History professor Andrew Hunt won the 2011 Hillerman Prize for his first novel, City of Saints, a whodunit set in 1930 Salt Lake City.
Where did this book come from?
I wrote this novel featuring a devout Mormon detective, Art Oveson, in part to counter anti-Mormon bigotry. I had written one, which I scrapped, set much later in Oveson’s career, but I decided that I wanted to go back to the beginning and really get to know him.
Do you have any personal connections with the Mormons?
I’m a direct descendant of two famous Mormons: Apostle/high-level church leader Parley Pratt (Mitt Romney is also a direct descendant of his) and Capt. Jefferson Hunt, officer in the Mormon Battalion. Everybody in my immediate family—my father, mother, and brother—were baptized as Mormons. I am, in fact, the only person in my immediate family who was not baptized a Mormon. My brother is still very devout, but my parents have left the church. I myself am not a member of any organized religion.
What are the biggest misconceptions about the Mormons?
For some reason, it’s still acceptable to make harsh generalizations about the church. For example, that it’s a cult; it’s full of bigots; it’s homophobic; members are like cheerful zombies; they still practice plural marriage. There’s some truth to the generalization that it’s a conservative institution and its members, overall, tend to lean to the right politically. But Mormons come in all shapes and sizes, and I hope City of Saints will show that Mormon culture in Utah is often varied and, in some instances, at odds with itself.
What was Utah like in 1930?
The Great Depression had barely arrived. The state still wasn’t feeling the full hurricane force of the economic catastrophe, and wouldn’t for another two more years. Utah, in particular Salt Lake City, was in transition between the pioneer ways of the 19th century and the modern, secularized culture of the 20th century. The Mormon Church still dominated political affairs, but a non-Mormon population was rapidly growing and adding diversity to the state, which made some Mormons nervous about their religious “experiment in the desert” going astray.
How is writing fiction different from writing nonfiction for you?
Fiction gives you a lot more freedom to write whatever you want. It’s much harder to get published, but far more rewarding to write in so many ways. I’ve been writing nonfiction for so long, it comes naturally to me, but as a historian, I was trained to regard “making things up” as taboo, which is what makes fiction writing so liberating. I feel like a free man!