Our January Pick of the Month, Mette Ivie Harrison’s The Bishop’s Wife, has been getting a lot of buzz. The book, loosely based on at true crime in Utah, looks at a crime within a Mormon community from the perspective of the Temple Bishop’s wife. Mette, who has penned serveral YA novels, delivered a mystery like a seasoned practitioner, fully using the form’s ability to explore a subculture and several issues. We caught up to her to discuss the novel and her approach to it.
MysteryPeople: Your story is loosely based on the disappearance of Susan Powell and the years-later murder-suicide of her husband and children. What was it about the the real crime that made you want to use it for a story?
Mette Ivie Harrison: The real disappearance of Susan Powell unfolded in Utah over a period of years, and even now that Josh (the real life husband) and the two boys are dead, no one knows where Susan’s body is. That was a great mystery to begin with.
But as a Mormon, I wondered how Josh was able to disguise himself so long within the church and why Susan was unable to ask for help. Some of the answers are the same as any abused wife, but some are tied to the Mormon doctrine of “forever families,” I think.
MP: As someone who has been involved with the Mormon Church what did you want to get across to the reader about it?
MIH: I wanted very much for Mormonism to be seen as a legitimate faith and not, as I have so often been accused, of being a cult. But I also feel strongly that refusing to acknowledge problems within the church makes us seem more secretive and less sympathetic.
MP: I thought it was interesting how it’s Linda’s skill as a mother that helps her follow what is going on. What did you want to explore about motherhood?
MIH: Of all my roles (wife, mother, author, athlete, daughter, Mormon) I feel most fulfilled and find most meaning as a mother and I wanted to write about a character who felt the same. I also wanted to write about a mother who had suffered an unbearable loss of her daughter, as I have.
Mormon culture, as most American culture, sometimes overlooks and underestimates mothers. Linda Wallheim plays on that and still is a powerful character who enacts change in her community for those she sees as her “children” in a broad sense. But it is not without cost.
MP: I thought you did a brilliant job of juxtaposing Linda’s internal thoughts with the dialogue. How did you approach a lead who felt she couldn’t always publicly say what she thinks?
MIH: That’s almost completely autobiographical. I write and think prodigiously, but don’t speak well in public for various reasons (autism runs in my extended family). All of my books in the YA world are known for strong internal monologue, though it doesn’t appeal to every reader. I think Linda loves people genuinely and tries to speak to them in a way that they can listen to. She is also only rarely confident she is right enough to act on her instincts, ignoring others.
MP: This being your first mystery, did you draw from any influences?
MIH: Linda and Kurt are named after Linda and Kurt Wallander in Henning Menkell’s wonderful series. I also probably draw a lot on the Kinsey Millhone books by Sue Grafton, who I have been reading for about 20 years.
MP: What did you take from writing YA into mystery?
MIH: YA demands quick dialog and a strong, unmistakable voice. Also I’ve spent years working on my fantasy world building skills, which came in handy depicting the Mormon world. But adult also allows more reflection, which I enjoy.