Libbie Grant: Melding the Personal and the Historical

Libbie Grant’s powerful novel, The Prophet’s Wife (William Morrow, 2022) tells the story of Emma Hale Smith, wife of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion. In Grant’s telling, Emma is a woman of intelligence, complexity, and strength with a deep and abiding faith in God. She acts as her husband’s chief supporter but also as his conscience until finally his bad decisions force her to act.

The Prophet’s Wife is the first book the author has written under the name Libbie Grant. She began writing in 2008 under two other pennames — Olivia Hawker and Libbie Hawker. Since then she has churned out more than 26 books. She mainly writes historical fiction across a wide range of eras, but has also published two great resources for writers: Take Off Your Pants: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing (2015) and Making it in Historical Fiction (2015). Anyone who attended one of her workshops at the HNS Conference in 2021 can attest to the wealth of knowledge and advice that she generously shares with other writers.

Under her two pennames, Grant specifically writes for broad appeal. With this new book, Grant is reaching out to a literary audience while still maintaining commercial appeal. Grant writes her commercial books with a speed that would dazzle most of us; however, this book took quite a bit longer.

“This is definitely the book that’s been percolating in my brain for the longest,” she said. “I knew I wanted to write about the founding of the Mormon church, but it took me several years of research.”

Although this is her first “Libbie Grant” novel, it is not her first book that delves into the Mormon faith.

“I was raised in a very devout Mormon family, and didn’t leave the church until my mid-twenties,” she said. “My ancestors go back to the foundation of the religion. This is my culture. I wanted people to know the real history and to take it seriously.”

While Grant espouses a structured outline process for more commercial works, she took a different approach with The Prophet’s Wife, a story which spans two decades.

“For the most part I was following the real history,” she said. “I went through and made a list of all the major events from 1823 to 1844. I took note of those which Emma would plausibly be present for or that she could have heard about from someone else.”

At first Grant wrote the book chronologically, but about halfway through she found she was dissatisfied with the structure.

“It struck me that something wasn’t right,” she said. “It was feeling a little too slow in the beginning.”

She wound up with a dual timeline, beginning with the moment of Joseph’s arrest and then alternating that trajectory with the backstory of Joseph’s and Emma’s meeting, their marriage, and their misadventures as they moved ever westward, trying to find a home for themselves and their followers.

“A lot of Americans don’t even realize that religious groups were severely persecuted by other Americans and the government,” Grant said, noting that the conflict wasn’t one-sided. “Mormons were not good neighbors, and their leaders were oblivious. They didn’t see what they were provoking or they just didn’t care.”

It can be intimidating to write a novel that does not conform to the accepted narrative of an organization as wealthy and powerful as the Mormon Church.

“It comes with challenges. Joseph is revered, and yet I want to be honest about who I think he was,” Grant said. “However, it’s a task that needs to be approached carefully. Mormonism is still my culture of origin. It shaped my perspective on the world and family and human connections, so it’s been very important on a personal level and for me as a writer.”

Grant’s approach was to depict Joseph and Emma and their followers as real people who have human emotions, reactions, and failings. Her goal was to write about them in such a way that readers would connect on an emotional level.

Familial disapproval can also scare writers away from a controversial topic, and Grant admits that some of her family members will be upset that she broached this topic. Grant doesn’t shy away from controversy, but she sympathizes with writers who have trepidations about a personal subject that may anger or hurt those they love.

“It’s a tricky line to walk, and it’s a valid fear to have,” she said. “Everyone has to assess their own comfort level. You have to evaluate how willing you are to risk upsetting someone. You can always shroud the story in fiction and write under a penname to create a buffer between you and the work.”

Grant’s book provides a fascinating education for those of us who know little about the Mormon religion, but Grant acknowledges that many Mormons also don’t know the real history of the church. She says that Mormonism is based on “esoteric, arcane beliefs from an ancient past” and therefore has created a unique cultural identity. Before Mormons condemn her book, Grant hopes that they will read it and form an opinion for themselves.

One of the important themes of the book is the dangers of blind faith, dangers especially relevant today.

“As a faithful Mormon kid I grew up believing in the storyline presented by the church. Up until the early 1990s, the church presented Emma Hale Smith as someone who was opposed to the Prophet and got in his way,” she said.

A biography published in 1984 called Mormon Enigma by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery presented a different, more nuanced perspective of the prophet’s wife. Grant read it in her early 20s, and eventually the story became one that Grant felt she had to write through the lens of fiction.

“I see fiction as an art form that seeks to connect readers with the emotion behind stories. My writing has a purpose, a task it’s seeking to accomplish in this world, and that task is to make readers feel so that they are also inclined to act,” Grant said. “I don’t just write to tell a story, to entertain. I write with the goal of moving hearts and changing minds.”

The Prophet’s Wife has not exhausted Grant’s interest in the topic of the Mormon religion. Her next book will delve deeper into some of the events — including the Mormon Wars! — that molded the religion into the institution it is today. ###

This article previously appeared in The Historical Novel Review

* Photo in Public Domain

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