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Writer’s challenge: infusing religion

SOUTH JORDAN, Utah — Latter-day Saints may be fielding a lot of questions about their religion this summer, thanks to Shannon Hale's new book "The Actor and the Housewife." This award-winning author is one of the first nationally published novelists to feature a Mormon as the main character.As an active Latter-Day Saint (she serves as Primary president to 288 children), Hale found it intimidating and exciting to infuse Mormonism into her tale of a housewife who forms a close friendship with a celebrity heartthrob. Prayer and fasting, as well as ward potlucks and new callings, are woven seamlessly into the storyline. The book teaches a quick course of Mormon Culture 101 without preaching or proselyting."Religion can be a very sticky subject," Hale said. "It's so easy to alienate, well, everyone — both the religious and the non. And it's so weighty; it can overwhelm a story. Which is why I've had very little religion in any of my other books. But for this story, it was a character trait, a piece of the setting. I felt like it enriched the story rather than detracted from it."Becky Jack, the charismatic heroine, lends a fresh LDS face to literature. Her quick sense of humor, lust for life and non-judgmental attitude merge effortlessly with scripture reading, baking pies and family home evening."I don't think the typical Mormon housewife exists," Hale said. "When I asked people about LDS stereotypes they couldn't agree with each other and often changed their mind mid-sentence. Becky pulls character traits from many of the women I know, yet mirrors none of them. ... We're all unique, and dispelling the Mormon cookie-cutter myth became one of my goals in this novel."It was not her intent, however, to write a novel "that would reveal Mormonism to the world.""I'd never have that goal," Hale said. "That would be way too intimidating to me, and I'm sure any story I tried to write with that agenda would be a really pathetic story."Still, it's a weighty responsibility, as a well-known author, to novelize your own faith, your own people. Because the author and main character share the same religion, Hale said she had to be "very careful" with what she wrote. She also knows that "readers have enormous power in how they interpret a book.""It's a scary thing, turning a story over to readers," Hale said. "I feel so vulnerable. I could have written this story without religion — Becky could have been a conservative Republican and Felix a liberal, for instance. But I think the presence of spirituality allowed for new kinds of questions and another layer of storytelling."While Becky is a fantastic role model, the entire premise of the story details her choice that few married Mormon mommies would make: to cultivate a close male friendship.While writing the book, Hale asked married women if they had male friends or if their husbands had female friends, and whether such friendships were possible. She found varied opinions."I don't think there's one easy answer to those questions, but I love how the questions inspired such passionate discussion," she said. "That's my hope for this book — not that Becky and Felix's story becomes a model for other friendships, but that it inspires good, healthy debate."Women may pick up this book in anticipation of reading about a common housewife and a glamorous movie star, but Becky's passionate, committed marriage to her darling husband, Mike, is the scene-stealer. Good marriages are, in general, the bane of fiction, but Hale makes it a pleasure to observe Mike and Becky kiss, cook, parent, dance and disagree. Their loyalty and kindness provide a model for every couple, and Hale's depiction of a strong, successful partnership is a significant contribution to all adult fiction.Though it's not an exact match, Hale said there are "definitely aspects of my marriage in Becky and Mike's.""I'm married to my best friend," Hale said. "He makes me laugh and think, and we have such a good time together."Hale has opened the door to LDS life just a bit.