Book Talk: The dark doubts in the heart of a Mormon missionary

Fri Jun 21, 2013 10:18am EDT
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By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - They're a familiar sight around the world, whether in northern Japan or southern Argentina: a pair of men in dark suits, with nameplates, often riding bicycles as they go about their job preaching the Mormon religion.

"Elders", Ryan McIlvain's debut novel, illuminates the lives of one such pair, American Elder McLeod and his Brazilian counterpart Elder Passos, through their frustrating daily round of knocking on doors and missionary work, the service that all adult Mormons must perform.

McIlvain, a former Mormon who went to Brazil on his mission, spoke about his book and basing fiction on his own life.

Q: How did this book get going?

A: It's something I know a lot about just by virtue of the fact that I was a Mormon missionary. More broadly, I thought it would be interesting to pay very close attention to the interior lives of two Mormon missionaries, people that we see almost exclusively from the outside ... They're so lonely, the pressures they face on a daily basis are so tremendous. Because of the nature of their work, they're seen as annoying at best and predatory at worst.

Q: Are a lot of the events in the book your own?

A: I gave some of my own experiences to McLeod and Passos, particularly mental experiences, to the extent that McLeod doubts and Passos feels a worldly longing for success. But the behavior themselves was where the fiction started to take over.

The experience of being a missionary is the experience of being a permanent foreigner, you wear this nametag and uniform that is meant to mark you out as different so you never feel that you can just blend in or have a lazy afternoon. You always feel on call and in fact, you are. Mormon missionaries are told to believe that they've received a call from God and that involves certain responsibilities. So instead of going to parties or football games or whatever your average 19 to 20-year-old does, they go out and preach the Gospel for two years.   Continued...