Jeremy Harmon, Deseret Morning News
Along about junior high, Dean Hughes began to think he'd like to be a writer. When he was in high school, he wrote his first novel (it never got published).
Hughes attributes that desire for writing to a love of reading. "When you love to read, you tend to think you'd like to write your own books.
"I was always a mediocre athlete. But I got a lot of encouragement from teachers. I began to believe it was something I could do."
Even so, it took awhile before he could call himself a writer.
Hughes graduated from Weber State College and then continued there to get a master's degree in creative writing and then a doctorate in literature from the University of Washington. Later, he got a job teaching at Central Mississippi State College. "Then I got a children's book published. And I decided to take a year off and see what I could do."
One year stretched into 17. "I did go back to teaching; I taught for five years at BYU. But now I'm back to full-time writing."
During that time, there have been more than 90 books, both for the national market and for the LDS market. Most of his national books are historical novels for children or young adults. But in 1979, Deseret Book published "Under the Same Stars." "Mormon literature was just beginning to raise its head. I think mine was the first novel Deseret Book published."
Since then, there have been, among other things, his popular "Children of the Promise" series, set during World War II, and his equally well-received "Hearts of the Children" series, which takes place in the 1960s and later.
Hughes' most recent book, however, "was a departure from anything I've ever done. It was a lot of fun." "Midway to Heaven" is a contemporary tale of humor and romance.
And if that sounds like something of a contradiction, maybe it's because he says his life is "a collection of contradictions."
Hughes grew up in Ogden in a home that was poor in material goods but rich in spirit. His father could barely read, but his mother instilled in him a love of books. He has a doctorate in literature but he spends a lot of time writing for children. He writes fiction, but he sees himself as "a practical man" not given to flights of fancy.
But he says that's what makes his life so interesting. And probably what makes his books so popular.
His characters are equally complex and deal with very real problems. And that's a change that he has seen in the genre in recent years. In the early days of Mormon literature, he said, stories tended to be "idealized, almost like road shows."
But now, "we've learned that it's possible to deal with real issues and still write from a faith base. You can't imply that all you have to do is pray and suddenly everything is OK. But you can use prayer as a resource. And you can do it without being preachy."
He's met a lot of people, he said, who tell him they want to read books that are not full of trash. "But just because they are not trashy does not make them good literature. They still have to be well-written. My background is literature, and I've been taught sophisticated techniques. I'm not going to forget them just because I'm writing about faith."
Complex characters, realistic plots, quality in language and writing style those are the things that make good books, he said. And the good thing is, "we're seeing better writers getting involved. But it's still a young genre."
However, the popularity of LDS fiction is having an impact on the national market. "The last two books I've done for the national market have had Mormon characters. That's new for Mormon writers. It used to be publishers would tell us to stay away from that. But now they encourage it."
That may be for practical reasons. Whatever else publishers are, he said, they are practical. "If something sells, they say, 'Do more.' If it's mostly Mormons that are buying the books, they don't care, as long as someone is buying them."
Hughes and his wife, Kathleen, now live in Midway, where he enjoys skiing and golfing when he's not writing. And where he enjoys playing grandpa to his eight grandchildren (his three children are married, and two live in the area). "A couple of those kids are little terrors," he said with a laugh. Fodder for another book? Perhaps.
In the meantime, he has nearly finished the fourth volume in the "Heart of the Children" series and is working on a young adult book on the Vietnam War for the national market.Life is busy, he says, but also very full.
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