Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Interview with Rod Miller: Author of The Assassination of Governor Boggs

For those of you interested in LDS Church history, I have a special treat for you today.

Rod Miller is the author of the historical novel, The Assassination of Governor Boggs. The book was released in May by Cedar Fort Publishing. I have been reading this book and find it fascinating. I am happy Rod has agreed to answer a few of my questions. Perhaps you will gain some insights into church history as well as the writing process as I did.

Steve: Please tell us something about yourself that you are usually too humble to admit.

Rod: While I am no more intelligent than average, maybe less so, I am pretty well read and have a head full of retained information on a variety of subjects.

Steve: You are a published writer of fiction (short stories and novels), non-fiction and even poetry. What led you to writing and what approach do you take when sitting down to begin a new project?

Rod: Writing has been for me, since junior high school, a way to get things done. I have always approached it in a very practical way—I learned how to spin insufficient information into creditable answers to essay questions on tests, wrote for school newspapers, got a degree in journalism, wanted to write for agricultural magazines. I got sidetracked in college and for a few years afterward into broadcast production, but soon enough ended up back at a typewriter (that’s what we used in the olden days) writing commercials. That led to a long career (still underway) as an advertising agency copywriter. Again, writing to get things done.

It never occurred to me to try “creative” writing. I had no education or training in creative writing and the whole idea seemed foreign to me. But, some fifteen years ago I took a notion to try to write some poems, just to see if I could. Success there led to short fiction and eventually a novel, then some nonfiction. Somewhere along the way I adapted a juvenile novel for the screen for a filmmaker I worked with on commercials, and that became a movie (Bug Off!). I wrote some articles, mostly on assignments that more or less fell into my lap, for cowboy magazines (still doing that), and a bunch of essays on writing poetry. I just sort of jumped into it all, without really knowing, in the sense of being educated, how to do what I set out to do. Getting most everything I wrote published only encouraged me to blunder along, trying new things. Everything (if anything) I’ve learned about writing I learned from reading—whether by osmosis from pleasure reading or by instructional reading on my own.

Like most writers, I suppose my approach starts with an idea. Some ideas seem to lend themselves to poetry, others to fiction, some to nonfiction. I mull it over for quite a while, deciding if I think I can make it work—if I have the necessary information, if I can convey that information in an interesting way. For some reason I am drawn to unusual formats and structures. Very little of what I’ve written, whether fiction or nonfiction, follows a traditional, chronological path, or the normal introduction, exposition, conflict, climax, resolution, conclusion kind of structure. With me, it’s always a jumble of some kind or other, from pulling apart timelines and rebuilding them, to pulling in materials from elsewhere to tell parts of the story, to using multiple voices—anything, it seems, but straightforward storytelling. I can’t say why.
Plotting and character development and all that stuff doesn’t get much attention (which probably shows in my writing), I just sort of let those things happen on their own. Most of my emphasis is on putting words together and trying to write interesting phrases and sentences and paragraphs and so on. I guess that comes from all my years in advertising, where time and space force you into using economical yet powerful language. And, I suppose, that’s why I was first drawn to poetry, where, again, the words matter more than anything.

In any event, I concentrate my effort on making sentences read well, as well as say something. I think good writing inevitably leads to good reading; that if it’s worth saying, it’s worth saying well. I don’t know how successful my approach is, or if I pull it off, but that’s what I set out to do, from poetry to fiction to history to essays to magazine articles to advertising.

Steve: What inspired you to write a novel based on a fictionalized investigation into the attempted assassination of Governor Lilburn Boggs?

Rod: History has interested me for longer than I can remember. I’ve always wanted to know what happened and why. And I am naturally skeptical, which always leads me to multiple sources and a broad-minded view. So much of the Mormon history we see is “celebratory” or “faith promoting.” As a result, we tend to overlook the complexity of history and are satisfied with a simplistic, one-sided version of what happened—a version that sets out to make a point and leads us inevitably toward that conclusion, rather than relating what really went on.

Porter Rockwell has always fascinated me. He was a remarkable man, with extraordinary abilities and strong character. At the same time, he was a capable and cold-blooded killer. Regardless of which side of the law he represented in a given situation, he did not hesitate to do what he believed needed to be done. The shooting of Lilburn Boggs was one of many crimes he was accused of, and remains an unanswered question. There’s usually a good story in an unanswered question.

Like most Mormons, I knew very little about Lilburn Boggs. My knowledge was scant and very one-sided. I knew there had to be more to the man. And, frankly, the more I learned about him the more impressive he became. Certainly, he mistreated the Mormons and his Extermination Order remains one of the most heinous official acts of any government against its citizens in the history of this country. But, there’s always more than one side to a story, and, as one of our leaders once said (to paraphrase loosely), every man is better than his worst sin.

After researching the lives of these two men, the shooting, and all the related events, I decided there wasn’t enough documented material for me, at least, to tell the story in nonfiction. Through fiction, I thought I could take what is known and spin it into an interesting story. Finally, fiction is, many times, a better way to tell the truth than nonfiction, as you can concentrate on truth rather than facts.

Steve: Did you have any “ah ha” moments as you were researching the history for this book?

Rod: While it may not rise to the “ah ha” level, learning about Lilburn Boggs was a revelation. He was a pivotal figure on the Western frontier, accomplished a great deal, was widely respected, an inspiring leader, and a dedicated public servant all his adult life.
Other than that, I had read about the assassination attempt many times over the years in various places, and had studied a good deal of history about the Mormons in Missouri and the attendant difficulties, so most of what I learned I already knew, on some level. The research mostly refreshed my memory, added detail, and filled in the gaps.

Steve: What are the main challenges you faced in writing this form of historical fiction?

Rod: Putting words in the mouths of real people is intimidating. You never want to misrepresent them—not only in what you know they said, but also in what you think they might have said, what motivated them, their attitudes, their beliefs, their influences. Whether it’s well-known figures like Porter Rockwell or Brigham Young, or obscure characters like Bill Boggs or Jacob Harlan, I tried to be careful in speaking for them.

Almost as intimidating is speaking for made-up characters. The few that are sprinkled throughout the book are there to convey information on behalf of people who were no longer available to speak for themselves. Even though the characters are fictional, what they say has to represent the facts and tell some version of the truth.

Steve: How can a reader differentiate the fiction from the fact in this story?

Rod: If I’ve done my job properly, they won’t have to, or want to. While the book includes invented characters, imagined conversations, and dramatic re-creations, it does so only to allow known facts to be presented. To the best of my ability, every incident and event related to the assassination attempt in the book recounted accurately. I’ve tried to tell the story from as many viewpoints as possible, using several characters representing many facets of the history. While each character tells his own version of the truth, which may differ from other versions, each tells the truth as he knows it, based on information I took from available sources. So, while everything in the book may not be “factual” it is, as much as possible, the truth.

Steve: Have you had the opportunity to visit the Missouri Church historical sites? Do you have a favorite?

Rod: Way back in the late sixties I visited Kansas City two or three times for the national FFA convention. The trip included a visit to the Liberty Jail, so I have always had a soft spot for that place. But, on revisiting it while researching this book, I was terribly disappointed in the version of history related there. Terribly one-sided, woefully ignorant of (or deliberately ignoring) documented events, and intentionally forcing a distorted conclusion onto visitors. It’s not that what they tell you is wrong; what they don’t tell you so misrepresents history that it might as well be wrong.

We visited Independence and located some of the places relevant to the book, including finding the location of the jail where Rockwell was held (long since gone) and the Boggs house where the crime was committed. We also wandered around the Temple site and other places in Independence. Just outside Missouri, we visited Kanesville and Winter Quarters and the Visitor Center there. That was the end of a trip along the Mormon Trail, in reverse, across Wyoming and Nebraska. My favorite trail site is the North Platte crossing in Casper, Wyoming. My great-great-grandfather was one of the men from the pioneer company Brigham Young left there to operate a ferry in the summer of 1847.

Steve: What lessons do you draw personally from the Missouri era of church history?

Rod: While there is no disputing the persecution the Saints received there, and no justification for the extent of their mistreatment by the people and the government of Missouri, that troublesome period was not nearly as one-sided as most Mormons believe; beliefs based on limited information gleaned from official sources, but mostly from folklore. I was never told, for instance, about Mormon night riders burning most of three Missouri settlements to the ground, or the theft of a shipment of government arms on the way to militia troops, or intimidation and threats against a judge. In many instances of violence, the Mormons gave as good as they got and were sometimes the instigators. Like most of history, there are many sides to the Missouri story and I grew up hearing only one of them. So, I suppose, the lessons of skepticism and the need for further study were reinforced.

Steve: Governor Boggs and his “extermination order” of 1838 are infamous to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Will readers gain a better understanding of Lilburn Boggs and his motivations through reading your book?

Rod: Perhaps not about that unfortunate event specifically, as I did not include much about it, it being somewhat outside the scope of the main tale the book tells other than as a motive for the crime. But, I hope readers will get enough of the “Missouri” side of the history to understand something of the situation that existed, and see it from more than one point of view.

Steve: Please tell us about any other projects you have in the pipeline.

Rod: There are a couple of magazine articles in the works for cowboy-type publications, two anthologies that include short stories of mine about the West that are just hitting the market, and I’ve got another short story almost ready to write. A publisher has the manuscript for a short novel of cowboy tall tales under consideration and I hope to get word on that soon. There’s another novel in progress, probably 25% complete, that I am just getting back to. It’s not historical, but pure fiction, using, loosely, the life of biblical King David in a Western setting. I have most of the research and some of the writing done on a work of popular history, recounting important but relatively unknown incidents in Western history. And there’s always poetry—I just had a poem accepted for a forthcoming anthology, and another due to appear in a cowboy magazine. Finally, I’ve completed another essay on writing poetry that will appear on in the near future.

Over the next few weeks and months I’ll be presenting workshops at the League of Utah Writers annual convention (September 16-17), the Idaho Writers League annual convention (September 23-24), the Writers of the Purple Sage poetry workshop and retreat (October 21-22), the Heber City Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair (November 4-5), and I’ll be doing a book signing in Ogden, Utah (December 3).

And, of course, I have to go to work every day and teach Primary every Sunday.

I plan to post my review of this book next Wednesday but in case you can't wait to purchase, please click here to order from Amazon. You can also order online from Borders, Cedar Fort and Deseret Book or of course you can always visit your local LDS bookstore.

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