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Missouri writer's Ozarks tale is PEN/Faulkner Award nominee

Missouri writer's Ozarks tale is PEN/Faulkner Award nominee

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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.”


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