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Telling Tales Out of School

Boise author Brady Udall prepares to let loose The Lonely Polygamist

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If you were among the lucky in the fall of 1997, an irreverent and bookish friend handed you a copy of Brady Udall's debut story collection, Letting Loose the Hounds, saying, "Seriously, this is some brilliant shit."

Now, shortly before the publication of Udall's second novel, The Lonely Polygamist, you might take the opportunity to revisit and then pass his work along yourself, remembering how back in 1997 you were looking for sharp, brave, wise fictional voices--authors who were blending wit with wisdom, outlandish, fringy characters with timeless truths--and Brady Udall did not disappoint.

Udall nailed it, delivering characters like Goody Yates in the title story and hooking you as he opens, declaring: "Goody Yates was a mess. He shambled along the side of the road, slump-shouldered and bleeding from the mouth, his head stuffed with cotton, pain and delirium duking it out in the pit of his mind."

And it didn't stop there because next came characters like Archie, the excitable and oft delusional cowboy in "He Becomes Deeply and Famously Drunk"--a title that absolutely begged you to read on, just to see if the story delivered the promised intoxication. And it certainly did with character descriptions like: "When I feel this way, I get to punching or smashing or kicking and I can feel this blackness pouring out of me and I just keep going, it's a great feeling, just letting go, flailing away, until I feel empty and clean again."

Next came his idealistic and hopeful protagonist in "The Opposite of Loneliness," who admits right off that "the fact that I live with three crazy people is the reason Ansie won't stop by the house to visit. She's a little uncomfortable with Tormey and Iris, but Hugh makes her really edgy; he's the one that greeted her at the front door a few months ago with his withered, low-slung balls dangling out the fly of his boxer shorts."

It was all another call to keep reading Hounds, a collection of truly memorable characters and narratives that hold a reader's attention and earn their admiration, not only because of Udall's inventiveness and broad imagination, but also because his stories ooze heart and bring home large truths. They are stories that stick, stories you keep wanting to retell, stories that urge you to pass on Letting Loose the Hounds.

So then when Udall's debut novel, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, was published by Vintage in 2001, you eagerly picked it up to see what he'd deliver next. And you found out it was epic--funny and odd and stitched with life truths--a novel about a half-Apache boy, Edgar Mint, who at 7 years old has his head run over by a postal Jeep and subsequently spends decades coming to understand what it means to be a poor and almost broken human being seeking his redemptive and peaceful place in a fractured world.

The novel portrays Edgar after his accident as he is cast into an existence peopled by misfits and dreamers, some of whom wish to help him understand his life condition, some who do not, and some who have little idea just what to do with a kindly survivor like Edgar Mint. He lives his early years in a rundown and underfunded hospital, moving on to an even poorer and more broken down Native American boarding school, then on into a life with a well-meaning and eccentrically ideal Mormon foster family. Edgar Mint, you discovered, is a novel that certainly demonstrates the humanity and pathos of Udall's stories, yet his ability to wholly capture the storied meanderings of one man's unique life firmly showed that he was a contemporary writer with staying power.

You found out you are not the only one because The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint has been translated into 18 languages, garnered fine reviews state-side and overseas, and made Brady Udall a rather famous writer in France. As well, the book has been optioned by Michael Stipe's film production company and has nearly gone into full production and filming twice now. The second attempt to make the film was recently tabled due to downturns in the economy, but Stipe has personally assured Udall that he only options novels he will indeed make into films.

So, what's next? Udall, who lives in Boise's North End with his wife and kids, is teaching in his third year with Boise State's Master of Fine Arts program, and he has just completed his new tome, the 700-page novel, The Lonely Polygamist. The novel, which should be released in late 2009/early 2010, is about a man with four wives and 20-plus kids, who has an affair with a woman who does not know he is a polygamist; complex human drama ensues.

"It's essentially a book about an American family," Udall said, sitting down at a back table in a bright coffee shop in downtown Boise. "In America, as we all know, we do things big--big business, big egos, big people--so, here in my book we just have a big, big family."

Udall, who grew up in northern Arizona in an LDS family and community before he went on to Brigham Young University and the Iowa Writers Workshop, has in the past had some peripheral contact with the entity of polygamy. Though, in composing the guts of this new novel, he went and did his research, interviewing and living among a polygamist community.

"I needed to understand fully what it was like for these husbands, these wives, these children. What were their identities? What are their motivations?" Udall said, his eyebrows raised, a boy's mischievous smile creasing his face. "And it was fascinating. These people are just true and real people, and I guess maybe I should have known this all along. They just want their happiness, and their love, and their needs met.

"It was particularly interesting that the wives seemed much happier, much more at ease, than the husbands. I mean, think about it. You have four wives and 24 kids and the dental bill comes in at $10,000 at the end of the month. That's going to be stressful for the breadwinner. The women, they liked their place within these families, generally. One of the wives even considered herself a feminist and enjoyed a life where her husband came around once a week or so to fix the toilet, spend a little time, have sex and head out. She felt it was freeing, liberating, which in many ways I could understand.

"Now, I have to say that I wouldn't want my daughter to live within this culture, nor my son, but I certainly felt that I came to understand the humanity and the more-ordinary-than-you'd-think lifestyles of those big families. And really, this helped me immeasurably in writing my novel, in bringing an art and story to real lives."

Udall, a committed believer in the artful story, however lengthy, added that he does feel a bit daunted by the fact that Polygamist grew so large.

"It was kind of crazy when I printed the thing out. Over 700 pages is heavy, literally. And I've thought at times: Who would want to read this much of my work? The novelist can double as torturer sometimes, and I didn't want to be that," he said.

But Udall assuaged most of his fears after his editor--the legendary, and sadly recently passed, Carol Hauk Smith, who worked for W.W. Norton--and a couple of his trusted readers assured him the lengthy narrative worked well and was a fast read.

"Now, we'll have to see what the public thinks, and I'm ready for that."

It's a long, arduous process, this writing, Udall would say. But it's satisfying at the gut level, at the spiritual level; it's what a writer must do--against all odds and sometimes reason. It's how a man like Udall makes it, survives, and has done so for years.

"I think I've thought of myself as writer from early on," Udall said, "which was weird really because I grew up in a very small Mormon town, a place where my grandfather was a farmer and my parents were teachers, and being a writer just wasn't something to aspire to. It just didn't make any sense to the people around me.

"But I had wonderful teachers, and my mother was a very literate person who encouraged me to read good books when I was quite young. I remember she gave me Kafka's The Metamorphosis when I was in fifth or sixth grade, which was maybe a little unusual, but fantastic for me, and a step toward this writing life at a young age.

"And really, along the way there were a so many steps. One I remember particularly fondly was that at the county fair, right there with the pie contest and the produce contest and the judging of livestock, they had a poetry contest. And the grand prize was 25 bucks, which was a ton for a kid like me, so I decided I'd go for it. I still remember it pretty vividly, I think I kind of cribbed a Walt Whitman poem and came up with something about all the trees out on the hillside dying. I put it together in a couple of hours, and it won. I got the cash and a big ribbon and thought this is easy, man, I can make a killing at this. I was in seventh grade and having a little success at it, it really meant something to me, it pushed me along just that much further."

Udall leaned back in his chair to stare at the ceiling, looking for, it seemed, all the ways and moments that have led him here to sit here now as a two-time novelist, a prize-winning story writer, a man who has somehow affected others with his art.

"It's weird what you remember sometimes," Udall said, running fingers through his hair. "I wrote my first novel when I was in seventh grade. Some young adult publisher was having another contest, and I think for this one the prize money was $2,000, and I just thought, man, I'm going to go for this. My friends did it, too. We all wrote these Conan the Barbarian types of stories, and mine was 240 pages hand written on binder paper, all full of chicks in loincloths and almost-sex scenes. Funny stuff. And I didn't win that one, probably not even close because I remember I got a sort of snotty note back from the judging panel--my first rejection letter--which I wish I still had."

From that young juncture, Udall continued to write through high school and into his years as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, where he feels his writing was truly honed, made full and real through practice and patience and mentoring.

"I had great teachers at BYU, and I have to say that's where I learned, I think, everything I would truly need to go forward as a writer. I mean, I don't want to offend anyone, but I have to say that my writing teachers at BYU were much better than at Iowa. It may sound odd, or seem counterintuitive because the Iowa workshop is so lauded and big, but it's true. Iowa was best for me in that I met so many other writers, made friends and some connections, people who would read my work."

Udall went on to describe how he was able to sign his book contract for Letting Loose the Hounds in his first year at Iowa.

"I was lucky," he said, noting how it was Carol Hauk Smith's dealing with a friend of his that led to Udall's own "discovery."

"My friend had won an award and went out to Salt Lake City, where she met Carol Hauk Smith beside this hotel pool," Udall said. "And Carol asked my friend if he knew of any other good young writers. And my friend was kind enough to hand off a story and say, 'Here's something by a guy I know named Brady Udall, he's really good.' And I got a phone call about a week later from Carol.

"Now, Carol Hauk Smith was the only editor I'd ever even heard of. I mean, she discovered Rick Bass, and Rick Bass is one of my favorite writers. So, the phone call comes, and I think it's just some random old lady who's read one of my stories, but after a while, it dawns on me that this is Carol Hauk Smith, and I got all nervous, my knees knocking, truly.

"Then she asked me how many stories I had, which was maybe 10. She asked me to send them along, which I gladly did, and damn, if about two weeks later she called me back and offered me a book contract based on just that amount of work, just those few stories. She was a remarkable editor and woman, such an advocate, such a seeker of new writers in the West. It was rare what she gave me and so many of us."

It took Udall another painstaking year to write the "one more semi-brilliant story" Hauk believed the collection needed, and from there, his literary career was born. Hounds led him to Edgar Mint and now more than a decade later to the forthcoming The Lonely Polygamist.

It has been said, "Art is a long practice," which is something Udall believes in and has clearly lived. This means imagining character and situation; it means paying attention to the nuances of human nature; it means intently noting the beauties and degradations of our natural world; and mostly it means putting in the time, often working through the night to deliver engaging and heartfelt dramas set in places we certainly recognize yet crave to know more about.

This all seems to be Udall's rich ethic, which around here has not gone unnoticed or without admiration. Mitch Wieland, an accomplished fellow fiction writer and Boise State MFA colleague, remembers well his first encounter with Udall back when Hounds came out.

"He read here in town," Wieland said. "And it was just fantastic--comedic and so full of heart. I was won over immediately and have been singing his praises ever since. He's the type of writer who really keeps your attention through the odd characters and situations he has them in, but his writing is so much more than just entertainment. He smuggles in heart; [he] braids depth and meaning into his people and stories."

Wieland continued, "We feel really lucky to have him here at BSU. He's someone who could work anywhere, in just about any program in the country, and we're just happy he wants to live in this part of the country, that he wants to be here in Boise."

Wieland spoke highly of Udall's work as fiction editor for The Idaho Review, of the sometimes "starry eyed" admiration by Udall's students, and of his powerful presence in the writing program.

"It was fantastic when he read for his interview here," Wieland said. "Brady read a passage from his new novel that was just fall-down funny, but so real, too. He had a room full of faculty and grad students rolling with laughter and so absolutely hooked into his story. It was clear that he's the real deal, a writer we all admired and wanted."

And here he is, in Boise, continuing to work hard on his art in the relative comfort of his studio/office, a small out-building at his home where the process becomes progress.

"I have, since my college days, written exclusively at night, from midnight to 4 or 5 a.m.," Udall said of his process and his writer's regimen. "I used to believe that no good writing could be done by me in the daytime. And then in the course of writing The Lonely Polygamist, I began to get a little crazy, staying up later and later, and pretty soon I was hardly sleeping at all. Not good for your general quality of life. So I started experimenting with writing during the day and was surprised to find, after all this time, that I could manage it. I wasn't happy about it--it felt entirely too conventional, like working a day job--but I got used to it."

Udall has become quite fond of this place as well, and it sounds like he'll be staying a while--which for all of us book lovers and story fiends is more than a wonderful thing. "I love Boise," Udall said. "We've moved around a lot, looking for that perfect place, and in Boise we've found it. There's a nice literary community here, with organizations like the Cabin, and a lot of good writers. Boise State supports the literary arts, and I'm proud to work there with good colleagues and a bunch of fine students. This might be a weird thing to say, but I like the quality of the light here. There's something about a sweet autumn afternoon in Boise that makes it better than anyplace else."

Udall will read at the Cabin, or through the Boise State MFA reading series; reading dates will be confirmed once Polygamist is released.

"Sometimes it's difficult for me," Udall said, looking across the room. "Sometimes I just get to thinking that what I do, what I love to do, touches so few people overall. But, then I'll think, I'm lucky, too. I get to touch some. Because art, I feel, has real meaning, real importance in people's lives. We forget that sometimes, and I wish we wouldn't. Sometimes, even for me, it's easier to just go to type, and to not seek out the community, or get involved, and that's not right, not all of what we need to do as writers. We need to connect our stories, and our art, to the larger world."

Christian Winn teaches creative writing at Boise State University.