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Write On, Wednesday: Steve Wiegenstein on Historical Missouri Fiction~SLANT OF LIGHT

By Leslie Lindsay SLANT OF LIGHT

This is not your typical historical fiction. I know because the words between the covers resonate as only a Missourian can detect. You’ll hear the Ozark drawl tinged with a bit of Tennessee whiskey, smell the thick, hazy days of the river, and taste the chewy gamey texture of venison. I know because I got my start in Greene County, MO.

A sweet, gripping story of longing, loving, and yes, betrayal too, Steve Wiegenstein’s SLANT OF LIGHT (2012, Blank Slate Press) will have you cheering while simultaneously considering your own values.

And we’re honored to have Steve with us today.

L.L.: Thanks, Steve for taking the time to pop over. I am reading SLANT OF LIGHT now and I’m in awe with your voice. I almost feel as if I’m in a George Caleb Bingham print floating down the St. Francis. Can you talk a bit about imagery? How can writers essentially “paint a picture with words?”

Steve Wiegenstein: Leslie, thanks for having me, and thanks for the kind comments! For me, voice is really important, and it has two elements. One is how characters should sound. I try to maintain fidelity to the regional and educational background of each character, and of course they all have to stay within the idiom of the mid-nineteenth century. Keeping the sound of characters straight isn’t easy – I refer to several etymology sources constantly to make sure that a word was in use at the time I am writing in, and that it meant then what it’s supposed to mean. Word meanings are always shifting, so you have to be careful. The second element is the look of things and other sensory descriptions. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was to avoid over-description. Instead of trying to describe all of a scene or location, I try to find the one or two most significant visual elements, or sounds or smells, that will evoke a feeling for what the place is like, and then let the reader’s imagination do the rest of the work. You have to leave room for your reader to imagine.

L.L.: Missouri is one of those states that is often divided in terms of political and social order. Some claim Missouri a southern state, while others maintain a more northern or even neutral territory. Did this affect your interest—and inspiration—in developing the storyline?

Steve Wiegenstein: Absolutely! And not just because I’m a native of Missouri. The story of the Civil War in Missouri is not as well-known as that of the Civil War in the East, but it’s fascinating because it was fought on such a smaller scale. Small groups of soldiers or guerrillas, chance encounters on a road, neighbors betraying neighbors. There was no safe place, no “behind the lines,” and everyone was implicated in the violence. That sort of political division certainly informs the themes of SLANT OF LIGHT in a big way. Nobody is purely one thing or another. Everybody is struggling to find their own best fate in situations that conspire to bring out the worst in people.

L.L.: There are quite a few characters in SLANT OF LIGHT: (James) Turner, a charming writer/lecturer, Charlotte, his down-to-earth bride, and Cabot, an idealistic Harvard-educated abolitionist. Is there one character that felt more like your ‘darling’? One you particularly identified with, or perhaps one most like you?

Steve Wiegenstein: I have to admit, the farther along I got in the writing of this book, the more I fell in love with Charlotte Turner. She was a character I kept returning to in scene after scene, and she grew and surprised me in so many ways. People often think that authors are being coy when they talk about characters “surprising” them, but it’s true! It’s what happens when you turn things over to your unconscious mind and let that guide your creation – things start happening in the story that are unexpected but make perfect sense in retrospect.

L.L.: Shifting gears a bit, to the geography of Missouri. In my mind, I see it as a place rooted in grit and humility; a place that grabs a hold and won’t let go. From your perspective is that a function of geography, history, the stock that hails from the “Show Me State,” or perhaps something else?

Steve Wiegenstein: I grew up in the hill country in the southern part of the state, and like most areas that have been stereotyped by the more “sophisticated” outsiders, people in the Ozarks tend to have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. One of the dominant characteristics is not to let someone know how much you know about a subject – there’s a nice documentary about the Branson area calledWe Always Lie to Strangers,” and that title kind of sums up that attitude. The geography of the state makes a person learn to live within limitations – the land isn’t as rich as other parts of the Midwest, the hills are smaller, the valleys narrower – and I think that geography creates what you accurately describe as grit and humility in people. If you’re going to make a go of it, you have to learn to make do with what you’re given. I’ve always liked the old word for farming, “husbandry,” which carries the sense of taking care of what you’ve got, as in “husbanding your resources.” Husbandry is the art of making things flourish under difficult conditions, and Missourians have been practicing husbandry for two hundred years. That character trait appeals to me a lot.

L.L.: I’m a vegetarian living in Chicgaoland now, but I’ll readily admit to missing ‘comfort food,’ my grandma used to make: fried chicken and brisket to name a couple, but there’s so many other delicious Ozark dishes without meat: biscuits, corn bread, fried okra, peach cobbler, grits, sweet tea…am I making you hungry yet?! If you were to create a cookbook companion to go along with SLANT OF LIGHT, what foods might you include?

Steve Wiegenstein: Well . . . if we’re talking country cooking, you have to make some compromises with what we think of today as healthy eating! Remember, those country meals were for people who had been doing hard manual labor all day, so the extra fat and calories would get burned right off. But here’s where I’d start: Fresh-gigged suckers filleted, rolled in corn meal, and dropped into a very hot deep fryer. Suckers are a type of fish that most people avoid because of their bones, but this this type of cooking melts their bones, and they are delicious! Gigging season happens in the dead of winter, so part of the fun of eating them is standing around on a riverbank with your deep fryer bubbling. Then you roll up the remaining corn meal into little balls with some eggs and milk, toss them into the deep fryer too, and you’ve got hush puppies. Some people go all the way and do the same with sliced okra, green beans, or ears of corn, but for me the best vegetable to go with that is fresh-grown cabbage, chopped up fine and mixed with chopped carrots and a little bit of vinegar to make cole slaw. My version of cole-slaw is a lot tastier than the mayonnaise-based stuff, I think, but the cabbage has to be fresh for the flavor to come out. Cabbage gets a bad rap because people eat the flavorless old heads from the supermarket, but fresh-picked cabbage from your garden or the farmer’s market is a lot better. [frying fresh gigged suckers. Image retrieved from forums.ozarkanglers.com530 on 3.17.15]

L.L.: Okay, that was fun—and tempting! Can you tell us a little more about you as writer? Do you plot or let the pen guide your story? I’d imagine you’d have to do a lot of research to make the story as historically accurate as possible—and I bet that’s not a challenge since you’re an academic living in the college capital of Missouri—Columbia.

Steve Wiegenstein: Honestly, I try not to let my research get out in front of my story. I imagine we’ve all read historical novels where you get the sense that the author is thinking, “I did all this research on 18th Century textile manufacturing, and by golly it’s going in the book,” so the plot stops dead while we get a lengthy piece of exposition on textile manufacturing. I try to make the research invisible, so that readers believe everything presented to them without even noticing. If a reader thinks, “Gee, that’s an impressive piece of research,” then it’s getting in the way of the story.

As far as plotting goes, I am not a very detailed plotter. I have five or six moments in my head that I think are going to be important turning points in the story, and the task of the plot is to get from turning point to turning point in a believable way. My focus in writing is much more on character than on plot. It’s important to me that even minor characters are vivid and well-realized, so I’m happy to let a scene play out a long time to reveal character, even if it only has a small component of plot advancement.

L.L.: And now you as a reader. They say writers must read all they can get their hands on. What are your reading habits? What are you currently reading? I’m currently reading for background for the third book in my series, which takes place in the 1880s, so at the moment I’m immersed in history. I don’t read as much in historical nonfiction as I do original documents and source materials, so I look for collections of those. I’m also reading David Thelen’s Paths of Resistance and David Benac’s Conflict in the Ozarks, both of which are books about the social upheavals that were happening in Missouri at that time. Conflict in the Ozarks is specifically about the coming of large-scale lumbering to the state, which changed the economy, landscape, and social roles in Missouri forever.

I’ve also set myself a fiction-reading goal. My second book, This Old World, has been named as a finalist for the M. M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction, and I would like to read the other eleven nominees before the June meeting of the Historical Novel Society, when the winner will be announced. This is not out of a sense of competition, because thankfully, the Historical Novel Society is not that type of organization. Rather, I’m just interested in reading what other authors are up to, and if I don’t win, I’d like to be able to congratulate the winner intelligently!

Steve Wiegenstein:

L.L. Alas, I could ask questions all day…do you have anything to add that I haven’t asked?

Steve WeigensteinSteve Wiegenstein: I’d like to add that I always enjoy conversations with readers. People can contact me through my website, www.stevewiegenstein.com, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/stevewiegensteinauthor, or on Twitter at @swiegenstein. I also love to talk to book clubs, either in person or via Skype, and have a special place in my heart for giving talks at libraries, because my mom was a librarian and I think libraries are one of the great institutions in America!

L.L. Thanks so much for being with us today, Steve. Looking forward to reading the next book in the series!

Steve Wiegenstein: Thank you!

Bio: Steve Wiegenstein is the author of Slant of Light, published in 2012 and the runner-up for the David H. Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction, and of This Old World, the sequel to Slant of Light, published in September 2014. Both are published by Blank Slate Press, a literary small press in St. Louis, Missouri.

Steve grew up in the Missouri Ozarks, the setting for his novel series, and worked there as a newspaper reporter before entering the field of higher education. He is an avid hiker and canoeist who hits the trails and float streams of the Ozarks every chance he gets.

Steve’s historical fiction grows out of his academic fascination with utopian societies of the Nineteenth Century. He first became interested in the Icarians, an emigrant group that settled in the Midwest from 1848 to the 1890s, and his interest spiraled out from there. The conflict of ideals and reality, passion and reason, and individual desires versus community welfare inspired him in writing Slant of Light; the Southern Literary Review called the novel “an exciting and original take on the history of America becoming America, full of complex characters and rich, realistic dialogue.” In their award announcement, the Langum Prize judges said, “At a deeper level it is also a meditation on the decline of order – social order, sexual order, and political order.”

Steve lives in Columbia, Missouri, where he works as the associate dean for academic affairs at Columbia College. He loves to speak at libraries, civic organizations, and other groups as part of the Missouri Humanities Council’s “Show-Me Speakers Bureau.” His short fiction has appeared in the Southern Humanities Review, Nebraska Review, Louisiana Literature, Beloit Fiction Journal, and elsewhere.



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