The Big Idea: William Shunn

Author William Shunn has had something happen to him which it seems unlikely has ever happened to you, and that event is the cornerstone of his memoir, The Accidental Terrorist. But as Shunn learned, telling the story of that event was not merely a matter of reciting the facts.


I was arrested in 1987, when I was a nineteen-year-old Mormon missionary.

For terrorism.

In Canada, of all places.

But even before that happened, I had the big idea to write about what it’s really like to be a missionary.

We probably all picture Mormon missionaries as an army of interchangeable young men in white shirts and ties, trudging endlessly from one porch to the next with a message and a holy book. Even growing up Mormon, this was pretty much how I envisioned mission life. It wasn’t until I turned nineteen and was pressed into service myself that I discovered a more colorful reality.

The missionaries I met were anything but homogeneous, and frequently anything but holy. Some were diligent and some were slackers. Some were pious, sure, but more were profane. There was gossip and brownnosing and backstabbing galore. A few of my colleagues seemed to be set on breaking every rule in our little white handbook, not mention a Commandment or two.

I was something of a sheltered kid up to this point, but I was also a budding science fiction writer. I’d attended the Clarion Workshop at Michigan State University only a year earlier. My reaction to the absurd truth of mission life was, inevitably, an intense desire to write about it.

What’s more, I wanted to write about it not in some roundabout, science-fictional way but as a straight first-person memoir. The missionary world would be alien enough to most readers to be interesting all on its own. Taking mental notes for my tell-all book was one of the ways I kept myself sane.

As I said, this was my big idea even before the ill-considered incident that landed me in jail. After I was free again, with a better story than I’d ever imagined, I was all the more eager to get my book underway. But as a faithful young Mormon, every time I tried to start it my worries about church discipline got in the way. After all, the memoir I envisioned wouldn’t exactly be a faith-promoting exercise.

It wasn’t until I was no longer so young and no longer so Mormon that I was finally able to get moving on a first draft of The Accidental Terrorist. The year was 1999. I set myself some ground rules. First, I couldn’t make anything up. Second, I couldn’t go out of my way to make myself look good. Third, I couldn’t poke fun at my younger self, no matter how stupidly I might think I’d behaved as a kid.

As a further challenge, I had to weave enough Mormon history and doctrine into the story that my criminal act would make sense, and not come across as the bad punchline to a worse joke. That’s what led directly to my next big idea—to braid my narrative together with the life story of Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s larger-than-life founding prophet.

It’s tough to explain Mormonism without explaining Joseph Smith. It took a huge infusion of bravado to think I could even try, or that I could put our stories side-by-side without his overwhelming mine. It took even more chutzpah to draw parallels between our two lives, and to think that my experiences could illuminate his as much as his illuminated mine.

That was hard to pull off, but one thing was even harder—writing about myself with sufficient insight and compassion. Despite my best efforts, my earliest drafts dripped with condescension. I managed to write that out in later drafts, but my younger self was still often the butt of the joke. Real understanding continued to elude me.

It took sixteen years and the right editor to get me over that final hump. (A lot of therapy, too—any writer’s best friend.) My editor asked me all the tough, probing questions about emotions and motivations and expectations that I wasn’t sure how to ask myself. This was the spool of thread she armed me with before shoving me into the labyrinth to bring back some warm, bleeding answers.

Two drafts and six months later, we were both satisfied with the result. I’m glad I finally found the words to portray young Elder Shunn in an empathetic light because I owe that kid a lot. Beyond the obvious, he left me one foresightful gift which I only discovered as time was running out to choose a photograph for the book cover.

I stumbled across it while sifting through a box of mission mementos—a photograph of me in a white shirt, tie, and black missionary name tag. I’m posed at the edge of a burning wheat field, deep in thought. I hold a sheaf of tinder in my hand, as if I’ve just set the fire myself.

I’d forgotten this photo existed, but it was the perfect metaphor for my story. Looking at it, I got the eerie feeling that my younger self had been thinking ahead to this very moment and had sent me exactly what I needed.

Like I said, I owe that kid a lot. I owe that kid this book.


The Accidental Terrorist: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|iBooks|Kobo

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

18 Comments on “The Big Idea: William Shunn”

  1. What you’ve written here has got me hooked. I’m hopping on over to one of the online book sellers pronto.

    When I was in my teens, an elderly family friend rented her tiny upstairs apartment to a shifting population of young Mormon missionaries, two at a time. My siblings and I used to spend Sunday evenings with her, watching TV and playing board games and generally keeping her company. Sometimes the elders would join us, especially for the games. Except for not being able to partake of the Coke we drank, they joined right in and were good fun. As I got older and more empathetic, I wondered what it must have been like for these young elders, who were only a few years older than us, to leave their homes and go far away and do mission work. I think this book is going to give me at least some sense of that. Thanks!

  2. Though not Mormon I’ve Mormon friends and that made me curious about the LDS Church. I’ve read biographies and even waded through The Pearl of Great Price. Currently a friend’s daughter is on mission in Indiana and I’ve been catching snippets and pictures via Facebook. I bought your book (Kindle version) and will read it soon; looking forward to it!

  3. “Some were diligent and some were slackers. Some were pious, sure, but more were profane.”
    This line (and the entire paragraph I pulled it from) is an absolutely perfect description of the missionaries that I served with between ’97 and ’99.

  4. I roomed with two LDS grad students near Cambridge in the late 80’s. They talked about their mission experiences as particularly formative. My experience living with them dispelled any sense of Saints as simple two-dimensional stereotypes. I’m not generally drawn to memoirs, but I’m intrigued.

  5. I do love a good memoir – much more than fiction, in fact – but I have to confess that I would never, ever pick up a memoir by a Mormon missionary, no matter how reluctant, in a random stroll through a bookstore. Despite that fact, the premise described here is intriguing enough to justify adding this to my library waiting list.

  6. While I have dozens of unread books in my library, and I swore not to buy anymore util they were all read (except for Scalzi books, of course), I found your Big Idea so intriguing I can’t resist. And it will be the next book I dig into.

  7. Bought this and am 24% of the way through. I’m enjoying it, but realized I did not read the big idea piece carefully enough. There is no alien invasion, is there?

  8. “Some were diligent and some were slackers. Some were pious, sure, but more were profane.”

    You know, one could say the same about the Franciscans and the Jesuits.

    There’s a pattern here…

  9. Oh my Lord, I haven’t been this excited to read a book in a LONG time. I didn’t grow up Mormon, but I did grow up a budding writer in a super Evangelical Christian home. Also, I grew up literally just across the river from Navoo, so I’ve always been fascinated by Mormon history. (You can see the new temple from my parents’ backyard.)
    For real, I’m heading to Amazon RIGHT NOW.

  10. Years ago I thought it merely cruel to send kids out to knock on strangers’ doors and then it came to me that the ritual was geared less towards proselytizing and more towards building a perception in these young men’s minds that the outside world was cold and uncaring. It’s not as if the LDS is alone in using stress and fear to reinforce the group ethic but I cannot overcome a real sense of horror when I see parents giving up their children in such a way.

    Mr. Shunn, I read the first 3 chapters of your story but the principal feeling I took away from this was one of pity.

  11. About half way through and I’m really enjoying it. Enlightening, entertaining, and most surprisingly, I can’t put it down!

  12. A wonderfully entertaining and engaging book! If you’re curious about Mormons in general and missions in particular, this is an excellent work. It covers modern LDS missions and a provides an overview of the origins of the Saints. Most importantly, to my mind, it helps answers questions I’ve wondered about for years, to wit: why was someone as morally questionable as Joseph Smith able to start a church that has grown to 15 million active members? What did he offer that inspired so many? I highly recommend The Accidental Tourist. Thank you for writing this and sharing Elder Shunn’s mission and experiences with us!

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