Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Michael Palmer
Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: “Snow” addresses sexuality and the Church’s influence on your formative sexual thoughts. As an adult, how do these religious influences still affect you? How does religion emerge in your writing?
Michael Palmer: First of all, thank you so much for interviewing me. I’m thrilled to appear in Rappahannock Review, and delighted to answer these smart and challenging questions.
Assessing the Church’s influence on my life is challenging; it’s probably deeper than I’m aware, and it’s hard for me to picture life without it. But I would say one of the key, lasting features was setting up a viewpoint—that my people came from the best of all possible worlds, possessing a truth that could not be denied, and that any other perspective was tragic darkness. This informed the way I’ve seen everything in my life that followed. Years later, I have a lot more distance from that, but it’s still the default setting with which I compare new information, ideas, concepts of identity and morality, and so on. As a result, religion and religious concepts always seem to emerge in my writing, even when I try to shirk them. In truth, I would like to have a little more distance than I actually have, but the Mormon ideas of identity, chosenness, redemption, inclusion/exile, etc., have had a hold on me that I’ve been unable to break.
RR: Religion is an integral part of this piece. How did you feel about writing about such a taboo, intimate, and personal subject?
MP: It’s probably less fraught for me in certain ways than it is for some, because I’m inclined to irreverence. Even when I was a believer, I had a soft spot for irreverence, and I very much enjoy seeing sanctimony, self-satisfaction, and sacredness undercut. That said, it’s not like writing about religion has been easy or seamless. Feelings of exile and rage related to my upbringing can sometimes take over, and it’s hard for me to write from those places without relying on profane vitriol. I am a fan of profane vitriol, but mine usually isn’t something worth sharing with more than one person in an email or text.
In the case of this story, it was definitely an intimate and personal time in my life, but I’m far enough away from it now that I can look at it with peace. I think that it’s harder with things that remain unresolved.
RR: We’re curious—why would your family use a Cabbage Patch baby Jesus when Caitlin was available?
MP: This is a good question that I’ve somehow never thought of before. There were babies aplenty for the Christmas pageant every year who could have played Jesus. But, as I think about it, Cabbage Patch Jesus likely endured a fair amount of abuse from overzealous Marys and Josephs over the years, so it was probably a safety precaution.
RR: Looking back, how do you think your experiences (such as New York) have shaped your sense of identity?
MP: I had a friend who had a lot of tattoos, some of which were patently terrible and/or no longer represented him as a person, but he said he was still glad to have all of them because they charted his life to that point. I think of my upbringing sort of similarly. I see things so fundamentally differently than I did when I was younger, but the traces of that earlier experience are always present. And if my experiences did manifest in tattoos, I would probably have a chest piece of the Salt Lake Temple (which I wouldn’t mind all that much, as that building is dope), with maybe a small Brooklyn Bridge on my ankle.
RR: Has your family read this piece? If so, how have they responded to their roles in your work? Is that something you consider while writing or before sending a piece out for publication?
MP: I don’t share my writing with my family, and they are thankfully not super online people (my parents are currently serving a second Mormon mission in Indiana). Eventually, that reckoning is probably coming. I have enough writing now to form a manuscript, and if that gets turned into a book, I imagine they’ll read it. I doubt this will be a plus for family holidays. I try to be accurate in my portrayal, but I don’t think there is any kind of representation of my family that they would enjoy seeing. I don’t fault them for this. I’m not sure if this is a universal experience, or just our family’s very low threshold for bashfulness, but any time anyone in my family watches even the most innocuous family home video, we all cringe to see ourselves on screen. If someone in my family wrote a book that had me in it, even if it was a true and fair account, I would dread reading it. I’m sure it’s the same way for them. We probably could all use some therapy on this, but I do think it’s very difficult to please people with representation—especially people invested in the most mythical of mythical family ideals. For that reason, I don’t keep them in mind when writing, and indeed try to block their possible feelings out, as considering their preferences too carefully would inevitably lead to throwing it all away.
Michael Palmer’s work appears in Issue 5.2 here.