Mette Ivie Harrison has just released her second novel in the soon-to-be-seen-as-classic Linda Wallheim series. Her crime fiction debut, The Bishop’s Wife takes the reader deep within America’s vibrant and evolving Mormon community to tackle issues of family violence and the vulnerability of women within the Mormon family structure.
Her second novel, His Right Hand, was released earlier this month, and expands her critique of Mormon gender roles to men as well as women, delving into the psychological trauma of conforming to an overly strict definition of masculinity. His Right Hand is our December Pick of the Month. Harrison kindly agreed to an interview via email about her latest novel, the future of her Linda Wallheim series, and the future of Mormon feminism.
Molly Odintz: You talk about this some in both of the Linda Wallheim novels – what, would you say, are the causes and concerns of a self-identified Mormon feminist?
Mette Ivie Harrison: Well, I am still in the midst of figuring this out. For much of my life, I have been a stay-at-home mom and have felt at times excluded from traditional American feminism because of that choice. So as a Mormon feminist, I try not to dismiss other points of view and to listen to women who are more traditional than I am as they talk about the way they see their roles within a patriarchal society.
The reality of Mormonism is that Mormon women are fiercely active and out-spoken within many parts of the community and that they have leadership roles that are sometimes invisible or dismissed by those outside of Mormonism. Women do a lot of the work of the ward, as Linda does, unseen and unthanked. But if you don’t care about visibility, only about the work getting done, this matters less to you because you are still building the kingdom. And with the Mormon idea of a female Heavenly Mother, who is also less visible, it does not always seem so bad to focus on the work itself.
“His Right Hand was inspired by a more personal family situation, when my nephew (by friendship, not blood) came out as transgender his junior year in high school. I had a lot of baggage about gender to unload at that point, and watching him trying to negotiate his way through a very gendered Mormon culture was fascinating.”
I think mostly I am trying to talk about what it feels like to be a woman within the church in my own way and to leave space open for others to talk about their experiences. Mormon feminists range from those who want women’s ordination to those who want women of color to be given more voice to those who want to pray to Heavenly Mother and those who want women to pray in General Conference. It’s important not to hold one group of feminists above the others, I think.
MO: In The Bishop’s Wife, you focused more on the issue of violence against women, while in His Right Hand, you delve into the oppressive nature of gender norms as a whole. Can you tell me a bit about the inspiration for each of these themes?
MIH: The Bishop’s Wife was inspired directly by the real case of Josh and Susan Powell, which unfolded in Utah and then ended horribly tragically. That was when I felt I needed to write about why I thought it was that the doctrine of being eternally sealed as families might be encouraging battered women to stay with abusive husbands even more than they already are in America.
His Right Hand was inspired by a more personal family situation, when my nephew (by friendship, not blood) came out as transgender his junior year in high school. I had a lot of baggage about gender to unload at that point, and watching him trying to negotiate his way through a very gendered Mormon culture was fascinating.
Because of more media coverage of transgender issues that happened around the same time, I also got a rather ugly view of the intolerance that Mormons could blithely assume about how “disgusting” transgender people were, never thinking that there might be transgender people living around them at that very moment.
I made Carl Ashby the murder victim because I wanted to make it clear he was transgender, but also that no one had ever guessed until an autopsy was done, and him being the victim means that we get to hear his whole life story in bits and pieces as Linda uncovers it in her investigation.
MO: Linda Wallheim is such a fierce mother when it comes to protecting her children and her community. She draws strength from her roles, but also questions these roles. I’m used to detectives always having some kind of addiction – is Linda Wallheim’s vast love her addiction? Or does a modern detective no longer need an addiction for character depth?
MIH: Linda’s addiction is her need to mother everyone in sight. Her deepest loss is her daughter Georgia, and the fact that she has never had the chance to mother a daughter. In every novel I have planned in this series, this comes up. Young women, young girls, even young mothers, all look like Georgia to Linda and she needs to fill that hole in her life with people who don’t necessarily want to do this for her. This gets her in trouble in the first book, in the second book, and will continue to get her into more and more trouble in every book in the series.
“I don’t really consider myself a reformer in terms of demanding change by Mormon leaders. I am a critic, like Theodor Adorno. In grad school, I studied Adorno and his refusal to ever suggest a positive structure for reform drove me crazy. Now I find that I am doing very much the same thing. I criticize and criticize. That’s my job. I try to hold up a mirror to the world and let the problems shine out clearly.”
MO: I love that you include resource guides at the end of His Right Hand. What do you hope the Mormon community will take from your novels?
MIH: I honestly don’t know how many conservative Mormons are reading my books, as they aren’t available in Deseret Book, the bookstore where most conservative Mormons buy the books they consider worthy of their attention. That said, I do hope that somehow, the word leaks out that there are resources for those who are struggling within Mormonism. I write less as an activist and more as someone who is trying to tell the truth as she sees it, but I hope that what I write helps others see that there is a place for them. My blogs at Huffington Post are more personal than my novels, but I think they do the same thing.
MO: You’ve now written two Wallheim novels. Will this be an ongoing series?
Yes, I’ve got ten books planned (one book of short stories from other povs than Linda’s). We’ve switched the order of three and four, but otherwise, the stories are still very much as I envisioned them originally, which was before the first book came out. I was concerned about how much negative feedback from the Mormon community would affect my ability to write and I didn’t want my original vision of Linda’s arc to be contaminated by the temptation to pull punches so I wouldn’t get in as much trouble. Sadly, I’ve had about the negative response from both Mormons at large and from my own family and friends that I expected. It has not been easy.
MO: The Bishop’s Wife, released earlier this year, was your first foray into writing a detective novel, but the internet tells me you’ve written in other genres previously. How does it feel to switch over to writing mysteries?
I never intended or even imagined that I would write mysteries. I’m very much uninterested in learning about CSI kinds of procedures and am not a puzzle writer in terms of clues. I’m a character-centered plot writer and always have been. I think you see many of the same themes of secrets and true identities in all of my young adult novels that emerge in my Linda Wallheim mysteries in different ways.
It took a long time for me to be courageous enough to write about Mormonism so unflinchingly. I will say that I was a huge Sherlock Holmes fanatic in my teen years, and wrote a book of trivia about the books and novels which I have lost now, but used to be very proud of. And I’ve always been a fan of Anne Perry and Elizabeth George, and the Bones series on television. So I’ve had a mystery bent, but it wasn’t until I felt like I had to recreate myself as a writer that I tried to twist the mystery form into my own shape.
MO: In a country that tends to oversimplify Mormon issues and concerns, you have written two detective novels exploring the community as large, complex, and with strong internal differences of opinion. Do you think we’re on the cusp of seeing more nuanced portrayals of Mormon characters?
MIH: There are actually several other Mormon mystery novels (City of Saints and City of Brick and Shadow) that have published in the last year, so I’m not sure what’s in the air. I think The Bishop’s Wife has been the most successful nationally, and neither of the other two authors spends a lot of time going into Mormon doctrine, as I do. I don’t know that it’s a trend. It’s pretty scary.
Ex-Mormons tend to feel more comfortable writing about Mormonism than practicing Mormons do. Orson Scott Card has been writing about Mormonism kind of on the slant for a long time, though not all of his readers realize what he is doing. I think I’m frankly very lucky to have found a publishing house and an editor who “get” what I’m doing.
I hope other Mormon writers who are right now focused on writing fantasy or other genres at some point feel able to write about Mormonism with a national audience in mind, but I also genuinely hope that the current crop of niche Mormon publishers in Utah are heartened by these sales and realize that perhaps there are others ways to let their authors write about Mormonism than simply the standard “faith-promoting” books that we tend to get.
“I note that the white patriarchy we live under is very clever in swallowing up the specific demands of feminism, offering them back rather defanged and useless. Are we less sexist now in the twenty-first century than we were a hundred or two hundred years ago, when women couldn’t get an education or a job? I am not convinced of it. I think we feel just as constrained by gender, if not more so, than our ancestors did. That’s why the job of a critic is so important.”
MO: His Right Hand shows a church that seems on the brink of widespread change, with a variety of opinions on gender and sexuality. Do you think this ongoing debate will lead to a significant restructuring of religious tenets?
MIH: I don’t really consider myself a reformer in terms of demanding change by Mormon leaders. I am a critic, like Theodor Adorno. In grad school, I studied Adorno and his refusal to ever suggest a positive structure for reform drove me crazy. Now I find that I am doing very much the same thing. I criticize and criticize. That’s my job. I try to hold up a mirror to the world and let the problems shine out clearly.
I note that the white patriarchy we live under is very clever in swallowing up the specific demands of feminism, offering them back rather defanged and useless. Are we less sexist now in the twenty-first century than we were a hundred or two hundred years ago, when women couldn’t get an education or a job? I am not convinced of it. I think we feel just as constrained by gender, if not more so, than our ancestors did. That’s why the job of a critic is so important.
So, do I think the Mormon church will change? Absolutely. Do I think it will change in the way I want it to change? I really don’t know. I hope women find more of a voice in some way, though I’m not sure ordination is the only acceptable way. I hope that the LGBT community finds more acceptance and love, though I don’t know what form that will take. I am trying to be open to the possibilities of the future, which will not necessarily look like what the past thinks it wants.
You can find copies of His Right Hand on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.