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Book Talk: The dark doubts in the heart of a Mormon missionary

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - They're a familiar sight around the world, whether in northern Japan or southern Argentina: a pair of men in dark suits, with nameplates, often riding bicycles as they go about their job preaching the Mormon religion.

"Elders", Ryan McIlvain's debut novel, illuminates the lives of one such pair, American Elder McLeod and his Brazilian counterpart Elder Passos, through their frustrating daily round of knocking on doors and missionary work, the service that all adult Mormons must perform.

McIlvain, a former Mormon who went to Brazil on his mission, spoke about his book and basing fiction on his own life.

Q: How did this book get going?

A: It's something I know a lot about just by virtue of the fact that I was a Mormon missionary. More broadly, I thought it would be interesting to pay very close attention to the interior lives of two Mormon missionaries, people that we see almost exclusively from the outside ... They're so lonely, the pressures they face on a daily basis are so tremendous. Because of the nature of their work, they're seen as annoying at best and predatory at worst.

Q: Are a lot of the events in the book your own?

A: I gave some of my own experiences to McLeod and Passos, particularly mental experiences, to the extent that McLeod doubts and Passos feels a worldly longing for success. But the behavior themselves was where the fiction started to take over.

The experience of being a missionary is the experience of being a permanent foreigner, you wear this nametag and uniform that is meant to mark you out as different so you never feel that you can just blend in or have a lazy afternoon. You always feel on call and in fact, you are. Mormon missionaries are told to believe that they've received a call from God and that involves certain responsibilities. So instead of going to parties or football games or whatever your average 19 to 20-year-old does, they go out and preach the Gospel for two years.

Q: What was it like to put the fictional stamp on some of your own experiences and take it to the next level?

A: If a memory or an image surfaced and it felt like it would serve the story well, I'd put it in there ... The fiction kind of existed in its own world with its own set of needs and its own expedient rhythms that were different from the reality and that would be different from the needs of a non-fiction writer. Now it's funny, as I look back, I started to confuse what was real and what I'd embellished onto the real. There's something sad about that. I've now muddied the waters of my memories a little bit, I've kind of lost hold of that time.

Q: People talk about "the great Mormon novel"? What do you think about that idea?

A: I came to the material a little hesitantly, because I was nervous about being seen as a Mormon writer or someone that could be pigeon-holed. But I think that fear is almost universal. I remember reading Roth or Bellow as I was growing up ... They would very much bristle if someone tried to describe them as Jewish writers even though the vast majority of their protagonists were Jewish. People don't want to be labeled for fear of being dismissed or marginalized, maybe. So I don't identify as a Mormon writer - but then again, I'm not sure who would. You just want to be a writer who happens to take up this subject and that subject.

Q: In this book, there's a lot of questions the characters face about their beliefs. Is it common to be thrown into your mission experience and have a lot of questions?

A: Yes, I think it is. First of all, it's such a formative time. Young men serve at 19, typically, and young women at least until very recently served their missions at 21. Whether it's 19 or 21, your mind is still in its formative stages and especially when you're taken out of the comfort zone of your country and language, things get shaken up. I served in Brazil at the same time as I set the story, as the United States was revving up to the war with Iraq. It was really formative to see that political theatre from an outsider's perspective. I came back to the United States much more tentative in thinking about my country's role in the world. When I left I was pretty cocksure and confident that America was more just than not in the way it dealt with other countries. I came back without any of that certainty. It wasn't just doctrinal uncertainty that the mission gave me, it was a sort of national uncertainty as well.

Q: In terms of writing, did having grown up as a Mormon have any influence?

A: Well, I'll say yes, though of course I've only lived one life. Having grown up Mormon, I can say that it's a people of the book. In some corners, a somewhat anti-intellectual strain, but certainly in the corners that I felt drawn to, Mormons read a lot and they read closely. Every morning during high school I would wake up early and go to seminary, an hour of scripture study and Bible before school. Those pitch-black, cold Massachusetts mornings, my twin sister and I would flip a coin to see who had to go start the car, and let it warm up. We'd drive the twenty minutes to church and sit there and pay very close attention to those wonderful, rich Biblical texts. So yes, I do think that the prose of particularly the King James Bible has been an influence, and I've tried to take the best of that and update it for a contemporary prose style. Also just the economy and the really magical arcs that those Biblical stories manage to accomplish in such a short amount of space really influenced me….I did imbibe some of that.

(Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)

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