom Hughes] (1994)
We’ll Bring the World His Truth: Missionary Adventures from Around the World [nonfiction, with Tom Hughes] (1995)
Children of the Promise series [adult historical novels about World War II], 4 vols. to date: Rumors of War (1997), Since You Went Away (1997), Far from Home (1998), I’ll Be Seeing You (1999)
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