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Author Q & A with Mr. Steve Wiegenstein Author of Slant of Light, This Old World, & The Language of Trees

Quote from your Book | Favorite Quote Decades had passed, but Charlotte vividly remembered the day a couple of months after the crime, when it became clear to all in Daybreak that Marie was carrying another child inside her, a child whose condition no one could know inside her damaged body, and the thought of Marie’s battered brain trying to deal with the birth of that man’s child was too much for any of them to bear. The women of the village gathered wordlessly at Charlotte’s cabin that morning. She sent them to gather pennyroyal and primrose, which she brewed into a strong tea, saving the dregs to mash into a pungent cake to cook on the griddle. They brought the tea and herb cake to Marie in the afternoon, like a deputation from the Ladies’ Aid Society, but with somber intent. “Here,” Charlotte said to her, and there was an instant of recognition. Marie’s look was frank and knowing. She swallowed the cake in three bites, the tea in four long grimacing gulps. “Bitter,” Marie said. “Bitter.”

 

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?

I think I always wanted to be a writer. My dad was a gifted mechanic, and my mom was a librarian and free-lance writer. It didn’t take too long before my tendencies came out–my repairman abilities are still pretty much limited to the simplest of tasks.

When did you write your first book and how old were you?

I wrote my first book in my mid-twenties, when I was working on my master’s degree. I gave it to a friend whose judgment I trusted, and the look on his face when he handed it back to me a few days later told me all that I needed to know. It sits in a drawer to this day. I didn’t write my first published book until I was in my fifties.

How did you begin writing? Did you intend to become an author, or do you have a specific reason or reasons for writing each book?

I began writing as a kid by watching how my mother did things and also by reading obsessively and copying passages out of things I read. You learn a lot by hand-copying passages; I can see why it was part of the proper education of a young person up until the mid-twentieth century. At first, my idea of becoming an author was caught up in the romantic ideal of a Hemingway-style writer, but when I returned to serious writing in middle age, my motivations had changed entirely. Now my overriding interest as a writer is pursuing themes that mean a lot to me. That’s all that matters these days.

 

SLANT OF LIGHT

In 1985, I was teaching at Centenary College of Louisiana when I came across a passage describing a group of French colonists who had traveled up the Red River in 1848 to found a commune near what is now Denton, Texas. The idea of communists among the Comanches piqued my interest, and ever since then, I have been studying utopian movements of the 19th Century.

That interest, combined with my love of fiction writing and my Ozarks heritage, led to the idea of imagining a utopian settlement in the Missouri Ozarks in the years leading up to the Civil War. What would it be like? Whom would it attract? Could they succeed?

In April 2012, Blank Slate Press published the results of those musings as Slant of Light, and that book was followed in 2014 by This Old World. I hope you enjoy them! Stay tuned for further updates. The third book, The Language of Trees, is a continuation of that story twenty years later, as the utopians enter their second generation and the country changes around them.

THIS OLD WORLD

I had the story of This Old World in mind even as I was writing the first draft of Slant of Light. In my mind, the two books are intimately interconnected, although a lot of people tell me they read and enjoyed This Old World before they read Slant of Light, and in some cases without even knowing it existed.

The title comes from an old hymn that I used to hear: This old world is full of trouble, full of sickness, weak and sore; if you love your neighbor truly, love will come to you the more.” It’s set to a wonderful shape-note tune called “Restoration,” and every time I see that title, the tune runs through my mind. Here’s a version.with the lyrics I remember, and here’s a version with the old “sacred harp” lyrics and sung in the Sacred Harp style.

So maybe loving your neighbor is a theme in This Old World, or maybe the theme is that the world is full of trouble. I guess they’re not mutually exclusive.

THE LANGUAGE OF TREES

This novel jumps ahead twenty years from the end of THIS OLD WORLD, though it retains the same setting–a valley of the St. Francis River in Madison County, Missouri. But things have changed in the community of Daybreak. A younger generation is on the rise, and old values are under strain. The communal, agrarian life that existed before the Civil War is disappearing as America falls under the sway of the Gilded Age, the Industrial Revolution, and the accelerated pace of life that portends the coming Twentieth Century.

This novel takes on the growing rural/urban divide, the arrival of industrial methods to rural life, and the psychic cost of chasing that extra dollar of profit–themes as relevant today as they were in the 1880s.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

I write early in the mornings, before dawn, and in order to help my imagination I typically leave the lights off as I write. I probably look like some sort of wraith as I sit in the dark illuminated only by my laptop.

Do you like to create books for adults, youth and/or children? and Why?

I’m strictly an adult-audience writer. I like to exercise the full range of my intellectual and emotional faculties when I write, so I need to be able to engage will all manner of subjects, language, and character types. So youth and children’s books are not in my zone.

How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?

Three published so far and working on the fourth. I’d have to say my favorite is the first, SLANT OF LIGHT, because it signaled a return to creative writing after several decades away and a real burst of personal creativity for me.

How long does it take you to write a book?

Typically three years from start to finish, although that includes revision and working with the publisher in addition to the actual writing time. But it’s all part of the process.

Could you describe the mundane details of writing: How many hours a day to you devote to writing? Do you write a draft on paper or at a keyboard (typewriter or computer)?

It’s hard to say how many hours I devote to writing, because when I’m working on a book it’s never out of my mind, so I am “working” even when I’m doing something entirely different. But I’d say three to four hours a day of actual at-the-keyboard work, and I’m strictly a computer guy these days.

What does your family think of your writing?

It impinges on their lives, and I’m aware of that and appreciate their forbearance in tolerating my frequent distant expressions and my trips to obscure bookstores and libraries. They are very supportive, and I’m grateful for it.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I’m fond of hiking and canoeing, especially in the hills of the Ozarks, where I grew up.

What do you think makes a good story?

Conflict! No story moves forward without significant conflict, and the best stories enter into that conflict without our fully knowing how it’s going to turn out. Second, I would say, unpredictability. I hate reading a book when I can predict the ending after fifty pages.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating/writing your books?

I was surprised when my characters started doing unexpected things! At some point, your unconscious takes over, and characters really do develop lives of their own. That caught me off guard the first time it happened, but now I am always open to the unexpected twists and turns of a story that I hadn’t foreseen.

What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?

I’m a fan of John Williams, whose AUGUSTUS was a National Book Award winner in the 1970s, and whose BUTCHER’S CROSSING is, I think, an unacknowledged masterpiece of a re-imagined Western. I love authors who take genres and rethink them. In historical fiction, which I guess is the genre people might associate me with, I like Ann Weisgarber’s work a lot. For influence, though, I have to look to the American classics–Emerson and Thoreau.

Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?

I do! They are usually very enthusiastic, although if I’ve killed off a beloved character, they sometimes take it pretty personally. But what can you do?

Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?

I research very heavily, usually in documents and archives but also in secondary sources. Thankfully, the research materials are often interesting by themselves!

Do you have any suggestions to help me become a better writer? If so, what are they

Read, read, read. Read like a hog. Read as if you’ll die if you don’t. Read outside of your favorite areas. Read everything.

Do you meet your readers at book signings, conventions, or similar events?

Oh yes, I love meeting readers. I go to every signing and festival I can. My particular favorites are library events. The free public library is one of America’s greatest inventions.

Tell us about your most recent book?

THE LANGUAGE OF TREES takes place in Missouri in the late 1880s, when large timber and mining companies came to the rural parts of the state and changed the way of life there forever. It’s the story of rural life giving way to the Industrial Revolution, of ideals being put to the test, and of the ability of people to overcome adversity with love and tough-mindedness.

What’s more important: characters or plot?

Oh, characters, by far. Plot is just one thing happening after another. Characters are what brings life to a story.

How do books get published?

Luck, I think!

Do you write every single day?

Oh, yes.

Ballpoint, uniball or fountain pen?

Uniball. Very utilitarian.

What’s the worst job you’ve had?

Directing some degree programs at an online university. I basically had to slave-drive a bunch of faculty, and was in turn slave-driven myself. Being a cog in a giant machine is no fun.

Tell us some more about your book/s.

They’re an interlocked series, with evolving characters who live in essentially the same location–a river valley in the Missouri Ozarks. They are essentially history encapsulated in one location.

Are you planning to adapt any of your stories to the screen?

I already have! Anybody want to produce one? I’m looking!

How hard is it to establish and maintain a career in writing?

Oh, very hard. It is always possible to find a reason not to do something. What’s hard is ignoring those reasons and doing it anyway–day after day after day.

Any last thoughts for our readers?

If you are a reader–thank you! You are what makes us writers persist! If you are a writer–persist!