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 |

Melina Sempill Watts: The Roots of Tree

Melina Sempill Watts
photo: Elizabeth Jebef, Eyebright Studios

Every author faces a challenge in coming to understand their characters, but Melina Sempill Watts set herself a particularly tough task, in that the protagonist of Tree is, well, a tree, named Tree. Watts has to figure out the perspective of a character whose ideal lifespan makes human life seem brief by comparison; she has to figure out whether trees can communicate with other lifeforms and if so how; she has to figure out how drama and character momentum work when your main point of view character is literally rooted to the ground… Like I say, a significant challenge! In this essay, Watts explains what makes her feel passionately enough about the subject to take that challenge on.

Babies are made—most times—from love. What are books made from?

In the case of Tree, the intellectual grounding of the novel’s world came from two major strands. The emotional center of the book stems from a secret.

The first strand stems from my lifelong passion for California history, reverence for Chumash culture, a crush on the Californio era and from pieces of my own childhood, when I watched the growth of suburbia sneak up and over the green hills in the Santa Monica Mountains.

The second strand came from focusing on biology and ecological history: how did the ecosystems of Southern California transform over time, how did different cultures push plant and animal communities into new forms? The most radical transition, initially, was to grasslands, when species coming from Spain and other European communities took over. Research looking at what plants were used in the adobe bricks from the oldest European buildings on the Western side of the United States, shows that transition was nearly immediate.

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23 October 2017 | guest authors |

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