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Udall finds writing a magical process

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Born into the political Udall Arizona clan (his great-uncles are Stewart and Morris Udall), Brady Udall chose quite a different direction. Not that he had any idea growing up on a farm in St. Johns that he would be a writer — but he knew he didn't want to farm.

"I wanted to sit in a room with air conditioning and type on a computer," Udall said during an interview in the Deseret News offices. "So I went to BYU and declared myself a sociology major and indicated I was going to do something important with my life."

For the first time, he was surrounded by writers — Darrell Spencer, John Bennion and Bruce Jorgensen, among others. That was when he first considered make a living writing.

Following graduation, Udall attended the celebrated Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa, said to be the best in the country, where he was awarded a master of fine arts degree. Udall said it didn't add significantly to his education "because I learned everything I needed at BYU."

Udall was "discovered" as a writer at Salt Lake City's own Writers at Work program.

Carol Houck Smith, an editor for Norton's, was given a sample of Udall's work — a short story. "She called me and I thought it was just some crazy lady who read one of my stories. I kept trying to hang up. Finally, I heard her name, and she said to send her some more stories. About a month later, she offered me a book contract on the basis of three stories."

Udall is the father of two young sons, and his wife is expecting. For three years he has taught writing at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, but he recently accepted a position with Southern Illinois University, which will begin in the fall.

"The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint," Udall's novel, focuses on a

young Apache boy whose head is run over by a mailman. "This actually happened to my wife's ex-boyfriend. She was seeing him at the same time she was seeing me. She finally broke up with him. I was curious about this guy, because he was presumed dead, and the mailman had a breakdown and disappeared. I was intrigued by this. I went to this guy's apartment and he told me the whole story. I knew I would write a book about that."

Udall grew up only 50 miles from the San Carlos Indian Reservation, where there was a boarding school. "While in junior high, I went to this school to play a football game on the parade grounds. It's the old Fort Apache. It made a deep impression on me. These kids were orphans or castaways. We beat them badly, and afterward they began pelting our bus with bricks. I looked up and saw one boy looking at me, and I could see he hated me, and I didn't know why. I knew I'd write a story about it."

Edgar Mint, the little Apache boy who was run over by a mailman, became Udall's central character. His life as an orphan is grim, but a series of miracles keep saving him. Except for the common geography, Udall is not being autobiographical.

"I grew up in a stable, loving home. Too many writers believe that writing is a way of talking about yourself. To me it's a way of imagining the opposite of myself, to step in a stranger's shoes and try to understand their world. That's what excites me. To write about me and my experience bores me."

While some writers outline their entire story before they start to write, Udall resists rigid programming. "My outline was, 'Boy gets run over by mailman. At the end, he finds mailman. Maybe he doesn't. What happens in the middle? I don't know.'

"The way I think of writing a novel is you just keep gathering things and putting them in a bag. Then some things don't fit, so you pull them out. One day you open it up and a rabbit comes out. It's sort of magical. Things just start to come together. I'm not sure how it happens. Supposedly, since I've written one novel, I should be able to write another one — but it seems just as daunting as before."

When Udall neared the end of writing his novel, it came to him what would happen. "That was great. I'd write from midnight to 8 a.m. some nights. You know it's going well when you're thinking about it all the time — in the shower or driving somewhere — instead of thinking about your bills or your car problems, you're thinking about this little imaginary kid and what he's going through."

Udall wrote 400-500 pages in the first couple of years but threw away the first 400 pages. "I was trying to figure out how to do it. I'd never written a novel before. Then I wrote the last 250 pages in three months."

Generally, Udall writes from midnight to 3 or 4 a.m. Teaching and family takes up the rest of his time.

Some critics have said his work reminds them of Charles Dickens, but Udall scoffs at that. "There's an orphan in it — and the way the plot ends, it could seem like 'Great Expectations' because something is revealed.

"It was really Mark Twain who influenced me, because he had the ability to be funny and profound. Writers who are funny are considered shallow. Most of the time comedy is considered a low art. But Twain's art was of a very high order."

Although a practicing Mormon, Udall does not consider himself a "Mormon writer." "I would never write a book that was meant exclusively for Mormons. Mormonism is only one aspect of this book."

Udall describes his writing like this: "It's like driving really fast on a road you've never been on before, but you make it. You go off the edge sometimes, and maybe you blow a tire, but you get there. It's making decisions on the run. Sometimes, you go down the wrong road. You have to fix things and make it right. If the writer is surprised, the reader will be, too."

Udall knows he will create some controversy. He doesn't mind. "I hope it arouses interest or even passion in people. The fact that I use Native American characters is politically incorrect, so some people will get upset about that. Things are brutal at the school he goes to. The book is about poverty. It is not about race. It's about dislocation."

The Mormon family he depicts has problems, but it is not dysfunctional. "They're normal. They have secrets and regrets. In our Mormon culture, we're a little afraid of letting people of the world know that. Their problems come from the loss of their child, but they're very strong, good people."

Udall deals with moral issues and violence constantly. "We forget about the violence that occurs sometimes in supposedly normal situations. My grandmother said, 'I wish you wouldn't use all those bad words.' But to be true to the people I'm portraying, I have to use bad words, and even depict evil, because it's there. We have to be mature enough to know when something is true despite being difficult."

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com