Thursday, June 6, 2013

Historical Novel Society 2013 Conference Panelist: Meet Steve Weigenstein

In anticipation of the 2013 Historical Novel Society conference, I'm excited to share a Q&A with panelist Steve Weigenstein, author of  Slant of Light. You can check out his website which also has links to facebook and twitter.

What got you first interested in historical fiction?

My interest in historical fiction arose from a desire to create a large-scale fictional portrayal of the Missouri Ozarks, which is the part of the world where I grew up and where I have always had a deep connection, both personally and in my writing life. My aim is to create an interlocking series of novels with an evolving cast of characters, something on the model of Donald Harington's work but in my own style and with my own themes. So with an idea like that, I had to look to the past, and this first novel of the series is set in the years 1857-1862.     

How do you find the people and topics of your books?

A variety of sources. Some are people of my own acquaintance (not to name any names), and some are actual historical figures. Most are composites of various personality characteristics, combined with details drawn from observation, and turned loose on the world. As for topics, the list is endless! If I live to be 150, I won't get to the end of them. 

Do you follow a specific writing and/or research process?
I tend to be very intuitive in my writing process. I like to start with character and go from there, just put interesting characters into collision with each other and see what happens. I try to avoid getting bogged down in research but will spend days chasing a detail if it is necessary to a scene. So my research process is pretty haphazard.

For you, what is the line between fiction and fact?
To me, it's the line between interpretation and creation. There can be multiple interpretations of how and why a historical event happened, but as long as we're not adding imaginary characters or inventing dialogue that wasn't reliably recorded at the time, then we're into the realm of fiction, which is where I happily sit. I've noticed a lot of made-up dialogue recently in works of "history," which is a phenomenon I find interesting.

Do you have an anecdote about a reading or fan interaction you'd like to share?

One of the actual historical characters in my novel is a guerrilla leader named Sam Hildebrand, who is recorded as having shot down my great-great-uncle during the Civil War. I was recounting to a group how odd it was to be writing this character into my novel since he had murdered one of my ancestors, when one of the members of the group spoke up and said that Hildebrand was her great-great-grandfather! That was quite a moment. The living example of "The past isn't dead; it isn't even past."

Where do you feel historical fiction is headed as a genre?

Who knows! I'm sure it will be interesting. The world of historical fiction doesn't seem all that different from the rest of the world of fiction, as far as I can see.
 Is there an era/area that is your favorite to write about? How about to read?

I am very fond of the American Romantic era - the 1820s through 1860s. There was such a flowering of American literary culture and national consciousness at that time.
What are your favorite reads? Favorite movies? Dominating influences?
A lot of my favorite reads are not "historical" in the strict sense. I can't read enough W.G. Sebald, for example. One favorite overlooked historical novel that I want to call out is Steve Yates' Morkan's Quarry, which like mine is set in Missouri during the Civil War. As for movies, I'm always ready to watch Hirokazu Koreeda -- After Life and Still Walking are such profound meditations on life and death. Dominating influences -- well, anybody who is working on a series of interlocking novels with a strong regional setting has to pay homage to Faulkner, obviously, although stylistically I am a great admirer of John Williams, the author of Butcher's Crossing and Augustus.

Is there a writer, living or deceased, you would like to meet?
Who wouldn't want to meet Shakespeare?

What book was the most fun for you to write?

The one that I'm working on now! I know we're all about history, but my working practice as a writer is always to look forward, never behind.
Can you tell us about your latest publication?

Slant of Light came out in April 2012. It involves a 19th century utopian community that locates in the Missouri Ozarks in the 1850s, just as war tensions are becoming unbearable. It is about hope, idealism, the American notion of self, human nature, and dreams of change. How's that for a barrage of themes? It was the recipient of the Langum Charitable Trust's honorable mention for the 2012 Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction.
Do you have a most interesting question or crazy anecdote related to your writing you would like to share?

While working on Slant of Light, I joked with my wife that at one point my top three Google searches were on guerrilla warfare techniques, gunpowder making, and hemp growing. So if that didn't put me on somebody's blacklist I don't know what will!

Thanks so much for your interview  questions! Very enjoyable and I hope enlightening.