Steve Wiegenstein: Utopia & Me

Steve Wiegenstein
photo: Kaci Smart

The Language of Trees is the third in Steve Wiegenstein’s series of novel about Daybreak, a fictional utopian community in 19th-century Missouri. I’d not come across the previous two, Slant of Light and This Old World, but it doesn’t matter; you’ll be able to dive into the world Wiegenstein’s created and sort out the relationships between the various characters easily enough—and chances are you’ll get hooked by the story of how the community deals with the arrival of a lumber and mining company looking to acquire the natural resources within Daybreak’s boundaries and the surrounding landscape… which makes this a very timely story indeed. (And, he says, there’s already a fourth novel in the works, which will bring Daybreak into the twentieth century.) Here, he talks a bit about some of the historical inspirations for these novels.

In 2006, I awoke one morning with what I thought was a great idea for a novel.

Before I go any further, let me give you some background about myself. I am a longtime teacher at the college level, and over the years have been fascinated by the utopian movements of the 19th century. There were lots of these communities across the United States in the 1830s and 1840s; the Shakers, Brook Farm, New Harmony, Oneida, are just a few of the most familiar names. I also have a background in creative writing, although in 2006 I had not pursued that interest for quite a while.

The idea I woke up with that April morning was to combine these two interests and create a fictional utopian community in the Missouri Ozarks, the area where I grew up, in the years before and during the Civil War. I figured that the clash of a group of idealists with the troubles of the times would provide lots of opportunity for drama. So I started to write, and for the past eleven years I have rarely gone more than two days in a row without spending time working on the books that have grown out of that initial idea.

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12 December 2017 | guest authors |

Jan English Leary on Antonya Nelson

Jan English Leary
photo: John Leary

Many of the protagonists in Skating on the Vertical, the debut short story collection by Jan English Leary, are women on the edge: A young teacher frustrated by a system rigged against one of her immigrant students; a mother desperate to persuade her teenage daughter not to have an abortion; women struggling not to relapse into self-destructive habits in the face of stress. Nobody comes out the other side “fixed,” but they find the strength to push through just the same. In this guest essay, Leary talks about a writer whose emotional depths helped her realize that she, too, not only had stories to tell but could find the means within her to tell them.

I came late to writing fiction, later than most writers. I was in my mid-thirties with two small children and a full-time job teaching French. I’d always been an addicted reader and a lover of language, but it never occurred to me that I could write fiction. I could write analytical essays about other people’s work, but I couldn’t imagine generating stories myself. It was motherhood that brought me to writing, that made me want to explore the intricacies of human relationships through stories.

Back when I was in high school, I read Salinger’s Nine Stories, and my eyes opened to the magic of short fiction. I started reading my parents’ issues of The New Yorker and came to know the work of Eudora Welty, John Updike, John Cheever, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. As a young adult, I loved the work of Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, Tobias Wolff, and Lorrie Moore. But it wasn’t until the early 1990s, after I’d been writing fiction for a few years myself, that I encountered the work of Antonya Nelson in The New Yorker and The Best American Short Stories. In her work, I knew I’d found someone who spoke to me not only as a writer but also as a woman and a mother.

Nelson writes about the power of maternal love, but she doesn’t shy away from allowing her characters to have moments of doubt, regret, even rage and to make big mistakes. She is unflinching in her honesty. No one does a better job than Nelson of populating her stories with families that are broken and cobbled together but bound by fragile yet fierce love. Sometimes these are biological bonds; sometimes they are alliances made of marriage. And with Nelson, there’s always a complicated family web: ex-spouses, in-laws, step-children. But what endures are the bonds of familial love.

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11 December 2017 | selling shorts |

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