Fatherhood is tough enough, but try telling that to Golden Richards, the hero of Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist (reviewed on page 48), who has four wives and 28 kids.
You have an ancestral connection to polygamy?
Without polygamy, I wouldn't exist. My great-grandfather was a polygamist, and if he hadn't taken a second wife, I wouldn't be here. It wasn't talked about much when I was growing up. For a time, my family actually lived in the house he built, this giant house with many rooms and bathrooms. I based the home in the book on that house.
How much effort did writing the novel take?
It took quite a bit of research, and at one time, it was 1,400 pages long. I wrote the background, the history, everything. It's a stupid thing to do. Slowly, I started to pare it down until it came in at a slim 700 pages.
What did your research uncover?
The polygamists that I met weren't the people I expected. There are preconceived notions of crazy-looking men with shirts buttoned to the top collar and women wearing strange dresses. The people I met weren't like that at all. They were regular folks, living in an irregular way.
Any thoughts on the HBO series Big Love?
I had written an article on polygamy for Esquire in 1998 and started writing this book in 2001. Nobody was interested in polygamy, and then Big Love came out, and I sort of foresaw people saying, “Oh, did you get this from Big Love?” Already, it was a long book and that made it even more difficult to write. I've never seen the show, and I don't know the show, but it's one of the difficulties in writing that comes up. Should I keep doing this, or has it been done?
You've been compared a few times to John Irving. How do you feel about that?
The comparison is based on something I admire in John Irving. It's his ability to use comedy and tragedy in very close quarters, and I don't think many writers do that well. In this book, I wanted to push the extremes of how much comedy and tragedy could be put in the same place. It seemed to me that with such a large family in the novel, the possibilities for tragedy are huge. At the same time, one husband, four wives, and 28 children spells comedy.
Atomic testing in the southwest plays a role in the book. What was your thinking behind that?
Many of the polygamists I met had been deeply affected by radiation testing. They had family members die of cancer, children with birth defects. This is something that doesn't seem to be widely known, and it happened only 50 years ago. When I started writing, it just seemed to work, this whole idea of something exploding beyond its limits. To me, there's a nice symbolic correlation between a nuclear explosion and a polygamist family.