I had planned to talk about Peggy Riley and Jenn Ashworth at the Edinburgh Festival and review Ashworth’s latest book, The Friday Gospels, all in one post. What was I thinking? There is no way I could do that because a) The Friday Gospels is a pretty amazing book, and b) they both had a lot to say at the festival.
The Riley/Ashworth talk was held in one of the smaller venues at the Edinburgh Book Festival and it was a sold out show. Not only that, the audience was quite engaged and asked good questions all around. That is something that is all too rare at events such as this. The mediated discussion flipped back and forth between the two women, but for simplicity I am going to deal with each woman separately.
Not surprisingly, Ashworth’s relationship with Mormonism informed much of what Ashworth had to say. The salient points to come across were that although she was raised a Mormon, she no longer is one and The Friday Gospels is by no means autobiographical in the least. Obviously she was writing about a world she knew intimately, but beyond that the characters had very little in common with her. There was some discussion about how her book had been received in Mormon circles and I got the impression that it varied quite widely.
One of the most fascinating aspects to me about The Friday Gospels and today’s discussion was the differences between Mormonism in the United States and Britain. Much of what circulates in the popular conscious about Mormonism has to do with the more extreme and fundamental strains of the religion. In the media one tends to hear about abuses and polygamous marriages, however that is not the experience of most Mormons, especially in the UK. While British Mormons are very different from the break away sects in places like Bountiful, Canada, they are also very different from the typical middle class, white collar image of the American Mormon going door to door. In spite of these differences, however, conformity is very important to Mormons in Britain, probably because it is such a small community compared to that in the United States.
Turning towards Riley’s portion of the discussion, she said that Jonestown and Waco had a greater influence on her writing of Amity and Sorrow than Mormons, though she also looked at them in her research. In particular, she was interested in the charismatic men who lead these groups.
This issue of a polygamous family group was a recurring theme in the discussion. Riley raised some very interesting points about it that I had not considered before. Specifically that in leaving a group such as the one she imagined in Amity and Sorrow one is not just leaving a cult, but a family and a faith as well. In essence, all aspects of your identity have to be re-invented. Riley also considered her protagonist’s choice to take her two biological daughters with her when she leaves the cult in which all children are raised communally.
I really enjoyed hearing Riley read from Amity and Sorrow. Her reading gave the book, and in particular Amaranth, a very different tone than I had in my head. Instead of finding this unsettling, I thought it added greater texture to my understanding and interpretation of the novel.