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New Harmony: Some words of wisdom from Wallace Stegner

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 23 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

Author Wallace Stegner is shown during a visit to New York, May 8, 1979.

Jerry Mosey, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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It's not foresight.

I'm just a pack rat.

I hold onto stuff for so long that it sometimes becomes incredibly valuable.

I'm talking here about the cassette tape of my 1980 interview with author Wallace Stegner about Mormons and writing.

I tossed that cassette tape in a box with 50 other tapes.

Last night it surfaced.

I played it.

It's a gem.

In 1980, Stegner was the Grand Master of Western writing — a true sage among the sagebrush. He was raised in Utah and went to school here. He was our favorite son. And since his death, his legacy has grown.

I met him in his room at the old Hotel Utah where he was working on a speech. I stayed too long and said too much. And I peppered him with too many questions about Mormons and writing. But he kept answering them.

Why aren't there more first-rate Mormon novelists? I asked.

"The luck of the draw," he said. "Here in the West we feel inferior and unappreciated. I don't think we should feel inferior, but we should feel unappreciated."

He counseled patience.

"Historically, every regional society in America has gone through a period of consolidation," he said. "That's the way it happened in New England, in the South, in the Midwest. It's just a question of waiting. My feeling is the closed society feel of Utah is diminishing."

And when LDS fiction finally does fully emerge, what would it look like?

"My guess is when Utah fiction arrives at its full stature, it may be less orthodox than some in authority would like," he said. "But I don't expect decadent fiction. This is a very moral state and even in its rebellion it's going to be moral … but fiction, by the kind of truths it has to get at, has to risk a lot. And when you're working from within a faith, you have to be willing to risk a little bit."

And who will be taking those risks?

"A lot of great Catholic literature was written by people who had fallen off the wagon and then found their way back on," he said.

He suspected some excellent Mormon fiction would come from the same type of folks.

As for themes, he said, he didn't expect epic writing to dominate. "It's generally family quarrels and discontents that make fiction," he said.

Then he said something I'd never heard.

He said the South produced great writers because its sin of slavery created a heightened sense of right and wrong, good and evil. He said we Utahns may damage the land beyond repair. Then we'd have a sin that would produce world-class novels.

For me, the Hotel Utah has been the site of many memories, but my interview with Wallace Stegner stands out.

I can still see him sitting in that fancy, delicate chair by the window in his suite, looking down at the street below and smiling.

He loved Utah and Salt Lake City.

And he loved the Mormons.

He just didn't love those big, granite planters that used to line Main Street.

He said they reminded him of monuments to the Soviet Worker.

Jerry Johnston is a former Deseret News staff writer. "New Harmony" appears every other week in Mormon Times. Email: jerjohn@desnews.com

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