Sunday Interview – Steve Wiegenstein

steve

Happy Sunday, Everyone! Today, I have another interview with Steve Wiegenstein. You may remember the last time we spoke, but if you are a recent follower or would like to read it again to refresh your memory, you can find it here (July 22, 2012). Before we begin, if you’d like to read an excerpt from his first book, Slant of Light, to familiarize yourself with the story,  you can find it here.

Hi, Steve! Thanks for joining me again! Before we talk about your sequel, please tell us how Slant of Light has been received. Of all the reviews you’ve received, which one is your favorite?

The reviews have been so gratifying! Not a negative one in the bunch, and only a couple that I would even describe as lukewarm. I have two favorites. One was from Sarah Johnson, whose work with the Historical Novel Society is something I admire greatly. She’s the book review editor for Historical Novels Review and maintains her own blog, Reading the Past. She wrote, “A thoroughly American story with more than regional appeal, Slant of Light is intellectually involving from the outset, and its flawed characters have a way of latching onto readers’ emotions.” I loved that description. My other favorite was from a historian, Stephen Rockenbach, who reviewed it in Nola Diaspora. He praised the book’s “flawless research and relentless attention to detail.” And coming from a historian, that’s high praise! Here are links to those reviews: http://readingthepast.blogspot.com/2012/05/book-review-slant-of-light-by-steve.html

That’s high praise indeed! Congratulations! 🙂

Slant of Light

How has life changed for you since Slant of Light was published?

Well, I’ve been going to a lot more fairs and festivals! I believe in this book so much that I spend lots of weekends doing speaking appearances and promotional gigs of one sort or another. Thank goodness, my wife has been a trouper and accompanied me on most of them. 

What was your most thrilling moment since having Slant of Light published?

Two moments come to mind. First is the launch event, when we completely packed Subterranean Books in St. Louis and sold the place out. The clerks had to take names and promise to send people books as soon as they got in a new shipment! The second was when I came home one day and found a letter telling me that the book had come in second for the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction.

Fantastic! 🙂

I noticed a new section on your website –For Teachers’. Please tell us about it.

Some university instructors have started using the book in their English classes and I’ve had comments from secondary school teachers that they’d like to add it as an option to their students’ reading lists. So I asked a friend to create a teachers’ guide to the novel, and she did a marvelous job! It’s freely available for teachers to use in their lesson planning.

I’m glad they are studying it in the schools. 🙂

Do you know, yet, when the sequel to Slant of Light will be coming out in print?

I’m hoping for a fall release. The manuscript is at the publisher’s, now, and I’m waiting to hear if there are any changes requested. I’m eager for people to get their hands on it.

Would you like to tell us a little about it?

The working title is This Old World, from a hymn of the same name. Slant of Light ended with the dispersal of the men of the community with the outbreak of the American Civil War. This Old World begins with the end of that war and the return of the surviving men. In the interim, the women have been running the community for four years, so some tension will be evident. And in actuality, all of American society changed during that period. Pre-war beliefs and attitudes vanished forever, and everyone had to face a new reality of life in a society that was more mechanized, more impersonal, and in many ways harsher. This Old World explores those themes. A lot of readers’ favorite characters are back, but there’s a whole new crew as well.

I love anything historical. This sounds wonderful! 🙂

Are there any links you’d like to share?

You bet! 
My publisher’s website: www.blankslatepress.com
My own website: www.stevewiegenstein.com
Links to some reviews and a radio interview: http://www.stevewiegenstein.com/press_kit
I really enjoyed hearing your radio interview, Steve. I hope my readers pop over to give it a listen, too!
Thanks for joining us, today, and best of luck with This Old World. I hope we’ll hear from you again when it comes out in the fall. 🙂
* * * * *
Book blurb for A Slant of Light:
Set during the brink of the Civil War, this beautifully written novel traces James Turner, a charming, impulsive writer and lecturer; Charlotte, his down-to-earth bride; and Cabot, an idealistic Harvard-educated abolitionist as they are drawn together in a social experiment deep in the Missouri Ozarks. Inspired by utopian dreams of building a new society, Turner is given a tract of land to found the community of Daybreak: but not everyone involved in the project is a willing partner, and being the leader of a remote farming community isn’t the life Turner envisioned. Charlotte, confronted with the hardships of rural life, must mature quickly to deal with the challenges of building the community while facing her husband’s betrayals and her growing attraction to Cabot. In turn, Cabot struggles to reconcile his need to leave Daybreak and join the fight against slavery with his desire to stay near the woman he loves. As the war draws ever closer, the utopians try to remain neutral and friendly to all but soon find neutrality is not an option. Ultimately, each member of Daybreak must take a stand—both in their political and personal lives.
Steve Wiegenstein holds a PhD in English from the University of Missouri and has taught at Centenary College of Louisiana, Culver-Stockton College, Drury University, and Western Kentucky University. He is currently the associate dean for graduate students at Columbia College in Columbia, Missouri, and is a board member of the Missouri Writers’ Guild. He lives in Columbia, Missouri.
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The Freedom of Jenny by Julie Burtinshaw

I know this should be a Sunday Interview, but since I already interviewed the author of ‘The Freedom of Jenny‘ (you can find the interview here) I thought I’d finally review her historical novel, today. I deeply regret not reading this book sooner, but unfortunately it got buried among a mountain of other TBR books. When I ran across it the other day, I knew I needed to read it right away and I’m glad I did.  🙂

Jenny was born into a life of slavery. Her father was a slave on a different farm and was only allowed to visit on the weekends. Jenny, her mom & siblings lived elsewhere because they were on loan to a neighbouring farm by her father’s owner. Jenny and her family suffered many hardships, but it was her father’s dream to be free, despite her mother’s reservations about leaving the relative safety of the farm.

Slave-breakers were always a threat, capturing African Americans they might find along the road, whether they’d been freed or not, and selling them or re-selling them to whomever they wanted. Jenny’s mom worried that, even though her husband’s owner sold him his freedom, that the slave-breakers would take them and sell them to someone not nearly as kind as their current owners.

I think the author did a marvelous job of representing the life and emotions of American slaves. Her characters felt real and I was able to rejoice with them and cry at their sorrow.  Since I love history, I was thrilled with all the details that made the time period come alive for me. It’s very obvious that she has done her research and described it in such an effortless way that the reader is swept away to the mid-eighteen hundreds.

I’ve always had great sympathy for those poor souls, who were subjected to slavery and bigotry, so I was drawn to Jenny’s story. At the back of the book, the author states that she was inspired to write her fictional tale based on the real life experiences of Sylvia Stark, a slave who was emancipated in Missouri and made the journey to Salt Spring Island in what is now the province of British Columbia. I was thrilled by the fact that Governor Douglas, Earl of Selkirk and head of the Hudson’s Bay Company, did the same thing for emancipated slaves that he did with the Scottish crofters – brought them to Canada and provided land for them.

I highly recommend ‘The Freedom of Jenny‘ to anyone who are interested in the plight of the people taken from their native homes, transported to American and treated like cattle. 🙂

An unusual Sunday Interview

withershins_REV

Since I didn’t have an interview of a real-life person this week, I thought I’d interview another couple of integral characters from my books, Withershins and Spirit Quest. The two interviewees I had in mind had a major impact on Michelle Langly, Kristen’s mother. I interviewed the two of them a few months ago.

This won’t be the usual sort of interview, however, because in order to interview Owl-Who-Sees-All and Bear-With-Fire-Paw, I had to perform the withershins ritual and travel back to the past. I asked Michelle if I could borrow her talisman and try it. After some hesitation and a bit of meditation, she finally agreed to let me attempt it.

talisman

This is less like an interview and more like an adventure, an adventure that took place during the full moon last Sunday night. I had no way of knowing to what time I would be transported, if in fact I actually succeeded in traveling back in time, or if I would get back in time to post the interview. I only knew I wanted to give it the old college try.

Michelle came along to guide me through the process. She’s become a strong elder in the native community and I believe she possesses some of the magic of her ancestors. I hoped it would be enough.

Before heading to the church, she insisted I go through a cleansing ceremony. We stopped at a friend’s property near St. Andrews where a domed-roof lodge had been erected, similar to those used for sweat ceremonies. Her friend had already started a fire in the pit inside the lodge that was normally used for the heated rocks. Michelle indicated for me to sit beside her while she unloaded her medicine bag, including a long clay pipe adorned with an eagle feather. She tossed a pinch of an herb on the fire, causing the flames to spurt and spike. I recognized the scent as sage.

She held a twist of dried sweetgrass over the flames, igniting the ends for a second and waving the smoke over herself. Then, she passed it to me. I waved the smoke over me, as well. Michelle chanted the appropriate prayers and songs. We cleansed ourselves again with the sweetgrass smoke and then she lit the pipe. She sucked in the smoke, holding it in her mouth for a moment before she released it into the air. In English, she expressed her wishes that the spirits assist me in my task. Michelle passed the pipe to me. I brought smoke into my mouth, thought about the time travel journey of which I was about to embark. Then, I slowly blew out the smoke, with the prayer:

“I hope that by performing the withershins, I will be able to write another chapter of Michelle’s story and provide greater understanding about the ancient culture of the First Nations people.”

Michelle sang the final prayer and indicated that we should rise. She led the way out of the lodge down the path to her friend’s house.

“I hope this fits,” she said, holding a long garment bag. “I’m a member of the Historical Society, so was able to borrow this dress for you, as well as a suede jacket, winter moccasins, and a fur cloak. There’s also a pair of wool stockings, mittens, and a scarf.”

Withershins-037

Once I changed clothes, we got into her car and headed towards the church. About ten minutes later, we arrived. She found an obscure place to park and we walked back towards the short stone fence. My heart raced, knowing what might happen if we got caught trespassing in the churchyard after dark. Now I understood how Michelle must have felt when she was here with her friends, Jason and Kevin.

No Trespassing after dusk

As we crawled over the low wall, the moon’s light reflected off the snow like millions of diamond chips.

Michelle checked her watch and said, “It’s almost midnight.”

The chill air was still. Not a breath of wind stirred the naked tree branches. Michelle gave me the arrowhead necklace and I placed it around my neck.

The area around the church seemed to be fairly well-packed so I had no worries about stumbling through deep snow. I peered through the night towards the rectory across the street, afraid I might see lights appear in the window. All remained dark, except for the orange glow of the street light marking the intersection of River and St. Andrews Roads. Michelle touched my shoulder.

It was time.

midnight

I took a deep breath, pulling the scarf up over my mouth and nose. I patted the suede pouch tied to my waist, confirming that I still had the ink, stick pen, extra nibs and a pad of paper wrapped in leather with the questions I wanted to ask Bear and Owl when I met them. I also checked for my asthma inhaler, knowing the running I was about to do would most likely bring on an attack. I only hoped I’d have enough breath to accomplish my task.

owl2

A snowy owl hooted from its perch high in the old oak tree.

“The spirit guide!” I whispered, excitedly.

Michelle grinned at me and nodded. I took another deep breath, the frosty air strained through the wool strands of my scarf. My spectacles fogged as the warm air beneath my scarf met with the cold glass. I took them off and placed them in their case and then into my pouch. My distance vision isn’t too bad, so I could still see the slightly fuzzy images of the church and trees around me.

I began to run counterclockwise around the church, quickly completing the first circle. As I started the second, I could feel a slight burn in my lungs. It wasn’t too bad, yet, so I initiated the third circle. Half way around, my legs began to feel like jelly. It had been a long time since I’d had so much strenuous exercise and I am no longer the 18 year-old I was when I did this the first time – and then, I never finished!

I rounded the last corner of the church and saw the glow Michelle had described to me. Although I felt a sudden pang of fear, I carried on, plunging into the bone-chilling cold of the swirling vortex. I felt suspended for what seemed like an hour, but must have only been a few seconds, before the ground met my face. I lay there, stunned for a moment, the wind knocked out of me. Turning on my side, I reached into my pouch and brought out my inhaler. After shaking it vigorously, I pressed it against my teeth. I expelled all my breath, then squeezed the plunger and inhaled the vapours. I repeated the action until I felt my bronchial tubes open up and the burn in my lungs ease. I picked up a handful of fresh snow and rinsed out my mouth. A little of the cold liquid drizzled down my esophagus, further cooling my throat and lungs.

Suddenly, a leather-mittened hand was thrust in my face, offering to help me rise. I took it and stood, staring at the chest of a young man. I had to raise my head to see his face, as he was about a foot taller than me.

“You must be Bear,” I said, my voice sounding hoarse and shaky in the darkness.

“I am,” he replied. “Grandfather is waiting for you.”

Bear led me to one of the two horses waiting patiently by a hitching post. He boosted me onto the back of the smaller one. It had been a long time since I’d ridden a horse and I sincerely hoped I wouldn’t fall off the beast. I was glad the skirt of my dress was full enough for me to straddle the animal without it riding up too much, exposing my stocking-covered legs as it was considerably colder than the time from which I’d left.

Once I was a little more confident with my balance, I glanced around me, curiously. The stone church was almost complete, but the window frames remained empty, the stained glass panes still en route to Red River. The original wooden church stood behind the stone structure, much as I had imagined it. I strained to see the landscape, but there really wasn’t much to see. There was only snow and a few scrubby bushes along the river bank, illuminated by the light of the full moon.

“What year is this?” I asked.

“1847,” Bear said.

“What month?”

“January,” Bear answered. “Michelle has only been gone a week, but her disappearance has caused quite a stir.”

“Yes, she told me about the problems she caused, leaving so abruptly,” I said. “She found a notice about it in an old newspaper.”

“Are you here to help dispel the rumours?”

“I’m sorry, no. I don’t think there is anything I could say that would make a difference. I’m only here to document what happened and talk to you and your grandfather.”

“You are a newspaper reporter?”

“No, but I am a writer and want to tell your story as accurately as possible.”

Bear seemed to ponder this for a long time before he spoke again.

“Grandfather said you would help us. I assumed that meant you would save him from his fate, but I must be wrong. Michelle was always worried about the consequences of disrupting the future by changing the past. Maybe the best thing you could do for us, other than changing the inevitable, is simply to tell people about us and how we lived our lives.”

“I hope that will be enough,” I told him. Something nagged at the back of my mind. “Aren’t you supposed to be up north?”

“I was heading north, but Grandfather talked to me in a dream, so I returned to the fort. I knew I was needed here.”

“That explains it,” I mused.

Studying the man riding beside me, I could definitely understand why Michelle was so enthralled with him. He was not just handsome, with a prominent nose and high cheek bones, but he had a depth of wisdom in his dark eyes that seemed well beyond his age. He also seemed quite sad, probably because he had just lost the love of his life. I wondered how this would affect his future, with Michelle gone.

river gate

Imagine the ground is covered in a foot of snow.

Dawn streaked the sky shades of pink by the time the high stone walls of the fort rose up ahead of us. Before we reached the blacksmith shop just south of the fort, Bear dismounted and assisted me to the ground. We led the horses to a post by the shop and tethered them, then I followed Bear to the west gate. As we entered, I heard a bugle trumpet the tune of Reveille, calling the soldiers to rise with the sun. We followed the shoveled path around the Big House to the southwest corner. Two soldiers stood outside the solid wood door. All the windows of the turret had bars across them.

SW turret

The northwest turret, taken last summer.

Bear leaned over and spoke to one of the guards, tossing his head in my direction. He turned and told me to take the writing utensils out of my pouch. When I did so, the guard ushered us inside. It was strange not to see all the museum pieces and information boards I was used to seeing set up in the divided space. Instead, more bars with heavy metal hinges closed off the room on the right. The left-hand side was set up like a dining room with a bench against one wall and a heavy wooden table in front of it. Dishes with half-eaten food still sat on its surface.

The guard unlocked the barred room and let us enter, but locked the door behind us. It wasn’t much warmer inside the turret than it was outside. The single paned windows were not much protection against the frigid winter air and the wood-burning stove in the centre of the room wasn’t throwing much heat.

An elderly native man sat cross-legged on a fur carpet near the stove, his back to us. A low moaning sound emanated  from his throat, rising and falling in a quiet prayer song. Bear kneeled behind him and placed a hand on his shoulder. The older man finished his song, opened his eyes and smiled at his grandson.

“She . . is here?” he said in a voice barely audible.

Bear took my arm, bringing me around to face him. Then he introduced him to me.

“This is my Grandfather. You may call him Owl.”

I took Owl’s right hand in both of mine and said, “It is such a pleasure to meet you, Owl. You may call me Susan.”

“Susan,” he said slowly, saying my name as though trying on a shoe to see if it fit. He smiled and covered my hands with his left one. “That is a good name.”

“Thank-you. Would you mind if I asked you some questions? I have heard Michelle’s story about her time with you and there are some more things I’d like to know about you. Is that acceptable?”

Bear leaned over to Owl and murmured something in his ear. He looked at me and said, “Since Grandfather’s English is not very good, I will translate.”

He glanced at Owl, who spoke softly.

“He wants you to know that he is just a humble teacher and not worthy of such interest,” Bear told me.

“A man who is so attuned to nature is certainly of interest to me,” I told him. “How did you become the medicine man for your tribe?”

“His mother was the medicine woman and he learned everything from her. When she went to meet the Creator, he was asked by the people to replace her.”

Although Bear was translating, I looked at Owl when I asked my questions. “I would have thought you’d automatically become the medicine man. Is this not so?”

“He was the most qualified of all the people, the most revered. Our Chief respected his visions. Our village prospered when he was consulted. That is why he was chosen to be our medicine man.”

“What about you, Bear? What’s your story?”

“When I was about five years old, Grandfather had his first vision about the future. He discussed it most arduously with our Chief Peguis, so when the Reverend Cochrane came to our encampment, Grandfather knew he was the person to help me learn to speak English and teach me the ways of his people.”

“There is a saying about knowing your enemy. Is that why he wanted you to learn about the Europeans?” I asked Bear.

“Grandfather did not consider them his enemies, despite the fact that the dream he had was about the Europeans and how we would have to adjust to the arrival of more from that part of the world. He did fear that our ways might be lost with the influence of so many. He says that is why he brought Michelle here and why he allowed you to come and talk with us. You can bring our messages back with you.”

“What messages would those be, Bear?”

Owl waved me closer. He grabbed my chin and smiled. His dark eyes were bright, intense. They bore into mine as though he was trying to look into my soul. He released my chin and settled back in his chair. He nodded and spoke to Bear, who in turn translated.

“Grandfather believes you are the one best suited to tell Michelle’s story. Michelle carries the messages. The more people you encourage to learn Michelle’s story, the more you will help spread those messages.”

“I have already written her stories and I am trying to spread the word,” I assured them.

“That,” Owl said, then paused searching for the words, “is all we can ask. Thank-you.”

“My pleasure.”

“Will you speak to the Governor on my grandfather’s behalf?” Bear asked, changing the subject.

“Like I said before, Bear, I don’t know what I could say. No one knows me from Adam. Why would they take my word that he’s innocent of killing Michelle?”

“You could say you have seen her since she left that night with Grandfather.”

“I could do that,” I agree. “If you think it will help, I will talk to the Governor.”

***

Since this post is already long enough and it is so late in the day, I will post the rest of this story/interview another day. Hope you’ve enjoyed the ride so far. 🙂

Review of The Kulak’s Daughter by Gabriele Goldstone

The Kulak's Daughter

If you like historical fiction, you’ll love ‘The Kulak’s Daughter’ by Gabriele Goldstone. It’s based on a true story and although it’s aimed at younger readers of the Young Adult market, it is still entertaining for older readers, as well.

The blurb on the back of the book states:

Olga likes little things – especially the tiny apples in the orchard in the spring, or her baby brother’s little toes. But when her family is labeled ‘Kulak’ and exiled to Siberia, she starts to hate little things – especially the bedbugs that overrun the barrack at night, or the lice that carry the dreaded typhus. Suddenly Olga’s little world is overwhelmed by Stalin’s big plans.

Gabriele nails the tension, the fear and the tragedy of the era. Her main character, Olga, experiences the gambit of emotions from elation at getting a beautiful doll for her eleventh birthday, to grief at leaving her home and dog when her family is branded ‘kulaks’ and sent into exile.

One part that gave me chills was this scene, described by Olga:

“It won’t be long before they come back to take me, for good this time,” Papa says this quietly. matter-of-factly, after he’s pushed his dinner late away.

I see that even he can’t finish his food.

“Papa? You didn’t . . .” Marthe’s noticed, too.

I cover her mouth.

“I’m a kulak. They don’t like my kind.”

Kulak is a Russian term meaning ‘tight-fisted’. Stalin used the term for affluent farmers and peasants who would not turn over their produce, livestock and lands for the ‘greater good’, in other words ‘Collective Farms’, which were supposed to increase food production for the urban populations. Those who did not go along with the Bolshevik policies were taken from their homes and sent to Siberian work camps. Many did not survive. Those who did live were permanently scarred by the experience.

The Kulak's Daughter back

Another scene describes how Olga feels while talking to her best friend:

“Olga, we can’t be friends anymore. My mamma says I should have nothing more to do with you.”

Marissa’s words feel like a slap, their iciness a visible cloud between us.

Having a friend say that is like a knife to the heart. To lose a precious friendship because of something that’s beyond your control would be hard for a child to understand. I remember when my own mother told me not to be friends with someone she considered a bad influence. I defied her and would sneak out to meet with her anyway, but in Olga’s case it’s the friend herself who is ending the friendship. That is so harsh!

When describing her painful exile, Olga states:

My hunger sits in my stomach like a hard rock of pain.

How many young people in North America know that kind of hunger? While there are probably too many, I would think that the majority of school kids today would have trouble imagining it or the cold Olga felt in that poorly heated, uninsulated building where they were forced to live after leaving their home.

I highly recommend ‘The Kulak’s Daughter’ to anyone who is interested in a child’s perspective of the time of Stalin’s communist rule. It is heart-wrenching and eye-opening. Gabriele really does a wonderful job of presenting the emotions and difficulties of the time. Olga is a very sympathetic character, despite her typical childish self-centered moments. She is a child, after all, and she brings history to life. Her story should make most kids in North America today realize just how lucky they are. 🙂

If you want to get to know Gabriele and the story behind the story, tune in on Sunday for her interview. 🙂