Ann Weisgarber Shares on Current Books and Future Film
Ann Weisgarber: Snapshots of History
By Haley Wilson
Any writer will agree that inspiration can strike from the most unexpected places. In Ann Weisgarber’s case, one anonymous photograph has led her to two works of historical fiction and ignited a passion for stories untold. Calling from her home in Galveston, Texas, Weisgarber was only too eager to speak with me in her warm voice about the South Dakota Festival of Books taking place this September in Deadwood. Weisgarber has attended the festival two times in the past, in both Sioux Falls and Deadwood.
Weisgarber has only positive memories to share about her experiences with the Festival. From a workshop she attended to the fellow attendees she’s met and stayed in contact with, the gathering has enticed her into a third visit. Reflecting on a writing workshop she participated in, she said, “I wasn’t there as an author, but someone who just loves the written word.” Those in the workshop took a stroll through the streets of Sioux Falls to get inspired, were given time to write whatever they desired, and were invited to share with the group upon their return to the classroom.
She also appreciated the festival’s feeling of intimacy, which is unusual for such an event. “I was bowled over by the enthusiasm of the people who come to the festival,” she said. “They’re excited to be there. They come to stay for the whole day, for the weekend. Readers seem to feel comfortable talking with authors in informal ways. I love that people in South Dakota are savvy readers.”
Finding Inspiration in Nature
This time around, Weisgarber is excited to be revisiting the landscape that inspired her first book, The Personal History of Rachel Dupree. Granted a four-week artist residency within the Badlands National Park in order to fuel her inspiration, Weisgarber spent a good amount of time not only researching, but breathing in the gritty scenery and open spaces that catalyzed her desire to write. She explained, “I let the voices of the character come to me. I just sit down on a rock and daydream. Daydreaming is critical for a writer. I heard utter silence aside from the wind and the birds, and thought, ‘This is all those people heard: silence.’”
Writing within a different time period wasn’t easy, but Weisgarber wouldn’t allow herself to quit. When frustration set in, she recalled the photograph that inspired her to write. Pictured was an African American woman standing alone in front of a sod dugout, forging her way in the vast expanse of the plains. “Every time I wanted to give up on the novel, I would remember that woman who was alone. She had far more courage than I do,” Weisgarber reflected. “If she could homestead by herself, I could write this novel.”
To occupy her character’s mindset, Weisgarber conducted interviews with people who have ties to the area and families who have lived there for generations. What started with a few questions usually led to an all-out storytelling session, Weisgarber simply sitting back with a pen and listening. “It gives me a feel for how people felt about various issues, like how people felt about child rearing, marriage, that kind of thing,” she shared. Weisgarber also relied on newspapers from the era, studying advertisements for hints on fashion trends and articles to analyze word choices and current events.
Inspiration Leads to Extensive Research
Weisgarber also needed to get a feel for the lifestyle of homesteading before drafting. She sought out Homestake Mine in Lead, the Journey Museum in Rapid City, the bookstore at Wall Drug, and even utilized places in Brookings for her research. “I spent an afternoon at the Agricultural Heritage Museum on SDSU’s campus; it’s a fabulous resource! I also spent time at Briggs Library looking up books on farming and ranching practices in 1917.” With the extensive research needed to craft Rachel’s life, Weisgarber is thrilled to return to the region that first inspired her. “I am so excited to have this excuse to come back.”
After spending seven years writing her first book, Weisgarber felt the need for a break from South Dakota. Her latest book is set closer to her home, taking place on Galveston Island, Texas. Set on a rural dairy farm, The Promise begins about two weeks before the 1900 storm that wrecked the island and killed between 6,000 and 10,000 people. “That hurricane was the greatest natural disaster in the United States, yet not that many people know about it,” said Weisgarber.
After realizing how the stories of these islanders had been overlooked, Weisgarber hoped to shed some light on the event. “Almost nothing has been written about what happened to them during the storm, so this is my way of remembering the victims and survivors.” As she did for her first historical fiction project, the author relied on interviews with local families to conduct her research. Weisgarber reflected, “When I was working on the book, people would pull me aside and say, ‘Let me tell you about my great-great-grandfather who survived when no one else in the family did.’”
In-Print to On-Screen
In addition to discussing The Promise, Weisgarber will attend the Festival of Books in September with exciting news to share. Her first novel, The Personal History of Rachel Dupree, has been optioned for a movie! When asked about hearing the news of the book’s first steps towards the big screen, Weisgarber said, “My reaction to it was surreal. I’m thrilled, absolutely thrilled. The film has the chance to honor homesteaders who came to South Dakota. That’s what matters to me. I want those people to be remembered.”
Though she knows that the movie may not happen, Weisgarber is happy to have had the chance to connect with others who share her passion for the story. In November, she traveled to Los Angeles to meet with one of the producers and the screenwriter for the project. After hours of discussion, Weisgarber learned the movie is set to begin filming in Manitoba, Canada this summer. Actress Viola Davis has been spearheading the movie project, inspired by the novel and “wildly enthused” about bringing Rachel Dupree’s story to life. Elated, Weisgarber said, “This feels like it’s happening to someone else.”
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