By Leslie Lindsay
What happens when a contemporary writer of semi-autobiographical short fiction turns her gaze to the iconic images of America’s past? This glimmering collection, SCENES FROM THE HEARTLAND
I’m a sucker for anything Missouri, anything Midwest. That’s probably because this strange little state smack in the U.S. is what shaped me, the place I still think of as ‘home,’ even though I’ve lived elsewhere more than half my life now. There’s a realness, an authenticity to the state, which is a conglomeration of everything and nothing–North, South, East, and West. It has the rolling Ozark mountains, the winding Mississippi, big cities and tiny ones, wealth and poverty. To be a Missourian is to contain multitudes. So when I heard about SCENES FROM THE HEARTLAND (Serving House Books, March 31 2019), I knew I had to read it.
The reader enters the imagined landscape of one of the most well-known American painters, Thomas Hart Benton, slipping back to the 1920s, 30s, and 40s to Southern Missouri, Arkansas, SW Illinois, St. Louis, Kansas City, Hannibal, and more. We meet mothers and fathers, fiddlers, and preachers. There are children with rings of dirt around their heels because their mothers died and their fathers are not tending to them, others, too whose mothers have been sent to an asylum. There are soldiers on their way to war and gamblers who have made their fortune. Maybe.
These nine tales are raw, authentic, and vivid, pulling the reader deep into the dusty confines of the early twentieth century. Many of the themes explored in SCENES FROM THE HEARTLAND are timely and topical in today’s world–racial tensions, loss/grief, war, mental asylum, determination/grit, poverty, and illness. Generally, they are tough, bleak reads and mostly center around some kind of loss, all told with a gentle, unrelenting hand.
I am in awe at Baier-Stein’s creativity, her ability to draw art from art, and that alone is a delightful undertaking.
Please join me in welcoming Donna to the author interview series.
Donna, welcome. I know you’re a Missourian at heart, but reside in New Jersey. Like you, I’ve moved away, but still feel firmly rooted in Missouri. What do you think this says about the pull of the land? Does the land influence our writing?
Donna Baier Stein:
The land, or our home state, definitely exerts an influence on our writing and our lives. Even though I’ve lived up and down the East Coast for 30+ years, I am still a Midwesterner at heart. There is a way of looking at the world that I suspect s very different from that of our coastal counterparts. It’s part innocence, part naiveté, part gullibility, part faith, and part neighborliness. I wrote a column recently for LitHub on short stories from the Midwest. There’s rich material in the heart of the country, despite a tendency on the part of some to think of this as flyover land.
You’ve indicated that part of why you wrote this collection, SCENES FROM THE HEARTLAND, is that you wanted to explore the past for clues to our present. Can you talk about that, please?
Donna Baier Stein:
The initial prompt for this collection came from a Benton lithograph that had hung on my wall for several decades. It had been given as a gift to my father, an almost life-long Kansas Citian. One reason I started describing what I saw in that lithograph (“Spring Tryout”) was that I was attempting to move past autobiographic fiction, to escape the constraints of my own life experiences. The lithograph depicted a time and place very different from my own. As I researched that first story and those that followed, I loved diving into the American past. Research led to fascinating, serendipitous finds that made their way into the plots. One striking metaphor I found was when I uncovered the existence of a church that straddled the Missouri-Kentucky state line, on a river landing literally called Compromise. People from each state kept to the pews on their side of the state, often with armed men in the aisle. This historical border feud had been ongoing since the Civil War and resonated deeply as I, and all of us, confront the deep divisions that lie at the heart of America today. I was also curious to learn more about how racial tensions played out in sundown towns, how women with mental illness were treated in the early 20th century, and how corruption occurred at all levels of society then as now. All these themes were historically present and all very front-and-center in today’s world.
“In this gorgeous collection, Donna Baier Stein teases out the depth and humanity hinted at in Hart’s two dimensional art, using each lithograph as a portal into a vivid, fully fleshed out world. Scenes from the Heartland is brimming with marvelous, generous scenes that truly do come from the heart.”
–Gayle Brandeis, The Art of Misdiagnosis
I love, love how Thomas Hart Benton’s work inspired your own…it’s art about art. And how often have we fallen into paintings and photographs we see hanging on walls in homes, in museums? I think that’s exactly what the artist wants us to do! Can you share a bit of your experience with these pieces?
Donna Baier Stein:
I began by staring at that lithograph hanging on my wall. I wrote down what I saw:
The boy rode a dark horse, crossing a field of yellow stargrass and olive green shadows. A slip of a stream, with logs nearby so recently cut their ends were white and circled with clear, brown rings. The horse’s ears pointed toward a gray farmhouse to the east, and to the left of that, low stalls and three spreading cherry trees blooming pink. On the side of the house a single window opened like an unseeing eye. (“Spring 1933”}
I also noticed a small gray farmhouse in the background of the picture. I put myself into the scene and imagined what else might be just outside this frame. Because of the cut logs, I assumed someone had been nearby with an axe. I assumed there were adults who took care of the animals, laundered the boys’ clothes, etc. So I invented the boys’ mother, who is sleeping behind the small window in the farmhouse, dreaming. Once that story was written and published in Virginia Quarterly Review, I picked eight additional lithographs that spoke to me and followed a similar pattern for each new story: describing what I saw; thoroughly researching the place and time; inventing characters; and giving new dreams, goals, and backstories to the real-life people Benton had portrayed.
What did you find were the limitations, the challenges of writing this way?
Donna Baier Stein:
The main limitation was one of setting, both place and time. It was very important to me that the historical details I included – the price of cereal, the brand of gasoline sold, the fiddle tunes played—be authentic. This required a great deal of research, which can be both fun and time-consuming. Even though I had chosen to let my imagination run wild making up stories about the people Benton had captured in his drawings, the fact that these were not people of my generation or experiences was at times challenging. Every element of an individual story had to fit within the parameters of the lithograph’s setting. I had to find out what kind of shortwave radio would be used in 1937, what gangsters might have lived in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1924, which foods were rationed in 1942.
Was there a particular story in SCENES FROM THE HEARTLAND that particularly moved you, one you felt a close connection to? I know…it’s like choosing your favorite child…or, maybe one that surprised you?
Donna Baier Stein:
I think the first story I wrote for this collection, “Spring 1933.” I felt a connection, of course, because I own the early edition lithograph and see it every time I walk into my office. That story was my first attempt at writing ekphrastic fiction, fiction based on visual art. I loved discovering how the process worked. I also wrote the story at a time when my marriage was ending, and I was able to put some of my own anger and fear into the character of the boys’ mother Amber. I was also able to consider that character’s difficult relationship with her husband Samuel from all angles, to dive deep enough through my writing to understand that both Amber and Samuel were perpetrators and victims, that both bore responsibility for the problems they faced. The story also meant a lot to me because I was very excited to see it published in Virginia Quarterly Review.
Donna, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for taking the time. One last question: is there anything that’s haunting you now—or maybe something I’ve forgotten to ask about?
Donna Baier Stein:
What’s haunting me now is getting back to work on my next book! This is another historical novel (my first was The Silver Baron’s Wife.) It takes place in Paris and New York in the late 19th century, and its characters include Sarah Bernhardt, Nikola Tesla, Swami Vivekananda, and some key fictional characters thrown in for good measure. I am enthralled by the research.
For more information, to connect with the author, or to purchase a copy of SCENES FROM THE HEARTLAND, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: In addition to Scenes from the Heartland, Donna is the author of The Silver Baron’s Wife (PEN/New England Discovery Award, Bronze winner in Foreword Reviews 2017 Book of the Year Award, Will Rogers Medallion Award and Paterson Prize for Fiction, more), Sympathetic People (Iowa Fiction Award Finalist and 2015 Next Generation Indie Book Award Finalist), Sometimes You Sense the Difference (chapbook), and Letting Rain Have Its Say (poetry book). She was a Founding Editor of Bellevue Literary Review and founded and publishes Tiferet Journal.She has received a Bread Loaf Scholarship, Johns Hopkins University MFA Fellowship, grants from the New Jersey Council on the Arts and Poetry Society of Virginia, a Scholarship from the Summer Literary Seminars, and more.
Donna’s writing has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Saturday Evening Post, Writer’s Digest, Confrontation, Prairie Schooner, New York Quarterly, Washingtonian, New Ohio Review, and many other journals as well as in the anthologies I’ve Always Meant to Tell You (Pocket Books) and To Fathers: What I’ve Never Said (featured in O Magazine).
Donna was also an award-winning copywriter for Smithsonian, Time, World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, and many other clients in the direct marketing industry. www.donnabaierstein.com
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of author and used with permission. Special thanks to Kathleen Carter Communications. Office lithograph art provided by D.B. Stein and used with permission. Artistic photo of book designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Pencil drawing from L.Lindsay’s archives. Follow on Instagram @LeslieLindsay1]