The Mormon Hemingway

We are saddened to report the passing of Douglas Thayer on Tuesday, October 17, 2017. He was a beloved writer and mentor to many. A tribute to his life and literature can be found here.

In September 2017, Doug Thayer visited BYU campus to discuss his education and professional journey to becoming an award-winning author for at English Reading Series.

PROVO, Utah (Sept. 15, 2017)—At the first English Reading Series of the fall semester, the guest of honor shuffled in wearing a black, brimmed hat and holding a caramel-colored cane, arm in arm with his wife. He was greeted in turn by professors from the College of Humanities. Eagerly, they waited to introduce themselves as his former students, some of them perhaps seeing in him what they aspire to be. Doug Thayer is, according to his website, “considered one of the foremost fiction writers exploring contemporary Mormon life. He has been called the Mormon Hemingway for his straightforward style and powerful prose.” Having taught at BYU for 54 years, this literary powerhouse now speaks in a voice barely above a whisper and holds the podium with shaking hands, but it is clear he is just as revered as ever among the audience members.

As he recounts a brief history of his life, the phrase, “I did a lot of drifting in those days,” stands out. He dropped out of high school to join the army when he was 17 years old and was stationed in Germany. After the war, he returned to Germany as a Mormon missionary. Upon his return, the aspiring writer majored in English, which in retrospect, he mused, “[was] not necessarily a good choice. There are a lot of other things you can major in—physics, chemistry—things that teach you about what’s going on in the world.”

After teaching at BYU for three years, it was suggested he pursue his doctorate. He remembers, “I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ It was always so casual.” After a short stint at the University of Maryland, he realized he didn’t actually want a PhD in English­; he wanted to write, not research. Eventually, he earned an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Iowa and returned as a professor to BYU, where he taught for the majority of his career.

His love of writing over research is not unique. “Students would tell me that’s what they want to do,” he remembered. “They’d want to major in creative writing and become writers. They [didn’t] have much interest in becoming PhDs.” He continued, “Why are people so interested in becoming writers? What motivates them? I’m not quite sure what the answer is, but I do know that . . . they want to do something . . . dynamic.”

Thayer has certainly accomplished that goal, writing many short stories, novellas, and novels, dealing with themes from faith to fishing to war. He has won numerous awards, such as the Utah Institute of Fine Arts Award in the Short Story and the 2008 Smith-Pettit Foundation Award for Outstanding Contribution to Mormon Letters. Despite all of the recognition, Thayer has maintained his relatability. “Brother Melrose,” the short story he read from, is about a man coming back from the dead to his small community for a day, and it features animals, children, and family life—all widely accessible themes to his audience. Thayer is a prime example of the encouragement that Bruce Jorgensen, professor of English at BYU, gave to students at the end of the hour. “I want to encourage those of you who want to write. It takes a long time. Sometimes six, eight, ten years of hard work before you can finally see that you’re becoming a writer. That you know what you’re doing. That people are beginning to appreciate [you].”


Olivia Madsen (B.A. French language, ’18)

Olivia covers events for the English Department of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in international development.


Photos courtesy of Douglas Thayer.