City Weekly: What was your own introduction to the Book of Mormon, and why did it become so interesting to you?
Avi Steinberg: I first actually encountered it in a subway in Boston. People used to leave books that others could take, and someone left a Book of Mormon. I grew up Orthodox Jewish, and was very serious about religious literature. I had heard of [The Book of Mormon], probably from a commercial, and knew it was some kind of weird outsider Bible or something. My mother was horrified. I didn’t read it [at the time], though. In college, I started to read it, and was studying Puritan American literature at the time. It occurred to me that this book was an American book as much as anything else. And as I started to get into it, I was interested that it was a story of coming from Jerusalem to the New World, which was my own family’s story.
CW: Which were you more concerned about when you were writing: avoiding sacrilegious offense, or coming out as a fan of the Book of Mormon as literature?
AS: [laughs] I think probably the latter. … I thought I was really respectful, but I figured, the position I was going to take was inevitably going to offend, potentially. Although I think some people, especially Mormons, would appreciate that I was talking about [The Book of Mormon] as a book worth taking seriously, in a world where you can’t possibly take it seriously. Really open-minded people I know are like, “Eh, I’m not interested .” It was interesting to [Herman] Melville; shouldn’t it be interesting to us?
CW: Would you argue that the Book of Mormon is a better work of literature than either the Hebrew Bible or the Christian New Testament? Is it a sequel better than the original?
AS: Not sure if I could possibly answer that without getting into trouble. I’m a bit biased in favor of the Hebrew Bible. And it’s kind of unfair to compare, because that was a book written over thousands of years; it’s really a library, an anthology. … I really see them all as part of one tradition, and that’s what makes it dynamic.
CW: What intrigues you most about Joseph Smith as a writer?
AS: I guess it comes down to the ambition of it. Authors are known for having gigantic egos, but he was annihilating his ego, because he wasn’t claiming to have written this book; he was trying to say this was a Bible. All writers in a way kind of secretly wish they could do that: This is it, this is “The One.” He was opening up the question that had been closed for many years. And that kind of astounded me. Also, that he came from such a humble background, that he could see himself as playing this role. There’s something wonderfully insane about that: “Why not me?” People try to denigrate his literary talents, but let’s say it’s true that he only read the Bible. If you only read that, with earnestness, it can take you very far. There’s an incredible literary possibility in reading in that way.
CW: You interweave some of your own experiences as a writer, and make some metaphorical comparisons. Any concerns that you were comparing yourself to someone revered as a prophet of God?
AS: There’s always a concern, obviously, if you’re bringing yourself up. … I don’t know much, but I do know that I’m not a prophet. I was actually trying to bring [Joseph Smith] down to our size, trying to see him as a person, a guy who has his first manuscript sitting on his kitchen table.
CW: What most surprised you about the Mormon believers you encountered in your travels?
AS: I was somewhat surprised … by how fun-loving they were, and the kind of humor they brought to their religious belief. That felt very familiar to me. [Mormons] had this reputation for being very straight-laced. But the people I encountered had a very playful attitude about these texts and their religious practices. I grew up in a very religious home and community, and people think [Orthodox believers are] very solemn. But the reality is that when you’re very steeped in a religion and these stories, you feel very comfortable with them. They’re willing to bring humor into it as well. As soon as I got that notion, I felt very much at home.
CW: It seems as though you very deliberately stayed away from questions of “did it really happen that way,” whether from DNA or archaeological research.
AS: I don’t want to get in the way of whether it happened or not. I’m glad [that conversation] is happening. But I don’t have anything to say about that one way or the other. I really wanted to take this story away from that conversation, because that question kind of dominates. I wanted to make room for other kinds of questions.
CW: In the book, you’re exploring the act of all writing and storytelling as an act of faith. Did that perspective, as it emerged, affect the way that you look at religious faith in general, in terms of how it connects with our need to tell stories?
AS: Absolutely. Where I grew up, and in orthodox religious communities [in general], the idea of looking at it as a human endeavor is usually looked at as diminishing the text. Which may be true, except for me it actually makes the text more powerful and urgent. These are people dealing with human problems. When I started to think of the Bible writers as just [people with] siblings and parents and all that kind of stuff, all of the sudden made it becomes more real. … Obviously for believers it has a certain meaning that’s very compelling to them, but there are a lot of different possibilities. [The Book of Mormon] is like a founding myth of American literature: This boy from the frontier who finds this ancient story. In some way, that’s the story of American literature itself.