~ News, announcements, events, and ruminations about my books, including Slant of Light, This Old World, The Language of Trees, and Scattered Lights, and about creativity, fiction, Missouri, the Ozarks, and anything else that strikes my fancy
I mentioned earlier this month that the year was off to an excellent start in Ozarks writing. This book is not technically an “Ozarks” book, but its author, John Mort, grew up in southern Missouri and has written several fine novels and story collections based in the Ozarks. So, close enough.
Oklahoma Odysseyis, if you’re looking for a descriptive category, a novel of the West. It mainly takes place in southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma in the time leading up to the Oklahoma Land Run of 1893, with briefer forays to Kansas City and elsewhere. But it toys with and re-imagines the stock characters and situations of the Western genre. We have a hero, love interest, sidekick, and villain, but none of these people turn out to be what you would expect. There’s a killing and a call for revenge, but again, don’t expect it to go the way you have been conditioned by decades of Westerns.
I have a complete review of Oklahoma Odyssey coming out in the next edition of OzarksWatch magazine, so I’ll leave my discussion for there. If you’re not already a subscriber to OzarksWatch, what are you waiting for? But for now, I’ll just say that this novel is a real gem, with rich characterization, historical insight, and a compelling story.
I shouldn’t really call The Moonflower Vine an Ozarks book, as it is set in the western Missouri prairie, in a fictionalized version of the town of Nevada, where Jetta Carleton grew up. (If you want to get a sense of this region, you should look at Leland Payton’s marvelous book of photographs, Ozark-Prairie Border.) But a couple of the major characters of the book spend considerable time in the Ozarks, and since it’s a border region I’ll expand my “Ozarks books” phrase a little to include this one.
The Moonflower Vine was first published in 1962 and was a big hit, making the bestseller list, some important book clubs, and the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books volume. Then, as books do, it faded from attention. It became one of those secret favorites, passed from enthusiast to enthusiast, until Harper Perennial brought out a new edition in 2009 with a robust introduction from Jane Smiley. That new edition helped return the book to some deserved prominence.
The novel is divided into six sections, one for each of the major characters. It begins in the more-or-less contemporary time period to its publication, then dips into the past with the next four sections, finally returning to the present at the end. So its structure is a bit challenging, but not overwhelmingly so.
But what makes The Moonflower Vine so memorable is its rich, surprising characterization. The novel’s six main characters are a rural couple and their four daughters, all of whom go through various troubles and all of whom are revealed, over time, to have secrets they are keeping from the rest of the family. The characters resist stereotyping, revealing ever-deepening layers of feeling, aspiration, frustration, and despair. It’s an immensely humane novel that refuses to excuse its characters even as it comprehends them. And for a book that made it into the Reader’s Digest condensations, it’s surprisingly frank about sexual desire. (I suspect they condensed that part right out and left the “local color” in.)
What I ultimately take away from The Moonflower Vine, though, is a deeply forgiving spirit. By one definition or another, all the characters fail. But they are never portrayed as failures. They are flawed creatures, like us all, who are doing their best with what has been handed to them. And sometimes their best is not very good. They do stupid things, they suppress their feelings, they misunderstand. And yet I found myself drawn to them, and drawn also to this landscape by Carleton’s vivid power of description. She sees this world in an intense and careful way. Some people might see this book as an exercise in nostalgia, but I think that misses its precise and comprehensive view of human nature.
“What just happened?” is a response that I think many millions of people can identify with. Over the past half-decade, I’ve greeted the evening news with variations on that phrase day after day, as events, statements, mob scenes, and bizarre behavior seemed to tumble out daily, each one more insane than the last.
What Just Happened is also the title of a book I’ve been reading lately, an interesting effort to capture that craziness in real time, a book in the form of journal entries from the beginning of the COVID pandemic to early 2021.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to relive 2020, a year that undoubtedly marked one of the low points of American history. A deadly virus came to the country and millions of people both in the government and in private life tried to pretend it wasn’t a threat. Video recordings of police officers killing black people in a variety of sketchy circumstances became an almost weekly occurrence. A presidential election was held, in which the person who lost by nearly eight million votes declared without evidence that the election had been stolen and (shortly after the new year) urged a mob to storm the Capitol during the certification of the outcome.
But I found myself drawn in to this book. Its raw accounts of the panic and anxiety he felt as the disease swept ashore in the early part of the year reminded me of my own. His horrified description of watching the George Floyd killing on TV, over and over again, brought back my own reactions. Even the parts I couldn’t personally connect to had interest. Charles Finch, the author, lives in Los Angeles, a city I’ve never felt particularly involved with. But his depictions of people’s pandemic responses, which like everyone’s were both highly individual and yet predictably patterned, had a universal feel.
Not that the book is objective, or tries to be. It’s a personal record, with all the personal obsessions, concerns, anxieties (lots of anxieties), and moments of victory that such a record demands. But as long as you read it with that understanding — that it’s not trying to be a comprehensive account, but rather a single individual’s record of a year that revealed much that is dark and troubling about America — it’s a compelling document.
Even after finishing the book, I still don’t get what he hears in Taylor Swift’s music that’s so great, but whatever. I’ll take his word for it.
I read Walden about once a year, or at least dip into it for refreshment. Lately I’ve been reading the “winter” chapters: “Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors,” “Winter Animals,” and “The Pond in Winter.” These are much quieter chapters than the showy, occasionally verbally extravagant flourishes of “Economy” and “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” and they tend to get overlooked, I think. But I’m appreciating them anew this time around.
The “former inhabitants” section is a quiet catalogue of the abandoned houses and waste places Thoreau encounters as he walks around his Concord neighborhood, and a recollection of what he knows about the families who once lived there – which in some cases is very little. One might wonder what he’s up to with this melancholy inventory. I wondered, too, until I noticed, this time around, that the people he memorializes are almost all Black, poor, or both. All that is left of their life’s labor is an overgrown hummock, a portion of a cellar wall, a vague tale of their occupation.
This section of the book is a meditation on disappearance and loss, and it’s especially telling that this meditation focuses on the poor. Thoreau approaches their stories with his usual wry humor. In one instance he tells of a comical adventure with the volunteer fire department, when they respond to an alarm and mistakenly think the fire is some distance away, when it actually turns out to be an abandoned hut just down the road. But that scene is followed by the poignant description of the sole remaining member of that hut’s last family, who returns to the home of his childhood and pokes through the ashes for any remnant of his family’s existence, turning up only the hook from which the well-dipper was fastened. “I felt it,” Thoreau writes, “and still remark it almost daily in my walks, for by it hangs the history of a family.”
Disappearance, withdrawal, diminishment. These chapters are full of such things. The visitors are few; the animals go into hiding; even the pond itself, frozen over, is sawn into blocks and carried away, ice to cool the beverages of the privileged in distant cities. But this condition also yields new perspectives. Thoreau takes advantage of the winter to go out on the ice of the pond and observe, to take measurements and to peer to the bottom, activities that would be impossible during warmer times.
Winter brings clarity as the essential parts are revealed. There is melancholy in this, of course, but also opportunity for a deepened understanding. And of course, the chapter that follows “The Pond in Winter” is “Spring.”
I am currently floating (metaphorically) because the University of Missouri alumni magazine just published a long essay I wrote about floating (literally). I love taking float trips on Ozark streams and tried to convey some of the feeling of those experiences.
They also assigned a writer and photographer to do a profile of me to accompany the essay. Tony Rehagen and Nic Benner both did wonderful jobs.
A week ago, I was fortunate to be part of the ceremony honoring the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award in Fiction finalists. It was a terrific ceremony, and you can watch the entire thing on this YouTube link.
Awards like this always inspire paired feelings in me. First, of course, there’s pride. I work hard at my writing, and it’s very gratifying to have a panel of judges, accomplished writers, literary critics, and teachers of writing, declare that it’s good. So I want to brag and holler.
But then I think…really? I’ve entered lots of contests, and not gotten a whiff of recognition. So you know there’s always an element of fortune involved. Were the finalists’ five books really the best out of the 419 entered? A different panel of judges could well have selected others. So any recognition needs to be taken with a significant dose of humility as well.
Today, though, I’m casting doubts aside and just basking in the enjoyment of being named a finalist. Perhaps in another year Scattered Lights would not have been selected, but this year it was, so I’m celebrating. Here’s the judges’ commendation, words which touched my heart and which I will cherish. They inspire me to keep working, and to keep trying to improve.
“In the last five years, it has seemed at times as if we are a nation of two permanently estranged tribes, doing little more than sending up angry flares at each other. But in Scattered Lights, a quiet, probing, masterful collection of stories set in his native Ozarks, Steve Wiegenstein tacitly rejects that binary and, in doing so, returns to a fundamental promise of fiction, that politics dissolves in the particular.
“Wiegenstein’s signal strength as a writer is in his characters – a girl reflecting with awe at herself on a kiss, a widow who refuses to take her predetermined place in a town’s society, a middle-aged man whose dispiriting new job suddenly and unexpectedly decides him in favor of courage and happiness. In all of these instances, the characters’ inner lives precede whatever lesson they may represent. Wiegenstein steadfastly and honorably refuses to invite catastrophe or revelation on his characters for the sake of a reader’s cheap excitement.
“Instead, he presents us with dozens of distinctive and real people doing their best, or not so best, but intermittently asking the same questions all of us do – why are we here, who loves us, what do we owe each other, what does it mean to be good? In the process, the pared, beautiful prose of Scattered Lights comes to seem less a style than an ethic – not to intrude, but to observe; not to judge, but to comprehend. The project founded on a final faith, present in great writers of short fiction, from Chekov to Grace Paley, to another of this year’s finalists Deesha Philyaw, that art is where our higher selves can meet, free from the transient furies of the news. The sooner we begin paying attention to each other as people, Wiegenstein argues, the more people we suddenly begin to see, no matter where we’re from.”
In honor of William Shakespeare’s birthday, or at least his purported birthday, here’s the opening of my short story, “Why Miss Elizabeth Never Joined the Shakespeare Club.”
They found Miss Elizabeth dead this morning, upright in her velvet Queen Anne chair, hands folded. When I heard the news, I was in the same pose; I had fallen asleep while crocheting, as I am prone to do in the afternoons nowadays, and the telephone frightened me. Unexpected phone calls always bring thoughts of death. My first reaction:
Now I am the only one left who knows Miss Elizabeth’s story. My second reaction: Perhaps I am the only one to whom it has meaning.
You can read the rest of the story in my collection, Scattered Lights. If you already own the collection, thank you! And be sure to leave a review on your favorite book-review website.
I ordered this new collection of short stories from the University of Notre Dame Press as soon as I saw the announcement, and for a couple of reasons. It was the second book in a row from a Missouri author to win the press’s Sullivan Prize, so I felt a little regional pride. And the previous year’s prizewinner, John Mort’s Down Along the Piney, was such a pleasure that I had developed some trust in the editors’ judgment.
That trust was justified. R. M. Kinder’s A Common Person and Other Storiesis a rich and rewarding book. The seventeen stories in its 200 pages have a unified, guiding sensibility to them, but each is distinctive in its own way, and some challenge our notion of what counts as a “story.” It’s a satisfying collection, with stories to re-read and find multiple rewards from.
Kinder’s strength is her handling of point of view, the flowing, sometimes-random way our thoughts move from one idea to the next. The characters in her stories think in the kind of associational bursts of connection we’re all familiar with, from specific observation to vast abstraction, from hope to despair in the flick of an insight, and then back to hope again. Their feelings and responses are true and precisely portrayed.
There’s a proliferation of animals in these stories, too, mostly dogs but some others as well. I don’t know anything about Kinder’s personal habits, but certainly the stories suggest that for this author, the way a person interacts with animals is an indicator of essential character. The dogs have lives and personalities in the stories that are as carefully drawn as the humans, sometimes.
Sometimes the point of view will float from character to character within a story, the sort of thing we warn our beginning students against but a beautiful tool in the hands of a pro. The effect is that of a drifting consciousness, above but not detached from the thoughts of the individual characters, allowing us to glimpse multiple trains of thought and emotion even as the story progresses along a single line of action. This technique gives some of the stories a dreamlike quality, not that actual dreams are happening (although they sometimes do) but because we move from mind to mind with such swiftness and ease. And sometimes the collective consciousness of the community speaks through the voice of narrator.
If you’re a lover of the short story, this collection is worth tracking down and putting on your shelf.
I can hardly say enough about how delighted I was last night when I received word that my short story collection had been named as one of ten finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award in Fiction for 2021. The happy vibe is still in full effect this morning, and I find myself reflecting on this whole writing endeavor.
Writers are a funny bunch. It’s the most solitary art form of all, and somebody can be working on a single project for years. You have to distance yourself from the rewards of immediate gratification, and in fact you’ll hear a lot of writers declare that they get sufficient reward from the work itself. I say that myself from time to time.
But at the same time, writers as a group tend to be highly insecure, often neurotically so, and every little bit of recognition is lapped up like sweet cream. So we hold contests and conferences, and we monitor sales reports, even as we announce that such things don’t really matter. But of course they do matter, even if it’s only inside our heads.
So today I celebrate, and tomorrow I get back to work.