Steve Wiegenstein hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere.
He’s been publishing fiction since he was 57, after all. His latest book, a collection of short stories called “Scattered Lights,” isn’t the first book from a little-known press in West Plains, Missouri. It’s the third.
Still, it was a new thrill to make the longlist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, which over four decades has often recognized American fiction writers with big resumes. Novelists like Philip Roth, John Updike, Annie Proulx.
“I was just floored,” Wiegenstein, 65, said on Wednesday, talking from his home in Columbia, Missouri. “I’m excited and grateful.”
He’d learned the night before that his Ozark stories were among 10 titles announced for award consideration. The diverse list includes titles by Bobbie Ann Mason (“Dear Ann”), Yaa Gyasi (“Transcendent Kingdom”) and K-Ming Chang (“Bestiary”). Publishers range from stalwarts such as Knopf and Scribner to the smaller Custom House and West Virginia University Press.
And Cornerpost Press, which seeks both fiction and nonfiction titles that “explore the complexity and diversity of rural America, especially the Ozarks,” it says on its website.
Begun by Phillip and Victoria Howerton, Cornerpost uses peer reviewers to select up to four manuscripts a year for publication, and it bears all costs, paying royalties on sales.
Wiegenstein highlights Cornerpost, too, for the nomination: “I’m so happy for them because they did a careful job.”
The Howertons have both been writers and teachers. In 2019, Phillip Howerton edited “The Literature of the Ozarks: An Anthology,” published by University of Arkansas Press. He also teaches English at the Missouri State University campus in West Plains.
Like his editor, Wiegenstein has taught for years, mostly journalism and communications with some English composition.
“When I was teaching, I could never really take all that much time for a big project like writing a book,” he says. He did write short stories, but it wasn’t until 2012 that he published a novel, “Slant of Light,” with another young press, Blank Slate Press of St. Louis.
He’s now produced three novels set in a fictional 1800s Utopian settlement called Daybreak.
With last year’s story collection, though, he gathered more contemporary rural Missouri fiction. They are all set in the Ozarks, although his stories are mostly devoid of TV series cutthroats or stereotypical hillbillies.
In a review for the Post-Dispatch, Dale Singer wrote that the stories “touch the audience and make readers take notice and nod in recognition and appreciation.”
Wiegenstein says he uses Eudora Welty as a model: “She writes about rural people and small-town people. Her emphasis is not on how different they are, but how universal they are.”
With “Scattered Lights,” he aims to show that rural people may have special circumstances to cope with, but there are more universal aspects than differences.
As a boy growing up in Annapolis, Missouri, Wiegenstein’s family, descended from farmers, had their own 60 acres near the Black River. But to make a living, his father also worked as a quarry supervisor. His mother kept a typewriter on the dining room table, where she wrote freelance features after earlier experience as an ad copy writer for Sears and KMOX in St. Louis.
“I grew up with her always working on a project. I always knew I wanted to write.”
Being a Midwesterner of a certain age, Wiegenstein doesn’t easily answer questions about why his book deserves award attention: “I’m constitutionally unable to brag.”
But he says he thinks of himself as a careful writer and that his tightly woven stories maintain thematic consistency.
The short stories usually begin with a character who is under some sort of pressure, whether personal, social or spiritual, he says. The Ozarks provides a “very rich vein of material to draw on,” although he also wants to counter stereotypes.
He knows rural Missouri has changed from when he was a boy. Then, although Annapolis had only a few hundred residents, there was a grocery store and other self-sustaining small businesses. Now “you have to leave to do business.”
Some residents today are more socially conservative than his parents, Franklin D. Roosevelt Democrats.
Economic stress likely contributes to modern political changes in Reynolds County and elsewhere, he says. “They may feel under threat, that their livelihood is in danger. People are scrapping their way to make a living.”
Much of his own career was spent as a professor at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri. His wife, Sharon Buzzard, taught English at nearby Quincy University. Then, after a stint at Western Kentucky University, the pair, who met as graduate students at Mizzou, came back to Columbia. Wiegenstein worked for a couple of years as an administrator at Columbia College before retirement.
The couple’s daughter, who alerted her father by text about the PEN/Faulkner longlist, is also immersed in academia, working on a doctorate in English at Oklahoma State University.
Wiegenstein’s next project is the fourth novel in his Daybreak series, which will start in rural Missouri again but include World’s Fair-era St. Louis.
The shortlist for the PEN/Faulkner is due next month, with the award announced in April. If Wiegenstein doesn’t win, he’ll be fine.
“I’m celebrating already. Everything else is just gravy, as they say.”
25 favorite books from a not-so-favorite year
25 favorite books from a not-so-favorite year, 2020
Book tours have gone virtual during pandemic, allowing for intimate connections and expanded reach.
The number of new books expected is about 30 percent more than the same time last year.
Book buyers and sellers, not to mention readers, were pummeled by the pandemic this year, like so many other industries and consumers. Libraries and stores closed, reopened, then closed again. On-sale dates of titles were moved, and sales and deliveries were sometimes delayed.
But even as some readers confessed that they had a hard time concentrating on books meant to take their minds off dire medical news, many titles grabbed headlines, focusing on timely interest in the president, elections or racial justice. Overall, sales of books actually trended higher than last year as parents ordered supplies for home schooling and others sought safe, quiet entertainment.
Every December, Post-Dispatch reviewers pick some of their favorite books of the year. This year, 2020, seemed more difficult than most, as publishers largely stopped shipping review copies to our newsroom, which was often sparsely populated as journalists worked from home.
Still, helped by reviews from wire services and supplemented by a list from some local booksellers and librarians, we highlight books that impressed or captivated us in 2020. Whether they focus on history, fiction or even sports, books continued to provide insight into our imperfect, glorious world.
📖 Fiction 📖
"The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne" by Elsa Hart
Barnaby Mayne is a wealthy creature of 18th-century England: a collector of hundreds of specimens of plants and animals from around the world discovered by explorers and adventurers of the day. When he's found dead in his elegant London home, St. Louis author Hart spins a richly imaginative mystery of strange people of means and their obsessions. (Minotaur)
"Deacon King Kong" by James McBride
The narrative flows seamlessly from buoyant and comical Black jive to somber, pitch-perfect descriptions of the histories and hard lives of 1969 Brooklynites, many with nicknames: Hot Sausage, the Elephant, Lightbulb. Sportcoat (aka Deacon King Kong) is a hooch-loving older man whose unlikely shooting of a drug dealer opens the novel. (Riverhead)
“The Girl With the Louding Voice” by Abi Daré
In a harrowing coming-of-age story, Adunni, a 14-year-old Nigerian girl, is sold off by her alcoholic father to become the third wife of a taxi driver. There and beyond she endures abuse and degradation, but her unwavering spirit, courage and ambition to get an education and become “somebody of value” will have you rooting for the young girl as she fights to escape her lot. Abi Dare’s debut novel, told in Adunni’s broken English dialect, shines a light on the abuse and lack of opportunities young girls suffer in the toxic patriarchal society of the African nation. (Dutton)
“The Henna Artist” by Alka Joshi
In her debut novel, Joshi paints a vibrant picture of the culture, traditions and nearly insurmountable challenges of working-class women in 1950s India. Lakshmi has escaped an abusive husband — a man her parents arranged for her to marry when she was 15. Thirteen years later, she is living in the city of Jaipur, India, and she has established herself as a highly requested henna artist to wealthy women. Her dream of an independent life is close to reality when a sister she didn’t know she had shows up, upending both of their lives. (HarperCollins)
"Homeland Elegies" by Ayad Akhtar
“The Mirror & the Light” by Hilary Mantel
It's the long-awaited (eight years in the making), beautifully written third and final volume in Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” trilogy. The book's middle section is too long, but the late years of its fascinating subject, Thomas Cromwell, make for compulsive reading. The novel deserved to land Mantel her third Booker prize. (Henry Holt)
“The Pull of the Stars” by Emma Donoghue
A timely novel published in the midst of our current pandemic, “The Pull of the Stars” takes place over three days of the life of nurse Julia Power. In 1918 Ireland, doubly hit by World War I and the deadly flu, she cares for pregnant patients who have the disease. Her “maternity ward” is actually a supply closet converted to keep the women quarantined. The novel can be bleak, but is also uplifting, with compassionate women who rise above the ugliness. (Little, Brown)
“St. Francis of Dogtown” by Wm. Stage
A story that delights and depresses, that lifts many a stein and drops many a curse, Stage tells a fast-paced tale of murder and mayhem. Trouble rises when process server Francis Lenihan delivers a summons at a Jefferson County house where a woman has just been murdered. (Floppinfish)
"The Searcher" by Tana French
There’s less suspense here than in French’s earlier novels. However, readers who share her interest in exploring the lives of flawed and compelling characters will find much to love in the atmospheric story of a retired cop who moves to Ireland for relaxation, only to be asked to find a missing teen. (Viking)
"Scattered Lights," stories by Steve Wiegenstein
Set in the Ozarks, these contemporary stories are touching vignettes of life in the small towns that dot outstate Missouri. Combining spare but elegant language with the life in small towns — placid on the surface but with universal emotions simmering underneath — it provides an understated but undeniable impression, something a reader can remember and ponder long after the book is closed. (Cornerpost Press)
"Transcendent Kingdom" by Yaa Gyasi
Featuring a woman who forges a path in science while living with her ailing mother, a symbol of their shared religious past, Gyasi's second novel is not as sweeping as her popular "Homegoing." But she deftly weaves themes of addiction, faith and reconciliation into an intimate story about how life is a balance of trust and empirical proof. (Knopf)
“The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett
Beautifully written, thought-provoking and immersive, the story follows Desiree and Stella, who hail from the town of Mallard, Louisiana, imagined by its light-skinned founder as a place for people like him. The lovely twins run off together when young, and their lives diverge when one transitions into life as a white woman. (Riverhead)
“What Are You Going Through” by Sigrid Nunez
Can a book about terminal cancer and euthanasia be funny? Aging, death and loss figure prominently in this short, insightful and, yes, humorous, novel. The narrator, a female writer, recounts a series of ordinary encounters she has over the course of her life: an ex whose doomsday lecture she attends, an Airbnb owner unsure how to interact with her guests and even a cat who has his own story to tell. The main narrative involves an ill friend who asks the narrator to be with her when she ends her life — “Lucy and Ethel Do Euthanasia.” Nunez delivers a thoughtful story of friendship and compassion. (Riverhead Books)
📖 Nonfiction 📖
“Baseball in St. Louis” by Ed Wheatley
This coffee-table offering tells it all, from the Cardinals and Browns down to the Little Leagues. Wheatley starts with the very first game in town (July 9, 1860, matching two amateur teams) and proceeds chronologically. Hundreds of photos, many in color, give the book a glossy edge. Go crazy, folks! (Reedy Press)
"Black in the Middle" edited by Terrion L. Williamson
A rare anthology in that its subject is Black and lives in the Midwest. Through well-crafted essays, poems, photography and other musings on everyday life, the collection shares the inner workings of some families who make due with what little they are given or who build a future on their own terms. (Belt)
"Caste" by Isabel Wilkerson
Following up her bestseller on Black migration, "The Warmth of Other Suns," the journalist argues in her newest hit that U.S. obsession with race is somewhat misplaced, for there is a deeper system of caste. She compares the American system to that of India and Nazi Germany, saying they've had commonalities such as hierarchies that are supposedly natural or divinely ordered, heritability of status, and controls on marriage and sexuality across caste lines. (Random House)
"Dewey Defeats Truman" by A.J. Baime
Harry S Truman’s unexpected electoral victory in 1948 is retold in “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Author Baime takes his title from the infamous headline in the Chicago Tribune, a copy of which Truman happily waved in St. Louis’ Union Station. Besides being a great election story, the author argues, Truman would quickly oversee important events, such as the Marshall plan and desegregation of the military. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
“Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America” by Marcia Chatelain
The author, an associate professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University, traces the relationship between Black Americans, McDonald’s and capitalism — from the first Black-owned franchise in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood to McDonald’s role as a public space during the 2014 Ferguson protests. (Liveright)
"Ghosting the News" by Margaret Sullivan
The decline of local newsrooms should worry more than the shrinking number of people who work there. A longtime editor, now a media columnist at the Washington Post, Sullivan explores why so many news outlets have been cut back and how fewer reporters means a reduced watchdog role that harms everyone. (Columbia Global Reports)
“Pale Colors in a Tall Field” by Carl Phillips
The perspective in this poetry collection, the Washington University professor’s 15th, is informed by a wisdom earned from having survived. The poems invite lingering, revisiting, much as we do with our own pasts as a way to understand the present. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
“A Promised Land” by Barack Obama
The 44th president's memoir of his first 2½ years in office often reads like a conversation Obama is having with himself — toggling between pride in his administration’s accomplishments and self-doubt over whether he did enough. Written in the Trump era, under an administration bent on repudiating everything he stood for, his elegant prose is freighted with uncertainty about the state of our politics, about whether we can ever reach the titular promised land. (Crown)
“Shakespeare in a Divided America” by James Shapiro
The Columbia University professor makes the case that arguments about the Bard’s plays have long reflected our conflicted beliefs as a nation about hot-button issues such as immigration, adultery, homosexuality and interracial love. “His writing continues to function as a canary in a coal mine, alerting us to, among other things, the toxic prejudices poisoning our cultural climate,” Shapiro writes in this entertaining and accessible book. (Faber & Faber)
"The Splendid and the Vile" by Erik Larson
Larson vividly recounts the first year of Winston Churchill's leadership during World War II as Britain stood alone against Hitler and troops bombed the island. The accessible history explores large issues while also bringing to life details about Churchill's family circle. (Crown)
"Soul Full of Coal Dust" by Chris Hamby
Investigative journalist Hamby spent eight years writing about the health effects of coal mining in Appalachia. With his latest work, he has performed another public service by portraying the often-forgotten people of coal country as active agents in their own history. And he offers surprising revelations, such as that black lung disease, or pneumoconiosis, is undergoing a deadly resurgence in central Appalachia. (Little, Brown)
"War: How Conflict Shaped Us" by Margaret MacMillan
Originating as the prestigious Reith Lectures for the BBC, "War" has no central narrative. But with cold-eyed scrutiny, the expert in international relations portrays our capacity for conflict as neither divine nor demonic but rather something intrinsic to humanity. “In understanding war,” she writes, “we understand something about being human.” (Random House)
📖 Local favorites 📖
We asked librarians and booksellers about their favorite titles of 2020. Here, in no particular order or style (fiction mixed with nonfiction, adult and children), are their picks.
Kris Kleindienst, co-owner, Left Bank Books
"Recollections of My Nonexistence" by Rebecca Solnit
"The Immortals of Tehran" by Ali Araghi
"Just Us" by Claudia Rankine
"The Broken Heart of America" by Walter Johnson
Sarah Holt, children's and teen specialist, Left Bank Books
"What We'll Build: Plans for Our Future Together" by Oliver Jeffers (picture book)
"Coo" by Kaela Noel (middle-grade reader)
"Girl, Unframed" by Deb Caletti (young adult)
Shane Mullen, event coordinator, Left Bank Books
"The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne" by Elsa Hart
"She Come by It Natural" by Sarah Smarsh
"Transcendent Kingdom" by Yaa Gyasi
Emily Hall Schroen, owner, Main Street Books
"The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue" by V.E. Schwab (adult)
"The Princess Will Save You" by Sarah Henning (YA)
"Goddess in the Machine" by Lora Beth Johnson (YA)
"Soulswift" by Megan Bannen (YA)
Melissa Posten, children's buyer, the Novel Neighbor
"Legendborn" by Traci Deonn (YA)
"I Talk Like a River" by Jordan Scott (picture book)
"A Wish in the Dark" by Christina Soontornvat (middle grade)
Holland Saltsman, owner, the Novel Neighbor
"The House in the Cerulean Sea" by T.J. Klune
"Ask Me Anything" by P.Z. Reizin
"Notes From a Young Black Chef" by Kwame Onwuachi and Joshua David Stein
"Hollywood Park" by Mikel Jollett
Alex Weir, manager, Subterranean Books
"The Splendid and the Vile" by Erik Larson
"Wintering" by Katherine May
"Ideas of Reference at Jesuit Hall" by Matthew Freeman
Gena Brady, staff, Subterranean Books
"Piranesi" by Susanna Clarke
"The White Dress" by Nathalie Leger
"Recollections of My Nonexistence" by Rebecca Solnit
Kelly von Plonski, owner, Subterranean Books
"The Vanishing Half" by Brit Bennett
"My Dark Vanessa" by Kate Elizabeth Russell
"Rodham" by Curtis Sittenfeld
Jennifer Alexander, collections development specialist, St. Louis County Library
"Leave the World Behind" by Rumaan Alam
"A Burning" by Megha Majumdar
"Think Like a Monk: Train Your Mind for Peace and Purpose Every Day" by Jay Shetty
Youth services department staff, St. Louis County Library
"The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read" by Rita Lorraine Hubbard
"Everything Sad Is Untrue" by Daniel Nayeri
"City Spies" by James Ponti
Staff, St. Louis Public Library
"Our Favorite Day of the Year" by A.E. Ali, illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell (children)
"Twins" by Varian Johnson, illustrated by Shannon Wright (children)
"Race to the Sun" by Rebecca Roanhorse (children)
"A Song Below Water" by Bethany C. Morrow (teens)
"Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You" by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi (teens)
"The Magic Fish" by Trung Le Nguyen (teens)
"Peace Talks" by Jim Butcher (adults)
"Marshmallow Malice" by Amanda Flower (adults)
"Rodham" by Curtis Sittenfeld (adults)
"A Good Neighborhood" by Therese Anne Fowler (adults)