Mari and Michelle,
Thank-you for your providing such a wonderfully informative interview. As I read each response, I felt as if I was in the room with you listening as you shared your stories. You are both such inspirational women and I know our readers will learn a lot about you and your writing. I wish you continued success with Hidden Wives and look forward to meeting you in October with Bay Area Book Club.
Claire Avery’s Writing Style:
How long have you both been writing? At what point did you both decide to co-author books? Our father was a writer of novels, plays, poems and non-fiction religious books. We were constantly exposed to literature growing up, and I had always wanted to be a writer (Mari), but I saw how our father struggled to make a living at it, so I decided to do something more pragmatic: practicing law. However, I kept writing fiction on the side because I loved it. Michelle enjoyed movies and visualized stories in her head, so while she pursued a career in broadcast journalism, she wrote screenplays on the side-probably for the past ten years. Michelle came up with the idea of a teenage girl growing up in a polygamist cult. I thought the idea would be stronger if we had two sisters, with two very different perspectives, tell the story. It wasn’t too hard to imagine, since we grew up in a fundamentalist Catholic group, and we were fairly certain that if our father had been a Mormon, we would have been raised in a fundamentalist polygamist group. As we bounced more ideas off each other, a plot started to develop. We both loved the story so much that we thought we should write it together.
What does a typical writing day look like? Mari: We both have to be appropriately caffeinated before we would attempt to type anything worth reading. I like to write first thing in the morning. I no longer check my e-mail before I write…for obvious reasons. J I always start by rereading what I wrote the day before. Sometimes that’s a cringe-worthy exercise, and sometimes I’m relieved to find something salvageable to use. I often write to music-it sets the mood and helps me block out distractions. I write for 3-4 hours, trying to ignore texts, the phone and definitely the laundry. I seem to be most creative in the morning, so after lunch I may do editing, tinkering with the outline or writing-related correspondence. If I’m lucky and the writing is flowing, I will go until the kids start circling like vultures, waiting for something that resembles dinner. Michelle: I also prefer to do the bulk of my writing in the morning. I often start by randomly pulling books off my shelves, flipping thru other novels. Reading other authors’ works can be inspirational, and it gets me in the mood to create. But I’m careful not to read novels in the genre I’m writing in- that can be intimidating!
Do you meet and write together, write separately, share chapters, or does it depend on the storyline? We will rarely write side by side. We find it too distracting, especially when one of us is typing away while the other wants to run to Starbucks. We divide the chapters based on a fairly detailed plot outline and personal preferences. Then we exchange what we’ve each written and discuss any major changes. From there we edit, add or cut the chapters as necessary. Depending on how much editing was done on those initial drafts, we may modify the outline as the characters or story develop and change.
The beauty of writing with someone else is that you can bounce ideas off of one another and perhaps look at a character/scenario through a different lens. However, I imagine there are also creative differences that sometimes can be a challenge. What has helped you most to collaboratively work in a way that readers cannot tell that two authors wrote the book? Learning to write on both characters has helped so much. We initially were each to take a main character and write primarily on her. The reason we did that was because we were afraid the voice of each character couldn’t stay consistent if two different people were writing on that one character. But we found that we were getting too attached to our own character and becoming territorial and losing our objectivity. The one thing we have learned, that is critical to being successful collaborators, is that no piece of work is sacred. We have to really be brutal with each other and with ourselves, especially during the editing process. We each learned to sacrifice and to accept constructive criticism without getting our egos bruised. Ultimately, we learned to make the hard choices together for a better story.
In writing this novel, it seems that it was rather a very bold step for you both to raise interesting questions everyone should ask themselves regarding extreme religions and their beliefs. How did your parents react to the writing of this book? Our father passed away in 2002. Although we ended up disagreeing with many of the beliefs he taught us as children, we loved him very much and we miss him. Our mother read the book and liked it, however, that was helped by the fact that we were raised in a fundamentalist Catholic community rather than a fundamentalist Mormon community. So the basic historical facts of each religion were divergent. She couldn’t really see the similarities that were obvious to us.
You both provide ample background information on the religion, while keeping the storyline intact and developing the characters. At no time, did I sense the story was bogged down with too much history and not enough character development. What helped you most in achieving this balance? Since we were writing a novel and not a non-fiction book, we felt it was important not to overwhelm the reader with too much information, especially early on before they had a chance to care about what happens to the characters. People read fiction for different reasons than non-fiction. I love reading entertaining novels that also teach me something or give me a glimpse into an unfamiliar world. But we also wanted to make sure the book was factually accurate. Two things helped with achieving a balance between history and character development. Before we ever wrote one line in the book, we had done all of our research on the religion itself. Based on the facts we discovered about the FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints), we developed the plot and an outline, creating experiences for the characters which could demonstrate (show, not tell) key facts. Secondly, as life-long readers, we knew information dumps can really slow down the story. We decided to sprinkle the critical or interesting facts about the religion over many chapters, that way the background information doesn’t hijack the story or interfere with the characters’ development. Sometimes we would get carried away with the research and dump too much material into the scene. After reading the draft, we knew we needed to scale back, chop up the information, and put it back into the story in smaller pieces.
Hidden Wives: Behind the Story
While researching the history of Mormonism, which issues surprised you most? We were shocked at how some of the early church teachings were blatantly racist. The explanation given as to why blacks have darker skin than Caucasians is absolutely abhorrent. We were so sickened by their racist attitudes and beliefs, that we felt compelled to expose them and then try to dismantle them through our characters and their experiences. We were also surprised to discover the concept that men can become gods of their own universe in the afterlife, provided they have a certain number of wives. And of course, the notion that women can’t get to heaven on their own but need a husband or father to get them there, was pretty appalling.
In the story, you shed light onto some of the issues in fundamentalist Mormonism, such as racism, isolation, lack of information from media and books, child brides, abuse, and sister-wives. Are there any similarities with these issues in your childhood religion? How so? Thankfully, we didn’t encounter any of those things mentioned above. However, like Rachel and Sara, we were constantly afraid of going to hell if we weren’t devout enough. And like the two sisters in the book, we were taught that women must be submissive to their husbands and never question their authority.
Did you find anything positive about the religions? If so, what? In general, having a strong religious foundation can provide comfort and strength through difficulties. In both mainstream Mormonism and mainstream Catholicism, we think there are several positive things that are taught and practiced. Both religions have community service and social outreach programs for the poor and the oppressed. Also, both groups stress the importance of a strong family. There are many deeply devoted and sincere practitioners in both faiths who embrace tolerance and compassion. The problem lies in the extreme version of those religions.
As you may know, there is currently a reality show called: Sister Wives on TLC. It depicts a very different picture than Hidden Wives. Have you seen it? Mari: I have.
Why do you think so many women feel compelled to stay in a polygamous family? It’s a very interesting show, but it’s clear the sister wives in that show have choices and autonomy-things that Sara, Rachel and many girls growing up in a FDLS group don’t have. I think some women like the camaraderie of that lifestyle, the co-parenting, built in friendships, the large family providing a sense of belonging; they have all their needs taken care of-and they have support. As women and mothers, we often do so much for everyone else, and to have another woman help us with all of that is appealing on some level. But to share a husband with another woman? I really don’t understand how they could choose to share the man whom they love unless they were raised in that environment and didn’t know any other way.
How did you both decide on the title: Hidden Wives? Our editor actually chose it. One thing we were surprised to learn was that the marketing department, often working with your editor, will choose the title for your novel. We had a working title we used while writing it: The Wife Collectors. We had also come up with Sister Wives ,which was rejected, lol. Now, we just don’t get attached to a title while working on a new manuscript.
Who is the little girl in the book cover? We love that cover! The art department did the cover based on their interpretation of the book. The girl on the cover seems a little young to be Rachel or Sarah, although Rachel has long brown hair, so we assumed it was meant to be her. We thought it was poignant that the image is clearly of a girl and not a woman, and yet the word “WIVES “is spread across the child’s body.
In what ways did your background of growing up in a fundamentalist Catholic religion prepare you for writing Hidden Wives? Growing up in a religious commune we saw first -hand many extremely devoted people, and they didn’t question their faith. From an early age, we both had questions, but guilt kept us from examining them too closely until we were older. As we started to reject some of the beliefs that were ingrained in us from childhood, the guilt was overwhelming, including the guilt we felt from disappointing family members who remained steadfast in their faith. Rachel in particular was instantly recognizable to us in the faces of women we knew personally. We understood that many women are brainwashed from early childhood to believe that they must be submissive to men. We were taught that as well. It happens all over the world today, in all cultures and religions. It is familiar to us, and we also understand how hard it is to shed those beliefs if you have been taught nothing else.
In your bio, you write about your father and his strong beliefs in Catholicism. Was there a character in Hidden Wives who most resembled your father? In what ways? In some ways, he resembled the leader of the group, Prophet Silver. Like Prophet Silver, he has a strong personality and was larger than life. Our father was extremely charismatic, a natural leader, and he was a brilliant public speaker. He was a leader of a group of fundamentalist Catholics in Chicago, and this offshoot of mainstream Catholicism grew and began to thrive under his leadership. With his charisma, he managed to convince many families from the Chicago community that the apocalypse was near, and that we all needed to pack up and move to rural Arkansas and build a bomb shelter. Prophet Silver used his charisma to convince people to work for him, give him their money and resources, and in some cases, even their daughters. It takes a very charismatic and articulate person to convince others to listen to and accept his extreme beliefs and make sacrifices simply because this leader says that must be done.
Which wife most resembled your mother? Our mother was more of a mix of several of the wives and Rachel. She never questioned our father’s decisions, even the one that was the most radical and created a huge upheaval for the family. And she really never understood our questioning-we were to accept all of it. She looked at our father as the leader of the family and the final decision maker. Still to this day, she has never once verbalized to her children any doubts about any aspect of her religion. She was very innocent and naïve when she met our father. And she seemed to stay that way as we were growing up. That’s why we were so convinced that if our father had decided we were to become fundamentalist Mormons and he was to take other wives, we think our mother would have accepted that as part of her spiritual truth.
Rachel is devoted to her faith, while Sara begins to question it. As children, who were you most like? In what ways? Like Sara, we were both avid readers growing up and books ultimately became our salvation. Reading opened our minds to different viewpoints; some of those viewpoints were directly oppositional to our religious indoctrination. Mari: With the exception of being a voracious reader, I think I was more like Rachel as a child. I was dutiful, compliant and very shy. I was afraid to scrutinize the faith I was raised in. I felt terribly guilty when I did begin to question aspects of it, and I hated disappointing my parents. I was also afraid to reject it-what if they were right all along, and I was going straight to hell for abandoning my childhood faith? Michelle: I was definitely more like Sara as a child. I would get angry at injustices and hypocrisy. I would rebel, even if it was just with the thoughts in my head. And like Sara, I couldn’t wait to “escape” from home and leave my childhood religion behind.
Both Irvin and Sara use books as a way to cope with their family and life. Growing up in your faith, did you both have outlets to cope? If so, what were they? Books, books, books. Thomas Jefferson once said: I cannot live without books. We agree. We escaped in the pages of all those novels-lived in them. Mari: I also kept a journal from second grade on, and that really helped me cope and work through my emotions. At around age 11, I started running every day, and it helped clear my head. When my father moved us to the country, I was given a horse from a neighbor. Riding the horse for miles on end and taking care of her was therapeutic, as well.
Irvin is a character that I just fell in love with. Aside from having a disorder, he is also African American. If he had been Caucasian with a disability, would Sara’s family have accepted him into their family? Thank you. We love Irvin too! Well, it could have only worked in his favor to be Caucasian. However, we don’t think that would have been enough to create acceptance. They seem to be uncomfortable with disabilities, and it would probably unnerve them to have him repeating everything. They have very limited outside knowledge of psychological disorders. And he would have also had to have been FLDS. If he was just a mainstream Mormon, he would still not be suitable. And in general, those type of groups seem to be trying to get rid of the young men in the community who compete for the young girls.
Ernadine becomes an important person in these young children’s lives. Are there any groups that you modeled her program after? Covenant House is a wonderful organization that helps runaways and homeless kids. They provide everything from food and shelter to health care, counseling, vocational training and GED help. Although it’s a large, multi-state organization, we loosely based Ernadine’s shelter on that type of program .
Are there programs that exist for those choosing to leave FLDS? There are several non-profit groups that help people choosing to leave FLDS. They run the gamut from telephone information hotlines to more comprehensive programs dealing with the physical, psychological, educational and vocational needs of the women and children trying to leave the polygamist lifestyle. These groups can always use more help. We have links to some of them on our web-site, for those readers who are interested. Check them out at : http://www.claireaveryauthor.com
Claire Avery’s Reflections on Religion
Now as adults, how has religion impacted your life? We were bad decision makers well into adulthood, partially because we never really planned for a future since we were told that the end of the world could come at any time. Both of us went through a period where we wanted nothing to do with any organized religion. But it was also very hard to let go of the paralyzing guilt and the anxiety. However, neither of us abandoned our belief in God. As time went by, we started realizing that by rejecting all of it, we were becoming as close-minded and intolerant as those groups who think they have a lock on truth through their version of religion. We both feel we are on spiritual journeys. On the positive side, our religion taught us a lot about forgiveness, caring for the poor, and learning compassion and empathy.
What are some of the positive reasons in having a shared faith with your family and what are some of the negative ones? There is always a comfort in sharing your beliefs with the people closest to you. It can provide a strong foundation from which to nurture important values. However, if no one disagrees, no one questions, no one examines their faith, that can create problems. If everyone around you believes the same way you do, that lack of exposure to other beliefs can create an intolerance or fear of differing religious viewpoints.
Looking back now, how did your childhood religion impact your life as a child? Our father was drawn to extremism within his faith His extreme ideas, however, ultimately were harmful to his children. The indoctrination, based on fear that we experienced as children, escalated in adolescence when we were put in a situation where we were told that the end of the world could come at any time. As a young person, it made it difficult to plan a future, when you’ve been taught you will have none. This indoctrination and the fear and uncertainty we experienced from these radical ideas and actions were very emotionally damaging to us. Both of us wanted to leave our home as soon as we were old enough.
You’ve mentioned in earlier interviews how the religion you grew up in was motivated by fear: end of the world, doom, trusting no one,etc. How did you cope as a young child growing up with those beliefs? Michelle: I went into denial, really trying not to think about it. I distracted myself with books and friends. Mari: It was very difficult to cope, at times, because the fear was so pervasive. I wrote stories about my worst fears, and then the heroine would work through all those fears and end up overcoming them. I couldn’t control what anyone around me did, but I could control my characters thoughts, feelings and their lives. I would cry when they were hurt and feel joy when they accomplished something wonderful. I lived in their world.
As adults, how do you manage those fears from surfacing? Michelle: I do yoga, go for a hike, or just escape with a good book. I still like my distractions. And I turn off the news. Mari: When I feel the old fear and anxiety from childhood surfacing, I always ask myself: what is the worst that can happen here? Trying to look at it logically and taking the emotion out as much as possible, makes me realize that I can survive most worst case scenarios- and that the probable outcome is not really that scary after all.
Aside from learning so much from Rachel and Sara, in reading your interviews from other blogs, readers can also learn from your own shared experiences. Based on your own personal experiences, what would you want readers to learn or be inspired by? Thank you so much. We want readers to know that it is a good thing to understand and question any aspect of religion that doesn’t make sense to them or seems wrong. And you should examine the motivations of anyone who tells you otherwise. We definitely believe that having a challenging childhood can make one stronger. Conquering fears can be very empowering. Real growth comes from overcoming obstacles, and we’re grateful for the life lessons.
Claire Avery’s Message to Their Readers:
What do you hope readers will learn from this story? What message do you hope readers will draw from your book? Ultimately, we want readers to take away a message of hope. We want people to know that the capacity for human goodness can ultimately triumph over the darkest side of human nature. No matter what hardships a person may have to endure, the ability to change and rise above those obstacles is a quality we all share.
To Learn more about Hidden Wives, please visit Claire Avery for purchasing information.
As a thank-you from Claire Avery to all of you, they are offering a free book giveaway of Hidden Wives.
In Hidden Wives, both sisters have a crush on Luke. There were times when Luke could have ended up with either of the sisters, or so I felt. Without giving any spoilers, I am curious to know how you both decided who Luke would most connect with.
There is no way we can thoroughly answer this without giving away spoilers.
Luke seemed to have much more in common with Sara than he did with Rachel. And we considered putting them together. But ultimately, if Sara and Luke had fallen in love, the story might not have been so compelling precisely because of those commonalities. They were both cynics, and they would have easily decided to leave. And because they weren’t brainwashed, the reader would know beforehand that they would be fine after they escaped and starting a new life in the outside world. To demonstrate how ingrained Rachel’s indoctrination was, she had to give up the young man she was so desperately in love with because her religion dictated that she must marry whomever the prophet chooses for her. In order to keep her belief system intact, she had to sacrifice her own personal happiness. Initially Luke, like all the men in the community, was attracted to Rachel because of her physical beauty. But Rachel’s inner beauty was equally extraordinary. He eventually fell in love with her empathy, her capacity for goodness and forgiveness, the way she loved so completely, and her grace, even in the midst of her own profound suffering.
In the end, both Sara and Rachel are beginning to learn more about options, have hope, and are working towards a better future. Looking forward, what do you think will be some of their challenges?
Healing from the abuse that both girls suffered from, will take many years. For Rachel, there may be physical intimacy problems due to her sexual assault. They may struggle with an absence of faith in their lives now. They may need to fill that void somehow-perhaps a different religion or maybe something else. They may have guilt issues for leaving some of their siblings behind-perhaps in even more extreme poverty than before, since their father was put in jail. And although Ernadine was a wonderful mother figure for the girls, they will struggle with their mothers’ betraying them and choosing their abuser over them. They have always been so sheltered, and there will still be challenges to face with integrating fully into a modern and sometimes overwhelming society. College may present new challenges, where they will be bombarded with all kinds of people with different ideas and competing motivations.
***End of Interview***