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I Want to Believe

Catching up with actor and novelist David Duchovny on his polygamist family drama, Truly Like Lightning.

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DD HEADSHOT MARK MANN
  • DD Headshot Mark Mann

David Duchovny knows he will always be seen first as a TV star. But, with the recent publication of his fourth novel, Truly Like Lightning, the world is beginning to notice that his ambition stretches far beyond the small screen.

The new book tells the story of Bronson Powers, a Hollywood stuntman turned LDS polygamist. Powers, his three wives and 10 children live out the teachings of Joseph Smith at a sprawling desert ranch in Southern California—before a rapacious venture capital firm invades their oasis.

Duchovny, 60, is no stranger to the world of words. In the mid-1980s, he was on his way to earning a Ph.D. in English Literature at Yale University, where he studied with famed literary critic Harold Bloom. It was Bloom's writings that introduced Duchovny to Mormonism, which he would explore first in an episode of The X-Files he wrote and directed.

Duchovny never finished that Ph.D., and soon burst into stardom as Fox Mulder in The X-Files and later as Hank Moody in Californication. In recent years, focusing on his career as a novelist, he has largely moved away from acting, but he spoke in early March to City Weekly from London, where he is currently filming a new Judd Apatow comedy, The Bubble.

The following Q&A about Truly Like Lightning and Duchovny's interest in the faith of Latter-day Saints has been edited and condensed for clarity.

City Weekly: In the acknowledgements, you engage with Harold Bloom's finding of "genius" in Joseph Smith, his describing Latter-day Saints as "true Americans." He saw the LDS church as the prototypical American religion. Say more about your connection to Bloom.
David Duchovny: I had a seminar with Bloom. It was on 19th-century Romantic poetry. He was a captivating figure. A genius. A treasure. It wasn't until many years later, almost 20 years later, I was writing The X-Files episode. I was interested in this Mark Hofmann guy, of how the ideas of forgery and acting overlap. And I could have it be a caper, make it fun, in The X-Files mode. In writing the episode, I read Bloom's essay on Mormonism, on Joseph Smith. He calls him a genius. I was like, "Wow, I should take a look at this." I hadn't ever looked at Mormonism. I had the general conception of it, which focuses on polygamy, on the undergarments—the clichés.

When I read Bloom, his take on Smith was all about authenticity. Joseph Smith was this energetic figure, not looking backward. He said, "We can become gods!" It seemed very American, very "can do," very "self help." Very unlike the ennui of the Europeans. It stuck with me for years. I started with the idea of Bronson Powers, and I realized I had a story.

You seem to have admiration for some of Smith's ideas. However, the novel also doesn't shy away from a harsh assessment of Mormonism, of the church today. Once you were done with this portrait of Powers, and his beliefs, where did you land in your own feelings about the LDS faith?
Like Bloom, practically, I'm very impressed by the organization, the charitable nature of it. I'm not a believer in any institutional religion—Mormonism or any kind. But I was amazed at the Smith biography [Rough Stone Rolling, by Richard Lyman Bushman]. I'm amazed at what the guy did in such a short period of time. I'm amazed by the Christian brotherhood he created.

In Duchovny’s novel Truly Like Lightning, Bronson Powers, his three wives and 10 children live out the teachings of Joseph Smith at a desert ranch in Southern California - DREAMSTIME
  • Dreamstime
  • In Duchovny‚Äôs novel Truly Like Lightning, Bronson Powers, his three wives and 10 children live out the teachings of Joseph Smith at a desert ranch in Southern California

Power's faith is idiosyncratic, hardly a mirror of current mainstream LDS teachings—or its politics. In the novel, you describe the polygamist and his wives as, "Creating a generation of spiritual revolutionaries who could see through the status quo bullshit of the world at large." What led you to the kind of Mormon that your main character would be?
You think about the lives of Jesus, about the life of Joseph Smith—these were rebels, these were men who were fighting the status quo. One of the things that I came across in Rough Stone Rolling, and perhaps from Bloom, too, was that Smith came down on the side of Native Americans, in terms of who deserves this land. He was not so impressed by the status quo, by the white folks, who were now practicing 19th-century capitalism. Smith had some of that "Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple" driving him. He was anti-progress. Anti-modern. That's where I was coming from in a novel, creating a character who was not embracing the staid version of Mormonism. This guy is a revolutionary.

Bronson Powers is not in any way intended to be a Mormon in Salt Lake City today—or anywhere else. He's self-taught, self-revealed. He may call himself Mormon, but what he's really doing is forging Joseph Smith.

You portray polygamy relatively favorably. Are you aware of all the stories of coercion and abuse among LDS fundamentalists, as in the memoir Educated, by Tara Westover? Did it worry you to paint a positive portrayal of polygamy?
When I was writing this book, her book came out and I purposefully thought, "I can't read it." I didn't want to unconsciously steal from it, or have it be a driver of the story. I had no interest in weighing in on polygamy as patriarchal or not, as abusive or not. Or whether it works. If it works! I'm trying to write human beings, not institutions. That's what a novel is, writing about people in relationships. That's all I wanted to do.

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny speak at 2013 San Diego Comic Con International, for The X-Files 20th anniversary panel - GAGE SKIDMORE
  • Gage Skidmore
  • Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny speak at 2013 San Diego Comic Con International, for The X-Files 20th anniversary panel

Near the end of The X-Files episode "Hollywood A.D."—which you wrote—Scully says, "Maybe true faith is a form of insanity." Does that mirror your own beliefs, then or now?
I don't know. [Danish philosopher] Kierkegaard said the moment of any decision is insanity. "Do I go outside and do I go inside?" How can I possibly decide? Salad or no salad? Kierkegaard said all decisions bring on insanity.

I've thought a lot about faith for years, but I don't have one. I believe in spirituality, in ethics, but I don't believe religion has a corner on that market. In my experience of life, some people are funny, and some people aren't funny. Maybe some people have the capacity for faith, and some don't. I don't. For me, it is a leap of faith, akin to insanity. When people make that leap of faith, however, maybe I envy it. I don't denigrate it. Maybe I envy it.

The novel is filled with yearning for a simpler life, a life of ideas, one away from screens and technology. Does that mimic your own feelings? Did it drive your own parenting? [Duchovny has two children, ages 18 and 21, with his ex-wife, actor Tea Leoni.]
It certainly reflects some of my own anxieties and fears about it. I did not successfully confiscate screens from my kids at any point. I didn't have Bronson's willpower. I have grave fears about where we're headed with screens, not just with kids. I see adults suffering, too. I can only imagine what it's doing to children. I'm afraid it's creating a different consciousness—which will be the consciousness that comes into being for this generation. You and I, and anyone who wasn't raised on screens, will be aghast. Hopefully they'll figure it out. Hopefully, they'll find in all this something beautiful, something filled with love. But I have my doubts.

DREAMSTIME
  • Dreamstime

You direct a critical gaze at a lot in the book, but the harshest assessments are of what we might call California capitalism—and also of Hollywood. The character of venture capitalist Robert Malouf and screenwriter Sammy Greenbaum might be the most villainous. Are these borne from your own experiences?
Not really. But I think the Hollywood stuff is honest. I feel loving to all these characters. When Maya [who works for the venture capitalists] is tasked with watching all those dreadful B movies, those horror movies, to try and find a reboot, she comes to the conclusion that it was a beautiful undertaking. They were doing the best with what they had, and they were just telling stories. Everyone in Hollywood, however venal, however shitty, are just trying to tell stories. It's beautiful, that impulse. It's that impulse I'm in love with.

Some readers might be troubled by relationships in the novel, such as a teenage girl in a sexual relationship with her much-older stepfather. While that relationship isn't celebrated, it's not condemned, either. When you write, are you concerned with how these choices will be perceived? Is there a voice in your head that tells you to be careful?
Of course, that voice is there. Again, as with Mormonism or polygamy, I'm not writing a manifesto, I'm writing a novel. Those characters for me had to do those things in order to get where they were intended to go. A novel is not a how-to manual. It's a story. A weaker novelist judges what happens in his story. I try to just let the novel play out.

If this were real life, of course, I would have other things to say about a relationship like this. I'd have questions, want to know more. But in a novel, I'm just trying to tell a story about human beings, not to celebrate or condemn, as you said.

Which characters in Truly Like Lightning did you fall in love with?
In the conception of the novel, the most one-dimensional character was Malouf. For better or worse, the villain. As I wrote, as I got to the end, where Malouf gets his moment to say, "I am telling the truth. I am a parasite. All God's creatures have a purpose. Mine is: I need." And I thought, "Yeah!" He waited till the last chapter to have his story. I get him. I don't like him. But I get him. It was late when he got his moment. I had already finished the novel. I was editing, I was re-writing. It ended on Maya saying the word "parasite." And I thought, "Let him defend himself." And he did. I certainly wouldn't want to hang out with him, but he was the most surprising.

So, let me see if I have this right: You're currently an actor in a hotel during a pandemic—making a movie about actors in a hotel during a pandemic? [Apatow's "meta-comedy" The Bubble also stars Maria Bakalova, Fred Armisen, Keegan-Michael Key and Leslie Mann.]
It's more than roughly right. It's exactly what it is. It's a comedy, it plays for laughs. The movie within the movie should be spectacular. It's fun.


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Matt's Take
Truly Like Lightning review: Family, religion and desert living shape a larger-than-life family.
By Matt Pacenza

Few of us have met a Latter-day Saint like Bronson Powers, a former Hollywood stuntman turned Joseph Smith-disciple whose polygamist paradise near Joshua Tree is torn apart when the modern world's greed comes knocking. Powers is the vivid heart of Truly Like Lightning, the fourth book from actor David Duchovny. His ambitious and smart new novel might be accused of biting off more than it can chew, but it also offers a surprisingly compelling interrogation of faith and Mormonism.

As this novel begins, we meet Powers, living an idyllic, progressive life on a separatist desert ranch along with his three wives and their 10 spirited children. None of the Powers know what year it is, and they haven't seen an outsider in years, but they can quote William Blake, sing the Beatles and hunt from horseback.

Duchovny flashes back to when an inheritance brought Powers thousands of acres of desert near San Bernardino—if he would convert to his Mormon grandmother's faith. At first, he faked an interest in the Latter-day Saints religion and its scriptures. But then, the author writes, "He started to get it. To feel it." Powers wills his idiosyncratic version of Mormonism into being within his family. Their paradise can't last forever, however, and once forces from within and without intrude, Truly Like Lightning's story leaps from the idyllic desert to the opioid- and Fortnite-ridden city.

A strength of this novel is the LDS faith of his main character. Powers latches on to Mormonism's belief that individual members can hear directly from God. The main character believes, "Everybody has a bible in them. Everybody is a bible." The ex-stuntman's scripture is an odd, compelling mix: He embraces polygamy, but also believes that Smith's teachings should be the foundation of a faith that is anti-capitalist and anti-racist—a surprise to anyone who has spent time at the Utah Legislature.

It is surprising how well this LA celebrity writes about Powers' retreat from modernity. The novel is filled with a yearning for a simpler, disconnected life, for a world free of glitz and distraction. Perhaps not surprisingly for an experienced actor, Duchovny also excels at dialogue, in exchanges that feel both apt and revealing. Many of the novel's characters, both adults and adolescents, really work, such as the deeply conflicted young venture capitalist who first stumbles upon the polygamist family; Powers' second wife, a recovering addict who struggles when she re-enters society; and his 11-year-old son, a fearless desert rat torn apart by teenage American life. There's a surprisingly successful portrayal of the rich, same-sex relationship between Powers' second and third wives. And, most importantly, we somehow buy Powers, a self-taught dreamer who finds paradise in the desert.

Yet, at times, Truly Like Lighting bogs down. Duchovny needs to rein in his narrative voice, his sometimes-relentless, allusion-ridden commentary on his characters and world. For example, here's how he introduces the novel's villain, venture capitalist Robert Malouf, "The son of a Palestinian immigrant set carpenter in Culver City, Malouf had Gatsby-ed himself, despite a baldness so complete he bore a passing resemblance to Stanley Tucci on good days, and Klaus Kinski's Nosferatu on market-turndown bad ones, into a jet-owning, polo-playing playboy with billions in assets, debts and connections to seats of power in the States, Europe, Russia and the Middle East."

One key narrative decision irritates: the novel's inciting plot device is a deal struck between the venture capitalists and a local social worker who learns the Powers children have been illegally home-schooled. This "deal" never makes any sense, yet it's essential to why half the Powers family must leave paradise.

The novel's flaws fade once the plot builds, and Duchovny relaxes and lets his characters and story flow through to Truly Like Lightning's explosive, satisfying finale. Ultimately, no matter how misguided their beliefs and how fatal their choices, we root for this polygamist, his wives and his children to keep their desert oasis in a world gone mad.

Matt Pacenza teaches English at Judge Memorial Catholic High School and has recently finished his first novel. He previously worked as a newspaper reporter, a magazine writer, an editor and an environmental advocate.