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David Ebershoff's Novel 'The 19th Wife'
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David Ebershoff's Novel 'The 19th Wife'

Author Interviews

David Ebershoff's Novel 'The 19th Wife'

David Ebershoff's Novel 'The 19th Wife'
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Scott Simon talks David Ebershoff about his new novel, The 19th Wife. Ebershoff also reflects on his experience editing literary lion Norman Mailer.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Spouses often feel taken for granted. Too many even feel abused. Imagine though, what it would be like to be one of 19 spouses and to feel a bit of both. Does being one of 19 spouses mean that someone can't also feel faith, fealty, even love? That's what David Ebershoff strives to explore in his new novel, "The 19th Wife," in which he tries to inhabit the mind and times of Ann Eliza Young, who was in fact the 19th wife of Brigham Young, the 19th century leader who helped found and build the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons.

But the book is contemporary, as well as historical fiction. It brings a Mormon family line into the present day, in which the churches long ago renounced polygamy, but modern polygamists search for new wives online. David Ebershoff joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. DAVID EBERSHOFF (Author, "The 19th Wife"): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Ann Eliza was a real person, wasn't she?

Mr. EBERSHOFF: Yes, she was. She was born to two Mormons in 1844 and was raised in a Mormon church. Her father had five wives and she ended up marrying her prophet, Brigham Young, as his 19th wife. And then after five years of marriage, divorced him and set out on a crusade, as she called it, to tell the truth about American polygamy.

SIMON: Let me go back a bit. When you say she married Brigham Young, what was their courtship like? I'm putting that in quotes.

Mr. EBERSHOFF: He had known her since she was an infant. He was her spiritual leader, the leader of their church in the Utah territory in the 1850s. When she was growing up, he was also the political leader. He and the church led many of the economic institutions and he was a close family friend of her mother's, especially. So he was present in her life long before he became her spouse.

SIMON: And she was how old when they married?

Mr. EBERSHOFF: When she married Brigham Young she was 24.

SIMON: The book that she wrote, "Wife Number Nineteen," was it considered to be kind of hot stuff at the time, wasn't it?

Mr. EBERSHOFF: Yes. It was. She - after she apostatized from the Mormon church, she went out on a lecture tour across the country and eventually speaking to Congress, in fact, telling her experiences about being a plural wife. And about a year after that, she wrote a memoir, "Wife Number Nineteen," which became an instant bestseller and really exposed to many Americans her story of what it meant to be a plural wife.

The book was controversial at the time and remains so even today. Many people disagreed with her depiction of Brigham Young. Many people, including many plural wives at the time, said it wasn't like this. But this was her experience and she stuck to it for a long time, telling Americans about it.

SIMON: As you tried to put yourself in the mind, the times, the skin of Ann Eliza Young, did you see a coherence to polygamy that's hard for us to understand these days?

Mr. EBERSHOFF: Well, we have to bear in mind that with polygamy in the 19th century and today, women believe and believed then, that this is important for their salvation, that this is central to their afterlife. And if you believed that, if you believed that as much as you believe that the sun would rise tomorrow, then you can begin to understand why women would accept it, embrace it and pass it on to their children.

SIMON: You bring this story up to date by introducing from the first a character named Jordan, who was from the fictional Mesodale(ph), Utah. And I think it's safe to say he's kind of a wreck, isn't he?

Mr. EBERSHOFF: That's right. He has a reason for being kind of a wreck. He - when he was 14, he was excommunicated. And he's one of what are called the "lost boys." And he's living in California, he's put it all behind him and one day he's surfing the Web and he goes to the Web site of the local newspaper near his polygamist community and he sees his mom on the homepage, and he sees that his mom, who is a 19th wife, has been arrested for killing his dad. And he - something overcomes him and he has to return and find out what happened.

SIMON: If I could get you to follow that story through a little bit. I'm remembering when he meets with his mother in prison, for example.

Mr. EBERSHOFF: Yeah. He goes back to Utah, his mom is in jail and he goes to see her, and he has a lot of resentment. In fact, his - it was his mom who left him. His mom, when he was 14, drove him out on the highway and left him into the night. He never thought he would see her again. And he goes to jail and starts talking with her and they start having a conversation, and he's baffled. He doesn't understand why his mom, who has always been so faithful and really believed her religion, why she would kill his dad. What happened? He says, what changed? Why did you stop believing?

And his mom looks at him through the screen and says, what do you mean? I didn't kill your father. It was one of the other wives. And Jordan can't believe it. He believed his mom was guilty. And he slowly comes to realize that in fact, maybe she didn't, and maybe she's been wrongly arrested. And Jordan's mother looks at him and says, you have to help me get out of here. And that's the quest that Jordan goes on through the contemporary portion of this novel.

SIMON: You are a well-known editor in literary circles, in addition to being a novelist.

Mr. EBERSHOFF: Well, I didn't know that.

SIMON: OK. You were Norman Mailer's last editor, weren't you?

Mr. EBERSHOFF: I was, yes. That was one of the highlights of my career.

SIMON: What was that like?

Mr. EBERSHOFF: We were put together. His editor left Random House. The publisher suggested that we work together. He was open to it. I, obviously, was open to it. And so I called him up, we had a conversation. I didn't know exactly what he was working on, so I didn't know how intimate the relationship would end up being. This was February 2003. Not two weeks later, he called up and said, David, I want to write a book about the war in Iraq. So we're about four, five weeks before the invasion. And I said, Norman, that's great. Tell me what you want to do. And he explained his ideas and I said, that's terrific. Just tell me when you - how long you need and maybe - do you think this will be out by next year? And he just stopped me and he said, David, you don't understand. I want to write a book about the war in Iraq before we go to war in Iraq.

And I said, Norman, have you written this book? And he said, not yet. But give me 10 days.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And he sat down, and he had been writing an essay on the war, and he took that and expanded it. And so we were thrown together in this whirlwind of an editing process where we had just a matter of days to go over the manuscript, go over the copy edits, go over the pages, get a jacket. And perhaps he came to trust me from that.

SIMON: May I ask, just as you might have been - or perhaps not, in your account - a little bit intimidated by editing Norman Mailer. Is anybody at Random House a little intimidated in editing the guy who edited Norman Mailer?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Did you learn any tricks from him that others can use?

Mr. EBERSHOFF: If I stepped back and thought about it, sure, I was intimidated. But ultimately, I've always been a reader. Since I was a kid, I feel most confident when I'm reading. And so when I'm told I'm going to be Norman Mailer's editor, I might get a little anxious about that. But once I had a manuscript in hand, I felt I knew what I was there to do. And I knew that the best way to respect Norman or any other writer I work with is to be fully honest with him and to bring my sharpest pencil to the manuscript. And that's what I did.

SIMON: David Ebershoff. His new novel is "The 19th Wife." Nice talking to you.

Mr. EBERSHOFF: Good talking to you. Thanks, Scott.

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