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Festival of Books

Peggy Riley talks polygamy, faith, 'Amity and Sorrow'

April 19, 2013|By Jasmine Elist
  • Peggy Riley comes to the Festival of Books to discuss her debut novel, 'Amity and Sorrow.'
Peggy Riley comes to the Festival of Books to discuss her debut novel, 'Amity… (Sara Norling / Little, Brown…)

Popular shows like “Big Love” and “Sister Wives” have given us a small glimpse into the life of a woman within a polygamist family — her struggles, her relationship with the other wives and her expectations. In debut novel “Amity and Sorrow” (Little, Brown and Co., $26),  Peggy Riley uses her thorough research on escapees and survivors of polygamist cults to tell the story of a mother, her two daughters and their lives after escaping a life of polygamy.

Amaranth, the first of 50 wives to a polygamist cult founder, and her daughters Amity and Sorrow, escape a community full of rape, incest and abuse, driving for four straight days for fear of being caught. After crashing their car in Oklahoma, the family is reluctantly taken in by a local farmer. Riley conveys each woman’s individual struggle outside the polygamist cult with which they were familiar: Amaranth’s inability to let go of old concerns, Amity’s excitement to begin a new life and Sorrow’s longing to return to the community she knows.

Riley, an American writer and playwright currently living in England, took the time to chat with us by email. She provided insight into a woman’s decision to join a cult, the difficulties that come with breaking free and whether or not it is possible to start a new life.

Riley will be offering more of her insights at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books where she appears on the panel "The Family You Choose" on Saturday at 4:30 p.m., as well as at an event on Monday at Book Soup at 7 p.m.

You've had a career as a playwright. What inspired you to shift gears and write a novel?

I moved from Los Angeles to London, where I’d lived and worked as a playwright for more than 10 years, but... a few years ago, we moved to Kent, following the Thames east to where it opens into the Estuary, toward the North Sea. Leaving London, my ideas started changing. New stories emerged and I couldn’t see how to fit them on a stage.  Maybe it was the sea or the wide sky or the silence, but my writing shifted, became more interior, more personal. I wrote short fiction, but I wanted to try something that went deeper for longer. I wondered if I could write a novel and decided I had to try.  

Your two title characters are sisters but are clearly different sides of the same coin. Do you feel you relate more closely to Amity or Sorrow?

They are like that, or like those skirted dolls that you turn over to find the wolf’s head where Red Riding Hood’s feet should be.  I wanted to explore nature vs. nurture, so the girls are raised in the same environment, but they are treated very differently, with very different expectations.  Amity is raised to watch others and to wait to be told what to do; it makes her compassionate, intensely aware of the people around her. Sorrow is raised to believe that she is special, that she is holy, and it makes her spoiled and hungry for autonomy, for more power than her faith allows. The best of me is in Amity, but I suspect there’s quite a lot of Sorrow in my hungers and wants.   

How do you, as an author, write about a polygamous cult, its patriarch and its believers without passing judgment?

I feel nothing but compassion for anyone who joins faiths like these, for people who feel lost and alone, abandoned. I feel for their longing to connect, their desire for a passionate life that is faith-centered and all-consuming. I have compassion for our American impulse to build utopias and handmade faiths. I have compassion for the utopias we build and for all our handmade Edens that turn to rot, because we are so human. The loneliness that makes us seek community can also make us jealous. The desire we have to be close to God can lead some to crave too much closeness, to seek to possess God or to become him for their believers, out of greed and a lust for power. 

The more we believe we are special or holy, the further we get from our own humanness, and then our humanness steps in with the worst of our faults and failings. It is there in any cult or fringe faith where the leader aligns himself with God. I don’t condone the patriarch’s behavior or the choices Sorrow makes while trying to get back to her faith, but I am interested in their longings. I am interested in the pride of faith that makes us believe that our Eden will succeed where all others – even the first Eden – failed.       

Why did you choose to set the cult in northern Idaho?

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