I first heard about the so-called 19th Wife seven years ago, when I was working with a scholar of 19th-century women’s history on a book for the Modern Library. This scholar mentioned Ann Eliza Young to me in passing, saying she had been Brigham Young’s 19th and final wife and had left the Mormon Church in 1875 to crusade against American polygamy. That was enough to hook me. Who was this 19th Wife? I wondered. And what does that even mean – to be a 19th wife? Those questions stayed with me. After some time, I started reading about Ann Eliza. Almost at once I knew I wanted to write about her. She was a bold, outspoken, defiant, somewhat reckless woman raised in a society where none of those qualities were encouraged. I wanted to understand how she had become who she was. At the same time, I was curious about her legacy. Although she played a role in forcing the Mormon Church to officially renounce polygamy in 1890, the story did not end there. In remote outposts of the American southwest polygamy continued to be practiced with astonishing vigor. I decided I should interview a few plural wives in order to understand their experiences in plural marriage. Once I heard these stories, which reminded me in many ways of Ann Eliza’s life, I knew I had to figure out a way to connect the story of the so-called 19th Wife to that of polygamy today. I spent almost a year reading, interviewing, and thinking, trying to conceive of a novel that could hold the various narratives I wanted to tell. Then it all came together, and I sat down and got to work.
With The 19th Wife finished, I’ve turned to a new novel, one that cuts back and forth in time and plays with genre. But I’m not going to say anything else about it, because it’s too early in the process and my vision of it will inevitably change.
I’m spending my summer reading HG Wells. He will be my companion as I head out on book tour. In addition, I’ve read three books recently that are coming out soon that I absolutely love. The first is White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson by Brenda Wineapple. This is a book for anyone who loves poetry and literary history. Through the lens of a remarkable friendship, Wineapple unwraps for us the secrets of Dickinson’s artistic life. If you’ve ever been stunned by the beauty of an Dickinson poem, then you have to read White Heat. The second book is Stray Dog Winter by David Francis, a Cold War thriller set in Moscow, 1984. The novel is about a young, gay Australian artist who finds himself ensnared in a murky KGB plot. I love the book because the hero, or anti-hero, is so unlikely, and because Francis couples exquisite prose with genuine page-turning suspense. It’s a wonderful book, like a fusion of novels by Alan Furst and Edmund White. The last book I want to mention is American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. The novel imagines the life of someone similar to Laura Bush. It’s not a biography and it isn’t even a political book: it’s a poignant, masterful portrait of a complex, intelligent woman. Some people have already criticized Sittenfeld for writing the book, falsely claiming it is a hatchet job on the First Lady. But most of these critics have not read the book (it doesn’t come out until September). When they do they will see that Sittenfeld writes with profound honesty and compassion. The book is gentle, generous, and truthful. Some people wonder whether the novel still has relevance in our society. American Wife shows the vast potential of the form. It’s an exceptional book and Sittenfeld, still so young, is one of our greatest writers. I read American Wife two months ago and a day hasn’t passed since without my thinking of it.
You can visit David Ebershoff at his website http://www.ebershoff.com as well as listen to an interview with the author on NPR HERE. The 19th Wife will be available August 5th in hardcover at all bookstores and on-line stores.