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A conversation with David Ebershoff about The 19th Wife

How did you first encounter the story of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young, and what drew you to her story?

I first heard about Ann Eliza Young seven years ago while editing a book for the Modern Library.  I had hired a scholar – a specialist in 19th century women’s history – to write a set of endnotes for a classic we were reissuing.  History geek that I am, one afternoon I was gabbing with her about all sorts of 19th-century arcana when she mentioned the 19th Wife.  The 19th what?  The scholar gave a me brief introduction to Ann Eliza Young.  Needless to say, my writer’s ears stood up.

At the time I was working on another novel, one that I would ultimately put aside to write The 19th Wife.  And so for a few years, while my attention was elsewhere, that nickname – the 19th Wife – continued to ring in my head.  The 19th Wife?  Who was that?  What does it even mean to be a 19th wife?  After a few years I started looking into that question.  As I read more about Ann Eliza Young, I recognized how remarkable she was: intelligent, outspoken, declarative, contradictory, somewhat unreliable, a tad melodramatic, very beautiful (and a little bit vain) – she possessed a number of traits that can make a character in a novel unpredictable, and therefore interesting.  I found myself torn between the novel I was working on and a nearly overwhelming desire to throw myself into the world of Ann Eliza and polygamy.  Then one night I woke up – literally sat up in bed – and I knew I had to write this book.  Just one problem: What book was I going to write?  How would I tell her story?  And how to make it relevant to today?  It took a long, unsettling year of research before I could begin actually writing.

This book intertwines historical narratives of Ann Eliza’s life and a contemporary narrative set on a polygamous compound in Utah. How did you research both the historical narrative and the contemporary story?

The research for the historical narrative started with Ann Eliza herself.  She wrote two autobiographies, Wife No. 19 (1875) and Life in Mormon Bondage (1908).  Wife No. 19 was a hugely successful book in its day and helped shape the national debate about polygamy.  It would also become an important part of Ann Eliza’s legacy.  By the time she published her second book, she had fallen into obscurity.  That book had a very small printing (less than 1,000 copies as far as I can tell) and received little notice – a pity because the second book in some ways shows Ann Eliza as more thoughtful and self-aware.  These books are the inevitable place to begin when thinking about Ann Eliza and her life, and I couldn’t have written my novel without them. 

But Ann Eliza’s record doesn’t stop with her memoirs.  In fact, it doesn’t even begin with them.  After leaving her husband and apostatizing from the LDS Church, she went on a national speaking tour that lasted more than a decade.  She wrote a suite of three long lectures about her life as a Latter-day Saint and her experiences as a plural wife.  By the time she had published her first book, tens of thousands of people (including members of Congress and President Grant) had heard her story, or read about it in the newspapers, which followed her closely.  From 1873-1875 Ann Eliza Young was national news.  The beautiful, strong-willed, articulate young woman who had defied her husband and prophet fascinated Americans everywhere.  Many newspapers covered her story and her divorce with tabloid interest.  Some of the news stories about Ann Eliza remind me of some of the recent reporting on the polygamists in Utah, Arizona, and Texas.

After spending a lot of time reading about Ann Eliza, I saw that there are three essential parts to her story: her life; her book; and her legacy.  I wanted to write about her in a way that captures those three elements: to tell the story of the life she lived; to give the reader a sense of Wife No. 19’s impact on her life and the national debate; and to contemplate her legacy by rendering what she did and did not achieve.  This is why I wrote a part of the novel as her “memoir” – and why there is a “book” within the book.  (Forgive me, I’m usually not this meta.)  This is why I start The 19th Wife with a title page similar to Ann Eliza’s actual title page, but just as you think you are settling into one kind of story, the novel cuts sharply into something else.

I wrote the contemporary narrative – “Wife # 19” or Jordan’s story – with a phone, a notebook, and a rental car.  I spent as much time as possible in Hildale/Colorado City in Utah, which is to say, a number of visits, none of them of any great length.  The first time I visited I was driving up and down the streets, looking at the unusually large houses and the vegetable patches and the horse corrals, just taking it all in, when I looked in my rear view and noticed a police cruiser behind me.  I turned down a side street and he turned as well.  Was he following me?  I turned again, and he turned again, and then again.  I instinctively knew the cop wanted me to leave.  He tailed me all the way back to Highway 59, and as I drove off he idled on the side of the road, making sure I was gone.  I could hardly believe it: in the United States in the twenty-first century I had just been driven out of town.

I ended up interviewing several people who had once been part of polygamous families – women who had left their husbands and boys and young men who had been excommunicated.   Each told a variation of the same story – a dominant theology, a bounty of wives, a life of loneliness and fear.  It was fascinating and heartbreaking, and each time I heard one of these stories I thought of Ann Eliza – how she thought she had brought an end to polygamy in the United States, but in fact had not.  It’s worth noting that not all American polygamists today live in the notorious isolated compounds that we’ve seen in the news lately.  I even interviewed one woman who lived in suburban Pennsylvania with her husband, two sister wives, and their ten children.

How closely does Ann Eliza's story in The 19th Wife follow what we actually know about her?

 There are certain chapters of her life about which we know very little. For example, her relationship with her sons. She has relatively few words concerning them in her memoirs, lectures, and other public statements. And so I fill that in, both by giving voice to her second son in Part XVI and, in the parts narrated by Ann Eliza herself, having her contemplate plural marriage and its effects on her boys.

Other aspects of her life are widely known.  These tend to be about Ann Eliza's relationship to Brigham and the Church.  With these topics, The 19th Wife follows the public record fairly closely for two reasons: one, these tend to be the most contentious parts of her story, and, two, we have multiple sources on many of these events.  For example, in The 19th Wife there is a scene in the Endowment House where Ann Eliza receives her Endowments in what was supposed to be a secret ceremony.  This is an important moment in her life because it is the first manifestation of her spiritual doubt.  Such an incident is central to any retelling of her life, which explains why the episode has become part of the public record.  Even before Ann Eliza published her first memoir, she spoke about her Endowment Ceremony in her public lectures.  She writes of the rituals, and her response to them, in Wife No. 19 (1875) and again in Life in Mormon Bondage (1908).  In The Twenty-Seventh Wife (1961), Irving Wallace writes about the ceremony as well.  In addition to this, two other books published before Ann Eliza’s public statements reveal the inner-workings of the Endowment Ceremony from the point of view of a doubting young woman: Tell It All (1874) and, to a lesser extent, Expose of Polygamy in Utah (1872), both by Mrs. T.B.H. Stenhouse.  On September 28, 1879, a few years after Ann Eliza’s revelations, the Tribune published a lengthy article about the Endowment Ceremony.  These sources present a similar version of what might transpire in an Endowment Ceremony in the 1870s.  And so with these in my mind, I wrote the scene in which Ann Eliza receives her Endowments and begins to wonder about her own understanding of her faith.

Some say Ann Eliza Young was not Brigham Young’s 19th wife, but actually the 27th or possibly even the 52nd or 56th wife.  Why the confusion?

The confusion comes from the shifting definition of wife.  Ann Eliza thought of herself as the 19th wife, and this was where she fell on Brigham’s count as well.  In her day, she was widely known as the 19th wife.  That’s why I call her this.  But the tally of wives has always been fluid and I believe will never be settled.  Some lists do not count as wives Brigham’s spouses who died before him or who had left him (Ann Eliza was not the first).  Some historians don’t count, or count separately, women Brigham married but who bore him no children.  In some cases, the marriage (or sealing) ceremonies were highly secretive and there is little documentation: some women claimed to have been sealed to Brigham but he denied this, or some of his family members denied this.  I believe he had more than fifty wives, although certainly some of these were elder widows whom he married in order to provide them with a home, a secure place in society, and spiritual comfort. 

When I started writing the novel I was determined to solve the question – how many wives did Brigham really have?  But after a lot of searching, and an excel spread sheet that got more and more confused, I eventually concluded no one can answer that question with utter, case-closed certainty.  At first this frustrated me, but then I realized I could use this mystery as part of the novel’s plot.  As one character in the novel says, “Indeed, there are some mysteries that must exist without answer.  In the end we must accept them for what they are: complex and many-sided, ornamented with clues and theories, yet ultimately unknowable – like life itself.”

What really happened to Ann Eliza?  Did she really disappear? 

As far as I know, it remains a mystery.  A reliable record ends after she published her second memoir in 1908.  It’s hard to believe that someone once so famous and influential could disappear.  But 100 years later, Ann Eliza’s ultimate fate remains unknown. 

Of course it’s possible with the publication of The 19th Wife someone will emerge with a letter, a newspaper clipping, a death certificate, or a photo of a gravestone.  I would welcome this as much as anyone.  A few months before the book was published, while I was editing the galley pages, I got an email from a woman in Alaska who said cryptically, I am a descendent of Ann Eliza and I know what happened to her.  Immediately I called her and said, “What do you know?”  As it turned out she knew very little about Ann Eliza, and nothing accurate about her fate, but she was in fact one of Ann Eliza’s descendants and she took an understandable pride in her heritage.

You’ve touched on this, but can you tell us why you decided to write this as a novel instead of as non-fiction?

The short answer is I’m a novelist, and that’s the form I think in.  The long answer has to do with the reliability of facts, memory, and point of view.  From the moment she left the Mormon Church, Ann Eliza faced challenges to her credibility.  Hurt by her attacks, some of Brigham’s supporters disputed her version of events, claiming she was lying or at least exaggerating.  But at the same time, other plural wives who had apostatized told similar stories of abuse and neglect.  So who can a writer – and a reader – trust?  Fiction – especially a novel with many disparate voices – can accommodate these conflicting points of view.  This is one of the reasons the novel is almost entirely in the first person.  I wanted to make it clear that each person is voicing his or her point of view, with all the wonders and limits that entails.  In The 19th Wife, Ann Eliza’s son remarks in a letter to a historian many years after his mother’s apostasy, “I must say a few words about memory.  It is full of holes.  If you were to lay it out upon a table, it would resemble a scrap of lace.  I am a lover of history. . . .[but] history has one flaw.  It is a subjective art, no less so than poetry or music. . . The historian writes a truth.  The memoirist writes a truth.  The novelist writes a truth.  And so on.  My mother, we both know, wrote a truth in The 19th Wife – a truth that corresponded to her memory and desires.  It is not the truth, certainly not.  But a truth, yes…. Her book is a fact.  It remains so, even if it is snowflaked with holes.”

This novel merges several voices and formats – autobiography, letters, a cartoon, a poem, and even a Wikipedia entry. Why did you decide to tell the story in this way?

As I mentioned earlier, I believe history is subjective.  Even the most meticulous historians work subjectively.  The historian’s point of view, his or her selection of subject and sources, the emphasis, the tone – all of these lead to subjective history, inevitably so.  I do not say this as a criticism, merely as an observation.  I love to read history; at its best, it is an art.  And art is – has to be! – subjective.  I decided to include a number of fictional documents or sources (many of them of course inspired by actual documents and sources) because I wanted to give the reader the sense of what it’s like to delve into this history and to sort through the record and the different points of view.  The novel’s historical sections focus on Ann Eliza’s story, but I wanted to enrich that in a way that recreates, for the reader, the experience of digging deeper and deeper into the archives.  The 19th Wife has a number of mysteries within it – the mystery of what happened to Ann Eliza is one, and the genre-style mystery of Jordan’s story is another.  The novel intentionally plays with the metaphor of mystery in a number of ways.  I hope these different documents and sources bring another kind of mystery to the book and ask, in a different way, how and why we solve mysteries.  Already a number of readers have told me that they’ve read the book with their browser open to Google.  That’s exactly what I’d love to happen – readers figuring out a lot for themselves, in their own way.  I hope the novel’s structure makes it clear that I do not believe this to be the final word on Ann Eliza, Brigham, or polygamy in the United States.  I always love novels that open up a subject to me – like raising a window to a beautiful, mysterious world outside.

You have Ann Eliza Young state in the book that “our response to the moral and spiritual enslavement of Utah’s women and children will define us in the years to come.” What do you think she would make of the current state of polygamy in the US?

I believe she would be surprised to see it still practiced in the United States.  She took pride in her role in bringing an end to plural marriage in the LDS Church.  Of course, she did not do this alone and more than fifteen years passed from her apostasy until the Latter-day Saints officially renounced polygamy.  But one of the wonderful ironies of her story is that in one sense she helped save the LDS Church and steer it toward its future.  If the Latter-day Saints had not abandoned plural marriage, they would have remained a fringe religion and would never have moved into mainstream American culture.  Today, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints thrives.  It is one of the fastest growing religions in the country and is the most successful American-born religion.  I believe none of this would be true had the Church held onto the doctrine of plural marriage.  Even today, some people dismiss Ann Eliza as a gadfly or write her off as an angry ex-wife.  In my opinion, she played an indirect, but important role in the Church’s history, although certainly no one could have predicted it in the heated days of her divorce from Brigham Young.

The majority of women in your novel are unhappy in their plural marriages and jealous of the other wives. Did you come across any accounts of women who were happy in their plural marriage?

The historical record contains numerous accounts – diaries and letters and other documents – of 19th-century women writing of the many comforts they found in plural marriage.  Primarily, these women celebrated plural marriage because they believed it ensured their salvation.  Yet other women found more practical comforts: companionship, the sharing of household chores, child care, as well as a relief from what they might have described as conjugal duty.  I allude to this in certain parts of the novel.  For example, the poem “In Our House” is a sincere expression of the joy one plural wife found in her marriage.  Yet we cannot read these documents and testaments without remembering that if a plural wife had spoken out against polygamy she would have faced ostracism, excommunication, and, according to her faith, would have been denied salvation. 

My experience researching twenty-first-century polygamy was similar.  The women I interviewed loathed their experiences in plural marriage, speaking out forcefully against it.  When I asked them about women who said they cherished being a plural wife, inevitably they said these women were either lying out of fear or were deluded.  Each time I visited Hildale/Colorado City I asked several women for an interview.  No one would say more than a few words.  Were they silent because they feared the repercussions of speaking the truth, or because they simply had no interest in speaking to me?  Of course in recent months we have seen several plural wives speak about their experiences on television. But who among us can say what is really in their hearts?

 

The story of the FLDS group in the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas has captured the attention of the media for months. Why are we still fascinated by polygamy?

I believe it’s one part titillation (there’s a sexual component to it, of course), and one part profound ambiguity.  This is America: if a man and nineteen women want to live together, who has the right to say they cannot?  Yet that scenario gets more complicated when children are involved, which inevitably they are.  In the sad instances of physical and/or sexual abuse, the answer is a lot more straightforward: society has a responsibility to protect abused children.  But physical and sexual abuse are not always present or apparent.  And that’s where the questions become a lot murkier: Should children be protected from households of emotional abuse and neglect?  But how do you determine emotional abuse and neglect?  Don’t parents have the right to raise their children according to their own beliefs?  Or does that right end when those beliefs fall far outside cultural norms?  And who can, or should, determine that?  And doesn’t every American have the right to religious freedom?  Yes, but not at the expense of another person’s freedom or well-being.  But how do you determine, in these circumstances, if someone is acting and thinking freely?  Who can really say if the thousands of plural wives in Utah, Arizona, Idaho, and Texas need society’s assistance, or have the right to be left alone?  These are some of the difficult questions that the United States has grappled with since the 19th century, and will continue to do so for many years.

Two of your novels – The Danish Girl and now The 19th Wife – have been inspired by the lives of real people.  What is it about retelling true stories that appeals to you?

I love to read (and edit) biographies.  For me, one of biography’s many appeals is seeing how a life can be retold again and again artfully and freshly.  Recently I edited a new biography of Abraham Lincoln – A. Lincoln by Ronald C. White, Jr.  Some people might ask, What can possibly be left to say about Lincoln?  In fact, a lot.  Ron has unearthed new facts about the evolution of Lincoln’s political thinking and his moral development, which shed light on his presidency.  Just as important, Ron writes in a clear, simple, poignant voice – one that suits Lincoln perfectly, and even at times echoes Lincoln’s own prose.  Finally, Ron has reinterpreted Lincoln for our day.  All of this makes the book new, exciting, and relevant.  And this is how I came to look at Ann Eliza Young and American polygamy.  True, she wrote her own memoirs, and, true, Irving Wallace wrote a biography of her in 1961.  If anyone wants to know more about her, I recommend these books.  Yet as we all have seen recently, the story does not end there.  I hope that The 19th Wife can illuminate a set of questions, perhaps inform a little, and maybe even entertain.  But I’ll be the first to tell you I have not written the last word.  As Jordan says on the novel’s last page: “Endings are beginnings.”

You may contact David Ebershoff by sending an e-mail to: david@ebershoff.com

About David

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Also by David Ebershoff

Pasadena

 

The Danish Girl

 

The Rose City

 

David Ebershoff
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