- Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz
Mette Ivie Harrison has been one of our favorites at MysteryPeople over the past couple years, both for her psychologically astute protagonist and for her richly detailed depiction of a Mormon community. We’ve selected each of her crime novels as our Pick of the Month, including her latest, For Time and All Eternities, which continues her exceptional depiction of internal debates within Mormonism, as well as establishing her growing mastery over the genre.
We’re excited to announce she’ll be joining us to speak and sign her latest next Monday, January 24th, at 7 PM. Mette was kind enough to answer some questions ahead of the event.
Molly Odintz: I loved the locked-compound aspect of your latest. What inspired you to do a locked-door mystery?
Mette Ivie Harrison: It was only after I’d started writing it that I realized that was what it was. I had to go back in and add a few details to make it a little more locked, like the fence around the compound, and then I had fun, playing with the more elaborate reasons not to call the police and have Linda be the detective without having to step around an official investigation.
“One of the pleasures and pains of this series is that I get to (and must) grapple with Mormonism now, which means that it is changing every moment and I have to be able to write about that in a cogent way.”
MO: Without giving away any of the twists, it seems that Linda Wallheim, already an independent woman, really comes into her own in terms of her decision making in For Time and All Eternities. Tell us about the evolving balance of power between Linda Wallheim and her family…
MIH: Linda does do some things in this book that are more independent than in The Bishop’s Wife. Now that she’s an empty nester, she can really figure out who she is, without the label of “mother.” And I suppose it’s also true that she is starting to care less and less about what traditional ideas of Mormonism are and is inventing her own Mormonism as she goes along. As a writer, this can be tricky because I’m not always sure if non-Mormon readers are following the nuances between Linda’s Mormonism and more mainstream versions. Linda and Kurt’s relationship as a couple is in peril here, and that was the most difficult thing to write. I think readers have loved them together before, but they’re at odds through almost all of this book and that can be painful to read (and write) about.
MO: You’ve said that changes in Mormon policy while writing your third Wallheim mystery led to numerous revisions of the manuscript. Can you tell us more about how new church policies affected your latest work?
MIH: Oh, boy. Well, to be fair, there were plenty of problems with this manuscript that had nothing to do with the policy and were just me trying to work the plot. But it’s also true that emotionally, I think I was blocking myself from figuring out how to deal with the policy change in the book because I had no idea how to deal with it in real life. When it happened in November 2015, I told myself that it would probably be twenty years before we saw real change, and I tried to prepare myself for the long haul in being an ally. One year in, and I’m ready to be done. So much for patience and long-suffering and all those Christian qualities, right?
Anyway, there have been days in the last year where I wondered if it was time for me to give up Mormonism entirely as have so many of my friends and family members. Somehow, I’m still here, but I’m not sure where exactly here is. As a writer who is supposed to be writing about Mormonism, you can see how this might have made any story I was writing at the time difficult, but in particular one that was about the complicated history of the church which I actually hadn’t known about until I did research for this book, and which turns out to not make the church look so good or very divinely inspired.
MO: There’s a bit more discussion of the history of Mormonism in your latest than in previous volumes, which I enjoyed as adding another layer to the richly detailed landscape of Mormon culture you’ve created. Would you ever consider having Linda solve a historical crime?
MIH: Well, I’m not a historian and was playing catchup here. I don’t feel like history is a particular strength of mine. There are many Mormon historians already out there doing important work. I doubt that’s what Linda will do in any of the future books I will write about her. That said, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of writing a story set in the Mormon past about another character, either real or invented, who solves crimes.
MO: You’ve spoken of the differences between Linda and yourself – what do you and Linda share? What makes her perspective different from your own, and are there aspects of the character that are more difficult to write?
“…in writing this novel it became more clear to me that Linda’s view of Mormonism isn’t the same as mine, and I suspect we will start diverging more and more as the series goes on from here….”
Well, since you ask, at some point this year I wrote up this list of similarities and differences between me and Linda:
Ways I am not Linda Wallheim:
1. I have 3 daughters and 4 sisters (Linda has only brothers and sons).
2. I hate scouting and camping.
3. I am not a good cook, though my baking isn’t terrible.
4. I am about 10 years younger than Linda.
5. My kids are not all out of the house yet.
6. I am not as devout as Linda is. I struggle with many literal truth claims of the church that Linda accepts.
7. I have a PhD from Princeton.
8. I am very fit physically and am a nationally ranked triathlete.
9. I was never married to a gay man.
10. I am not particularly nosy as a neighbor.
11. I do not play piano well and do not have much music in my life.
12. I can’t imagine running into a burning building.
13. I don’t really send missionary packages.
Similarities between me and Linda:
1. I have 5 children.
2. I lost a daughter to stillbirth several years ago.
3. I went through an atheist phase after a faith crisis.
4. My husband is very like Kurt Wallheim.
5. I have a child who left the church and created different reactions from me and my husband.
6. I also read lots of mystery novels.
I would say that in writing this novel it became more clear to me that Linda’s view of Mormonism isn’t the same as mine, and I suspect we will start diverging more and more as the series goes on from here. I’m toying right now with the idea of writing a character into the series who is more like me in terms of my current view of Mormonism. We’ll see how that works out.
MO: Linda Wallheim is recruited to solve mysteries more deliberately in For Time And All Eternities than in previous series installments, as opposed to stumbling upon a murder. Is she shaping up to be the go-to detective for her community in future books?
MIH: This is such a tricky problem with an amateur mystery series. Why would one person like this stumble on so many murders? Will there be anyone left in her community who is still alive or not in prison once the series is finished? I’m working on book 4 right now and there are some elements of Linda being seen as the go-to person at least in the police department when it comes to getting help behind the scenes in Mormonism. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.
MO: What’s next for Linda? We’re already anxious to read the next book!
MIH: I planned out book 4 before the election and it takes place in October and November of 2016. It won’t be out until 2018 most likely, though, so I’m struggling to figure out how much of the election to put in the book. Since the results of the election took most people by surprise, I’m writing that in. And since Mormonism played an interesting role (though not a deciding one, as some had hoped), I’m also putting in some of that. But who knows what it will look like when it’s finished.
I talked to some mystery writer friends about the problems I had in For Time when real life events overtook events in the book. One suggested that I should just keep my book as it was and then write a note in the back about my book now diverging from the real timeline of Mormonism. Ahem. I couldn’t imagine doing this. Another suggested that I should set it back in time and just keep Linda in that same year before the POX (policy of exclusion) came out. I also chose not to do that. One of the pleasures and pains of this series is that I get to (and must) grapple with Mormonism now, which means that it is changing every moment and I have to be able to write about that in a cogent way. In some ways, this is great because it means there is always new material (literally, every day, things change in Mormonism–modern revelation, you see). But it’s a pain because I’m always having to rethink both the mystery itself and the relationships around the mystery that are probably what draw the most readers in.