As Ryan mentioned here, our oldest brother, Braden, just published his first novel, “The Road Show.” Braden lives with his wife and 5 children outside Nashville, where he teaches theatre and music at a private school. He has a Ph.D from NYU, and to be honest, he’ll usually try to end arguments by saying, “Hmmm, that’s interesting. I guess it’s possible for two people with Ph.Ds to disagree. Wait, what? You don’t have one? Oh, I see.” Braden and I had the chance to sit down together last week at the annual Caribbean retreat that my parents host for whichever two of their six children they most loved during that year, and I took the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his book and his experience writing a novel and getting it published.
“The Road Show” tells the story of five different members of an LDS congregation who come together to perform a road show. Each of these main characters is in the midst of a struggle with a personal demon – demons that include addiction, self-absorption, chronic illness, post-partum depression, and ostracism. I’m obviously not an objective observer, but I found the book to be an enjoyable and inspiring read. It made me feel a little guilty about my attitude towards home teaching in particular, and has helped change my attitude about home teaching and service in general. (For a glossary of all of these Mormon terms I’m using, go here.)
Davis: I am 99.9% sure you told me each of the characters is based directly on someone you know. Now that I’ve read the book it’s pretty obvious that Curtis, the inconsiderate, selfish Elder’s Quorum President is based on Kook while Ed, the socially isolated outsider whose father is ashamed of him is a thinly-veiled version of Ryan. I was also flattered to see myself making an appearance as the kindly, humble bishop.
Braden: Maybe not quite 99.9% based on. Suggested or inspired by in some cases. However, you are dead-on in these cases. Except the bishop’s stained tie and rumpled clothes and messy desk are based on me.
D: To which of your characters do you most relate?
B: I don’t mean to cop-out, but I relate in different ways to all of them. I had a terrible flop as a director ten or eleven years ago that still makes me break out in a cold sweat. I’ve been tired and grumpy about Church callings. I struggled with health problems that took a miracle to cure. So I think there are bits of me in all of the characters, as well as other people I’ve known.
D: You wrote a book about characters who struggle with addiction, selfishness, post-partum depression, social isolation, and chronic illness. Was there a reason you decided to focus on these issues? Were they the problems you saw occurring with the greatest frequency in your calling as bishop?
B: That’s a good question. To some extent, it’s just because the characters came to mind – I actually started writing it before I was a bishop. The seed for the book took place when I directed a road show about seven or eight years ago. My wife told me about a young mother who had terrible depression. That was a spark that started me thinking: “What if she was in a road show? What if this was her only creative outlet? What if the director had a secret he was ashamed of? What if…..” And so on. These “what ifs” came together into an idea for the prologue, which I saw very clearly, as if it were a movie. I actually wrote that and the final scene for the first non-traditional talent show that Mom made us do. I was panicked and trying to figure out what to do. Dad did yoga, Kook did impressions of George W. Bush and so I just wrote something. So it wasn’t so much that I set out to focus on a set of issues, but rather conceived of the characters, whose problems seemed like natural outgrowths of their personalities.
That being said, I did most of the writing of the book while I was a bishop and that experience confirmed and strengthened my desire to address these topics. I would say that depression and addiction were the two things that I spent the most time on, followed by illness and then selfishness and social problems.
Editor’s Note: There really is such a thing as the Bell Family Talent Show. Who’s pumped for this year’s talent show???!!!!
D: So you actually directed a road show? How was that experience? Be honest.
B: It was very stressful but ended up being a good experience. We had just moved to Tennessee, and I was working at a theatre and on my doctorate in theatre and I was new in the ward, so I wanted to make a good impression, all of which made me feel a lot of pressure to do a good job. That pressure was heightened by the fact that I didn’t have much spare time and that my confidence was very low because the last play I had directed a few years earlier was a really big flop and left me seriously shaken. All that in addition to the regular stress of doing a road show. However, we ended up winning the “Best Road Show” award and it turned out to be a good experience – in fact, it helped me get my confidence back, which is good since directing plays is how I make my living now.
(Editor’s note: DDDT is investigating several claims that the above-mentioned “Best Road Show Award” was highly controversial and marred by allegations of going over the allotted budget, brutal 12-hour rehearsals, and a stage kiss between a young man and young woman that was not so stage-y.)
D: You wrote the book at a time when you were finishing your doctoral thesis, raising 5 kids, working full time, and serving as a bishop – what possessed you to think you could also write a novel? What is wrong with you?
B: What is wrong with me? That is a good question. Probably I felt the need to do something to distinguish myself since I have five brilliant and funny siblings. Possibly ADD as well. It took me about five or six years to finish, mostly because of the things you mention with school and church and family. I would write occasionally on Sundays to unwind. After my dissertation was done, I decided to get serious and I spent hours every night in bed writing it. Once I started working on it like that, it didn’t take more than several months to finish.
D: What part of writing it did you find the most challenging – mapping out the plot, inventing characters, trying to write in the voice of your characters, writing dialogue, or something else entirely?
B: The hardest thing for me was trying to trim it down. I had a lot more I wanted to write, but I felt from the beginning that it should be a spare, trim book. That is not my natural style and it was rough. The early drafts were also very sentimental and overwrought in some ways. Kook and Ry were very helpful with trimming some of this out. (Editor’s Note: This is hard to believe.) However, I take full responsibility for anything that got by. To the extent it’s still as weepy as one of Kook’s recent Friday DDDT posts, though, I take full responsibility. Another thing that was tricky was trying to overlap the stories and keep them all moving simultaneously, and keep track of the timeline and other details. Right before it was published, I realized I had two different timelines going on and I had to sync them up.
Writing the characters and their dialogue was actually fairly easy just because they seemed so real to me – it was like watching a movie in my head and I was transcribing it.
D: Talk a little about the whole process of getting published. How did you go from a manuscript to having a published book?
B: I did about ten drafts of it, and then decided it was ready to send out. I sent it out and got rejected. While I was waiting to hear back, I did another draft, which I sent out and got rejected again. I think by the time it was accepted, I was on the 12th draft. There were still a few after that – it took a year between being accepted and be published, so I worked on it frequently in the interim. As I look back on it now, I was naive to think I was done after 10-12 drafts. If I had it to do over, I’d probably do another ten or so.
Although it took a long time for my project to be moved up in the queue, so to speak, the actual editing process only took a few weeks. The editor sent me some questions/concerns. I made changes and we did a few rounds of that. Perhaps the most exciting thing was seeing the cover design. That made it seem real to me for the first time.
D: I know you have a lot of friends who subscribe to mainline or Evangelical Christianity. Have any of them read the book? I’m curious about their reaction to it, given that it’s chock full of Mormon theology and culture. Also, have they personally apologized to you for Mike Huckabee’s conduct towards Mitt Romney?
B: I try not to bring up the Huckabee/Romney thing, just like I don’t bring up the University of Tennessee around Vanderbilt fans and vice versa.
Most of my friends who are not Mormons tend more to the mainline side of Christianity as opposed to Evangelical. I have heard from a few of them and their reaction has been similar to that of Mormons – some loved it, some didn’t. In both those cases, I was interested that the Mormon culture/theology was not determinative – they liked or didn’t like it based on the characters and other aspects of the novel. I was surprised at how big a deal the culture/theology was NOT. My book has been selling out in small portions in a bookstore in Nashville, so I know people are reading it. However, most of these people would be parents of students I teach or colleagues at school.
D: I think you have another book in the hopper, no? How’s the process of getting that published going? Do you feel like already having a book published makes a big difference in getting the next one published?
B: Good question. I have a manuscript I’m almost done with but it’s very different – a book aimed at middle grade readers for the national market. It’s a fantasy that has some themes Mormons would recognize but it’s not explicitly Mormon in any way. Since it’s so different, it’s like starting all over in some ways. However, I do know better what to expect and what questions to ask. There’s no guarantee my publisher will publish it, but it’s nice to know they’ll at least look at it carefully.
Editor’s Note: This interview is actually longer than the book, so if you made it through this, the book will be a snap. But it here.