To understand Bethany Chaffin's place in modern literature, you need a complete working knowledge of the past 100 years of English prose.
But don't fret. I'll give you one in the next two paragraphs here.Before the turn of the century, literary fiction and popular fiction came from the same font. Dickens, Twain, Hardy, Hawthorne featured bedeviled characters, a chronological storyline, a readable style, and a moral message or two tucked in the sub-text.
When James Joyce, William Faulkner, Marcel Proust and others rebelled against the Victorian ethic, the revolution took the form of "Modernism." In the words of critic John Simon we ended up with "fiction that played with the very form of fiction." Such writers focused more on language than life and lived experience. Their sentences were often difficult, time was relative and the writer's message was often obscure. In 1937 Margaret Mitchell tapped the growing frustrations of everyday readers and wrote a novel that went back to the old storytelling skills. The novel was "Gone With the Wind," our first modern "best seller." The book eventually threw American novelists into two basic camps: popular fiction writers (Stephen King, Danielle Steele, Robert Ludlum, Robert Parker, etc.) and literary fiction writers (Saul Bellow, Ann Beattie, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, etc.).
Just so you know, Bethany Chaffin of Mantua sits squarely - and happily - in the middle of the "popular fiction" writing camp.
And she's staked a strong claim there. She has eight books in print, and 65 of her writing students have also published books. One of her two textbooks, "Write at Home and Sell," is in its eighth printing. At one point 16 of her students were freelancing human interest features for the Deseret News alone.
And most of those students learned the tricks of the trade at Chaffin's little mountain retreat in a canyon near Brigham City. Local writers pay $50 for three days of intensive sessions that explain the popular fiction and non-fiction market, then explain how to cater to it. ("After all these years I pretty much know the popular market inside and out," Chaffin says.)
The workshops are long on nuts-and-bolts "how to's" and short on philosophy, theory and deep analysis.
Bethany Chaffin doesn't bill herself as a grand dame of letters. She's a language Marine, a can-do, hands-on drill sergeant.
"I'm not the best writer in the world," she says, "but I do seem to bring the best writing out of people. I've been lucky to attract some very talented writers. I don't work with many literary types. Most of my students are housewives with children who have a lot of daily hassle, so my workshops are a chance for them to get free of all that and write for a few days."
Always hustling and bustling, Chaffin has recently found time amid her teaching, editing and work on a new novel about Alzheimer's disease to spearhead interest in a Mantua City Library (she contributed most of the books herself). She takes pride in the tidy little town and likes to boost that pride in others.
"I'm from Flint, Mich., originally," she says, "but when I came to Mantua I fell in love with the place. I need peace and quiet if I'm going to write, and Mantua has plenty of that."
As for Chaffin's talent for kindling that kind of enthusiasm in others, testimonials are almost literally a dime a dozen.
Lillis Jeppesen Tonks, for example, is a mother in Morgan. When her son - a promising young jockey - was killed in a horse race several years ago, she decided a fitting tribute would be a book about the boy's life. She began writing "Ten Feet Tall."
"I hadn't taken any creative writing classes before I signed up with Bethany," Tonks says. "I had been writing the story from the inside out - passively - and having trouble with dialogue and playing out the scenes. Bethany helped me to tell my son's story as it actually happened, as if I were watching it take place before my eyes. Before I got together with her I was spinning my wheels."
Today Tonks' book could serve as a textbook on engaging a reader from page one. It's sold 1,500 copies and has prompted dozens of responses from parents who've dealt with similar tragedies.
Such stories are constantly surfacing in the Utah writing community.
When asked if there is one success story that's she feels best about, Chaffin - typically - takes the long view.
"Overall, I like seeing people grow," she says. "I like to see people learn to do what they really want to do. I had one student, Gertrude Lobrot, who didn't begin writing until she was an elderly woman. I watched her develop into a fine writer. That's the thing people have to realize, I think, writing is a craft, a skill you have to develop. It isn't just bursts of inspiration when you're touched by the Muses."
Has she ever done her job so well that her students out-write her?
"Oh yes," she says. "When my students beat me in writing competitions, I'm actually tickled."
If you know Bethany Chaffin, you know there's not an ounce of false modesty in that phrase.