In a conversation with author Lori Lansens, Peggy Riley discusses how our pasts influences us, and the importance of setting in a story.
Lori: I experienced the story of Amity & Sorrow on a visceral level. It's beautifully written, poetic, but you also manage to create heart-hammering tension along with startling images, beginning with the sisters bound at the wrist by that "strip of white fabric." Your characters are bound to each other, and to their faith, and even to their land. Do you think it's possible to completely sever a tie with your past and the people in it and not feel somehow bound to it, even if it's by a sense of guilt or shame or regret?
Peggy: We are bound to our lives and our pasts, and it can feel like they are strapped to us, like there is no escape from all we have done and been. I wanted to play with that feeling of being bound by tethering the sisters to each other, as they are still tied to their church and family, the history of its making. Amaranth wants to take her daughters from a faith that has gone badly wrong, but their family was made in that faith. Amaranth talks about how far and fast she's had to run to try to break the threads that bind her to her husband, but she still feels haunted by the ghost of his judgment, even far away, and her own culpability. The more they all pull away from their past, the more they are reminded of it.
Lori: Amity and Sorrow are raised together in the same community of women but don't share the same fervor for their father, the leader, or for their faith. Is it because one feels more chosen than the other? Do people who join cults need to believe they've been chosen in order to feel validated?
Peggy: There are lots of reasons why people join cults, but most often they are looking for ways to connect and belong, authentically and passionately. Traditionally, cult leaders reward through access and punish through limitation. When followers receive special access and closeness to the leader, they feel more "special" than the others. Sorrow is raised to believe she is holy, that her work is necessary to her father and her faith. She cannot help but believe that she is chosen, while Amity is content to watch and wait. In the world outside their church, Sorrow is unable to give up her status, the power that being chosen gives her, while Amity revels in a land that hasn't already made up its mind about her.
Lori: How important was the setting? Did you want to distance the story from California in order to not confuse your cult with any other cults, past or existing?
Peggy: The story itself came from a picture I saw in a newspaper, of a wooden church on a grassy prairie, on fire. I knew the church itself would have to be built on land that was off the grid and far from the government. I'm from California myself, and I was inspired by all the California cults that I grew up with. California cults thrive in the cities, where displaced people come in search of new families and a guru. The preacher in my church travels to cities, to find these displaced people, then brings them back to his isolated place, land it would be hard to leave both physically and emotionally. Even now, shop-front churches and guru-led groups continue to spring up in California's cities, attracting the attention of authorities, while throughout America new faiths and communities grow in secret.
Lori: Amaranth, the mother, is such a strong character on the page and moved me with her actions and gestures. Did you have inspiration for the character? Did you read other stories of women who've left cults or faith-based polygamist communities? If so, was there often a defining moment when most of the women decided to leave?
Peggy: I read and watched survivor and escapee stories and was struck by how hard the women work at staying, how they twist themselves in knots to make sense of their faiths and marriages. They are, most often, genuinely in love with their husbands, men who courted them and told them they were special. In polygamous faiths, women are encouraged to view one another as family, as sister wives, but also believe that each is her husband's favorite, that each has a special role. But it is a hard life. Once there are childrenand they come soonthe women find it much harder to leave. It is nearly impossible for a woman to get away without the other wives knowing, for they don't want any wife to escape. Amaranth thinks that her doubts in the faith of her husband come from her own inability to believe. She makes herself stay out of love, and it takes a long time for her to see that their faith has turned to something else, something darker. She has to leave, at last, to save her daughters, if not herself.
Lori: The women in the cult potentially gain as much as they lose from making the choice for polygamy, but it's not likely that such a model would ever become a cultural norm in the United States. Do you think North Americans reject polygamy for its suggestion of antifeminism?
Peggy: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints split over the issue of polygamy and statehood as nineteenth century popular opinion equated polygamy with slavery, and the practice stood in the way of Utah's becoming a state. Since the split, fundamentalist Mormons continue to practice, and the vision of the Mormon pioneers pushing handcarts to the West, wives grouped around their husband, is embedded in our history. It is said it was a way to deal with surplus women, but that was a myth as there were far more men than women in the West. Polygamy was a tenet of faith in the early Mormon church, and remains so for FLDS members, but it is hard for modern women to look at these marriages and believe that they are genuine or that the women get as much out of the arrangement as the men. What the men get out of it is obvious, but it is actually the faith that gains the most: a surplus of wives means more children can be had more quickly and so grow the faith. The spacecraft Pioneer bore a metal plaque etched with a picture of humans, one man and one wife, America's default position and ideal. I don't think feminists should mind polygamy in faiths so much: if the women say they love their sister wives, are adults, and consent to the marriages, it is no one's business. What I mind is that, on the Pioneer plaque, the man's hand is raised in greeting and the woman's hands are at her sides; the man looks forward and the woman gazes down, slightly angled toward the man. Even aliens, upon finding it, will understand our gender imbalance by the messages we send them.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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