~ 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 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.
On the left of this page is my “blogroll,” the list of blogs that I’ve found enjoyable, interesting, or worthy of a follow. You’ll see Joel Vance’s blog listed there, and I recommend you visit it.
His last post was November 20 of this year, not long ago, and it’s classic Vance. A consummate storyteller for many decades, Vance always put himself in the stories as the butt of the joke. His misadventures with a continuing cast of hunting dogs were a staple of his years with the Missouri Conservationist, the publication where I first read his work and for which he wrote during much of his career.
Joel Vance didn’t just write funny stories. He also wrote about the joys of the Missouri outdoors and the threats to it. He wrote in a vivid, conversational style that let you know that you were getting the real Joel Vance, not some packaged PR, although of course the Conservationist is ultimately a PR publication. There was also a no-nonsense quality in his writing that let you know he was ready to call bullshit when he saw it, and I’m sure he saw plenty.
Brandon Butler remarks in his column that this quality of Vance’s writing inspired confidence in his readers and built a rapport with them that carried over into other areas. He specifically cites the passage of Missouri’s much-admired conservation sales tax, which drew on a reservoir of trust that the Conservation Department had built up over the years. I think there’s real merit in that observation, and it’s something that deserves more attention.
Why did people trust the Conservation Department enough to pass a dedicated sales tax? Lots of reasons, of course, but one is that the department, through people like Joel Vance, had been open and honest with the citizens of Missouri. They communicated effectively. As I used to say in my Principles of PR class back at Culver-Stockton, the first rule of good public relations is “Never lie.” And to expand further, “Never even allow youself to be suspected of lying. If something bad happens, deal with it head-on. You’ll suffer in the short term but build trust for the long term.”
Nowadays, we are living through one of the great health crises in our country’s history. We’ll top 300,000 deaths this week, maybe as early as tomorrow, and may potentially hit 400,000 by the time our new president is inaugurated. What would have our situation been like if our leaders at the federal and state level had followed Joel Vance’s example and addressed the situation plainly and honestly, without all the fudging, misdirection, and outright lying that we have seen over the past year? No one knows, but it’s plain to see that there is no reservoir of trust to draw on. Our governor and our president, and their myriads of enablers, have accustomed us to assume that the government is not being straight with us. It’s a sad state of affairs, and it will take a long time to reverse.
I imagine that eventually, Joel Vance’s blog will be deactivated. But for now, I’m leaving the link up at the side of my page, and I encourage you to read through his work. You may not always agree with what he says, but you’ll always know what he thinks and where he stands. And I guarantee that you’ll be entertained.
I’ve made my fondness for old hymns known before. I grew up with them, and even today an old hymn will get stuck in my head for days at a time.
Such is the case with “Come, Thou Fount,” one of the hymns that was an evergreen favorite in my childhood church, and one of those that has maintained a surprising popularity among contemporary pop Christian groups and singers, although as usual they can’t keep from tweaking it to make it more “modern,” adding choruses or smoothing out the lyrics to suit today’s sensibilities.
“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” to give its full title, was written in the mid-1700s by a 22-year-old English pastor and hymnodist named Robert Robinson. Like most hymns of the era, it came unattached to a particular tune. The tune we associate it with the most is an American tune of somewhat obscure origin called “Nettleton,” named after the Connecticut evangelist and composer Asahel Nettleton, who may or may not have written it. The tune has a kind of thumping, straightforward tread that is one reason it sticks in the mind so easily: de de BUMP BUMP, de de BUMP BUMP, and so forth.
But what draws me to “Come, Thou Fount” are its lyrics. They’re kind of a mishmash, really, but in such interesting ways. Take the first lines. “Come, thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy praise. Streams of mercy never ceasing call for songs of loudest praise.” This gives us a hint of what we’re in for. God is a fountain, and also a kind of cosmic piano tuner. The two images are intermingled through the verse. One might say Robinson is mixing his metaphors here, or that this tumbled mix is just what he’s aiming for, in the sense that God is too big to be contained in a single metaphorical framework.
The second verse relies on what to most people today is a very obscure Biblical reference: “Here I raise mine Ebenezer, here by Thy great help I’ve come.” But believers in Robinson’s time would have recognized the reference as coming from 1 Samuel, in a verse in which Samuel erects a monument stone at the site of a victory over the Philistines. Samuel calls it “Stone of Help,” or Eben-Ezer in the English transliteration of the Hebrew, and the word came to signify a place of victory by divine intervention. The legendary Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta takes its name from this passage, as do thousands of other “Ebenezer” churches around the country. So the hymn is a victory paean.
But no, it’s not, for a couple of verses later come an amazing set of lines. “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be! Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.” The grace of God is phrased in terms of debt and imprisonment, which in 18th-century England would have been painfully familiar. For Robinson, who was disinherited at age five with ten shillings and sixpence, debt and imprisonment would have been a present concern. And then the desperate plea: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.” It’s easy to imagine the 22-year-old writer, engaged in his own struggles, pouring out this cry. The whole hymn is a tumbling-out of varied figures of speech, tones, and images, following on each other and sometimes weaving together. No wonder people have felt the urge to clean it up a bit for the audiences of their day!
But I like the tangled, almost synesthetic quality of “Come, Thou Fount.” As the tune goes marching along in steady pace, the lyrics are bouncing all over the place. It’s a mixed-up flow of thoughts for mixed-up minds, and I like it just like that.
In 2016, I was honored to be asked to give the keynote at the annual Ozarks Studies Conference in West Plains. The theme of the conference that year was “The Lure of the Ozarks,” so I decided to play on that theme for my talk. My title was “The Lure of the Ozarks: What’s the Bait and Who’s the Fish?”
The good folks at Elder Mountaintook my talk, tweaked it a little, and published it in their most recent issue. As editor Phil Howerton aptly describes the issue, it’s a whopper . . . a double issue of 290 pages.
I’m reprinting a passage from near the opening of my talk below. Literary journals need all the help they can get, so if you’d like to read the whole thing, I encourage you to take a look at the issue’s impressive table of contents here and then use the purchase link here. You won’t regret it!
To speak of the lure of the Ozarks, appropriately enough, is to use the language of the fisherman, and prompts the metaphorical question of who is the fisher and who is the caught. Nowadays our talk about the lure of the Ozarks typically involves tourism, and rightly so, as it has become a mainstay of the Ozarks economy. Certainly tourism is a pretty benign sort of catchery . . . I suppose we could extend the metaphor and call tourism the “catch and release” version of the Ozarks’ lure.
But from the earliest times, people have come to the Ozarks to take away something more tangible. From Pierre Renaud down to the Doe Run Lead Company, the Ozarks have been a source of minerals and ore. The Missouri Lumber and Mining Company and its fellow timber harvesting enterprises did the same thing from the 1880s through the early twentieth century. In a general way, I think you’d have to describe the Ozarks as a kind of internal colony of the United States, a place from which to extract value at the lowest possible cost while returning as little as possible. As David Benac observes in his book Conflict in the Ozarks, a significant component of the Ozarks timber boom consisted of companies seeking to “tame” their workers, to bring them into compliance with the needs of an industrial-age enterprise concerning punctuality, sobriety, and adherence to the concept of “working hours” instead of living their lives by the clock of the seasons. What drew these entrepreneurs and companies to the Ozarks was what they could extract from it, and that’s a facet of this landscape that will never go away. I recall during the years of my childhood that every town in the area had its factory – shoe factories, shirt factories, hat factories, that sort of thing – each one staffed mainly by women paid on a piecework basis, overseen by men. It wasn’t until the advent of the global marketplace that these companies discovered they could find workers elsewhere who were even more impoverished and who had even fewer options than the Ozarkers, and relocated their factories elsewhere. For an industry that needed unskilled workers to perform repetitious tasks, the Ozarks must have seemed like a little slice of heaven for a time.
And then there’s escape, that time-honored lure of the Ozarks. Dad Howitt, the Shepherd of the Hills, came to the Ozarks to escape the noise of the city and the memories of his past, and ever since then one of the dominant themes of Ozarks culture has been that of the mountains as a place of refuge. Trappist monks came here, and the Harmonial Vegetarian Society, and so did Bonnie and Clyde. The hollows overflow with people who have come to the Ozarks for one sort of escape or another, whether it’s from the traffic jams of the city or the long arm of the law. My own experience with these transplants has been overwhelmingly positive. People drawn to the Ozarks from elsewhere bring energy, new ideas, and often a fresh infusion of money to communities that need all three. Unfortunately, the Ozarks’ mind-our-own-business reputation also draws the occasional Frazier Glenn Miller among the retired ad executives seeking a quiet place to meditate beside a stream.
I ran across a chapter of this book in The Literature of the Ozarks, a book that I have written about before. I’d heard of Katie Estill, but somehow had overlooked her novels. So I went out and found myself a copy.
I started reading it a couple of days ago, and it’s a marvel. It begins (or very nearly so) with a murder, but it’s not a mystery, nor is it what one would call a “thriller,” although it does have plenty of police procedure in it. It also has some adult passages with adults doing, well, what adults do. So it’s not exactly a “romance,” either, although there’s love in it, of the most aching and true sort.
It’s set in a county that feels a lot like Oregon County, Missouri, with a river that runs through it (in the novel, it’s the Seven Point, not the Eleven Point as in the real-life county, but let’s not quibble over the number of points). And it has a triumvirate of main characters, three women, all of whom suffer and struggle in the course of the book, and who don’t particularly get along, and who discover that they have common aims and needs despite that. One is a deputy sheriff; one is a woman who has recently returned to the county after a time away; and one is a newer arrival. The murder connects them, divides them, and connects them again.
It’s a beautiful book that defies categorization, and it contains some lovely passages of description of the Ozarks landscape, of the interior thinking of its main characters, and of the mental and emotional negotiations they go through to achieve some answers and some peace. It was published in 2007, but the characters’ travails are as relevant today as they were then. You may have to hunt for a copy, as I suspect it’s gone out of print; but it’s worth the search.