Author Johnny Townsend has written a number of books featuring a diverse cast of characters who are all struggling to reconcile their beliefs to the doctrines of the Mormon church. In his book of short stories, Marginal Mormons, Townsend is at his best as he presents a fascinating set of realistic, relatable people who reside outside the “norm,” at odds with the faith due to their lifestyles and choices. While many of Townsend’s stories focus on homosexuality and the lack of acceptance demonstrated by most mainstream Mormons, the author also addresses a variety of other issues. Townsend’s work is very personal, reflecting his own struggles with the Mormon church. We recently spoke with Townsend, who weighed in on a number of subjects, from homophobic hate mail to Mitt Romney.
Read self-published bestseller Tammara Webber on what went into her success.
The stories presented in Marginal Mormons focus on characters who are wrestling with questions of faith and identity. You believe that one should "write what you know," which suggests that much of your work is pulled from your own experiences.
Lots of my personal life is revealed in my stories. I try to disguise "reality" as much as is feasible. Some stories are almost word-for-word the way an incident happened; other stories come from ideas I read in newspaper articles or in email lists I belong to. Someone once asked me if a particular story was true, and I replied, honestly, "It's ALL true, except that the events in the story never happened." Then I laughed at how stupid that sounded. Yet, on some level, so much of the feeling or emotion in a story is "true" regardless of the "facts."
The spotlight has been trained, to some extent, on Mormons this year due to the presidential election. Your work is very topical, and you mention Mitt Romney in your story "The Occupiers." What impact do you think the 2012 presidential election had on outsiders' views of Mormons and the Mormon faith?
Romney frightens me. I think he believes he is the fulfillment of the supposed "White Horse prophecy," which states that one day, the Constitution will "hang by a thread" and it will be the "elders of Israel" who save it. If he [had won], he [would have felt] it was preordained by God and that anything he says is gospel. That doesn't mean I would fear any Mormon leader. I think Harry Reid has shown that you can be a reasonable person in politics even if you're Mormon.
As far as mentioning topical events in my stories, I used to try to avoid that so that my stories wouldn't be "dated." But then I decided there was nothing wrong with a reader feeling a story was written during Elizabethan times or World War II or whatever, so what was wrong with writing a story set clearly in 2001 or 2012?
You are a prolific writer, and the majority of your characters struggle with the constraints of the Mormon church. Many of your characters are gay. Others struggle with addiction, family or careers. While many of these struggles are universal, the Mormon church is at the heart of the suffering and indecision in your stories. What type of feedback do you hear from other Mormons?
I haven't had nearly the amount of feedback that I would like! Most True Believing Mormons wouldn't read my books if their lives depended on it, because they feel that reading this kind of literature would damn their souls. So they mostly just ignore me. I think there is much good in the church, and I think there are serious problems as well. My personal feeling is that unless the church adapts to stronger ideas of honesty about its past and equality for all of its members, it will become increasingly less significant in the world. That is not something I particularly want to see.
However, I recently received an issue of DNA, Australia's leading gay magazine, which had done an interview with me on being a gay Mormon (or ex-Mormon). A letter to the editor accuses me of "flat out lies" and belittles me as someone who "makes his living tearing down The Mormon Church.” The writer then concludes with his hope that Mitt Romney wins the presidency and saves the United States. While this letter is from a homophobic, gay Mormon, I believe this is pretty much the common feeling of any Mormon who is even aware of my work. It is likely that most Mormons not only assume everything I write is too sinful to read, but that if they did dare read something of mine, they might actually begin to question and doubt, and wouldn't that be terrible?
It saddens me that they believe so completely that I am attacking the church. I have read a great deal of Jewish literature, and I was impressed by how many great rabbis over the centuries have proudly proclaimed their doubt. I think that questioning and doubting are signs of a mature faith, while denying reality is a sign of weakness. I certainly want lots and lots of non-Mormons to read my books, attracted by their "universal" appeal. But I do hope that there will come a day when Mormons are able to finally recognize that my attempts to portray Mormon life honestly have value for them as well.