How did you become interested in history, and how did you choose to focus on Mormon history in particular?
My fascination with Mormon history began when I was a student at Dixie College and
was my next-door neighbor. It increased when I moved to Maryland in 1975 and became best friends with
. After serving as an Elders Quorum president for four years, my interest in priesthood grew to the point where I took my lead from Juanita and Lester, neither of whom had been trained in historiography, and gave it a shot. Eight years later, I published my first book,
Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood
. That led to biographies of David O. McKay and Leonard Arrington, and then to
Gay Rights and the Mormon Church
—the culmination of a thirty-two-year odyssey.
Can you tell us a little about your work in dentistry and pathology?
I expected to follow in the footsteps of my father and brothers, and practice dentistry my entire career. However, I became fascinated with pathology during dental school at UCLA and stayed around for two additional years to earn a PhD in pathology. The PhD took me to Maryland for a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, and to a subsequent four-decade career in medical research. I did not appreciate, during the earlier years of my career, how well my training as a scientist would prepare me to research and write history, and yet, both tasks are very similar in that they involve the collection and analysis of data points. Any scientist should be able to see the scientific method sprinkled abundantly throughout my books.
How do you find time to do such extensive research for your books while also working and teaching in a completely different field?
I’ve always kept busy, and moving back and forth between one field and a completely different one keeps my mental juices from stagnating. Also, work in one field tends to have a carry-over effect for the other, perhaps like athletes who cross-train.
Since your educational background is not in history, did you have any trouble getting scholars and editors to accept your research and writing as valid?
That part was surprisingly painless. My initial foray into the history of the early LDS priesthood led to a couple of papers at Mormon history meetings that caught the attention of Gary Bergera, who was then editor of Signature Books. He suggested that I work towards a book on the subject and, before the manuscript was completed, I had a contract with Signature to publish
Power from on High
. With that book in print, I had credibility that I was able to build upon. The following three books were all published by the University of Utah Press. For all four books, the process of editing and publishing has been remarkably smooth—even enjoyable. Writing over 150 scientific papers trained me to self-edit and I think that was the key to the smoothness of the publishing process.
When researching your books, you read thousands of pages of archival materials. What is your method for taking notes and organizing the information when it comes time to write?
I was very fortunate that my historical research began at the same time that personal computers became affordable. For all four books, I spent years tracking down source material, which I entered verbatim into the computer in chronological order. Only when the research phase was complete did I then go through my entire database, line upon line, and build subject files. In the case of the McKay biography, the database amounted to 15,000 single-spaced pages, I had about one hundred files, but only sixteen rose to the level that I considered significant—that is, important and self-contained stories—and those became the chapters. By the time the subject files were complete, the heavy lifting was done. The actual writing process was really quite enjoyable, both because the material was already digested, and because all of it was already in my laptop.
What is your greatest challenge when it comes to writing?
Determining when the research phase has been completed. One never sees everything that exists, and so it is a challenge for me to be able to satisfy myself that I have drilled at least deep enough that I have mastered the subject.
Which of your three books with the University of Utah Press
David O. McKay, Leonard Arrington, Gay Rights and the Mormon Church
—is your favorite? Why?
Which of my three kids is my favorite? Bad question! McKay was the most influential, in part because of his preeminent position as church president for so many years at such a pivotal time in history. Arrington was the most honored, receiving the Evans Biography Award. But
may become the most important, because it has the potential to save lives. If it saves one life, it will have done what none of my others books did.
The topic of
Gay Rights and the Mormon Church
is quite controversial. What led you to choose it? Do you have any concerns about how the book will be received?
There was not a single epiphany that started me down that road, but certainly the first major stimulus was an encounter with Andrew Solomon, a brilliant writer (National Book Award for
The Noonday Demon
) and best friend of Helen Whitney, the producer of the PBS documentary film
. After the Proposition 8 campaign, Andrew vented furiously at Helen for having said anything nice about this “evil church.” Helen asked my help in repairing the friendship. After a couple of years, Andrew not only became—and remains—a dear friend, but also consented to a remarkable interview published in
Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought
. Subsequent contacts with significant players in the LGBTQ arena, both within Mormonism and nationally, gradually led me to tackle the entire history of LGBTQ-Mormon relations dating to the late 1960s. The central message of the book is not comforting and many readers are likely to be troubled by it. But I will stand by its accuracy and I am confident that the importance of the message will quickly overshadow the messenger. Too many people and families have been damaged or destroyed because of the church’s policies and attitudes. We must do better.
Did you have any difficulty getting people to grant you interviews or access to the materials you needed for this book?
Yes, in two instances. First, I made a formal request to the LDS church’s Public Affairs Department for access to five church officials who had been pivotal in the church’s fight against marriage equality. Four months after I made the request, I received a one-sentence response that the church would not cooperate. Second, I tried to engage people who had supported Prop 8 in 2008 and who still stood by their support. I could find none who were willing to go on the record.
What do you do in your free time? What do you read for fun?
I consider this to be my final book in the Mormon genre. My time is now split between working for the charity that my wife JaLynn and I founded over a decade ago, Madison House Autism Foundation (
), which bears the name of our adult autistic son; and a second career in science with Soft Cell Biological Research, a startup company in St. George, Utah, that may revolutionize the global fight against antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.” Since the latter requires ongoing reading of scientific papers, there is little time for recreational reading.