From a luminous storyteller, a highly anticipated new novel about the American family writ large.
An Interview with Brady Udall
Q: Why did you decide to take your nonfiction article that first appeared in Esquire in 1998 and was originally titled “Big Love” and make it into a novel?
My novel is not based on my Esquire piece, exactly, but the research I did for the piece was the basis for The Lonely Polygamist (there’s a distinction there if you look for it). I have a strong family connection to polygamy, but I had no real understanding of how polygamy is lived today, and after doing the research and writing the article there was no question my next novel would be about contemporary polygamy. This all occurred well before the wave of fascination with polygamy in this country, and I thought it was something I absolutely had to write about, to call attention to in a fair, nonjudgmental and (hopefully) compelling way.
Q: You’ve said that you wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for polygamy. What do you mean?
My great-great-grandfather, David King Udall, was a polygamist. His second wife, Ida Hunt Udall, was my great-great-grandmother. So it’s pretty straightforward: if polygamy didn’t exist, neither would I. It seemed only right, then, that I should write a novel on the subject.
Q: Are you Mormon? What was your own family dynamic like?
I grew up in a devout Mormon family, and as one of nine children I had firsthand experience with what life is like in an oversized family. This experience certainly served me well in writing the book.
Q: You spent time among polygamists while researching this novel. Did you go into the experience expecting a certain way of life?
Oh yeah. I figured I’d meet a lot of megalomaniacal men with their shirts buttoned up to their necks, and their meek, cow-eyed wives (the ones with the pioneer dresses and weird hairdos). I have to say I was almost disappointed when these people turned out to be nice, everyday, regular folks, hardly distinguishable from the rest of the populace.
For example, one of the families I got to know best lived in suburban Salt Lake in several well-appointed town homes. They drove minivans and wore jeans and standard modern American regalia. The husband was a businessman, and of the four wives one was a lawyer, one had a PhD, one owned a heath-food store, and one was a stay-at-home mom. Did I mention they had thirty children? What I found out was that these were normal people living in a very abnormal way, and I most wanted to understand how they managed to live that way, the sacrifices and compromises they all had to make to uphold such an extreme lifestyle.
Q: Rusty is a fascinating character—he’s an isolated little boy dying for the attention of his distant parents. What inspired you to create this character?
While most of us are fascinated with the hows and whats and whys of the way in which the adults navigate this lifestyle, the children are often forgotten. And I think it’s the children who suffer most in these situations. In such a crowd, it’s easy to get lost—I can attest to this from personal experience. Though I had my difficulties, I fared okay as a kid in my own oversized family. As I see it, Rusty is the kid I might have turned into had I been ignored, lost in the shuffle, left completely to my own devices.
And I’ll say this: though Rusty’s circumstances are very difficult in the book, and were sometimes hard for me as a writer to face, I’ve never had so much fun writing a character.
Q: A recent National Geographic article suggested that polygamy actually has many qualities of a matriarchy and not, as many people assume, a patriarchy. To what extent do you think this portrayal is accurate?
I think it’s accurate in the sense that just as with monogamy, there are any number of permutations to plural marriage. In some marriages the husband is the unquestioned leader. In others, a single wife, or the wives as a group, run the show. It’s all about how the different personalities relate to one another. In the time I spent with different polygamist families, I saw extreme differences in family dynamics and culture. Because of the size of some of the families, I often felt like an anthropologist studying a tribe with its own unique politics and hierarchies and mores. It was fascinating.
Q: Why do you think people are fascinated by polygamy?
In one word: sex.
What were your views on polygamy before reading the book? Did they change after you finished reading?
Discuss Golden’s progression from lonely polygamist to social polygamist. How does a renewal of faith assist this transformation?
Compare and contrast Golden’s behavior at the two funerals. How are they similar? In what ways are they different?
How does Glory affect the other family members and Golden in particular?
Discuss the motifs of creation and destruction that appear throughout the novel.
Do you think Rusty is a representative figure for all of the Richards children in the novel, or is he in some ways unique?
Trish is one of the most conflicted mothers in the novel. What do you think of her decision at the end? Was it the right thing to do?
How has the family changed at the conclusion of the novel? Do you think they are happy with their decisions?
Discuss Rose-of-Sharon’s reaction to Rusty’s accident. Do you think you would have reacted the same way if you were in her place?
Why do you think Golden isn’t able to consummate his affair with Huila?
Physical appearance is described with exacting clarity throughout the novel. Golden is described as bucktoothed and “Sasquatch,” and Glory as “lopsided” and “overstuffed.” Why do you think there is such a heightened awareness of the body?
What is the effect of polygamy on the women in the novel? How do you think their lives and personalities would be different if they weren’t in a polygamous relationship?
About Brady Udall
Brady Udall is the author of The Lonely Polygamist, a New York Times bestseller, and Letting Loose the Hounds. He teaches at Boise State University and lives in Boise, Idaho, with his wife and children.
Books by Brady Udall
“Funny, unpredictable, and abounding with strange beauty . . .
a fierce new voice of the American West.”—OutsideMore
A New York Times bestseller: from a luminous storyteller, a highly anticipated new novel about the American family writ large. “Udall masterfully portrays the hapless foibles and tragic yearnings of our fellow humans.”—San Francisco ChronicleMore
“Profound and stirring . . . brilliantly executed.”—Wall Street JournalMore