“The tang of woodsmoke from cookstoves and fireplaces seasoned the evening air, and the first stars salted the sky. It was a good six miles to the railroad as the crow flew, but [Josephine] could hear the distant clack-clack of the northbound line, the banging of cars, and the screech of a whistle as it passed a crossing. Up from Texas with a load of cattle, no doubt. Cattle going north, emigrants and orphans going south. Bodies in motion.”
~ from THE LANGUAGE OF TREES
Bodies in motion. Change in action.
In general, I am a person who loves consistency and predictability. But even as I find solace in the routine of every day and plan my next 24 hours with care, I know there is only so much I can control. Change is inevitable.
In Steve Wiegenstein’s new novel, THE LANGUAGE OF TREES (Blank Slate Press), we witness the inevitable in the late-19th century Missouri town of Daybreak. Steadfast in its idyllic communal values, where no one man owns the land and every member of the community contributes to the well being of the others, Daybreak stands out as anomaly of its time with its years-old utopian philosophy. But booming industry and the American Lumber and Minerals Company circle the community in pursuit of Daybreak’s prized timber, forcing members of the community to make choices and threatening their unity. And even if the community can stay in tact, every person will be changed.
Steve Wiegenstein stops by today to talk about his newest novel, and (thanks to Blank Slate Press and Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity) there’s a giveaway! ENTER HERE by Tuesday, December 5th, for a chance to win a copy of THE LANGUAGE OF TREES.
Now, welcome Steve Wiegenstein!
Christi Craig (CC): Outside of writing fiction, you are a scholar of utopian movements. Was there something specific within your research that sparked the idea of Daybreak and its characters?
Steve Wiegenstein (SW)*: When I was studying the Icarians, a group of socialists who lived in the Midwest for about fifty years in the latter half of the 19th century, I was struck by the incredible level of commitment they showed to their ideas. They lived difficult lives, full of hardship and struggle, but they persisted.
I began my research with the typical sort of skepticism, but over time developed a great deal of respect for the “impractical utopians” who demonstrated such a belief in the power of ideas.
CC: On the topic of characters, I’m intrigued by the strong women in your book. Both Charlotte Turner and Josephine Mercadier stand out as leaders in the town with more freedoms to speak up and speak out than perhaps was the norm in the 19th century. Can we attribute this to the utopian society of Daybreak alone? Or could it be that women like Charlotte and Josephine in such a society simply find more courage to rise above normal expectations of gender?
SW: I think alternative communities definitely presented women with a broader latitude of opportunity, even under 19th-century circumscriptions. The Shakers were led by women for much of their history, and the Nashoba commune in Tennessee was founded by Fanny Wright, a Scottish-born abolitionist who was way ahead of her time. If you were an independent-thinking woman, the ideals of equality and social justice espoused by many of these communities would have proved quite appealing. Alas, quite a few of them didn’t live up to their words. The Icarians, for example, espoused equal suffrage but never got around to granting women the right to vote in their own community.
The strong women in my books are more influenced by the wonderful and strong women I have known in my own life. It’s been my great good fortune to have known many such women, from my own grandmothers, to my mother, aunts, spouse, daughter, and others, and to be able to observe them and draw lessons from them. In many ways, Charlotte and Josephine rise out of my own story more than they do from history.
CC: Language of Trees is the third novel in a series, though it stands well on its own as a complete and captivating story. Still, is there anything you’d like readers to know about books one and two (SLANT OF LIGHT and THIS OLD WORLD)?
SW: Well, they’re both great reads! But beyond that, the stories do interlink, although each book can be read separately. In SLANT OF LIGHT, we see the founding of the community that has reached its second generation in THE LANGUAGE OF TREES. Characters also develop across the books; Charley Pettibone, for example, shows up in the first book as an illiterate and rather boastful young goofball, but by the second book he’s been through the war, with all the psychological baggage that entails, and when we see him in THE LANGUAGE OF TREES he’s middle-aged and people are looking to him for wisdom. So there’s immense satisfaction in that. I think reading the three books in order is its own sort of experience, over and beyond reading them individually.
CC: In a conversation with Steve Yates on Fiction Writers Review, you talk about Ozark writers and “writing the Ozarks.” I’d love to know more: other than place and setting, what does it mean to you to write the Ozarks?
SW: Two things: first, a keen interest in the natural rhythm of things. Above all else, the Ozarks are a rural place, and they ask for an appreciation of rural experience. That experience includes setting but goes beyond that, I think. Especially in the 19th Century, rural life was lived according to a different clock than urban life – not much of a clock at all, really. That’s one of the themes I work into THE LANGUAGE OF TREES, the conflict between lives lived by the sun and seasons. When J.M. Bridges builds his mill town, one of his first acts is to install a whistle to summon the workers at a set time in the morning. Such a thing was unknown before then, and the historians record all kinds of sabotage and resistance that workers engaged in to challenge this ownership of time. There’s an element of that resistance even today.
Second, a willingness to see past stereotypes into the lives of people who actually live there. I cringe when I watch or read a lot of narrative portrayals of the Ozarks, because they fall into the familiar tropes of murderous hillbilly, small town with a dark secret, outsider with suspicious motives, and so forth. I love it when writers engage with those stereotypes, because after all they do exist and we can’t pretend they don’t, but also move through them into richer and more nuanced portrayals. I grew up and went to school with a lot of people that a visitor to the area might call a “hillbilly,” with all the negative connotation that involves, but who have substantial inner lives behind that appearance. Working between these perceptions of character is a lot of what I would call “writing the Ozarks.”
CC: In response to the days when (for one reason or another) we cannot write, Patty Dann (The Butterfly Hours: Transforming Memories into Memoir) says we should not dismay but consider that time away from the page as a chance to “fill the well,” because “you must do something besides write, or you will lose your mind.” What besides your research fuels your writing or fills your creative well?
SW: My favorite activity to “fill the well,” which is such a lovely image, by the way, is to get in my car, head south, and get onto a river. I can be from my home to a river in a couple of hours, and the rest of the day is spent forgetting time, forgetting the challenges of life, and simply existing in the natural world. I have a half dozen rivers to choose from, each with its own personality: Black, Huzzah, Current, Jacks Fork, Gasconade, Meramec — and another dozen more that take a longer drive and at least an overnight stay. But a day on an Ozarks river will make a new man out of me.
And to that “fill the well” image: when I was a youngster, I would occasionally visit the country school my parents had attended during the Depression, and it had a well out front. Since it wasn’t used very often by those days, you usually had to pour a little water down the pump shaft in order to create the necessary suction for the hand pump to work. That’s what is known as priming the pump, and most people nowadays have never actually primed a pump. But that reference reminded me of the act, which I think is most appropriate to the writer’s experience. You pour a little of yourself down that deep hole, and in return you get back a seemingly endless supply of sustenance. And the harder you pump, and the longer you pump, the more that comes out.
Steve Wiegenstein is the author of SLANT OF LIGHT (2012), THIS OLD WORLD (2014), and THE LANGUAGE OF TREES (2017). SLANT OF LIGHT was the runner-up for the David J. Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction, and THIS OLD WORLD was a shortlisted finalist for the M.M. Bennetts Award in Historical Fiction. Steve grew up in the Missouri Ozarks and worked there as a newspaper reporter before entering the field of higher education. He now lives in Columbia, Missouri. Learn more at stevewiegenstein.wordpress.com.
* Photo of Steve Wiegenstein (above) by Kaci Smart.
Don’t forget! Enter the giveaway by Tuesday, December 5th,
for a chance to win a copy of THE LANGUAGE OF TREES.