Douglas H. Thayer

Douglas H. Thayer was a prose author best known for his work in the “faithful realism” subgenre of LDS fiction, which explores LDS thought and culture “in a critical but fundamentally affirmative way,” according to critic Eugene England (link). Born in Salt Lake City in 1929 and raised in Provo by his single mother Lil, Thayer dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Army in 1946, where he was deployed to Germany just after WWII had ended: he also returned to Germany a few years later as an LDS missionary, where he was still serving when called up to fight in Korea as an army reservist. Thayer graduated with a BA in English from BYU, then earned an MA in literature from Stanford and an MFA focused on fiction from the University of Iowa. In 1974 he married editor and attorney Donlu DeWitt, with whom he had six children. He taught at BYU for fifty-four years, retiring in 2011, and he was a lifelong member of the LDS church. He died in 2017 of liver cancer. 

Thayer’s prose tends to explore LDS faith and culture, particularly through coming-of-age narratives and outdoor settings across Utah. Prior to graduating from BYU, Thayer had worked on a uranium drill rig, local railroads, construction projects, and Yellowstone National Park as a seasonal ranger. These experiences, as well as Thayer’s own boyhood spent hunting in the Wasatch Mountains and fishing and swimming in the Provo River, all informed his work. Critical reviews of his creative writing, particularly the short story collection Wasatch, note that Thayer explores themes of masculinity, gender roles, and the end of youth, often by following his male protagonists’ interior lives or decisive, formative moments in them. Likewise, Thayer’s work has often been noted for its more traditional literary qualities. Unlike many of his LDS author predecessors, who wrote about LDS experience in ways most accessible to fellow Church members or those already specifically seeking LDS fiction, Thayer bridged gaps between faith testimonial and literary realism. To Thayer’s own mind, this took work: he often remarked that it took him up to ten drafts to get a story where he wanted it to be, and when he was a younger writer, sometimes more than ten. 

Thayer’s path into writing as a career meandered through several other avenues first. In addition to the construction, railroad, and national park labor of his young adulthood, Thayer also applied to law school but decided not to attend, then began a PhD in literature at Stanford that he left after earning his MA. He later began studying to be a clinical psychologist, then started and left behind yet another PhD, this one in American studies at the University of Maryland, before transferring to the University of Iowa’s MFA program. The common strand uniting these experiences, Thayer would later report, is that he found he was not interested in research: he much preferred to write about his own ideas. 

Despite these detours, though, Thayer began publishing in the 1960s, with short stories appearing in LDS publications such as BYU Studies and Dialogue. His first novel Summer Fire was published in 1983, and his acclaimed memoir Hooligan debuted in 2007. In interviews, Thayer himself often described his work as something he felt compelled to do, reporting that writing felt like “one of my tasks in life” (link). His inspiration for short stories and novels alike stemmed from his own day-to-day life, family and Church history, and Thayer’s interested reading of sources from newspapers to gossip columns. In interviews, he often evidenced a slightly self-deprecating wit, comparing his writing achievements with his younger brother’s or his peers’ more traditional (and financially lucrative) career paths. Over the course of his writing career, Thayer earned multiple honors from the Association of Mormon Letters (AML) and other organizations, including AML awards for fiction and prose, AML’s Smith-Petit Foundation Award for Outstanding Contribution to Mormon Letters, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Whitney Awards in 2011. 

In addition to his own writing, Thayer taught creative writing and held multiple leadership positions during his fifty-four-year tenure at BYU, including Associate Dean of the College of Humanities, Associate Chair of the English Department, and Director of Creative Writing, among others. Thayer also taught and mentored many other notable Utah authors, including fantasy author Brandon Sanderson, science fiction author Orson Scott Card, LDS novelist John Bennion, and LDS essayist Levi S. Peterson. 

Work

Archival papers at BYU

Bibliography

Novels
• Will Wonders Never Cease: A Hopeful Novel for Mormon Mothers and Their Teenage Sons, Zarahemla Books, 2014
• The Tree House, Zarahemla Books, 2009
• The Conversion of Jeff Williams, Signature Books, 2003
• Greg & Kellie (co-authored with wife Donlu Thayer), Aspen Books, 1991
• Summer Fire, Signature Books, 1983

Short Story Collections:
• Wasatch: Mormon Stories and a Novella, Zarahemla Books, 2011
• Mr. Wahlquist in Yellowstone, Gibbs Smith, 1989
• Under the Cottonwoods and Other Mormon Stories, Orion Books, 1977

Short Stories (not in collections):
• “Roses,” 2006
• “Carterville,” 2005
• “Wolves” (2003)
• “Ice Fishing” (2000)
• “Brother Melrose” (1999)
• “Ten Years of Laughter” (1976)
• “The First Sunday” (1971)
• “The Redtail Hawk” (1969)
• “His Wonders to Perform” (1965)

Memoir:
• Hooligan: A Mormon Boyhood, Zarahemla Books, 2007

Links

Bibliography, Mormon Literature & Creative Arts
BYU "Literary Worlds" exhibit
Interview with Association of Mormon Letters