On Writing a Realistic Novel

It’s interesting being the author of a novel about a topic that matters so much to a lot of readers. Sex and religion are topics that people care about passionately (if you’ll pardon the double pun), and when they intersect, there’s little that’s more potentially volatile.

That’s all to the good when people like my book. I’ve gotten some amazing comments from people, not just about how the book affected them as a story but about the positive good they think it can do in the world. I’d like to believe those comments are all true. But it can be especially unpleasant when people don’t like my book — especially those who share my religious beliefs.

Most of the comments I’ve received from believing Mormons have been highly positive. Some reviewers have cautioned that this is a book “not for the faint of heart.” I agree. I recently emailed a friend, “I have to admit that it’s a pretty intense book, so if you don’t feel up to that, it may be better that you avoid reading it.”

Which brings me to the topic of this blog.

A few readers criticize No Going Back for being too realistic and/or not optimistic enough. I don’t have an unequivocally happy ending. I don’t show Paul’s gender orientation changing. I show him describing himself as gay, not same-gender attracted as the LDS (Mormon) Church encourages. I show him going to a GSA club. I show him (and other teenage boys) cussing and making crude jokes, as well as some serious mistakes. I don’t show all the LDS Church members acting perfectly toward him and his mother.

Well, hello. That’s the way the world is. Kids are confused. They make mistakes. They pick up the attitudes of the world around them. They have to make choices, and sometimes the choices they make aren’t good ones. What positive purpose is served in creating literature that denies this?

My goal, in writing this novel — beside telling a story that would engage readers, about characters they would care about — was to depict realistically what an LDS teenager in today’s world might go through in feeling same-sex attracted but also wanting to stay true to his religious beliefs. I wanted to depict fairly both his desires to live his religion and the struggles that might present for him. I wanted to present a story that had a hopeful ending, but also one that took seriously just how hard things might be for my main character going forward.

I’ve written on my website about issues such as gay identity and why my book doesn’t focus much on the possibility of Paul’s orientation changing. What I want to do here is say why I think there’s value in writing a tough, challenging, realistic novel about a topic like this, instead of always writing the happiest, best, or most positive outcome.

I believe in the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I believe it has the power to change and heal all our infirmities — not just those that are the result of sin, but also those that relate to things we didn’t choose, such as same-sex attraction in most if not all cases.

I don’t necessarily believe this change and healing will all happen in this life. In fact, I think we’re given a pretty clear indication in scriptures that in many cases it won’t. However, I do believe we’ll be given strength to meet the challenges we confront in life, if we go before God and sincerely ask him for that help.

I think stories — nonfiction and fiction both — can help us to see and feel better just what the Atonement can do for us. But in order to show the true power of the Atonement, they have to also show the conditions in which we live. If they don’t show realistically what we need to be rescued from, they aren’t really showing us the power that Jesus Christ can have in our lives.

Teenagers, as much as any of us, live in a fallen world and fall victim to it in a variety of ways. Despite that, they too are capable of receiving grace through spiritual realities such as prayer, scripture study, personal pondering, and service in the priesthood. In order to show the power of the spiritual side of things, I felt that I needed to include a small (and fairly tame) dose of the cruder realities of high school as well — in order to demonstrate that the Spirit can operate in the conditions of real teenage life.

The process of change and healing that comes through the Atonement often takes a long time. I think showing it all happening at once makes the Atonement seem like less than what it is — and has the potential to make readers despair when they realize that the reality of the lives they lead doesn’t match what they’re reading. And it can make the rest of us less compassionate by reinforcing a sense that other people’s trials aren’t as challenging as they really are.

I believe that short of God’s ultimate healing, the single thing that helps us most in getting through the trials of life is the support, understanding, and love of other people. I think that’s particularly important in the case of teenagers for whom God is (let’s admit it) largely an abstract concept, and for whom the notion that they might change 10, 20, 50 years down the road provides little if any comfort. Even more than my book is about God and spiritual healing, it’s about the comfort that can be provided by other people — and the damage that can be done when others aren’t supportive and understanding.

There’s a lot that doesn’t happen in my book that I’d like to see happen in the life of a teenager who was struggling like Paul. There’s a lot I’d like to say to him myself, if he ever happened to wander into my ward or family. I hope that by reading my book, other people will be more likely to say those positive things to the Pauls in their lives, or at least to understand a little better what they’re going through. If my book is real enough to do that, I’ll be content.

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11 Responses to “On Writing a Realistic Novel”

  1. Neil says:

    I don’t understand how you could write this book when you don’t even know any gay people.

  2. Neil says:

    I suppose you know gay men who have stayed in the church and tried to act straight and are completely miserable. Do you know any gay teens? Ones who are struggling? Ones who are happy? Ones who are living authentic lives? I know MANY happy, out, contributing to society gay men – and they don’t think too much of your book.

    • Jonathan says:

      Neil – I doubt that you know “many” gay men who “don’t think much of [my] book,” since sales figures so far suggest that there aren’t a lot of people who have read my book at all, either gay or straight…

      That said, I’d like to ask: Have you read it? Those with experience in this dilemma who have read the book and commented in places where I’ve seen those comments have generally said that I do a very good job of capturing just how hard it is to live this way – that is, as a believing Mormon who also has these kinds of feelings. Are you disagreeing with that? Or are you simply disagreeing with the choices my character makes? Or disagreeing with my goal for writing this story as set forth in this blog?

      There are, I think, many stories out there about people whose religious beliefs and orientation conflict who ultimately choose to abandon or change their religious beliefs. Relatively fewer, however, describe the experiences of those who choose to stay true to their religious beliefs. In particular, there’s very little in the way of fiction that addresses Mormons who are same-sex attracted but attempt to live by the standards the LDS Church teaches. That’s the kind of story this was meant to be.

      Nowhere in my novel do I say this is an easy choice. In many ways, it makes things more difficult for people, as I show in my book – which you would know if you have in fact read it. However, if someone is a believing Mormon, then there are reasons for trying to live those standards regardless of the difficulties. I try to show that in my book too.

  3. Elaine C. Koontz says:

    Dear Jonathan:

    You are amazingly brave and I am truly grateful for what you have written. I don’t know if I am strong enough to read it, but I wanted to thank you for your courage. Your courage to be realistic; to make an attempt to paint Mormons truthfully; your courage to not create a happy, spiritual ending in three pages the way many in our faith seem to expect Mormon literature to be; your courage to submit yourself to the barrage of criticism you’ll recieve. Thank you. I hope to be brave enough to publish similarly some day.

    • Jonathan says:

      Elaine,
      Thanks for your kind words. I’d like to add that while some readers have found the book depressing, most – including both those who have struggled with this issue and those who have not – find elements of hope in the ending as well.

  4. Jonathan,

    You know I love your book and admire your courage to paint an accurate picture of the challenge.

    I do want to say to Neil that I am a gay man who has stayed in the church, married a wonderful woman, who lives authentically, and who is truly happy. Not the kind of happiness that comes from doing whatever I want or what I think I “should” be doing. I’m talking about a deep happiness and personal peace. My life is very rich and I feel completely fulfilled by meaningful and intimate relationships.

    I am not the type to say that I don’t believe other men can make the choice to “come out” and find happiness in that choice. I don’t doubt that is possible. I’m not claiming that staying in the church is the only option. I don’t doubt that some men in similar situation are miserable. But I do take offense when people try to pretend of convince others that people like me don’t exist. I have dozens of friends who have made similar choices to mine and they are also truly happy.

    Again, Jonathan does a great job of portraying the challenge of same-sex attraction accurately and realistically.

  5. I admire your persistence in following your heart to write about an emotional subject. When something promotes such intense responses, you know it’s needed. I work at the local library, and will suggest that the librarian get this book in circulation. I would like to read it myself.

  6. Karen Gowen says:

    Hi Jonathon,

    My editor Kristine Princevalle won a copy of No Going Back from LDS Publisher and has agreed to let me read and review it on my blog. I’m not sure what my response will be. This isn’t a topic I am comfortable with, yet I will review it according to what my standards are for a good book–well-written, believable characters, honest portrayal of life events, and thought-provoking. I’ll post the review on my blogsppot blog.

    Now if you will allow me to intrude on your blog and mention my own subject–I wrote a novel, Uncut Diamonds, that was released in July by WiDo Publishing. I never intended or supposed it would be controversial, unlike you who must have fully expected readers to either love your book or hate it. However, guess what–anyone who has read my novel seems to have strong opinions either way. What a surprise. I posted about this on my other blog at http://karenjonesgowen.vox.com. I would love to have you stop by and see what you think. In fact, I would like very much to send you a copy to read and review and maybe you can tell me why this dang novel has inspired such controversy???

    I wish you every success with No Going Back. It’s a hard sell, (like mine apparently) but if we don’t write the hard sell occasionally, then what’s the point? Someone has to venture out to break new ground, and if it works, then it’s incredible for author, publisher and literary culture. And if it doesn’t, it’s just one more hard sell. I hope yours works.

    • Jonathan says:

      Karen,
      Yeah. Honestly, I didn’t think my book would be as controversial as it’s proven to be. A friend of mine said, “writing an LDS novel about a boy who has gay tendencies is sort of like painting a target on your forehead, handing folks AR-17′s, and begging them to ‘Shoot me!’ ” I guess I’m just one of those idiots who doesn’t realize the gun is loaded (or something like that).
      I checked out your blog. I can definitely identify.
      Jonathan

  7. Mary says:

    Jonathan,
    You all ready know how I feel about your book. I have a sister who is same-sex attracted, in fact, married her significant other who is a very nice person. My sister does know however, that I don’t agree with her choices, but that I still love her for who she is. She is still a daughter of our Heavenly Father and He still loves her no matter the choices she makes. She struggles every day with her choices, knowing what she knows. I have a bookmark that says “Why do I do what I do, when I know what I know”. I’m sure she thinks this every day as do many others. I read your book and was touched deeply by what you had to say and by the courage you took in approaching this subject. For my money, everyone should read it and I don’t feel offense should be taken by anyone in anyway.

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