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An Interview with Louise and Tom Plummer

By Shelah Miner

From the Archives (January 11, 2011):

SEVERAL MONTHS AGO I emailed Louise Plummer to see if I could interview her and her husband, Tom, for our “Inside and Outside Marriage” issue. “Sure,” she responded, “but I’ll tell you right now, I’m not sure how much truth you’ll get out of us.” I was intrigued because Tom and Louise have made a career of writing about their lives. Louise is a noted author of young adult novels, as well as the author of a nonfiction essay collection about her life as a wife and a mother. Tom is also a nonfiction essayist. The couple taught for more than two decades at BYU (Tom in the German department; Louise in the English department) and for many years they team-taught an honors class on writing personal essays and memoirs. Weren’t their careers based on writing truthfully? Was it all a lie?

A few weeks later I find myself with Tom and Louise at their home in South Jordan, Utah, which is filled with mementos of their travels around the world. While ostensibly retired, they’re working at the Oquirrh Mountain temple and getting ready to spend a semester leading a BYU study abroad program in Vienna. “So, you’re here for the inquisition,” they say, and spend the next few hours telling me stories about their forty-five years of married life. The interview serves as a window into the dynamic that I’m sure has been operating their whole marriage: they banter, they laugh, they have a great time together. Although their marriage hasn’t been without its challenges, their easy affection and spirited exchanges tell the story of a relationship grounded in friendship and mutual respect.

I begin the interview asking about their combined history as writers. Louise started writing creative nonfiction first, after giving several very popular talks at BYU Women’s Conferences. Then the couple started team-teaching a popular memoir class at BYU. Tom says, “And then I started thinking, well I’m just a hypocrite sitting in this memoir class and I haven’t written anything. So I’d wake up early and write.”

Louise: And I’d call from the bedroom, STOP WRITING! I don’t get up early for anything—not anything.
Tom: Sometimes Louise would come in and look over my shoulder and say, “That’s not the way that happened. You’re a liar.” And I’d just look at her and say, “This is my story.”
Louise: But the stories were really about my marriage, and some people think I sound harsh.
Tom: But lots of people think she sounds great.
Louise: If you’re a ’fraidy kind of person you wouldn’t want to live with me.

No one can accuse Tom Plummer of being ’fraidy when it comes to Louise. The couple grew up in the same neighborhood on Salt Lake City’s east side, where Tom’s dad was a professor at the University of Utah and Louise’s Dutch-immigrant father was bishop. She talks about “falling in love with Tom’s mind” after listening to his mission homecoming speech. She says, “It is still the best homecoming talk I’ve ever heard. It was really well organized. I just thought it was a masterpiece.” For a year, Louise worked to get Tom to notice her: she belted out Cole Porter in the chapel when she knew he was in the building, dressed to the nines on a Saturday morning when she thought he might stop by her house, and even tried to set a friend up on a date with him so she’d be able to see him more often. Finally, he asked her out in the summer of 1963. Louise got home that night and woke up her parents to tell them the good news. She says, “I bet they got up and danced when I left the room.” A year later, Tom and Louise were married in the Salt Lake Temple.

Louise and Tom don’t shy away from the fact that their “happily ever after” has had its share of ups and downs, starting from the very first year. Tom says, “It was just a hard year. We were both in school at the University of Utah. I think Louise thought her life was over.” Louise agrees. “I cried most of the year. I thought it was really hard that I wasn’t Louise Roos anymore. I couldn’t remember what my name was.”

She continues, “I said to him, you see, I’m the oldest of nine children, and in my family if you went to work, you didn’t have to do dishes or chores. I told my mother, ‘You know, you turned me into a feminist.’ Because when I went to work, I didn’t have to do chores. I always thought it was well worth working outside of the home so I wouldn’t have to do dishes and those other awful things. When we got married I wanted [to be a wife], but on the other hand, I really wanted to be Tom. I was twenty-one, almost twenty-two. Tom was a scholar; that’s who I wanted to be. I knew I had talent, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I was just out of my mind. I remember saying to him one night, ‘How come because you have a penis you don’t have to do the dishes?’”

Although the first year was a period of adjustment, the next five years were a time of great adventure. Tom was accepted into a German PhD program at Harvard, and the couple loaded up their new car and headed East. Louise says, “We were ready. We wanted to go. We thought it was so exciting to go to Harvard. We thought Boston was exciting.” Tom remembers pulling into Cambridge and laughing as they got lost multiple times on the way to finding the place where they were staying. They made friendships that have sustained them through the decades. Louise says, “That move, it’s where we made our friends forever. It’s like we’ve never been apart when we get together. We just start giggling.” The couple visited Europe in the summers and enjoyed their friends and each other. One of the few frustrations of those days was that Louise hadn’t graduated when she left Utah. Tom enjoyed teasing her about it. She says, “He’d play Pomp and Circumstance on the piano and get me to walk around the living room and give me a diploma from PIT—the Plummer Institute of Technology. That was very amusing but it wasn’t very funny.” Tom agrees, “It didn’t last long.”

Their five years in Cambridge didn’t last long either. Soon the couple was packing up their car once again, headed to Tom’s first teaching job at the University of Minnesota. Only this time, the car was considerably fuller than it had been when they arrived in Massachusetts. During the last year in Cambridge, two sons joined the family, Jonathan and Edmund, born barely a year apart. Ed was only three weeks old when they made the move to Minnesota. Louise says, “Our life was nothing like Cambridge. Suddenly we didn’t have lovely sophisticated friends, and I was home with these two little boys.” Tom adds, “I was worried about whether or not I’d get tenure. I was just wringing my hands. I had to finish my dissertation. I’d go teach during the day. Then I had to teach an evening class to keep enough money coming in, and then I had to stay overnight and write my dissertation. We finished, but it was honestly an insane year. And we both wished we were back in Cambridge.” Louise laughs, “I think I wanted to jump out a window. It was so cold. I must have been really lonely. We still had Relief Society on Tuesday mornings. I’d take Jonathan out to the car and put him in his seat, and go back and get the baby and put him in, and then I’d go to Relief Society and hope that someone would see me who could help bring the babies in.”

Over the next fifteen years, Tom continued to teach at the University of Minnesota. Louise finished her bachelor’s in English. Jonathan and Ed grew. Two more sons, Charles and Sam, were born. Tom headed up a department and spearheaded important projects at the university while serving as bishop of their ward. Louise stayed home with the boys for several years and returned to work when Sam was ten months old. She describes her first day at General Mills: “I was so nervous about doing well. I [also] had to wake up a sleeping baby and get him dressed and take him to the babysitter. On that first day of work, first of all, you don’t know anything. I didn’t know where anything was, I had to take something to somewhere and I was just so nervous and I came home with Sam and sat at the dining table and just bawled. ‘I made a mistake! Waah! We’re ruining Sam!’ I was going on and on and all of the boys were sitting at the table staring at me. But it turned out fine.”

Working at General Mills gave Louise a push to finish a master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Minnesota. She was working, trying to finish her thesis, and writing a young adult novel in her spare time when she came across an ad from Delacorte Press (now part of Random House) that announced a contest for first-time writers of young adult novels. She’d recently earned $3,000 for writing a book about Care Bears and Tom says, “She quit her job, took the $3,000 and bought her first Macintosh. She sat in the bedroom and finished her first novel.”

At that time, other exciting things were afoot for the Plummers. In January 1985, Tom started a semester as a visiting professor at BYU. Louise says, “In May, they told Tom they wanted to hire him as a full professor. And on the same day, my editor called and said my book was going to be published. We were so happy we both got headaches.” Tom would be working in the college of the humanities, and when the dean learned that Louise was a published author he asked Tom if she would like to work at BYU too. Louise jumped at the chance. “My whole life started then,” she says.

Tom and Louise were thriving personally and professionally, but raising four boys is never easy. They relied on family to help them through a time when it felt like one of their sons was withdrawing. They were grateful for the love and sensitivity of ward members when a son returned home from his mission after a year. When another teenage son and his girlfriend found themselves expecting a baby, Tom and Louise opened their hearts (and their basement, where the young couple and new baby lived) to their expanding family. Five years ago, they grieved as their youngest son and his wife lost their oldest child shortly after her birth.

“People say, ‘Oh, you must laugh all the time,’” Tom says. “Well, we were in combat for a lot of years. It isn’t easy to get here.” To get through the rough times, Tom and Louise developed some coping mechanisms, including looking at real estate. They try to add up how many places they’ve lived during their marriage, but keep losing count, forgetting to add one in. Eventually they guess it’s around twenty, give or take a few. Louise says, “I don’t like it when I feel like I’m boxed in. The idea of stopping and just waiting to die just creeps me out.” Tom laughs and says, “We moved out of a very nice apartment above the Hogle Zoo because a woman said to Louise, ‘We’ll get to spend the rest of our lives together!’ Louise was totally downtrodden and said, ‘I’ll give it a year.’” It was actually less than a year before we moved to New York.

The Plummers’ honesty about their ups and downs and their wanderlust is characteristic of their writing as well. “One of the things I hate about our culture is that they’re always saying we should be an example to our children, but it always sounds like we’re supposed to be something we really aren’t,” Louise says. “We’re supposed to cover it up, supposed to lie. We’re supposed to do something really special to be an example. How we live IS the example. If I swear, I swear. I really don’t care about swearing. I don’t care if my kids swear. When we cover up our lives we make other people feel crazy. They feel like they’re the only ones who think these weird thoughts. Everybody thinks and does weird things. The minute you come out with a story where you think, ‘I don’t know what people are going to think about this,’ you have fifteen million women come up and say, ‘I thought I was the only one who did that.’”

Tom adds, “And a few who say, ‘Oh, that wasn’t proper.’”

After nearly half a century of togetherness, Tom and Louise have lots of advice based on their experience:

Louise: We believe both people in a marriage should be happy with their lives. In other words, there shouldn’t be just one person out there thriving—both should be thriving. You may need to take turns.
Tom: It’s the job of one person to help the other person be happy.
Louise: In really good marriages, both of you want the other person to do what they want to do.
Tom: Unless it costs a lot of money (laughs).
Louise: Sex gets you through a lot of things.
Tom: A good roll in the hay makes you forget a lot.
Tom: Humor gets you through a lot of trouble.
Louise: Tom can still make me laugh. Sometimes I think, “I can’t stand him. Why do we have to be married forever and ever?” Then he’ll say something so funny and he cracks me up.
Tom: We both like to dream. It gets us in trouble now and again. Dreaming is a big part of what our idea of faith is.
Louise: I’m okay as long as I have a plan. You should die with a plan. People who live their lives to the end are so vital.
Tom: We really need to keep it open. Sometimes we think we’ve hit a dead end. Other times we think we’ve run out of money, but study abroad sends us to Europe. There are always possibilities.

When Tom and Louise started dating back in the 1960s, Louise was a pretty girl with a great voice and a fondness for Cole Porter, and Tom was a returned missionary who knew how to charm an audience. It was a beginning. Over the years, they’ve added to that beginning: supporting and sharing, planning and dreaming, loving each other, and raising a family. Whether the stories they tell are historical fact or embellished throughout the years, they express truth and keep their readers and listeners laughing. Experience has taught Tom and Louise that the ability to make someone laugh is as valuable in writing as it is in marriage.

About Shelah Miner

(Co-Editor-in-Chief) teaches English at BYU and French at a Salt Lake City middle school. She has an addiction to her Audible account, hates making dinner, and embraces the chaos of life with a husband, six kids, a dog, a lizard and four rabbits.

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