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The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance
Elna Baker
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INTRODUCTION

Elna Baker has a background most people would consider exotic and unique. She graduated from New York University with a theatre degree after spending much of her life in London and Madrid. She's visited countries many Americans know only via news items and high school geography books. The problem is that she spent most of these years being overweight, and also, Mormon, and it's put her at a bit of a disadvantage as she attempts to enter the secular social scene of New York City after college. This city, filled with over-sexed, over-stimulated people of all ages, is more exotic and unfamiliar to her than any of the places she's visited beyond the United States.

Life in the city post-NYU, unemployed and a little directionless, serves her with some interesting life lessons. She sells ridiculously expensive dolls through an equally ridiculous "adoption program" at FAO Schwarz that teaches her about money, ethnic diversity among the rich and undeserving, and the actions she will and won't accept from other people. She learns that coming from a religious background championing abstinence from both premarital sexual conduct and alcohol can cause her some problems in the bar scene of New York City, particularly with members of the opposite gender. And she learns that she has limited control over her life in most aspects but one: her weight.

The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is a funny, moving, eloquent memoir from a young woman who loses weight, becomes beautiful on the outside, and then has to reconcile this change with who she is—and always was—on the inside: a person who thinks critically and deeply about the world around her, and about how others receive her within that world. It details her quest for love within the bounds of religion and outside them, and her introspective examination of her own beliefs and values. It also shows that being misunderstood as a Mormon is nothing compared to having your homemade Fortune Cookie Halloween Costume mistaken for something very different on the subway.


ABOUT ELNA BAKER

Elna Baker

Elna Baker is a Mormon stand-up comedian, writer and solo performer who specializes in comedic storytelling. She lives in New York City.


A CONVERSATION WITH ELNA BAKER

Q. You always wanted to be a writer growing up—did you ever imagine that your first book would be a memoir, and in particular a memoir about your experiences as a Mormon and your struggle with your weight? You mention at the end of the book that you found the time to write at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, but what gave you the impetus to write this book? Was it your breakup with Hayes, or with Matt, or at the behest of your friends on the storytelling/comedy scene?

Not in a million years did I imagine I'd write a memoir. As a kid I definitely dreamed of being a writer, but unlike acting, the medium seemed inaccessible. Only there was this other thing that I did naturally: I told stories. During and after college, my mentor, Elizabeth Swados, pushed me to start telling these stories on stage. I would bullet point the material for each show, but I never sat down and actually wrote anything out. My first writing opportunity came through ELLE magazine. After performing in a spoken-word Moth event for ELLE I got the opportunity to write a feature about how I was getting plastic surgery. This article sparked interest from publishers in both teen and Christian fiction—only that's not what I wanted to do, I always envisioned writing a more mainstream book. So instead, I went to Yaddo and started writing the stories that's always come so naturally—the result was the first 80 pages of my book.

Q. After a string of jobs loosely related to acting, you're no longer pursuing acting, but writing. This change in your ambition(s) isn't really covered in the memoir—how do you feel about changing careers? Describe, too, your writing for fashion magazines and your writing for the comedy stage—does it satisfy? Do you see it as a step towards something else?

Professionally, I don't know what I am (all I know is that I'm having an identity crisis as I try answering this). I love to write, I love comedy and I still love acting. At first I worried that writing was going to distract me from acting. Instead I feel like it has taught me to how to be a better actor. For example: in acting school they talked a lot about understanding the intentions of the characters we were portraying. I didn't get this concept until I was working on my book and I got to see how much my own intentions drove my life. It was a weird experience. I felt like I was seeing myself from above, as though I were God watching a character make choices and mistakes—unable to intervene or change the past. This was an enlightening experience on many levels. Now when I perform (whether it's my own comedy or whether I'm playing a character) I approach the role from the writer's perspective and I try to uncover the intention behind each decision the character makes.

Q. You also create comics, which deal with many of the same subjects as your memoir. How does this part of your creative life fit with the storytelling and comedy and work as a published author? What does it allow you to do that the other art forms do not?

I'm not an exceptional artist or anything (in fact, you'll notice the character I draw only faces out—this is not an artistic choice, I just can't draw profile!) but for me comics provide a way of saying things visually that I cannot otherwise express. When I feel blocked I like to draw. It helps me find the basic truth I'm looking for and the best part is that for whatever reason I don't take myself as seriously when I draw. This allows me to really open up and get goofy. I also love how comics can instantly communicate an idea—what would otherwise take three chapters can be nailed in one image if you get the drawing right. On that note, maybe I should take a drawing class? Knowing how to draw profile may very well expand my entire world.

Q. What are you focusing on right now? What will we see from you in the very near future?

Right now I'm developing a television show that I hope to write and perform in. The show picks up where the book left off. I don't want to give anything away, but after I finished writing the book I decided to take a break from being Mormon, like how the Amish have Rumspringa—but my own made up version since the only "break" allowed when you're a Mormon is the KitKat kind. My current writing reflects this period of my life and whether it ends up being a TV series or whether I write another book—this is what I hope to explore creatively.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. There are many subjects of this book, but as one can glean from the title, the most important is the author's relationship to her religion. Discuss the ways you were able to relate to her struggle with Mormonism and its reputation in the world. Have you ever had to defend your faith as she has? Have you ever had to dispel stereotypes or myths as she has? Why or why not? Discuss, too, what Baker has gained from her experience of being a Mormon in a largely secular city.

  2. Consider as well the other important subject of this book—Baker's struggle with dieting and her weight. As above, discuss the ways you were able to relate to her struggle. Did you ever have a physical issue or problem that took many years to come to term with? Have you ever used a clinic or a specific program to lose weight? If so, describe your experience and compare it to Baker's.

  3. Also, discuss how much this book dispelled or confirmed any preconceived notions you may have held about either Mormons or people who are overweight. Before this book, were you aware of how isolated people in either group were made to feel by society? Describe how Baker's experience has shaped or changed your perspective of people who struggle with either religious beliefs, body issues, or different but essential parts of their identity.

  4. While Baker has resisted being classified by others according to her weight or her religion, she's never minded being "the funny one", particularly in her family. Discuss Baker's sense of humor and how it comes through her writing. What parts of the book did you find particularly funny?

  5. Similarly, compare this writing to stand-up comedy, which Baker now performs in NYC. What separates this book from standard stand-up comedy, and lends itself more to the types of stories one might hear at "The Moth", the storytelling venue Baker mentions in her book, or This American Life on NPR, for which she read and recorded the chapter "Babies Buying Babies". Identify the quality in her writing that allows her stories to transcend the punch-line driven nature of comedy routines. How would you classify her writing, or describe it to a friend?

  6. In the years covered in this memoir, Baker not only changes her looks and some of her beliefs, but she changes her attitude or perspective about the world and her place in it. Discuss how this memoir is not only an account of one person's will to do "the impossible" ("the impossible is nothing!") but it is also a coming-of-age tale. How do we see Elna, the young woman, develop a more concrete idea of her identity over the course of these chapters? Point to particular parts of the text where you see Elna making a conscious or unconscious move away from adolescence, particularly in areas other than her sexuality or her faith.

  7. Also, consider the structure of the book, from the reoccurring "Kissing" chapters to the revised charts that outline her beliefs at different points in her life. Discuss the way these chapters and the charts help to give the book focus and also to help the reader realize—as the author did—how much Elna is changing (and in some cases, resolutely not changing) over the course of a few years.

  8. Baker read "Babies Buying Babies" in an episode of the radio show This American Life in January of 2008. Discuss the way this story works on its own, separately from the rest of the book, as a piece of social criticism, and how it also works as part of the memoir. What other chapters work this way—turning personal experience into an example of a greater issue or problem that exists within society?

  9. What did you think of Elna's decision to get plastic surgery—particularly after her incident with the amphetamines, and her declaration in the hospital, "at the very least, I'll never get plastic surgery"? What does this show about the power of our resolutions? Would you call her a hypocrite for getting the surgery, or would you call her human? As you read "A Body of Work", and about her trepidation before the event, did you think she would go through with it?

  10. Compare and contrast Elna's relationship with Matt, the atheist, to that of her relationship with Hayes, the man she almost married. Which relationship were you secretly rooting for while you read the book? Which relationship seemed more genuine, and why? Do you think that she made the best choices for herself? In particular, what did you think of her big decisions in regards to them, like moving out to Utah for Hayes, or traveling to Africa for Matt? What would you have done in Elna's place?

  11. What did you think of the book's conclusion? What is your impression of Elna at the end of the book? Throughout the book Elna makes predictions (or receives predictions) about her future. And at the end, she surmises: "I'm a genuine indeterminate. I am what I might be, not what I am" and also, "I have no idea how it's going to work out for me though." What do you believe about Elna? What do you think her future holds?