Jenn Ashworth interview: Eternal family
The novelist Jenn Ashworth talks to Stephen Tomkins about Mormons and memories
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – better known as Mormons – seems a mysterious group to outsiders. Best known for their pairs of besuited and badged missionaries, and for shunning tea and coffee, their origins involve strange stories by Joseph Smith of gold plates, hieroglyphics and miraculous glasses. Their teachings include unexpected ideas such as the Pre-Existence and the wife of God.
But nothing is strange when you grow up with it. The award-winning novelist Jenn Ashworth was raised in a Mormon family in Lancashire. And though she left the church as a teenager, she has revisited it in her third novel: The Friday Gospels (reviewed in March’s Reform) is the story of a Lancashire Mormon family facing crisis.
Reform met her in next door’s garden to discuss moving away from one’s religious upbringing, and working those experiences into a wonderful work of fiction.
The Friday Gospels is about a Mormon family, and among other things about a girl growing up in that environment. Has writing it made you feel differently about your upbringing?
I think it has. When you start a novel you’ve got to make sure that you don’t know what you think about anything and the novel helps you to find it out. I thought I did know what I thought when I started, but I suppose that practice of having to represent five different points of view and to give them all fairness and dignity – I wouldn’t say I changed my mind and became a Mormon again, but I felt it was much more complicated than I’d originally let myself think. Writing is a practice of washing away certainty and I think that’s what it’s done for me.
You show in the book how extraordinarily important family is in the Mormon church – even compared to other churches.
Yeah. I structured the novel so that it couldn’t be complete until everyone in the family had said their piece – you pull one person’s story out of it and the whole thing collapses, that’s how I wanted it to work. And it was because of this doctrine which I think is unique to Mormonism, Eternal Family – that after you die, if you’ve been sealed (which is one of the ordinances they perform in the temple) you’re still family. There’s not really many teachings about hell, except that not keeping this family would be hell. Ruth says it in the book: “The only job for a Mormon is to make family such a special place that to be separated from it would be hell.”
I remember the missionaries coming to my house a couple of years ago. My husband answered the door and they said: “We want to tell you a way that you can stay with your family for all eternity.” The look on his face must have been nothing short of horror!
But it’s absolutely central. That’s why it’s so hard for families when children choose not to stay in the church.
Such as your parents seeing you move away from your faith.
Yes. I’ve not spoken a great deal to my mother about it. I think it probably has caused her some pain. But I’ve also felt very respected by her and able to make that choice. I was always taught having integrity was the most important thing, and I think my mum understands that this is the way I do it.
How did you come to move away from the faith?
It was in my teenage years. Members of my family are gay, and I always had such a wonderful relationship with them – as, I should point out, did my mother – but the things I was being taught about gay people were not tallying at all with what I was seeing in the real world. I think that was the main trigger for me wanting to get out – as well as wanting to do a lot of things that you’re not allowed to do if you’re a good Mormon girl. …
This is an extract from the September 2013 edition of Reform.